From experience, once you reach a certain age social gatherings have a pattern of predictability. The preamble, usually with glass in hand, engages with an unspectacular icebreaker: “Tell me, what do you do?” Not wishing to offend these professionals too much, “I’m in IT, HR” or any other job that can be similarly abbreviated can often make the follow-up line somewhat challenging. On the other hand, as a cop I was often interrogated following the utterance of the less than convincing address, “My friend got done for [whatever].” I kind of guessed that in all probability it was they who had been pulled for the misdemeanor in question and one thing was for certain, they would rarely provide a full and unbiased account.
Once I had obtained my qualifying law degree a friend bizarrely introduced me as his barrister, stretching my legal standing way beyond the realms of reality. At a barbeque, on the way to getting well and truly pissed, a guy once asked if I had studied property law. It was one of the compulsory modules and I loved a bit of trespass, however, when he departed momentarily, only to return with the deeds of his house, seeking advice on ownership of a sliver of land between his and the adjoining property, I knew I needed a future-proof escape plan. Subsequently, thanks to a letter in Readers Digest, I acquired my get-out-of-jail-free card if ever I wanted a quiet evening: “I’m into scaffolding.” The ultimate assassin of all future discussion.
As the author, Stephen R. Covey once said, “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” As a nineteen-year-old, I decided to join the police and this, inevitably, shaped my identity. The same for anyone in IT or HR. Yet I wondered how an unusual vocation would shape an individual. How much more interesting would a social gathering be if, for example, the person opposite stated that they were an astronaut, astrophysicist, or lion tamer? At this juncture I feel it prudent to manage your expectations in that I have not, yet, interviewed anyone from NASA, The Large Hadron Collider, or the famous Budapest Circus. However, my list of favorite dinner guests has a wonderful pedigree that connects humility, honesty, and a ‘how the hell did this happen?’ Their individual routes to their unique and jaw-dropping professional standing was never one of childhood fantasy or focussed desire.
What do you do Stephen Ellis?
“I put the zing in Starburst.” As a kid, the predecessors of Starbursts were Opal Fruits that were synonymous with the advertising jingle, “made to make your mouth water!” I can vouch that they did too! I had met a veritable food alchemist or, as he modestly put it, a food flavoring specialist. And that wasn’t all! He also had a prominent hand in the creation of Percy Pigs! I was fast becoming a salivating wreck as I listened intently to his story which began in the most mundane of locations - a mental institution.
A kindred spirit in that, like me, he didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do in life when he left school. As the swimming pool attendant at Darenth Park Hospital, near Dartford in Kent, an eerie Victorian sanatorium that nursed soldiers who had returned from the second World War irreparably scarred by the ravages of post-traumatic shock disorder, Stephen’s career path could not have been more uncertain. To add to the oddity, the BBC filmed the wartime drama Colditz there, and on seeing the actors dressed as Nazis one patient hid in a refuse bin and celebrated his escape, only to be brought back sometime later by the crew of the dustcart. During a chance conversation whilst seated at the side of the outside pool, the question was posed “What are you going to do with your life then?” The puzzled young man had no answer, to which the more worldly-wise chap exclaimed, “It’s fashion or food!” Asserting that people would always need to be clothed and fed Stephen applied for and got a job as a junior food technician at Chiltonian Biscuits. Alighting the train home a mile and a half away the smell of lemon puffs still filled the air!
My own vocational wakeup call occurred when, aged seventeen, I was delivering the post as a clerical assistant at the Royal Army Chaplains Department, Bagshot Park (now the home of Prince Edward and the Countess of Wessex) and Mr. Purdy, the center manager, said, “You can’t do this for the rest of your life! My son has joined the police. You should too.” Funny how a chance remark can often change your life forever.
Returning to Stephen, his career path saw him progress within several high-profile food companies including Unilever where he could pop into the Ice Cream laboratory whenever the fancy took him to sample the Ambrosia of the Gods! At this juncture in our conversation, I marveled at the science behind the titillation of our taste buds and urgently required a Mr. Whippy with a flake. Mr. Ellis your curriculum vitae was good enough to eat!
At a school show and tell Stephen’s seven-year-old daughter Niamh proudly announced that her mum was a nurse and dad put the flavor in Starbursts! This netted Stephen a gig at the school introducing the kids to the science behind taste. And so, to the icing on the cake, the cherry on top and the crème de la crème: Percy Pigs! I can happily overdose on those beauties and still come back for more! What the hell has hooked me? Stephen was, as usual, a matter of fact. The food company, seeking new business with the UK retail giant Marks and Spencer, had the jelly (or gummies in the trade) and foam, and Ellis the wizard weaved his secret spells combining the two separate constituents and adding the little craved European flavoring, the humble grape! The rest, as they say, is history and Percy became a confectionary superstar!
How has this journey ultimately shaped this sweet man? Ask his four children and three grandchildren (with another en-route) whose existence can be traced back to the moment our younger food virtuoso, flush with cash, met his love heart (not to be confused with the Swizzels confectionary creation).
What do you do Marie Ruffell?
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