A few years ago, on a train coming back from Wales, I fell into conversation with the chap sitting next to me. He was a former professional footballer who now worked in the strange world of ‘player services’, which meant he was employed by a large London club to hold the hands of footballers. He helped them find a house, pay their utility bills, run the car, deal with cleaners and nannies, liaise with solicitors, represent them in court after unfortunate incidents with air rifles – basically all these annoying bits of life that most of us have to deal with but would probably rather we didn’t.
He told me a story about an African player who moved from London to a smaller club outside the capital. They who did not employ anybody in ‘player services’ but the footballer managed to get himself a new house easily enough. However, some months later he was astonished to discover his electricity and gas had been cut off.
It turned out that he hadn’t paid any of his bills. He thought that once you forked out for a house that was it, everything else – the lighting, heating, phone line etc – was taken care of. He’d stuck all his utilities bills unopened in a drawer and forgotten about them.
I recalled this splendid story recently when reading about the adventures of Jessica Mitford. Jessica was the Communist Mitford, an aristocrat who moved to Rotherhithe in the 1930s so she could live among the proles. Mitford seemed happy, even if she noted that ‘the locals were a shorter and paler race of people than the inhabitants of the West End. In appearance, dress and speech they form so radical a contrast as to give the impression of a different ethnic group.’
Mitford looked forward to a life of May Day parades and pie and mash among ‘the rough children of Rotherhithe’, but sadly it didn’t work out that way. Her daughter died of pneumonia, and the disconsolate parents fled to Corsica for three months.
When they returned, the problems continued to mount. Mitford and her equally posh husband, Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill, had never been told they needed to pay for utilities, and so ‘lights, electric heaters and stoves blazed away day and night’ in their house overlooking the river.
A gargantuan gas bill built up. Soon the gasman began to pay regular visits to try to get it settled, so Romilly took to wearing a false moustache as a disguise. Eventually, though, it all got too tiresome for words, and the couple fled back across the river to the sanctity of Marble Arch, where people were so much more understanding about the foibles of landed gentry.