Root Menu

Rob Townsend

In conversation with Beth Cullen

My mum had two children, me and my sister. My mother had a really hard life, she was given up as a baby, fostered, given up again and then fostered again. My father was in the army. I was born in Aldershot, which is a military town. When they got married my dad was posted to Germany. My sister was born in Germany, so she’s a Kraut! I can’t remember much about it, I was two, two and a half when we came back. We lived with my grandparents in Rose Hill, it was cramped and it was a while before my dad got us anywhere. Then we lived on Dean Road on the border of Headington and Cowley, that was a nice house. That’s where my happiest childhood memories are I suppose.

I was fourteen years old when my parents split. I was at my last school, my high school.  My mum had to have a hysterectomy, she’s had three, she’s had her tubes taken out, her womb, her ovary’s, three separate operations. They got divorced, which was easier for me because I think I was a bit more mature for my years. My sister went the other way, she was two and a half years younger than me and she took it really badly.

After the split I was working part time doing washing up, or part-time catering anything to make ends meet, just to help my mum really because she was in a bad way. I’d earn say seventy pounds every two weeks and I used to give my mum fifty, that’s how it works. I lived with her up to the age of sixteen, why not?- she looked after me, I was just returning the favour. I left school at sixteen, and I was the highest in my year, but I failed the most important exam, which was maths. Tell you what, it’s genetic, my son’s the same, he just can’t grasp it. I went to CFE, did a years course and got some catering qualifications. I went to college and it started to sort of take my mind off being at home. Eventually I just said right, I’m not having this anymore and I explained to my parents what I wanted to do, that I wanted to get out of Oxford and go and land on my own two feet and that’s why I joined the army as a chef. I was just seventeen and a half when I joined and I was in the army for about four years.

When you join the army, the first thing they do is take you to the barbers, shave all your hair off, totally humiliate you, nothing’s your own any more, you’re theirs. It’s a test of character really, if you can get past that you can get past anything. My intake was about sixty others, there were people from all over the place, Welsh, Scots, Irish, people from Yorkshire, people from down south, Geordies, people from the Midlands. You all have to deal with the same shit. You’re a soldier first and a chef second so to start there was military training, eight weeks of pure hell. It was by far the hardest thing that I’ve ever done but there’s a great sense of satisfaction when you’ve completed it because you know you’re strong enough, you have the right sort of character to deal with anything. After that there was twenty-six weeks of catering training, but the regimental side of it was always there. You’d get up in the morning and the first thing you do is go out for a run, maybe ten miles before breakfast. You’d come back, get showered and then you’d have about two minutes to get back and get into your whites. You’d have whites on, combat jacket and a beret and you’d be marched all the way around the camp to what looked like a tower block from Blackbird Leys, that was the army catering school. For each one of those fourteen stories, there were four kitchens. You’d sit there in your seat behind a little desk, like you were at school, you’d go there in the morning and the ingredients you needed for that day would be laid out for you. It was twenty-six weeks of that, Monday to Friday, sometimes Saturdays and Sundays depending on how good you were. I could have done a shortened course because I’d already been to civilian catering college but I wanted to see the whole thing through. I decided to go for the whole thing just in case there was something that the civilians didn’t tell you or maybe they missed something out. I’m glad I did it, if you want to learn how to cook that’s the best place; you’ve just got to be fit! The food was good; we couldn’t wait till meal times. After all the exercise we had to do we used to love going in the cookhouse. That was when I suddenly started eating loads of vegetables, I hated them before. I stuck at that, and it was good. I went to lots of different places, Germany, America, Canada, Belize, Cyprus. I got out because they sent me to Northern Ireland one too many times, out of four years in the army I spent two in Northern Ireland. I’d have to get up in the morning, go and cook breakfast, finish my shift in the kitchen and then I’d have to go out on patrol, so I didn’t get no rest. Some people say it’s still bad now but it’s mainly youths. I mean it wasn’t the IRA we had to deal with, it was mainly adolescents looking for trouble, you know. They’d chuck rocks at you and they’d bounce off your helmet, stuff like that.

