Kenneth is 59. Demobbed after the Falklands he has been standing around in airport arrival halls holding up bits of cardboard and he wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world.
‘You meet such interesting people, for a start. The public thinks we’re all minicab drivers or chauffeurs, and a few are, of course, but most of us are there for very different reasons. Some of us are terrorists meeting other terrorists. Some are secret police keeping an eye on the terrorist. Some of us are just lonely people hoping to meet other lonely people, and one or two are just religious nutters hoping to convert people they give lifts to.’
And which one is Kenneth?
‘I’m a religious nutter. What I usually do is hold up a piece of card with a very common name on it like Jones or Dimbleby. Sooner or later someone of that name comes along, thinks it must be someone sent to meet them and takes a lift with me. During the course of the journey I try to convert them to a better life, very gently.’
And does it work?
‘Well, it’s hard to tell because I don’t see them again afterwards. No after-sales service, as it were! But a lot of them are very impressed. And I’ve made a deep impression on many of the secret police at Heathrow.’
One thing that has always struck me as odd about the sign-holders at Heathrow is the way they use such tatty bits of cardboard with the message ball-pointed on.
‘But that’s the technique! We’ve found from experience that the eye is drawn to the amateur, slightly clumsy card. There are some people, newcomers, who hold up big white printed messages. Nobody ever looks at them. You don’t look at them, which is proved by the way you’ve only noticed the so-called tatty ones.
‘You might think that we were embarrassed too, but we’re not. We’ve all developed this completely expressionless look, rather like you see on film stars walking down the street. Or like girls have if they are wearing T-shirts with messages written on them – I know exactly how they feel, with people always trying to read their chests.’
‘It’s a demanding job and I’ve never got married. I once went out for a while with a girl who used to walk round boxing rings between rounds, holding up the number of the next round. We used to swap ideas about our techniques. But I soon found out her heart wasn’t in card-carrying: it was wearing swimsuits in public she liked, which is not my style at all, and we soon drifted apart.’
Kenneth is nearly retired now, but he can’t see himself ever stopping coming to airports and holding up bits of card.
‘It’s very important to me, very important. Just standing there with a card saying MR HASSAN or MRS JONES FOR OLDHAM or HASDRUBAL TOURS – well, it makes me belong somehow. Look, if you’re going back to London, perhaps I can give you a lift. I’d love to talk to you about the quality of your life. I can tell from talking to you that you are not walking with God. Perhaps I can point you in the right direction…’
(Next in our Unusual Jobs series- a man who, if he doesn’t do his job properly, survives, but if he does it well, gets shot! An interview with the Prefect of Palermo.)
The Times Sept 9th 1982