A Work in Progress: 1968 -1977


How I survived while trying to work out what I really wanted to do.

I left school in the summer of 1964 and from then on the Sixties were, for me, a fabulous liberation and a great time to grow up in. I enjoyed my three year course at university, studying English and American literature with some French and comparative sociology and a bit of politics thrown in. We were taught American literature by lecturers who had been flown in from Berkeley, California and this just added to the glamour quotient of the rock ‘n roll years. I got a good degree and though reluctant to leave, the curiosity factor about what I might find myself doing next in the wider world pushed me towards London.

I did a stint in a toothpaste tube factory – I don’t know why as I am not good at operating machinery – still not good at it even after all these years! I was put in charge of a monstrously noisy and ugly hulking piece of metal, which had an endless appetite for the small grey lozenges I fed down its gullet and which it spewed out the other end as tubes waiting to be filled. It was so greedy that it jammed up and hissed in fury about three times an hour until the time and motion man came and soothed it temporarily.

It reminded me of another nightmarish time I had had in Wall’s ham and ice-cream factory in the summer holidays. At the far end of a conveyor belt was a burly man who fed huge blocks of ham through a slicing machine, which I was meant to pick up and take round to hairnetted women who packed them into sealed plastic for the supermarkets. I had to be quick because the ham was unstoppable and if I didn’t keep up, some of it would fall into a metal dustbin full of steaming water at the end of the belt and for every piece lost, my pay was docked. And we didn’t even get a free ice cream on Fridays!

I followed this by not managing to sell any Encyclopaedia Britannicas door-to-door. So selling not a strong point either. Finally, I struggled through a three month intensive shorthand and typing course at Pitman’s in Southampton Row, which gave me the wherewithal to explore and survive in a great variety of situations.

I’ve never really warmed to north London – Islington in particular. Whenever I find myself at Angel tube station I still feel badly freaked out. A friend from university had found somewhere to rent in Thornhill Square and asked me to join her. I hear that this is now a very sought after location but I don’t think I could ever set foot there again. The number of the house escapes me but I can picture it in my mind’s eye even now. It belonged to a milkman, who had a horse and cart and he left at 4am every morning, never failing to wake me up.

I shared the long, thin ‘bedsit’ on the ground floor and the overwhelming feeling it conjured up was of sepulchral gloom and decay. Not only was the room dark and musty, but the bathroom consisted of a small brick built hut in the middle of the dank, exhausted garden. The electric meter was in the hallway outside our door. One shilling was enough to turn on the light in the hut and have a passably warm bath, but there was no time for lingering – everything would suddenly shut down with a sickening thud and I often had to make my way back through the murk with snails crunching underfoot and a freezing draught under my nightdress, always having to remember to lock the hut door after me with a long and rusty key. Aaargh! The title of some film, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, comes to mind. Things just had to get better somehow, and preferably, somewhere other than here…

Not a teacher, I

My parents would have liked me to be a teacher and I’d even got to the point of having been accepted at Oxford to do a Dip.Ed., but I knew instinctively even then that I wouldn’t make a good one. Teachers have to have the capacity to sell themselves by being entertaining in some way or another and my prime interest was the length of the holidays. Also, I don’t like being with a group of people all the time. I work much better on a one-to-one basis. And so I turned down the possibility of being a headmistress one day (my father’s vain hope), and signed on at a secretarial agency with my Pitman’s certificate tucked up safely in my bag alongside my new lipstick and Max Factor ‘Creme Puff’.

I had an interview with a bossy, critical woman who sent me off to the War Office (as it was then called), for a ‘graduate post’. The particular building was unnamed and near Liberty’s. The receptionist had a book where I had to fill in my name and where I had come from and whom I was going to see. This seemed quite serious. The first interview was conducted by a middle- aged Scottish lady, who reminded me of my aunt in Edinburgh. She looked stockily important in a sensible tweed skirt and heather coloured twinset with a silver and amethyst thistle brooch at her neck. Things seemed to go reasonably well and I was invited back for a second interview. This time, my ‘aunt’ was joined by two distinguished looking gentlemen, wearing matching pinstriped suits. All three of them stared at me closely across the table and said that the job I was being considered for was very confidential and that keeping secrets was a key part of it. They asked about my personal lifestyle and said that I would not be allowed to go on public demonstrations. I could not discuss my job with my boyfriend or anybody else. I would be sent to both France and Germany to improve my languages. Part of me was intrigued but the bureaucracy of the civil service was something I wasn’t in the least suited to. I preferred being out on the edge of things where I could make my own rules. The woman back at the agency seemed very annoyed by my decision not to go ahead so I moved on. As yet, I hadn’t found my ‘niche’ and didn’t know whether I ever would.

Meanwhile, I had left the milkman’s haunt and was now sharing a flat with a girl who had answered my ad on a board at LSE. I had made some new friends in the university coffee bar there and come upon one or two people I already knew. Ann was a bit older and a teacher. The flat was in Belsize Park. It was light and warm and near Keats’ house. I liked the quiet, tree lined roads and green spaces round and about. I would sometimes get off the tube at Chalk Farm so I could buy an ice cream from Marine Ices and eat it walking home up Haverstock Hill. This part of north London was much more attractive. Altogether, things were taking a turn for the better and my father paid my first month’s rent, which was a great help. Ann was a very good cook. She made delicious meals for the writer, Jonathan Raban, to which I was generally not invited – but she was very generous in writing down all her recipes for me.

