In the summer of 1997 I did something rather stupid. Then again I suppose most 17-year-olds have. I found myself in a tattoo studio located above a kebab shop in Plumstead, where my best friend’s cousin stabbed away at my arm, forming what I would later find out was an entirely new take on the already well-established Cantonese language. Once the “artist” had finished, I left as quickly as I could, sporting a badly applied bandage covering what, even some 15 years later, some people still refer to as my “really crap tattoo”, and running 45 minutes late for work.
At this time in my life, I had a part-time job at a famous high-street retailer. And here I was, their latest signing, arriving nearly an hour late and causing a customer to scream at the top of her voice as she witnessed what she described as the “unimaginable horror” of my bloodied white shirt sleeve. Her vocal repulsion and the resulting complaint led to some choice words from my manager, who decided it was best to just fire me.
It was then that I got a job with two men who would subsequently have a huge impact on my life. Ian and Ian were partners in every sense of the word (except crime – I should make that clear). Together they owned the Observatory, a vintage clothing store in Greenwich, a treasure chest of clothes and great music and the place that would turn me from a boy into a man. And not just any man – a man wearing an original 1960s three-button single-breasted two-tone suit with winkle pickers two sizes too small bought using a staff discount.
I’ve always been aware of the importance of the two years I spent in that little shop, and it’s interesting to reflect on that time now that so much political emphasis is being placed on work placements, apprenticeships and getting into work early. Because this job made me feel challenged and gave me the love of clothes and music that would become the passions that would lead me through life.
It was typical of my bosses that, when I was asked to go to a casting for a little British film, they not only said yes, allowing me to have the day off, they also still paid me so that I wouldn’t be out of pocket. It was then that I understood that the encouragement and support given by employers is so important to young people.
When I began writing this piece, I hadn’t spoken to Ian and Ian for the best part of eight years, but I wanted to find out how they felt about nurturing young people and whether it was still important to them, so I took a trip to their current home, Hunky Dory on London’s Brick Lane. I was overjoyed to see them both well and happy, and looking as stylish as ever. They shrug off the fact that they sport work wear from 1950s Italy and France as if it’s just what you do, and they speak about vintage fashion just as I remember they did 15 years ago, with passion, not with an east London hipster factor turned up to 11.
They are wonderfully happy with what their family of co-workers have achieved and are sceptical about how big corporations treat the folk at their disposal. I ask them about the motivation for taking young people on, and how they deal with it. “Encourage people – we’ve always been interested in originals, shall we say. From the word go, the privilege of our job was access to people who were genuinely inquisitive about what we were doing. Because of the nature of what it was, they were the most creative and interesting people.”
I remind them of the encouragement they gave me going into the first casting I’d ever done, and they laugh and pretend to be outraged that they had given me free money.
“What we don’t like is the ambiguity of the intern approach. It’s got a place but it’s become an epidemic and we wonder what’s in it for the young person. It seems to have provided a supply of free or cheap labour. Of course there are many businesses that don’t take that approach. There is definitely a place for the intern culture but often it seems to be abused.”
Ian and Ian went on to talk proudly about the people they had met and nurtured over the years, many of whom they are still in touch with. They say that these people make up a gang of great parents, doctors, stylists, actors and musicians. They still have, as I hoped they would, a real connection to them. And I’m fortunate to be one of them. To find people who are willing to invest so much in you is wonderful, but to find them and have them help to change your life because of a tattoo is just plain lucky.
And as for my tattoo, I still have it of course. It was supposed to say “protect the ones you love from harm” and “be brave at heart”. I asked a colleague of mine whose mother’s first language is Cantonese to take a look at it and translate it for me. She said it meant “six stars” before looking at me sympathetically and saying: “You must have been very young when you had this done.”