Under the calming palms

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
You don't have to be a bruiser to be a bouncer. Stephen Jones meets the trainee doormen and women who keep their distance

Wilson Chowdhry is in front of his class. It is a roasting hot day, but Wilson looks cool in his pale jacket and loose linen trousers. With his boyish good looks and artfully-coiffured hairstyle, "cool" is a word that attracts itself to Wilson as iron filings to a magnet.

For the students, this is the final afternoon of their four-day course, but the first time they have seen Wilson, who has saved himself - like the star turn in a pop concert - till last.

He is testing them on what they know and what they have learned about working in the security industry and managing conflict. He directs his questions towards particular students - nine in number, including one woman - who are all aspiring security officers or door supervisors.

One by one, the correct answers come back: about where you position yourself, how you stand, the importance of listening, nodding and agreeing.

Space, it seems, is crucial in keeping an antagonist calm, with 1.2 metres being the minimum allowed for "stranger" space. No doubt all self-respecting doormen will be equipping themselves with their own personal tape measure to get that one right.

We are in a large, echoey room in a community centre off Ilford High Road, which Wilson's firm, AA Security, rents at a "very reasonable rate" to run his rolling programme of training courses. The suburb, on the eastern outskirts of London, has a large Asian community from which the students have all been recruited by word of mouth.

But Wilson's main task this afternoon is to run the role-play session. It's all very well knowing the theory, but will it work on the punters?

First in the firing line is Ahsan, who has a tough time trying to appease Wilson, who's doubling as an angry customer returning a ripped jacket to a store.

Next up, Usman. must calm down an irate motorist after a ticket machine in a multi-storey car park has eaten his money. He attracts praise for his good eye contact and non-threatening raised palms. "That was an impressive performance," says Wilson.

Now it's the turn of Rukhsana, a diminutive woman in traditional headscarf, who's been left to guard a worksite at night. Suddenly, five angry men, who a moment ago were her classmates, charge on to the site. They're making a lot of noise and banging the tables in a threatening manner. Rukhsana looks suitably scared.

Does she look them in the eye, raise her palms, allow them some space? Does she hell! Rukhsana legs it straight out the door, which is exactly what she's meant to do, says Wilson. The first rule in security, he adds, is to look after the security of number one. "Call the police if you've got time, but never confront five men like that, even if you're big yourself."

The dramatic finale is a classic scenario, where a door supervisor is faced with a clubber seeking entrance who won't take no for an answer. After his earlier flop, Ashan takes the starring role here. He's big and stroppy and ready to give trainee doorman Satish - who one can't help but notice is about half his height - a really hard time. "I'm here to help you," pleads Satish as, palms raised, he backs away. When Ahsan pulls a knife, you get the feeling he'd like to put a lot more than 1.2 metres between them.

Somehow Satish survives and Wilson picks over the bones of the conflict.

"Remember in situations like this," he says, "to press your panic button.

The police will come. They will have a disaster recovery procedure." That's good to know, because Satish certainly looks like he needs one.

By now I have to admit that I'm having a bit of a problem with some of this. When I was young, we called them bouncers. They were as broad as they were tall and ugly as sin. If they only used sarcasm you considered yourself lucky. If not, it was goodbye nightclub, hello hospital.

But all that, it seems, is hopelessly out of date. Brute strength is not only not needed for door supervision any more, it is decidedly unwelcome.

Hence job training and conflict management. The idea is to avoid trouble, not provoke it.

Wilson's students have all paid pound;225 per head for their course and hope to leave with the City and Guilds basic job training and conflict management certificates that will enable them to get their "badge" to work in a variety of roles within the security industry.

Despite his little earlier difficulty with the knife-wielding Ahsan, Satish sums up the feeling of unflappability that all the students project at the thought of being out there on the front line. "I can use the rules and utilise the law," he says.

Slight and bespectacled, the 25-year-old left his native India 12 months ago to pursue a masters degree in biotechnology at the East London university. When he gets work, he plans to use his wages to cover his living expenses. And the potential dangers of the job? "There are dangers everywhere," he says. "I can handle people in an amiable way."

While the students sit their final exam, I stroll back with Wilson to his air-conditioned headquarters. He tells me about the business and how, with his two brothers, he started it from nothing while still at university in 1994. This year, aged just 31, he expects it to turn over pound;2 million.

He talks fast, firing off a fusillade of acronyms that zing past your ears and up into the ether. On the teaching front, he says that all his trainers, himself included, are working on City Guilds 7407 qualifications, and hope to convert them into PGCEs at Greenwich university within a couple of years.

His other ambitions are political. He stood for Labour in the recent council elections and talks enthusiastically about a parliamentary career in the future. Wilson may not have a "Harold" in front of his name, but you can see him in Number 10. More to the point, so can he.

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