When I left the army I had about a month or two of wondering what the hell I was going to do and then I applied to St Catherine’s College to Mr Peter Eleveld and he walked me round the kitchen and I showed him my qualifications and he said “You’ve got a job if you want it”. I said “Alright then I’ll have it”, and I’ve been here ever since. To be honest I didn’t like working here straight away, it was a bit of a chore because the money was shite, we had primitive equipment and I didn’t agree with some of the things that went on here, like the way that some people worked and the menus were repetitive which made the job boring. I’m not criticizing the old Head Chef because when I first came here he was on his last working legs but I’m glad that when he left that they got Tim in. Since he took over he’s turned the kitchen right around. I can’t sing his praises enough, he’s a bloody good boss. I’m second chef under him and he treats me how I want to be treated so I treat him with respect, he lets me do what I want to do. I don’t think I’ve ever argued with him or had a cross word to say to him. I do love the actual work otherwise I wouldn’t have been here for so long. Sometimes it can be really monotonous, so it’s good to have a different menu, that’s quite an important part of it for me. I tend to be swapped around the different sections of the kitchen, vegetarians, sweets, larder, pastry so I’m not having to do the same thing over and over each day. The work is made more interesting by the people around you and the atmosphere in the kitchen is very good most of the time, but we do have a couple of arses who seem to have a different conception of how things should be and how life is. They make the job less attractive, but you have to work with them. Apart from them it’s excellent. It could be made better by doing less hours but then the money comes down. I work eight hours a day, forty a week. But I like working in a college because at least it’s not late nights like it would be in a hotel, people can’t come in at half ten at night and expect to have a meal here. By eight or half-past eight, sometimes later on a banquet, it’s done and you can go home and forget about it till the next day.

I suppose that I do sometimes feel limited in the career that I chose. When I joined the army I went to the army careers office in St Giles. I’d done a simple test, and the bloke said to me “you’ve got your school qualifications are you sure you want to be a chef?” He said, “you could go to Sandhurst and be an officer, it’s more money”. I said, well I don’t really want to be an officer, it’s not the money, I just want a direction in life. I made this choice but now I do feel like it has limited me as to what I can do. Like if all of a sudden I wanted to not do what I’m doing now I’d find it hard to adjust to doing something else, to be honest I haven’t got a clue. I chose a profession that can always give me a wage every week; people are always going to eat.

I cook at home, not all the time, we share it out between us. But the kids prefer it when I cook! My daughter’s favourite meal is Bangers and Mash and my son’s is Spaghetti Bolognaise with Parmesan on the top. My favourite meal is a dish called Nepalese Goat Curry and I was taught it by a Ghurkha when I was in America. There was a company of Ghurkha’s with us and he made it out of a live goat. They had a goat as a mascot and they literally decapitated it in front of all the blokes as a ritual and he showed me how to make a curry with it. Nepalese Goat Curry, you can’t beat it, but it’s got to be goat, it can’t be lamb, there’s no substitute. Unfortunately goat doesn’t come under the college consortium. The butchers get us lots of venison, lots of game birds and stuff but no goat I’m afraid. I did feel bad for the goat though; it was a really horrible scene.

I’ve known my partner ever since I was about six; she’s two years younger than me. We went to primary school and middle school. I’ve known her for so long and our families have been friends, so that was the base for it really. I actually met her when I was a happy go lucky soldier coming home for a week on the piss, and I was at home one day and didn’t fancy going out, my mum had gone out, dad was remarried and had had another baby, and she is now fourteen, my little sister. And I got a phone call saying are you in, so she came round and that was it really, we haven’t looked back since. All couples argue and we haven’t got a perfect relationship, nobody has, but we definitely like hit it off. I like to listen to the sound of my own voice and so does she. She loves it, because she’s fascinated by me when I go into one, she’ll go “that’s what I love about you love”. We had our first child when she was eighteen and I was twenty, that’s Liam who’s fourteen in February. He’s very pubescent at the moment, his voice is breaking, he won’t have cuddles, my boy’s growing up. I say to him, you don’t know how lucky you are that your parents are still together, even though we’re not married. We got engaged years ago and we both agreed on it. We’re not religious, we’re both Christian, but we’re not Muslim or Catholic or whatever, where our parents say if you want to be together you’ve got to get married. We had none of that so we’ve done our own thing really. We went through stages, we’ve been through the stage of having nothing, and the phase of going out taking drugs, taking E’s. We went through that phase and if you can survive that and stay together then surely…any argument we have now is nothing really. It’s great though. Had my daughter, Ellie, who’s eight now when I was twenty-five. She’s got my brains but not my maths; she can do maths as well. So when you read this in a few years time come and see me and ask if my daughter went to University because I’m sure she will. Circumstances were different when I was younger because my parents never had a scratch to rub together, my dad was working double shifts at the post office and he was struggling to provide for us and in the end the strain told. But this is how it turned out.