Knickerless in the fur department

It was Autumn and I remember being on the bus going through Camden Town and passing the ABC (Aerated Bread Company) building every day. I don’t remember how this came about but I found myself working at Debenham and Freebody’s department store in Wigmore Street, selling handkerchiefs. Two middle-aged ladies with formidable frontages and rigorously permed hairstyles, who described their job as being ‘in business’, ‘manned the helm’. I was not allowed to sell the embroidered Irish linen handkerchiefs, as they were top of the range. I soon met a girl called Esther, who was recovering from being a nun (it was not what she had hoped). She now had a boyfriend who worked for Shelter. Somehow, we ended up being assigned to the fur coat department together. Being anti the fur trade was not something that Mr. Waddell, in charge of personnel, was familiar with. He had long, glistening yellow teeth and Brylcreemed hair, which would have been silver but for nicotine streaks. He would creep up behind us unawares and ask how we were doing, with false bonhomie.

We had some strange customers amongst the mink coats. One didn’t wear knickers – ever – she told me. It was awkward, trying not to look. Another needed a coat with a dramatic fastening, as she wanted to surprise her husband by flashing it open when completely nude. We practised this with a few different models. I expect she added some Chanel No. 5 to her list of purchases on the way out.

In the end, Esther and I were sacked. We had been sent upstairs to pack up the mail orders from the Christmas catalogue, which was rather dull. Pink, padded satin coat hangers and duck egg blue, lacy bed jackets were popular. Next door to us were a group of women in accounts who all hailed from Ilford. When they told us how badly they were paid, we set up a petition and got everybody to sign it and presented it to Mr. Waddell. This insurrection was quickly quashed, we got our marching orders and were out of the door just before Christmas.

In the evenings, I’d been doing a modelling course at Lucy Clayton in Bond Street. We learned deportment and make-up and how to sashay down the catwalk, get in and out of low-slung sports cars and allow men to put on and take off our coats. I couldn’t help thinking of what had gone on in the fur coat department and wondered what perfume I would choose if money were no object. Later on, I had a thing about ‘Vent Vert’ by Balmain and wore it for many years.

I don’t think I shone as a future model, partly because I had to wear black and white at Debenham and Freebody and never had time to change my clothes. I remember being told that my wardrobe was dismal. They wouldn’t have liked my other clothes anyway as I didn’t often follow fashion but just wore stuff I liked to put together. This was often from charity shops and places like Portobello Market and old ‘forties’ dresses from retro shops in Carnaby Street. Sometimes I’d do a long trawl the length of the Kings Road down to World’s End on a Saturday afternoon and I’d get invitations to parties as well as a Mary Quant buy. Otherwise, it was Biba and Bus Stop in Kensington.

It was time I thought about a serious job suited to my qualifications so I started buying The Times and The Guardian. I had talked to a man I met in a bar about being a ‘picture researcher’ for a book he was putting together which sounded interesting but I think we ended up being at cross purposes. He had an office in Frith Street in Soho with naked ladies on the walls. However, publishing was worth exploring, I thought.

Colleague fell 20,000 feet

My first ‘proper’ job was with United Press International (UPI), just off Fleet Street. I was P.A. to the Pictures Manager. There were lots of Americans and Europeans, as it was an international agency and the high-energy buzz was very exciting. There were very few girls: Sylvia, who did ‘admin’, was married to a lighterman and lived in Limehouse. She was small, with a helmet of dark hair and wore large, hooped earrings and very high heels. She kept an eye on me.

Upstairs, there were two directors, with their secretaries, who shared an office. Hal was American, tall and loose in the way some American men are, with big hands and feet. He was full of boundless enthusiasm for everything. Julius was middle European, very civilised, impeccably dressed and quietly spoken. I was rather in awe of his mysterious persona. His secretary became a friend of mine. She was called Anita and had a difficult boyfriend called Bernie, a budding writer. They used to spend weekends in a cottage at Wallingford. Anita was very long suffering as Bernie had many dark moods. Susan, Hal’s secretary, was American, like him, but blonde, pretty and neurotic.

Hal would take us with my pal from downstairs, John Mantle, to watch American football games while eating hamburgers, somewhere on Piccadilly. The screen was enormous and the men got very excited. I found it an extraordinary experience as I’d never seen American football games before. John Mantle also introduced me to really special Indian food in wonderful surroundings, by taking me to Veeraswamy’s in Swallow Street. He had a rather louche manner about him, which appealed. He was very kind to me and we had some delicious meals and lively conversations. I loved his company. He was larger than life, always where the drama was, unpredictable, quite untameable but somehow, comfy to be with.

