by Karen J Mossman
Today I am interviewing Sarah Lane, founder of Bread UK, and who is also the girlfriend of Manchester United and England player Paul Westermain.
“Hello, Sarah, thank you for coming along today.”
I put my tape recorder on the table after asking if she minded.
“Not at all. All publicity is good, Linda.” She gave me an enchanting smile.
“Which came first?” I asked as we settled down in the lobby of a hotel. “Paul or Bread?”
She smiled again and there was a twinkle in her grey-blue eyes.
“Unofficially, Bread was first, then I met Paul, but the actual the charity wasn’t set up until later.”
“So tell me how you met Paul?”
Sarah’s face glowed, as she chuckled. “Well, it was just before midnight and I was handing out sandwiches to the homeless.”
“This was before Bread UK was set up?” I clarified.
“Yes, I’ve been doing this kind of charity work for as long as I can remember. I go to the supermarkets and buy cheap bread, and make up cheese and tomato sandwiches. Then off I go and hand them out. This was just one of those nights.”
“On your own?”
“Yes, it was just something I felt I needed to do.”
“Is that not dangerous?” I had images of a young girl walking the dark streets and probably mingling with partygoers or traipsing down back alleys.
Sarah shrugged and pushed her dark hair behind her ears. “People generally settle down to sleep at night, and I knew where to look.”
“What compelled you to do it? I mean why would you want to feed the homeless? Don’t they have soup kitchens for that?”
“They do, but not everyone can find them and there are not that many. And because there but for the grace of God go I, I suppose.”
That surprised me. “Were you homeless?”
“No, but I could easily have been if things hadn’t turned out like they did.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I was brought up in care, I don’t know if you know that?”
“No, I didn’t.” I made a mental note as that would make another interesting story.
“Yes, I lived in a children’s home and at eighteen they arranged for me to have a job and fixed me up in a bedsit. From there I moved to a little flat, two rooms instead of one, but I lost the job, found another, lost that and ended up on benefits. I had to do something with my time while I was job hunting, so I volunteered at a soup kitchen. Eventually, I hit on the idea of making sandwiches and handing them out. Instead of them having to go look for food, I could take it to them.”
“So you were doing this when you met Paul?”
“Ah, Paul, yes. What happened the night we met?”
She laughed and I found myself smiling. “He fell out of a night club.”
I was just about to pick up on that when a waiter approaches with a tray of tea and cake.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Sarah said. “I’ve ordered us some drinks.”
“No, not at all. Thank you very much.” I usually had a quick interview with someone before they rushed me out. The waiter handed us the drinks, and the cake was a lovely touch.
“I’m a sucker for cakes,” Sarah said with a laugh, “I just love them. That’s why once a month I used to make dozens and dozens of fairy cakes to take out too.”
“I bet that was popular,” I said, selecting one and enjoying her generosity. This woman kept surprising me.
“It was, and once they realised it was a regular thing, more people showed up. It was hard to keep up the demand, sometimes.”
“What happened when you got a job, did you carry on?”
“I never found a job, and it wasn’t for the want of trying, either. I have no skills anyway, so was limited as to what I could do. If it wasn’t for my volunteer work, I would have gone crazy. Anyway, you wanted to know about poor Paul?”
“Yes, falling out of a nightclub?”
“Oh yes.” I was distracted by the cake.
“He came out of a nightclub a bit the worse for wear and by the look of his face, he’d been in a fight, too. Not that he gets involved in that sort of thing, but with him being famous, people tend to think they know him and often want to talk football and sometimes challenge him. Not always with the best results. So he stepped out into the road in front of a black cab.”
“Oh! Was he hurt?”
“It could have been worse. I stayed with him holding his hand until the ambulance arrived and then went with him to the hospital.”
“I bet it surprised you to be holding the hand of a famous footballer?”
She chuckles again, “I had no idea who he was, just some poor bloke who’d had an accident. I’d no interest in football at that time.”
“So what happened next?”