I think I’m a good dad, I try my best, which is the only thing you can do. Being a dad is a lot easier when the children are young, it’s when they get older…sometimes you think, is there going to be a place here for me in five years? But if my son has any problems or he gets upset I’m the first person he’ll come and see so…yeah. I get scared, I wouldn’t say scared, but I have concerns over his education sometimes, like am I doing the best for him that I can. He’s going to a good school…I don’t have to worry about him being beaten up or anything because he’s huge, he’s nearly as tall as me, I take size eleven shoe and he takes size ten and he’s only thirteen, and how many years has he got to go? With my daughter, I’m saying now that I don’t have any worries about her, but I could be saying exactly the same thing when she gets to that age, you know.

I have a few regrets, things like my grandmother, my mum’s foster mother, died in ’95 and I never used to make enough effort to go round. I always looked on it as a chore. And I felt terribly guilty after…things like that I regret. I have no regrets about anything I have ever done, just the things I haven’t done. I lost all three grandparents in the same year. My mum’s mum, she died in ’95, she was ninety-two, everyone says she had a good innings. That was in February and then my dad’s mum and dad died two months later. My Gramp had so many accidents, he cut all his fingers off in the factory to the stubs, he done his neck, he had gout in his leg, he was in World War Two, you know, unbelievable. But he died of cancer. He’d gone on a boating holiday to the Norfolk Broads and was sunbathing on the top of the boat, my uncle drove the boat under a low bridge and my Gramp got his head stuck and snapped his neck. He fell into the water and when they fished him out he was dead. They resuscitated him but they reckon that’s what started his cancer off. After he’d gone my Gran died two weeks later for no reason, just passed away in her sleep, died of a broken heart. Apart from all my grandparents and one aunty that’s the only time I’ve ever experienced a death. It’s easy to say, but one thing that I’m not scared of is dying. I’m scared for other people, people who rely on me, but everyone’s got it coming to them at some point, it’s inevitable. I say everyone’s on this earth for a reason, so while you’re here you may as well make the most of it, grab it with both hands.

I am scared of the dark. In my house I’m fine but in any strange buildings or in confined spaces where it’s dark, that’s the time. I’ll get up and close my eyes and go to the light switch. It all stems back to when I was a kid and my uncle, my dad’s youngest brother, he used to baby-sit when my mum and dad went out. He’d be downstairs having his way with some girl and I’d be making a racket upstairs, banging, I want a drink, blah, blah. I was probably about five, four or five years old. To shut me up he used to turn the lights out, trying to scare me and it did, it affected me for years and years. It wasn’t till I joined the army that I got over the fear of it. That and cockroaches, because of the kitchens in the army, you’d walk from here to over there and when you turn the lights on there’d be footprints of dead cockroaches, that’s how many there were, I mean there were thousands of them.