There was a man in the newsroom, who had fallen out of a plane at 20,000 feet and survived as he fell into, presumably, the right kind of snow. Another was in charge of the ‘ticker tape’ machine, which chattered incessantly while pouring out a column of holed paper, delivering up-to-the-minute news in something like Morse code. ‘Pag’, as he was known, was an Italian from New York. He had unruly, dark, curly hair and a rather pudgy face – and looked as if he ate pounds of pasta. He raced around like a maniac the whole time. For some reason, I found him very sexy. Being the only girls in the whole place, we got lots of lunch and dinner invitations, as well as more dubious offers…

At UPI I learned to type fast, answer back in the tough world of journalism and do odd things with pink and yellow copies on the typewriter, where the machine’s heads cut the paper. If you made a mistake, you had to spread some sort of glue on it and wait for it to dry before trying again. When your document was finished you had to take it to a huge roller, attach it, and then wheel the roller round with a handle – a bit like a mangle. This then supplied you with lots of copies of the document, which I think you could then send off to people elsewhere – in some way, through the ether…

I think I stayed there about eighteen months and then John persuaded me to join in a summer trip to Greece in a Land Rover. There were six of us, to start with, but I shall write about that glorious time elsewhere, as this is designated to the world of work.

I came back to temping with a bank manager in Cricklewood, who was critical of my shorthand capabilities. It had gone a bit downhill after being away all summer but I told him I did speedwriting, which was a new, more modern version of things. This held him off for a while but I moved on quickly to the Veterinary Council and from there as a receptionist to a lecherous doctor.

A brief taste of bureaucracy

Then I went off to Millbank to work in Chris Chataway’s Press Office. This was run by a formidable lady with round glasses, gimlet eyes and a penetrating voice. Her name was Joyce. Oddly, we seemed to make a good team. Chris Chataway was rather dashing and charismatic – and full of energy. There was an Esso ad at the time which ran ‘Put a tiger in your tank’ and when I looked at Chris Chataway with his head of handsome rust coloured hair, I thought of the tiger. I think he was pleased with the way we ran the office because I was asked to stay on permanently. When it came to it though, politics just didn’t hit the spot for me.

I also did a stint at the Department of the Environment in the grotesque towers of Marsham Street, near Strutton Ground in Victoria. I worked for a charming man called David Davies, who was an architect and lived in Welwyn Garden City. However, the interminable rules and regulations and red tape soon sapped my energy. There was even a timetabled regime for making the tea and I found the bureaucracy of the civil service simply stultifying, like being trapped in a cardboard box. Why did I end up in these places? I really can’t remember.

My curiosity factor is very high. Not engaging with politics didn’t mean that I didn’t have strong views and opinions. It’s just that they weren’t particularly left wing or right wing. I often felt that using common sense would sort things out more quickly and efficiently and that the cut and thrust of party politics seemed to get in the way. But I wouldn’t deny it to those who love it. A lot of politicians are very clever but that doesn’t mean they are wise. On the other hand, people who have intuitive talent for diplomacy in all its different shapes and forms really impress and attract me. I love language and the way it can be used to advantage and to solve problems without resorting to brute force and our baser reptilian instincts. It’s complex and beautiful, like a dance or some types of music and people who are good at it have that special extra spark which turns me on and makes me feel that life is worthwhile. A sense of humour is also paramount, but it has to be the right sense of humour. We need more of this talent in the public arena and less of – well, I could name a long list of people!

Old Masters, Mr. Big

There were countless other places which opened my eyes to the world of work, but where I didn’t really feel at home. I was sent to a firm in the City run by a man called Jim Slater, known for his business acumen. What I remember most was that on the top floor, where I was often sent with messages, there was a deep pile carpet, which was like a snowdrift to walk on. As one trudged ever onwards to the grand office at the end of the corridor, the Old Master paintings on the walls grew ever larger in size. Definitely a Mr. Big type of operation. I got sacked because I was told to wear a skirt. I could have complied but I didn’t see why I should. Looking back, men did rule the world for the most part. But there was a lot of fun to be had, too.

Meanwhile, I’d had to change lodgings again. Ann moved to Archway, where she bought a flat. I went with her but ended up sharing with a girl called Vicky, who lived on the floor below. Vicky’s brother-in-law was well on his way to becoming a famous painter. I learned years later, because of an exhibition of his painting at the Royal Academy, that she went to live in Grasse in the south of France. Good move.

As for me, I was back to loathing north London again after the breathing space of Belsize Park. Here, it was gritty and grimy plus the fact that the man who had the vegetable stall outside the tube station was always pestering me to come and see him strip in a night club. For a while I humoured him but one day I was in a bad mood and told him I wasn’t interested in the size of his dick and that he was pea-brained and boring. This wasn’t a good idea because he then wouldn’t sell me any fruit and vegetables. I dreaded making my way past his stall every day after that, but the alternative was the bus, which took forever.

By this time, I’d managed to get some interviews with publishers and ended up working at Oxford University Press (OUP), putting together catalogues and learning to write blurbs. The Dover Street building was a wonderful rabbit warren, with all sorts of hidden parts. A very glamorous girl called Maite showed me how we could get out onto the roof and sunbathe. She took me under her wing and invited me to a dinner party she was holding. This was the first time I had eaten a globe artichoke and I had to watch my fellow diners very carefully before attempting it myself. A young man from OUP offered me a lift home in his bottle green Morgan car. Later on, he was to marry Debbie, who helped the rather fierce librarian. Debbie is now Deborah Moggach, the writer.

