'It was better than cleaning the lavatories'

In 1955 he wasn't Sir John Tusa, the managing director of the Barbican Centre. He had yet to be the head of the BBC World Service, One O'Clock News presenter, TV Journalist of the Year and possessor of the Order of the White Rose of Finland. His series on the history of Iran was half a century away (R4, mid-September). He was 19 and a waiter.

"It was vastly preferable to cleaning the lavatories," he declares. "I was in 'basic training' in my National Service and stationed in Tonfanau in North Wales. Instead of being fast-tracked through officer cadet school, I was held back because I was born in Czechoslovakia and it was clearly thought I could be a security risk. I was in a unit called 'Held Strength', neither training nor deployed but just in a vacuum. I was a Gunner, the lowest of the low."

Tusa then became a waiter in the sergeants' mess. "Challenging but good for the soul. I never considered it beneath my dignity and, although a strange young man with a peculiar posh accent, I was never badly treated. The sergeants and warrant officers would come in at 12.30; they expected their food as soon as they sat down. We had to move very fast. I took a certain pride in being efficient enough to serve 30 or 40 people in very short order.

"I had one other waiter but he was, shall we say, slightly fragile emotionally and he found the pressure, of the sergeants shouting or glowering at him, to be too much. Occasionally I would find him cowering in a corner. He got a knife and said that if pressed too hard he would fight. He would talk darkly about 'going over the hill if things got too bad'."

Aside from the perk of having time off to go walking, he worked Saturday nights,serving drinks to the sergeants and their wives. The tips boosted his weekly pay by up to a third.

He was promoted again, this time into officer training, so he stopped serving and also waiting. "The waiters I now come across are Latin-American and East European - and quite clearly over-qualified. I have a fantasy that I will come across some of them again - when they are finance or foreign ministers of their countries." Well, there was once a waiter in Wales who later became head of the BBC World Service and Barbican supremo - not to mention the possessor of the White Rose of Finland. It can happen.

'The Janus Aspect' by John Tusa came out in paperback last month (Methuen, £9.99)

jonty@jonathansale.com

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