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Schadenfreude’s Lift

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

In August 1983, my family and I were having a summer holiday long weekend in London and we were staying at the impressively named Cumberland Hotel near Marble Arch.

My three brothers and I had one room together and my parents were in a separate room so that gave us free reign of the hotel if not the streets. Indeed the City of London police had stopped and questioned the four of us on the way back from the cinema, clearly perturbed and possibly suspecting that we were the tail end of a Fagin-esque gang of child pickpockets up to no good down Oxford Street.

My younger brother and I took to riding up and down the 13 floors of the hotel’s elevators such was the novelty of being in, what was for us, such an incredibly tall building for the first time.

Coincidentally the hotel was also occupied that weekend by two American football teams, the Minnesota Vikings and the St. Louis Cardinals. They were there to take part in the first National Football League game to be played outside of America and was part of a semi-successful attempt to broaden the appeal of the sport. I suspect it may have been more successful if games were played appropriate to European time zones as staying up passed midnight on a Sunday to watch highlights was never going to work long term.

Yes, everyone in Northern Ireland stayed up to watch Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis in the 1985 World Snooker final the night before a new week started, but that was a one-off, we wouldn’t have bothered if it was going to be every weekend!

The thing you have to appreciate about American football players is that they are massive, humongous, elephantine almost. Especially when you’re 9 years old. So riding up and down with them in the lifts all morning was pretty cool. Indeed at one stage we decided to get an autograph book so we’d have a reason to talk to these gentle giants towering over us.

But then all went quiet as they headed off for the game at the old Wembley stadium and we were a little bored. And what do kids do when they don’t have enough stimulation to keep them occupied - we got up to mischief. We must have seen it in a movie because I don’t think we organically came up with the idea of pressing all of the buttons for all of the floors before getting out and leaving an unsuspecting fellow resident to stop at a dozen more levels than they had intended. You cannot underestimate how funny this simple gag is to a 7 year old and his older brother, we laughed like proverbial hyenas each time a hotel guest fell into our trap!

After a trip to Madam Tussaud’s in the afternoon we were back in the elevators that evening but then so were the players so there was no way we were going to risk the wrath of an Offensive line - especially not from a 28-10 successful Viking! A number of years later I was in the lift at The Westbury Hotel in Dublin with my wife having just checked in on a Friday afternoon, the doors began to close and this tiny figure with a flat cap managed to stop them and the lady under the hat and the oversized coat and with a large bag over her shoulder got in. Despite what I presumed was an attempt at a disguise, she was instantly recognisable to me as the phenomenally talented Swansea songstress Cerys Matthews - and appropriately enough I was rendered catatonic.

The three of us stood there for about 30 seconds before we realised that, in a weird reversal of the Londinium circumstances, none of us had in fact pressed any of the buttons - as if we were hoping that the elevator would simply telepathically know where to take us. I suspect that if it did that would have been a job for Mulder and Scully....all right...all right... keep your hair on.. no need to fly in to a (road) rage over that lazy reference!

Queue awkward giggles as the situation was rectified and am sure Ms Matthews was delighted we were getting out three floors below her good self.

A few years earlier in a different Dublin hotel, conveyer karma had got its own back on me for the Cumberland incident. Again it was checking-in time as my wife and I accompanied by her sister and husband were in the city for a rare night way together. We were waiting for an interminable time for a lift to come as it seemed that perhaps two child-hallions had been in pressing all the buttons as we could see it was stopping at every floor from top to bottom.

Just as the lift was arriving at lobby level a tour bus full of Scandinavian holiday makers pulled up outside the door of the hotel. I was momentarily distracted watching them pour off the coach that I was caught entirely unawares that they were already residents of the hotel and they plainly knew the score with the lift situation as swarm like and as one they pushed my wife and I and my in-laws out of the way so they could fill into the elevator leaving us sitting like fools waiting on an empty lift to return.

We weren’t having that as you can imagine, so the four of us forced our way in and blocked anymore of these tall slender Vikings from stopping us.

As the doors closed there was barely enough room for oxygen and I nearly got a nip in the backside I was pressed that firmly against them. The situation was tense with these Norsemen staring aggressively at us - annoyed that we had prevented other members of their group getting on board. And then things took a turn. An alarm rang out and we darted our eyes to a flashing light that alerted us to the situation that the lift was going nowhere - it was overladen with passengers.

Behind me I felt the air rush in as the sliding doors opened once again and I heard one of the elderly travellers utter a sentence of such power and force in that moment that I was knocked back a couple of feet by both it and his inordinately long spindly index finger.

You have to imagine this phrase being said in the cadence of Arnold Schwarzenegger of course to give it its full effect.

“IT IS YOU...IT IS YOU...YOU ARE TOO HEA-VEY...GET OUT...GET OUT!” And I did, and the doors began closing again and I gulped like a little boy - FINished off by the Swede’s superior reactions I had that Hel-Sink-ing feeling. I looked into the eyes of my wife and saw the loss of respect for me that she had just experienced. Not only was my lack of Alpha status now proven - it was proven in front of her sister and brother-in-law!

When I eventually got up the room about 15 minutes later she just shook her head at me in disappointment but I knew there was no point in going Berserk - it wasn’t like I’d missed out on a trip to Valhalla, but I did feel incredibly put down.

I mean, yes I’ve always carried a bit of weight since I was young so it’s not like I haven’t felt the embarrassment that some time arises from splitting your trousers, having a zip not go up, have a shop assistant tell you they don’t carry your size and have people look at you funny when you buy a king-size snickers and a bottle of diet coke but it was the first time that I can recall as an adult where someone was blatantly rude and literally pointed when pointing out that I could do with burning more calories than I took in.

What was the most galling about it of course was that the reason it was said was to deflect away from the behaviour not just of the person who had said it but the entire group of them. I don’t know if you’d call it mob-rule, it was certainly an Os-low move that they all seemed to get on the same page with at the same time. There was none of them not going to take advantage of me being singled out for expulsion from the cubicle when the opportunity arose.

So whilst only one of them was responsible for the actual statement, the others had empowered that behaviour by their own. They were more cowardly but they were willing to sacrifice their own ethical responsibilities to gain a marginal advantage for themselves.

And in taking the seeming pleasure that they did, in gaining the minuscule saving in their time at the expense of both mine and my minor humiliation, they devalued another human being so they could get in a lift first. That’s how little benefit they needed to be given to treat another person with such disregard.

Increasingly we see how easily or cheaply the integrity of so-called leaders can be bought, and its important that we don’t commit the Cardinal sin of giving them respectability - just because they are out front and centre it doesn’t mean they should be followed or that they will let you get out at their floor when they get to the top.

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