Some time later, Maite and I were conscripted to put the Oxford Dictionary onto computer. The computer was gigantic – the size of a small room(!) – and housed in a huge, green blow-up sort of marquee out at Neasden. A cheerful girl called Pauline was in control of it and we had to furnish her with the appropriate information. We didn’t like going to Neasden, which we had only ever heard about because it was ‘sent up’ by Lord Gnome in Private Eye all the time.

There was nowhere to go at lunchtime except for the very boring canteen. One of our colleagues was a strange man who must have been slightly deaf, as he always spoke at the top of his voice, honking at us like some strange bird. He seemed to like our company but it was hard to sustain a conversation. Meanwhile, Robert, who was in charge of Maite and I, would chivvy us along, with Maite complaining the whole time that she needed to be back in Dover Street so she could meet up with her friends for lunch and go shopping. I must say, it was a relief to get back to central London after three months but, in the end, it was a job well done, I hope.

I remember the joy of being back in civilisation. We were asked to go along to a publishing party for a book by Mark Girouard, called The Victorian Country House. It was held in Kensington at Lord Leighton’s House, which is now a museum, dedicated to him. He was bewitched by the Orient and the house has rooms decorated with beautiful eastern tiles and indoor fountains. He was also an artist as well as a traveller and his portrait shows him to have been dark and handsome in a Byronesque fashion. We turned up as waitresses to hand out drinks and canapés in the exotic Arab Hall and then got a chance to explore upstairs too. It still exists and is well worth a visit.

Another publishing party was held on the top of Derry & Toms, a department store in Kensington which converted its rooftop into a sumptuous garden with statues both of people and animals – I remember leopards lurking among exotic monkey puzzle trees. It was an intriguing and strange evening. I think it was a Penguin party and the book was called The Secret Life of Plants. The thing that sticks in my memory was being told by one of the joint authors that you shouldn’t really keep plants in your kitchen as cutting up food and especially frying eggs traumatised them. They were right up against death the whole time. No wonder I have trouble keeping my basil plants alive for more than a week or so. However, orchids seem to do very well. Maybe they are less sensitive or instinctively know that they themselves are not in immediate danger.

Looking back now, I realise I was attracted to people who read widely. My own mind is very visual and I work by instinct rather than logic. Mixing these traits together makes me aware of the difference between information and knowledge. You need the first but it’s a quantum leap to the second. And the second is what counts.

Louts and diamonds

Once, on the way home, I asked a young man (a lout) on the Tube to stop smoking, as then there were non-smoking and smoking carriages and I had run almost the length of the train to find the non-smoker. He ignored me. Another, older man, got up and confronted him with, “You ‘eard wot she said”, delivered with a head down, bullish stance. Fisticuffs ensued and at the next station, the young man left, somewhat trounced. “Thank you”, I said to my hero. “Any time for you, love”, he replied. I thought I might like to hug him, but I didn’t. Meanwhile, back at OUP in Dover Street, my friend, Kate, had married the sales director. We were all rather impressed. They had a big party at The Ritz.

It was time to move on after two years, as the Dover Street lease had come to an end and everybody was moving down to the Clarendon Press building in Oxford. I wanted to stay in London, so it was back to the temping agency.

I was sent back to the City and am sure these two men were involved in ‘insider trading’, although at that time I would have had no idea what that was. There just seemed to be some very shady deals taking place. All I had to do was keep an eye on the office and the phones and say to anyone who asked that my bosses were ‘out of the country’. This always caused great ructions and dismay but as I never felt anyone was ‘above board’, I didn’t feel bad about letting them all stew in their own juice.

I love reading and made my way through lots of novels during this period. I also worked completely by myself in a grand office off Bond Street with marble floors, wall size gilt mirrors and crystal chandeliers, answering the phone in French (something to do with jewellery). Sometimes, a man would appear, wearing a pale cashmere camel coat and white scarf, looking very glam and he would thank me in French for all I was doing – which puzzled me somewhat, as I seemed to be doing very little. One day, he took some diamonds out of his coat pocket, which he spread out on the glass table. He asked me if I liked diamonds. Of course, I said, “Yes”, but secretly, I thought a fake one would look just as good and be less of a worry. He asked me to choose one I liked, which he said he was now going to have made up into a ring for his fiancée. I do hope she liked my choice! It was very slightly amber in colour, which gave it a warm and more romantic atmosphere, I thought. Monsieur told me I could come and stay in his villa on the Riviera whenever I liked. I can’t imagine now why I didn’t take up this offer.

It was good to be back in the West End and it meant I could get to Berwick Street market and back in the lunch hour. I remember one day crossing Old Bond Street in a hurry, lugging my bag of fruit and vegetables. My potatoes all fell out into the gutter. Suddenly, there was this very elegant man by my side, helping me to pick them up. I looked at him more closely and saw that it was the Duke of Kent.