I get lonely when somebody else is lonely. Like if there’s a genuine person that I’ve got respect for, that I like, if they’ve got problems then I feel for them and it affects my psyche. I don’t know if it’s a good point or a bad point. It affects me and I’ll go home and say to my counsellor, that’s is my partner, oh this person has two kids and her husband died and she’s been left on her own, what can we do? Nothing really and that’s the harsh reality of it, I suppose that’s just life, you know. I feel lonely when sometimes people are unreasonable, when your point of view is not taken into consideration. When I feel like that normally I go out and spend loads of money, retail therapy, if it works for women it works for me I tell you! That’s normally my thing because I don’t really drink. For a lot of blokes it would be to go out and get leathered but that’s not my style. If it’s my birthday or it’s someone’s birthday I might go out and I’ll have a few beers but my drinking days were when I was like between eighteen and twenty-one. I was terrible. I used to go out and like get lashed up and start causing trouble, a right lout, you know what I mean. I saw the error of my ways and decided that alcohol and me don’t really go, which they don’t. Now I drink and I know when to stop. I do have a bad side to me, and that is that I smoke and I do smoke certain things, but I think most people do so…That falls into the category of while I’m on this earth that’s one of the things I want to do so I’m going to do it, whether it shortens my life or whatever…

I feel that I do too much for others sometimes, but I get pleasure out of it because I like helping people as much as I can. I go out of my way to help others, but then other people do it for me, so my motto in life is to treat people how you want to be treated. If you want to be treated like a queen, or if you want to be treated with the utmost respect then you give me that and I’ll give you hundreds back in return. I do what I can to help, I can’t walk past a beggar in town without dropping some change into their hats or whatever, even though I know they are no-good, down right dirty druggies or whatever, but I look at them and I feel sorry for them. At the end of the day they look like shite and they haven’t got nothing so I think at least go and get yourself a cup of tea or something. I know about four or five of them on first name terms and they know my name. I was in town on Saturday, and I saw Mike who’s sat outside McDonalds with his dog. I said to him “how are you”, and he said “oh I’m alright” and he said “still working” and I said “yeah”, I said “have you eaten”, he said “no”. So I nip into McDonalds bought him a meal, came outside and give it to him, I give him some tobacco and some Rizla’s and he was well away. And I go away feeling really good, I don’t really care what he thinks, maybe he thinks that he looks like he needs cheering up, and if that’s what it’s going to take to make him happy… He’ll go back to Simon House or wherever and he’ll say he’s had a good day and that’s partly to do with me. That’s why I get satisfaction out of it. It’s when they’re drunk, that’s when I draw the limits, if they’re drunk they’ve got no chance, you know. If I had millions or thousand of pounds I’d give then more. If I was a millionaire I’d give so much money to charities, I mean I get paid and forty pounds a month goes to charity out of my wages. I give to Help the Aged, blind people, Marie Curie and Aids, ten pounds a month for each one. My limits are to people who can’t help themselves, if I’m helping a certain person and they expect it and are relying on it every time, fair enough but when they’re not doing anything to help themselves that’s when I’ll pull the plug, you can teach them to run but they have to walk first…

I spend my money wisely, I’m shrewd with money. I don’t really have a lot of debts, the worst one for me is my credit card, I think everyone’s got one, but mine never goes over 700 quid and it never goes any lower than 700 pounds. If I was to come into lots of money people say, oh I’d pay my credit card off but it’s pointless, you may as well leave it as it is, pay whatever you pay because if you know that’s at nought then you’re going to use it, you’re going to use it aren’t you, it’s as simple as that. I pay the rent, I pay the phone bill, I pay the gas, I pay the electric, water rates, council tax, I pay it all, put clothes on my children’s back, food, everything and still have some left for myself and what I do have left I don’t mind…The only thing that I am selfish about is that when it’s my turn to do something, I play golf and I don’t like being told that I can’t play golf because we can’t afford it, I don’t want to hear all that.

What would I need that money cannot buy? Well I’ve got loads of love so not really that…I’d love to see my Gran one more time and you can’t put a price on that. Just to explain to her, just to say sorry, even though she’d probably say you silly bugger or whatever, but that’s the main thing. That’s a real deep-rooted thing with me, that’s sort of my biggest regret, one of my only regrets. I mean we’re happy, we’re a happy family, it’s all fair. As far as I know we’re good parents, we’re always told by everybody what a great job we do with them and I obviously enjoy it because a lot of people say I’m a nice guy, and that’s nice when people say that. Money can easily take over somebody, if you get too preoccupied with money you can lose track of what really matters because at the end of the day it’s just money. Money can buy you happiness but it’s not guaranteed. Money is not really an issue, but having money is nice and it does make things easier but it’s not the be all and end all of everything.

