Personal column: A gong for grime

Michael Winner has boasted of turning down an OBE because it was the sort of honour 'awarded to toilet cleaners'. Sheena Grant MBE has scrubbed and polished at the University of Aberdeen for 23 years

I was created MBE in January for services to education. I started doing this job because I had two children and I needed something that would fit around them. When my friend told me about it, I said, "Oh no, I don't want to be a cleaner." But when she told me I'd be finished by 10 in the morning, and it was Monday to Friday, and there were two weeks off at Christmas, I changed my mind.

I was a shorthand typist by training, but I'd worked in a bar and a shop. It was only going to be a stopgap but I've liked it so much, I've stayed. I work in a very old building, Mitchell Hall, and I also clean the Marischal College Museum. Mitchell Hall is the second biggest granite building in the world. There are only two of us cleaning, but there are porters and other people; we're a real family. I still do it because of the people I work with, who are lovely. I've never had any disrespect. The job is not as bad as some people seem to think. It is not boring. You get different things to do every day. It's nice to see the students coming in and out. They've always treated me with respect.

Three years ago I was the first manual worker to be elected to the university court, which is the university's governing body. So I made a bit of history. I was nervous because I knew there were some very important people on the court, but they've made me welcome from the start.

My cleaning work starts at half five in the morning and finishes at half nine. I wake up at 4.30am, even on holiday. I think it's the best part of the day. Some days I can walk to work and it's brilliant sunshine and when I come out, it's pouring down.

Then there's all the union work. I'm the Unison rep. When I started working here, there was that class thing. There is a line between academics and non-academics but we're hoping that we can erase that line. You've still got some academics who look down their noses at manual workers, but the majority don't. The principal is really keen on improving staff relationships.

The university nominated me for the MBE. I suppose they appreciated what I've done. I received a letter five weeks before the announcement, and I thought friends were pulling my leg. But there were things in the letter that my friends wouldn't have known. I was shocked. I told my husband but not my children, and I didn't realise the press were informed the day before, so I had to tell them then. I've had letters and emails from all over the country from people I didn't know. I had a letter from Acas saying well done.

I work in a beautiful old building and it gives me a sense of pride to see it clean, to see a beautifully-polished floor. It's not like going to work in an office block; there are lovely rooms where the students have their graduation ceremonies; rooms with huge ceilings. We dust them with a very long pole.

In the past 23 years, some things have changed. There used to be 9,000 students and now there are 13,500. The university used to work Monday to Friday but now it's seven days a week. The vacuum cleaners are lighter.

I do clean toilets. If you're cleaning public toilets, you have to do them every day. I wipe all of it - the bowl, the pipes. You have to be thorough. They're never usually very dirty. Sometimes the students will throw their paper towels away and not put them in the bin. They can be a bit untidy, but that's all.

I do the cleaning at home. My husband does his best but he's never really been domesticated. He goes round things.

I heard about what Michael Winner said when the press phoned me up about it. I challenged him to do my job for a week but he hasn't replied. I'm a great believer that it doesn't matter what your job title is. I'm a cleaner, a court member and a Unison rep. I realise that some people will look down on my job. But for someone in the public eye to say something like that - I was really dismayed. Maybe he didn't mean it.

I was surprised that he turned the OBE down. I'm very proud to be Scottish, and I'm very proud to have been appointed MBE. It's such a nice honour to get; I'm tickled pink. I'm not going to meet the Queen until 5 July, but I've actually already met her, at an event at the university. She's a beautiful lady, and of course I couldn't take my eyes off her jewellery. I was introduced to her as the Unison rep and a cleaner. She didn't ask anything about my union work - all she wanted to know about was the cleaning. I think most people are fond of cleaners, really. After all, where would they be without us?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before