Another time, I was hurrying round the corner from Jermyn Street into St. James’s, when I bumped into a very tall, good looking man in a camel coat with what I call a ‘dressing gown’ belt – tied in a knot. I find those coats very ‘moorish’ (sic). This is the way I have always spelt ‘more-ish’, as I equate that feeling with delicious oriental delights and sweetmeats, the title of that painting by Matisse, ‘Luxe, calme et volupte’ and Omar Sharif. Anyway, the man was Rex Harrison. We both turned around simultaneously and smiled and then, for some reason, waved at one another. I was rather sorry I was not Eliza Doolittle.

The Belgravia years

After work, I would walk home across Green Park, by Buckingham Palace and along Ebury Street, where we now rented a lovely garden flat, which came to us by great good fortune. John’s brother was hitchhiking home one weekend and was picked up by two friends in their sixties. John B. and Charles L. lived in Eaton Square and had short leases on a number of other flats nearby. We paid a very reasonable rent for Ebury Street – part of the offer was that Gray should play the grand piano with John B. once a week. This was located in the basement. The bathroom was at the back and it was wonderful to lie in the bath with the window wide open in the summertime with sweet jasmine trailing in. The kitchen had no window and was only big enough for one person but had everything we needed. John and Charles were very kind to us. From time to time they would take us out to a restaurant called ‘Como Lario’ near Sloane Square, which was always a treat. I remember that John B. was very taken with the young, Italian waiters.

There was an aura of past glamour and faded gentility about the two of them. They had spent many summers on the Riviera and I think they regretted that they were no longer invited to grand yachts moored in St. Tropez or the casino in Monaco. Their favourite hotel was on the seafront in Nice, where they always had a double balcony overlooking the promenade. Delicious choices to be made, no doubt, watching the men go by.

Occasionally, we were invited to dinner at their flat in Eaton Square. Charles was the cook. He came from an aristocratic family who had had an estate in the north of England and had invented the loganberry. But in later years they seemed to have fallen on hard times. I got a shock the first time I went into the bathroom. It was full of make-up – rouge and lipstick – and John B. had an enormous powder puff, looking like a white chrysanthemum, which he used with a greenish shade of powder for his face (shades of Matisse). He was also very fond of a special cologne, (extract of West Indian limes, possibly), which he patted on liberally. I think he got it from Geo F. Trumper in St. James’. The flat was sumptuous in the style of a boudoir – lots of gilt and swags and crystal chandeliers – but one felt it was just managing to hang on to a life that was fast disappearing. John and Charles personified the end of an era. We were fortunate to cross paths with them and share some good times together. That was how we ended up living in Belgravia when we really didn’t have two sous to rub together.

Publishing still seemed to be the thing to do. Meanwhile, I spent a few weeks at Hammer Horror films in Wardour Street. The first day I walked upstairs to find the office open but empty. I sat down at the typewriter and suddenly felt I was being observed. Turning round, I saw a full size cardboard cut-out of Robert Morley staring at me from behind the door. I met him for real later on. He was a sort of latter day Boris Johnson, a thoroughly huge personality. This was all quite entertaining but I was still a ‘temp’ and when I saw an advertisement to work for a film producer in Wilton Place I set off to see what was on offer there.

Albert’s laundry

Richard Goodwin was an independent film producer with a lot of classy connections. He had made ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. When I arrived, he was busy trying to put a film together about Punchinello. The costumes were being made in the basement, by a girl called Rosemary, who lived on a barge. I was to be his Girl Friday, in charge of the office, fetching the children from school sometimes and entertaining anybody who turned up to see Richard when he wasn’t there. Richard never told you where he was going or when he would be back. I’m not sure but I think he might have been involved – as a customer – in the Spaghetti House siege. The restaurant was just around the corner on Knightsbridge and hostages were held – but I can’t now remember the whole story.

Working for Richard in his house was one of those jobs where nobody tells you properly what’s going on, what you should be doing and how to do it – and there was no one to ask. However, we all often had lunch together and sometimes there would be a guest, or several – Antonioni, for example. We, the employees, never got introduced, so we had to guess, by following the conversation, who might be sitting at the table with us, should we not have recognised them.

Richard had a huge stash of dark purple ‘Samian’ wine, which he bought in bulk. Hundreds of bottles were stacked up, off the kitchen. We were always offered a glass as we sat and chatted about the various projects he was pursuing. Sometimes, I was sent to his daughter, Daisy’s, school in Harley Street, to fetch her in the afternoon. I think she would have been about ten or eleven. Jason, her brother, would have been about seven or eight. He sometimes sat with me in the office in the afternoon, drawing and chatting. Both of them were very bright and have turned out to be successful writers and producers themselves.

I found Richard somewhat impenetrable and alarming, although his second wife, Christine, who was a whiz with costumes, was very sweet – but utterly in her own world. Once, I was sent to Peckham to pick up a chair for a film-set, which wouldn’t fit in the taxi. I had visions of dragging it along on its castors for hours back to Wilton Place. Then it began to rain and the chair was upholstered in some red and gold heavily brocaded material. There I was, stranded on the pavement. The taxi man kindly alerted Austin’s of Peckham who came to my rescue and we travelled back at some expense in a Bedford van.

