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
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The Independent Online

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?