After a row one time my partner said to me “what do you think love is?” And I said let me think about it. A day later, of course I hadn’t given it no thought, she said “ok what is it then?” And I took the easy option and said, “no you tell me what it is”, because it is really hard, sometimes there’s no words to explain it, you just can’t but you just know if you are in love with somebody, you just know. Sometimes it’s really horrible because like if you’re lucky enough you can get into a relationship and that person loves you straight away you sort of click you know, but imagine loving somebody and they don’t love you. But you can’t think about anything else, you can’t do nothing, you know, what do you do? It’s mad isn’t it. It’s like love and lust isn’t it, as far as some men go a lot of it’s lust, because they see a nice arse or they see a nice pair of boobs and all the curves and think fucking hell. Then somehow or other they’ve got there and they’ve done what they wanted to do and then they wake up in the morning and think it weren’t love, it was definitely lust, see ya. But it’s not like that, the reason I know, and it’s a really dark way of saying it, but when you’ve been with somebody you just know, as soon as it’s over with you just know whether you love that person or not. Not saying that I’ve gone through loads of people just to find that out but that’s one of my hunches. Love to me is when you can’t think about anything else, you can’t concentrate on anything, if you hear them talk or whatever…like I haven’t seen my missus since last night because she worked late, I was in bed and this morning she was still in bed, I left her a note saying I’ll see you tonight and I when I phoned up home and spoke to her I got like butterflies. She’s like my queen, I tell you. She says to me “I’m lucky, I’m so lucky to have you”. I’m lying in bed at night asleep and she’ll kiss me on the back and she’ll say, “you’re a good man Rob”. It’s really good…

It’s like with me I have no problem talking to women, I have no problem talking to men. But some men might be a little less comfortable, I’m comfortable talking to women, even women I don’t know, but a lot of men are shy, because they’re not sure within themselves that they can hold a conversation without her thinking, oh my God I’m a geek. You just get over that, let people think of you whatever they want. If they don’t like you, or think that you’re not their cup of tea, it always comes down to the sex thing, quite often a woman or a man wouldn’t give that person the time of day unless they knew that they could get into the sack with them or they fancied them. But just because they’re not pretty or they’re overweight or whatever that doesn’t mean that they are like second-class citizens. You’ve got to see people for what they are and you get to see through that just by talking to them and when you do give somebody the time of day and you start talking to them then you realise and then you can make the decision whether they are good or bad or whatever.

I haven’t really got any enemies, I don’t really hold any grudges, people in the kitchens here have done me some bad stuff before but I still talk to them. I say treat people how you want to be treated and they’ve treated me like that so they want to be treated like cunts. You might catch me on a bad day and I won’t even talk to them sometimes for two weeks on the trot and that’s how it is. But I haven’t got no enemies. I’ve had a few fights over the years and at the time you think they’re arseholes but you soon forget about it. The only enemy I’ve had is myself sometimes. Getting taken in by liars, that’s one of my flaws, if someone is telling me something unless I know otherwise I’ll believe it, you know why are they telling you it otherwise.