Pretty much the next day I was trying to sort out some laundry when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find a familiar face beaming at me with some dry cleaning over his arm. As my hands were full, I suggested he put it down in the office. He looked at me and sighed. “I’ve just dropped by to see Richard”, he said. Then I remembered where I’d seen him last; playing Tom in the film ‘Tom Jones’. It was Albert Finney. He had a good feeling about him and didn’t hold it against me in a ‘prima donna’ fashion that I hadn’t recognised him right away and thought he was the dry cleaner.

But I did become more and more stressed with not being able to ask for advice and got stomach pains. I had a wonderful doctor who lived a few doors down from us and had very kindly taken us on as NHS patients and he was very helpful. At the same time the lease on Ebury Street was drawing to a close and, once again, John and I had to find somewhere to live. This time it was a large bedsit at the back of a house in Pont Street, Knightsbridge, which looked out onto some vast London plane trees with Clabon Mews behind. It was wonderfully peaceful and the owls hooted at night. I imagined that when it had been a big family house that this would have been the nursery.

We had a small kitchen, which had a bath at one end of it and we shared the ponderous, throne-like, mahogany encased loo down the hallway with two old ladies, who were companions and wore lots of jewellery and rouged their cheeks heavily, and a young man who wore tight black leather trousers and sunglasses and kept two borzoi dogs. There was a lovely Irish housekeeper, who changed our sheets every week. The house looked very opulent from the outside – it had an enormously heavy front door with glass panels covered in wrought iron and gold painted swags. Inside, you had to pass a scary looking chair with large carved paws, which lurked in the deep shadows of the hallway. Everything smelled rather comfortingly of furniture polish and Brasso.

Casting couch

I had definitely decided to return to some sort of publishing but was to experience another strange encounter in film first. We had a phone call at home from somebody who wanted to speak to ‘Jane’ and I said that she no longer lived in the house. The man said that he’d promised to put her in a film as she’d done a favour for a friend of his. He then suggested I go and meet him at Twickenham film studios. So, always curious, I did.

Jane, we already knew, had been ‘on the game’, so I expect he thought I had replaced her. When I arrived he gave me the whole works. Cocktail cabinet, casting couch, name in lights, great film etc. I wished I looked more vampish but at least I had on high heels and lipstick and an aura of ‘Vent Vert’ perfume lingered around me provocatively. However, the bit of film I saw looked grim and violent – it was a police saga, with lots of car chases and bodies. Maybe I would end up as a body… I began to lose interest when the chap said he would give me a lift home – which he duly did at high speed in his crimson Porsche. At one point I put my hand on his thigh to slow him down. I’ve never liked sports cars (give me a Citroen Flying Fifteen any day). I ended up having to extricate myself (rather messily) but thanks to Lucy Clayton and my high heels, I was successful. Films were becoming a bit of a nightmare, so I applied for a job to a publisher in Bedford Square and, surprisingly, got it and started immediately.

Doing things on impulse isn’t always a success and this turned out to be rather dire. I was given some children’s books to work on which I thought were very dull and I had to share an office with a strange man called Basil who was in charge of stationery. We were in the basement, which wasn’t encouraging. I think maybe Basil wasn’t quite the ‘full shilling’ as one day a lorry load of loo paper turned up outside. He was sent for to deal with it and came back to ask me if I could help bring it in. He said that he’d saved the company lots of money by buying in bulk. There was so much, we had to stack it all up in soft, white pillars throughout the basement area, which we then had to dodge through for weeks. I’m sure it took years to use up. We also had mice, which ran over our desks and, on occasion, drowned in our unwashed coffee cups. They could have made themselves a lovely comfort zone living in the paper pillars. Perhaps they did.

From Playboy to Pentagram

I then made friends with a nice girl upstairs and we found an advertisement in the Evening Standard to go for a trial run to be a ‘Bunny Girl’ at the Playboy Club. We thought we could augment our meagre salaries by doing this in the evenings, so off we went to somewhere glitzy in Park Lane for an interview. I remember it was quite near ‘The Dorchester’ on the top floor of a building. We gave in our CVs’ and felt rather mousy as lots of the other girls looked hugely glamorous and suntanned, with bleach-blonded hair, sparkly jewels, terrific cleavages and stiletto heels.

I went to the ‘Ladies’, where I put on lots more lipstick and padded out my bra with loo paper. We were shown the casino with ‘Bunnies’ serving cocktails in high heels with pompoms on their bottoms. All the girls were very well looked after by ‘Bunny Mother’ and always got to go home by taxi at the end of the evening but the combination of high heels and champagne and burning the candle at both ends took its toll quite quickly and I didn’t seem to suit the ‘high life’ as well as I’d hoped, which was disappointing.

By now, I’d had enough of life underground in Bedford Square too, so I called my temp agency and said I was free to work for them again. They had just had an urgent call from a design partnership called Pentagram. It was a great relief to escape from the entombed basement although I felt sorry for leaving Basil alone with the mice. I wished him all the very best with his money saving devices and left him with a huge box of ‘Black Magic’, which I had found on offer at the newsagents. He would have approved, as he loved bargains and saving money above all else.

