"A punt went past, full of silent, sun-stupefied people, with a plop and a tinkle alternately as the pole entered and left the water."
- Dorothy L. Sayers' "Gaudy Night"
Sales jobs always attract a strange group of people. At best competitive, self-motivated money obsessives; at worst selfish, egotistic scum – people whose greatest pleasure is success at others expense. Add a wage twice or three times that of most unskilled jobs, brutally competitive managers and extreme company loyalty and a hostile work environment is guaranteed.
The signs at Scudamores Punting Company read “river tours with student guides.” A relaxed atmosphere guaranteed, a slapdash collection of kids mucking about on the river? Try a multi-million pound industry, what locals call “a license to print money.” Punting is serious business. It makes everyone involved good money, and a few people very, very rich.
The work of a punt chauffeur must be one of the most unique in the world. Days are very similar and work to a simple pattern: Tout for sales and push punt tours. Chauffeurs work on commission. No sales – No cash. I have worked nine hour days for eight pounds and four hour days for one hundred. The title punt chauffeur is heavily misleading. For punt chauffeur read tour salesman. Most chauffeurs’ idea of a good punt tour is one that takes half the time it should. After all, push a quick tour and you get more time touting. Simple.
There are two main areas for punt tours; at either end of the river Cam, to the North and South of the colleges. The most interesting place is the north, on Magdalene Street. Magdalene Street is a two hundred metre long, wide road that leads from the centre of Cambridge, around St. Johns College out to Magdalene College and the river. Magdalene Street meets the river at Quayside – one of the top ten places to be seen in the UK - a paved area the runs along the river, at right angles to the street. On the left is the river and the stunning red brick of Magdalene, and on the right various bars and restaurants. By the river there are two punting companies: The blue of Scudamores – smartly white-shirted, blue trousered young men – and the red of Tyrells – uniquely dressed youngsters, long hair, baggy trousers, earrings. There is also a collection of self-employed chauffeurs – Mobilers. Quayside has been referred to as the “war zone” by chauffeurs.
Anyone walking along Magdalene Street is sold tours constantly, an unlucky person may be asked twenty or thirty times if they want to go punting within two minutes. God forbid they actually fancy a tour, then they are subjected to the competition. “We’ll take you for less!” is the catchphrase of punting, why try to get your own customers when you can get some-one else’s? Here the company alliances come to the fore. Scudamores touts hate Tyrells’ staff, Tyrells hate Scudamores and everyone hates Mobilers. Touting at Magdalene Street is a constant scrap, a battle of talent and egos, company loyalty and aggression.
But at least in your company you work in a team. At least you are safe around chauffeurs from your company. Or not. After all payment is for your sales. Most touts have as much to fear from their colleagues as from the opposition. After you make a sale you give the customers a ticket to take to the booking office. If you are out of sight when someone writes their name on your ticket that’s your problem. Only feel safe when you see them hand over their cash. As for friendship – friendship is for after work, it’s each to their own on the battle field.
I used to love punting. I made my own money, I knew my exact value, and I got to stand outside all day in the sun, meet great people and make bucket loads of cash. I loved to sell the tour because I believed in it. The sites on the river are stunning; seeing a shining Kings College against a background of moody black cloud is probably the most amazing sight I have ever seen. But after a few months the cynicism got me. I woke up every morning knowing I would have to fight all day to make my money, that a great day was one when my friends earned nothing. I guess I’m too liberal for sales – I just wanted everyone to earn enough to live. I didn’t love myself enough and in the end I was a failure.
Most Scudamores punt chauffeurs earned at least ten pounds an hour last summer (2003). The man who owns Scudamores Punting Company, James Macnaughton was rumoured to have earned three-quarters of a million pounds from the company last year.
Punt chauffeur was voted the third most sexy job in the UK in an FHM survey.