I’ve become more tolerant of difference. I suppose you have no choice this day and age. There are tales of so many people, junkies, like I know at least three people I went to school with, that have died from overdoses. I don’t feel bad for them in many ways but I do feel bad for them because they left people behind and they’re selfish, going out for themselves. Fair enough you only live once and if that’s what you want to do…but surely that’s not the right thing to do. If people are willing to make an effort then I’ll make an effort. Race, I’m anybody’s. My partner’s half-caste, you know I don’t mind. Her mother is English and her father is Indian. She has no beliefs in any other religions, she doesn’t wear a Sari or anything like that, she’s just like a normal English girl to me, just with different colour skin. She’s not like your stereotypical Asian lady, she’s half Asian, but if you said that to an English person they’d say fuck it Indians and Pakis they’re all the same. But that’s just people’s dim-witted views that they should just keep to themselves. If you go into the kitchen and ask those Asian boys, the washer-uppers, who do you like the most, I know what they’ll say. I help them and if I think anyone’s being unfair to them or anyone’s being racist I’ll say. The ladies in the kitchen as well, they’re people, human beings just like me and you or anybody else. I can understand why they might come across as out of order, like Corsa, but that woman’s had so much trouble over the years and they don’t know that. I don’t agree with racism, I think it’s bang out of order. There’s no need for it, that’s narrow minded people, people who think they’re superior to others which they’re not, in my eyes they’re inferior because they can’t see past the end of their nose.

Oxford is definitely a multi-cultural place, it’s divided whether anyone likes to say it or not. You’ve got the North Oxford’s like the upper-class, to people living in bed-sits down East Oxford, down the back streets of Cowley Road, to like two to four million pound houses at the top of Shothover Hill. I don’t want it to come across like I’ve got real issues with rich and poor because it doesn’t matter. You make your own luck. It’s just life, it’s something that’s always going to happen unless you take everything and give everybody the same, which is never going to happen. Some people have more; some people have less, who knows maybe the more money you have the more bad luck you have. It would be nice to try though wouldn’t it!

I feel comfortable with nice people, nice, polite, confident people, even shy people. I like games, I like playing games, all sorts of games, whether it’s sex, it could be pure leisure, it could be cards, but I love playing games, and quite honestly that’s what we do, we sit there a few of us in my kitchen, a pack of cards going around, I’d do that any day rather than going to the pub and spending sixty pounds on lager. I read a census on friendship, it said the average person meets 363 friends and 7 stay best friends so I know who mine are. You just click with somebody from a young age and then if you’re compatible… like if you can put up with someone, you’ve seen them at their worst, seen them at their best, they’ve seen you at your worst, seen you at your best then why not. They reckon you only have six or seven in a lifetime, like proper, proper friends.

How much of my life have I wasted? Probably five minutes every time I have a cigarette. I don’t reckon I’ve wasted any of it to be honest. I think I wasted a bit of it when I got into ’91, ’92, into ecstasy and all that but that was only a year and I put that down to experience. I just had to try it, I was twenty-two, twenty-three, I was working here in fact, god knows how I’m still working here but I stopped all that, it was a waste of time. But you have to try it, you have to test your boundaries.

For the future, I want to be happy, to try and get through life with minimum amount of stress. To have loads of holidays, going on holiday is so good for your mood. I think you need to go maybe not once every year but maybe once every two years, you should leave the country. If you’re going on holiday don’t go to Great Yarmouth or Bognor Regis or Barry Island, go to a different culture, a different place, different people, just go and forget about your everyday things because I think it’s good for your health. I don’t know what the future holds for me but hopefully it’s going to be happy.

I suppose going full circle would make my life complete, to get married, that could be next year. But then I’m scared of the change and so is she, I do think it would change things and she does as well, that’s one reason why we’re both in our thirties and we’re not married. I think marriage would change my attitude. It’s my duty to provide for my family, whether I’m married or not, but from my experience marriage seems like a cloud hanging over you, it’s more like an obligation. It’s like when you spit on your hand and shake, it’s a dead cert. I don’t know if it would change me in anyway whatsoever, but there’s no point getting married just because the law says you should be married. If we wanted to get married we would. We just make jokes out of it, she said just get me the ring. We’ve definitely got the same outlook. I think I’ve got that outlook because of how my parents were, and not just my parents but my friend’s parents. Honestly, about ninety-five per cent of my friends’ parents if nothing has happened to them and they’re both still alive then something has happened and they’ve split up. I only know a couple of people whose parents are still together. My partner knew me when my parents were splitting up and I’ve never met her father, he was never around. Who knows, it may become an issue with her one day where she’ll want to get married, and I don’t have any qualms about that. I do think it would make my life complete though because I know that’s my girl there, you know what I mean.