Pentagram was a very different world. The five points of the Pentagram represented five ‘top of the range’ designers – graphic, industrial, and product – and an architect. This was ‘la crème de la crème’, full of style and substance. I still have a beautiful, simple little sewing machine, made by the industrial designer, Kenneth Grange. These were all clever, creative men. Note that they were all men!

First of all, I was in reception, working with a lovely girl called Beth, whose boyfriend was the son of a journalist called George Gale. Ben was learning to be a stonemason at Westminster Abbey. Beth’s parents were Sufis. She was blonde and could easily have been a model but was a very gentle soul. As well as the five glittering points of the star, there were about twelve young designers working hard and hungry for success in this vast warehouse space. At 6pm every evening, the free drinks cabinet would be opened. It was a fascinating world but it wasn’t my world so, ever the rolling stone, I decided to move on, taking my perfect little sewing machine with me as a memento. It was called a Cub 4. I still feel sorry I lost touch with Beth.

Pentagram’s offices were in North Wharf Road, which was part of Paddington Basin. From a practical point of view this had been a bit of a nuisance as there were no shops near at hand. Usually I got home in time to buy something for supper in Harrods food halls. Milk and bread were always quite cheap there too. But it wasn’t the same as being in the West End.

I wasn’t sure quite what to do next but I had to keep working because we never had any spare cash. I didn’t really think of it at the time, as we were fine, just living hand to mouth. At one point somebody said I should think of going on the dole. I did go and investigate, but there were queues of people and they all looked so down-at-heel and depressed and the place smelled horrible. A mixture of cigarette smoke, unwashed clothes and despair. I also knew I could always get a job, even though it might not be what I wanted. I could turn my hand to most things and I’d always been good at housekeeping too. Having an overdraft wasn’t an option in those days, so we just managed and were fairly content.

Friends at FOE

From time to time, on days in between temping jobs, I’d helped out at Friends of the Earth in Poland Street, where I’d met a delightful girl called Ingrid. We kept up haphazardly and sometimes ended up together at FOE, collating reports or sending out leaflets. She had a horse called Squirrel Nutkin in the New Forest and she allowed him to come into her kitchen there. I think, in the end, she went to live in the country permanently. Soho, where FOE was based, was a fabulous place to be with Berwick Street market, Italian food shops and the Algerian coffee stores in Old Compton Street, the French bookshop on Great Marlborough Street and Wardour Street, with all its film connections.

And then, of course, all the sex shops and clubs mixed up with odd little places that sold costume jewellery and accessories like nipple tassels. Lina’s food store on Brewer Street (still there) and places like Raymond’s Review Bar (in the alley at the bottom of Berwick Street) with topless dancing etc., Ronnie Scott’s jazz venue and The Windmill Theatre were all familiar landmarks.

I always felt very much at home in Soho so I thought I’d cast around and see if I could land something interesting to do. When I was younger I’d been a good ballet dancer and had begged my parents to let me go to Paris as a Bluebell Girl, which wasn’t allowed. Now it occurred to me that perhaps I could work at The Windmill but as I was turning over that possibility in my mind, the agency, which had got me the job at OUP rang up and said they wanted somebody at Heinemann, a publisher with offices in Queen Street, Mayfair.

This time I really landed on my feet. John St. John was one of the nicest men to work for. He had his own highly eccentric list of books. At the time, biorhythms were something everybody was talking about. I had a book by an American, I think he was called Bernard Gittelson. The book had tables, which showed you how to measure the ups and downs of your physical, emotional and intellectual monthly cycles. There was a lot of talk about ‘triple critical’ days, when all these cycles scrunched together and you were in danger of having an accident or a meltdown of some kind – or a Eureka type moment!

You could also compare your compatibility with possible partners. John and I were very highly compatible physically and emotionally but at different ends of the spectrum intellectually. You could also measure your compatibility with the information given on various film stars and celebrities. This held a total fascination for me at the time and I’m sorry I lost the book, as it would be interesting to look at it again with a more critical eye. Meanwhile, John St. J. wanted to publish a book by Maxwell Cade on biofeedback and I was sent as a guinea pig to try out the method and report back.

A group of us (ranging from a banker to an out-of-work youth) sat round a table with a small machine strapped to the palm of our hands, which would measure our sweat output. Then we were taught how to breathe so as to produce alpha and later on, theta waves in our brain. Theta waves happen when you experience deep meditation. This only happened to me once on the course but I had a lot of other interesting experiences. For instance, we would be asked first of all to do the breathing that got our bodies into a state of relaxed awareness. One time we were told to imagine ourselves in a garden of our choice and to walk through it until we reached a flight of steps at the end. We climbed the steps and at the top there was a door. We then had to follow our instinct as to what to do next. Most of us opened the door, one or two walked back down the steps. Some of us were amazed at what we saw when we opened the door, others had a nightmarish experience. One fell down a well. Talk about bio-diversity! I was very pleased to have had the chance to experiment, and we finally did publish the book. Unfortunately I don’t have it now but I do have a book on biofeedback called New Mind, New Body, by Barbara B. Brown Ph.D. This was ‘The Age of Aquarius’, which was my own sign, and exploring the outer reaches of the human mind was very much at the forefront of things.