“He asked me to ring one of his teammates, then they took me home afterwards. Two weeks later he turns up on my doorstep with a huge bunch of flowers.” She chuckled, “It was cake day, and the flat was covered in fairy cakes and I had flour in my hair and on my face. He must have thought I was a mad woman. Anyway, he asked me to dinner.”
“And you still didn’t know who he was?”
“I did by the time we got to the restaurant. People were staring at us and some even came over. He was really surprised that I didn’t know. I told him not everyone watched football. He laughed and said Manchester United were one of the biggest clubs in the world. Obviously, I’d heard of them, just not individual players.”
“And then you became a WAG, as they say.” She frowned even though I’d meant it as a light-hearted comment.
“No, it wasn’t like that and I’m still not sure if I like the term.”
I quickly moved on. “What was it like? You the girl with no job, and he the rich and famous footballer?”
“Well, to be honest, it worried me in the beginning. We lived such different lives. But when I discovered who Paul really was it changed everything.”
“In what way?”
She shrugged her shoulders lightly. “I suppose I was scared of the limelight and wary of his teammates and girlfriends. I didn’t feel worthy to move in that circle.”
“So what changed?”
“Paul thought it a good idea to meet people. He said I had the wrong impression of them, and they were just normal people doing an an extraordinary job. I wasn’t so sure, about that, but liked Paul, so I went along with it.
“We went round to one of their houses. It was an expensive looking place. They were having a barbeque. Most of the lads were there along with their partners. I felt out of my league if you’ll pardon the pun. Money breeds money as they say. The women were all beautiful. The clothes they wore, the hair and the make-up, I felt like the odd one out, almost as if someone was going to point me out and say I shouldn’t be there. They all knew each other, and I knew no one, it was awkward.”
“Then one of them—who I might add is not part of the group anymore, made a comment about my dress. I overheard her say that I looked like I was wearing an Asda off the peg. I felt humiliated. My dress was fifteen pounds from George and I loved it. I’d bought it especially for the occasion and I had felt nice in it up until that point.
“Their dresses were designer ones, I might add, and costing hundreds of pounds. As soon as I could escape, I did. I hid in the toilet and cried.
“I didn’t know how to face them after that. I thought they were all talking about me now I’d left the room. I couldn’t go back in there. It was pretty horrible. I felt like the ugly duckling.”
“You could never be an ugly duckling, Sarah,” I tell her, and she has the grace to smile.
She was beautiful in a simple way. Her hair curled long over her shoulders and her clothes were stylish, casual and comfortably worn. Beauty travels deep and Sarah seemed to have a heart of gold.
“You came out of the toilet, eventually?”
“Yes,” she laughed. “I found Paul, told him I was leaving, told him I didn’t belong there and was going home. As they were his friends, I told him to stay. We argued. He didn’t want me to leave, but I was going. I warned him not to follow and then caught the bus home.
“When I finally got back to my flat, he was waiting for me. He’d caught a taxi as soon as I left. By then he knew what had happened and was really sorry like it was his fault.”
She picked up her cup of tea and sipped it several times before carrying on.
“Paul’s the type of person who really believes in people believing in themselves. He knew I had no self-confidence. He told me I was just as good as anyone and should never be ashamed of who I thought I wasn’t. He loved me for being me and gave me the confidence to believe in myself. I’ve seen him say that to many people, and he is so right, everyone is important, everyone is equal. We should believe in ourselves.”
There have been many interviews with Paul Westermain and he was very charismatic. Sarah was special too. With his mentoring work with deprived children and her charity, it made me feel the world is a better place because of them.
“So, coming back to Bread UK, how did it officially start?”
“By accident actually, Linda. Paul wanted me to go to London for an away match. Most of the girlfriends and wives were going, and I was starting to like them. Friendships take time, don’t they?”
I nodded and finished the last of my tea.
“Anyway,” she said with a chuckle. “I still wasn’t sure I liked football. Paul never pushed me but suggested we stay on for a few days, taking in the sights and seeing a show, that sort of thing. It sounded wonderful, how could I say no?
“We stayed at Claridge’s. A world away from anything I was used and I planned to spend an evening feeding the homeless. I was intending to speak to the hotel about the food they throw out. All hotels do and it goes into the bin. Such a waste.
“Anyway, I was in the lobby waiting to speak to the manager when I overheard two men talking. They were in a panic because they’d organised a big charity event that evening and their speaker had dropped out. They didn’t know if they could get anyone at such short notice. It occurred to me how I could tell them about people who live on the streets. They’re not all druggies, some people had a hard deal in life, losing jobs and homes and many of them are ex-service men.
“I must have been mad. I’d done nothing like that before, and I had no idea why I suddenly thought I could. It was just one of those moments you jump in with both feet and then wonder what the hell you’ve done!
“It went through my mind that people attending functions at the likes of Claridge’s would have no knowledge of life on the street. Maybe I could get them to donate money, which I could turn into food.”
Her face was animated and her eyes flashed with enthusiasm. “My God, I was so naïve!” She laughed.
“Had you done any public speaking before?”
“No! Paul asked me the same thing and when I told him, he was horrified!”
“So you just volunteered to speak to a group of people and you’d done nothing like it before?” I was incredulous.
Sarah chuckled. “I was mad, wasn’t I? When I think back I don’t know what inspired me to think I could——well, I do. I was thinking of all the food I could buy and hand out. All I had to do was tell them how I made sandwiches.”
I was sceptical and it must have shown.
“I know; Paul was the same. Nothing is ever that easy, is it?”
“Well, I wouldn’t have thought so.”
“Afterwards, I went into a panic. So I grabbed a phone book and found a charity called St. Mungo’s.
“They try to prevent people from sleeping rough, a first stop if you like. I asked if they could see me, and they did. I had a long chat with a guy called Richard. He gave me some facts and figures, which I wrote down. At least then, I would know what I was talking about.
“Paul was sceptical and kept asking me if I knew what I was doing, but I was excited. Finally, I could speak to people who would listen. Any of us could find our situation changed and end up on the streets.
“Anyway, there I was, standing in front of three hundred people who had just eaten a nice meal. Then I had a sudden thought, there was me talking about people not getting enough to eat might make them feel uncomfortable, and I didn’t want that.
“I didn’t want to put doom and gloom on their evening by telling stories of hardship either. I thought I had blown it because I had to think fast and start again. I knew I going to make a fool of myself and at the same time didn’t want to let anybody down. So I had to say something.
“I gave them the basic outline and switched tack. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but British people are very good at turning bad things into humour. I had some really funny encounters, like the man who thought he was still in the army and saluted me every time I saw him, and another who kept calling me a cake fairy and moved his arms as if they were wings. I told the stories and people laughed. I couldn’t believe how well it went.
“I spoke for over half an hour. It was amazing. And I really enjoyed it. At the end, I suggested that if everyone in the room made a £10 donation, I could go out tomorrow buy bread and hand out sandwiches that evening. At least people would be fed. I really hoped I wasn’t too cheeky asking for that much.
“Anyway, they applauded, so they must have approved. Afterwards Paul said he was really proud of me. There was a look of admiration in his eyes and I knew then I hadn’t made a fool of myself.”
I smiled with her and doubted she could ever do that.
“Oh, and I forgot to mention the organisers said they would pay me the same at the person who didn’t show up. Three hundred pounds would buy a lot of sandwiches. I was so thankful.”
“That’s amazing and £10 each off the audience would buy plenty of food, too.”
Sarah bit her lip and then spoke quietly. “The organisers handed me the envelopes with the donations. When I looked inside, I thought there had been a mistake.”
“They had given more than £10 each?” It wasn’t a surprise.
She nods, “There were cheques for hundreds of pounds and so much cash. I was speechless.”
“How much was there?” I ask intrigued.
Sarah’s eyes fill up, “I still can’t believe that first time. There was over £20,000. More than enough for what I needed.”
I blink several times, both out of surprise and to push back a tear. Even I hadn’t expected that.
She gave me that dazzling Sarah Lane smile again. “More cake?”