We also published The Thousand Petalled Lotus, a book which was written by a monk, who came and visited us from India in his saffron robes, having walked the whole way (he said). He arrived unannounced when John St. John was elsewhere and so I took him out to lunch by myself. Given his long journey, I thought I should take him somewhere special but the expenses department queried this later. We had to pretend that I had been told it was imperative that the monk be treated ‘like royalty’, so that he would give a good account of us back at the monastery. It was allowed but my expense account was blocked afterwards as I had exceeded it in one go.

John St. J. was always experimenting. One weekend, he joined a group of people who didn’t know one another and they spent twenty four hours in a house together, naked. They were allowed to say anything they liked, no holds barred. J. St. J. said he was doing it for the purpose of writing a book. He arrived in the office on Monday feeling very depressed as some young girl had said he reminded her of a dead fish on the fishmonger’s slab. To me he was like Father Christmas, with a white beard, twinkly blue eyes and a wonderful sense of humour. If anyone has emotional intelligence, he had it in spades. We had great, long chats and I loved his company. He was truly a very huggable, warm hearted and spiritual man. I still miss him now, even though he died some twenty years ago. Working with him was one of my top favourite jobs.

Battle of the Switchboard

Unfortunately, I was to cross swords with one of the other directors in the company who was, to put it mildly, a martinet of the worst kind. He suddenly announced that all the women had to learn to manage the switchboard, so we could take turns at lunchtime, when the receptionist was out. I wasn’t really a feminist but I felt everyone should take a turn, men and women alike. There was a weevil type man in the basement who said it was womens’ work and that we should get on with it as men had better things to do. Clive was definitely a misogynist and I had had a few contretemps with him before. He was always rude and patronising. I would have loved to see him sitting at the switchboard: “Hello, Heinemann, how may I help you?” He’d never helped anyone in his life. I could have learned how to work the switchboard, which may have come in as a useful skill in the future, but I didn’t. After a stand-up row with the vile Mr. V., I had to resign. John St. John and I both wept. He said I had amazing tears, which spouted out of my eyes like fountains.

Meanwhile, after about nine months, we had had to leave our cosy little nest in Pont Street as the house was being sold and, at short notice, we went to stay with a friend in Pimlico. This was meant to be for a few weeks but lasted more like eighteen months. Oddly, we ‘inherited’ the tiny, box-like bedroom from a girl called Carol who was now married to my erstwhile colleague, Robert, from OUP days. Coincidentally too, she had been a student on the M.Phil course that John had been doing at UCL. Our extraordinary ‘landlady’ was called Eleo. She also worked in publishing and became a long-standing friend.

We really liked living in Pimlico and all got on well together. But then, one way and another, we all decided to get married and so were again on the move. John and I went off to the U.S. for our ‘honeymoon’, five years after we had first met. John got a Churchill Fellowship to travel and, truth be known, we largely got married so I could get a cheaper fare to the U.S. It also pleased my parents who had never been happy about us ‘living together’.

When we came back we found a maisonette on two floors in Elizabeth Street, which was just around the corner from Chester Square. An old lady with dementia lived downstairs and would sometimes run out into the hallway and try to hit us with her broom. A journalist lived on the first floor. He was very agreeable. We always knew when he’d invited a girl home because he played a certain jazz record very loudly. A form of aphrodisiac, perhaps? There was an old-fashioned greengrocer close by and an upmarket food shop – Justin de Blank’s – on the opposite side of the road.

The house was owned by Mrs. Salter, a travel courier, who lived in the basement, which gave out onto a pretty garden at the back. John and I couldn’t afford to live there by ourselves, although the rent was very reasonable for Belgravia. We advertised in the Evening Standard for somebody to share and Toby, a budding lawyer, turned up. In retrospect, this alliance turned out very well and Toby was adept at trapping the mice under mugs in the kitchen. He had a bad habit of then throwing them out of the window down into Mrs. Salter’s garden, from where I expect they found their way back, although it was a long climb up. He had a very good sense of the ridiculous and we were lucky to have him as a flatmate.

Once, John tried to develop photos and the developer fluid fell onto the white carpet in the living room. The light made the carpet go brown repeatedly ever after, so we had to keep it under wraps. If only it had developed something interesting, like a Virgin Mary, rather than a livid orange-brown stain which no amount of imagination could turn into anything other than a chemical spill.

And so it went. One night, John didn’t come home. Toby wasn’t there either and I was in bed but at midnight I had had enough, so I put on my dressing gown over my nightdress and went round the corner to the police station in Gerald Road to report him missing. There was a lot of hilarity on the part of the policemen, although they were very kind. They asked how long I’d been married and gave each other knowing looks. I met Toby in the road on my way back and he was nonplussed to find me in the street in my nightgown. It turned out John had been doing some survey work, counting heavy lorries in Curtain Road near Liverpool Street and had forgotten to tell me he would be up half the night. Curtain Road was to come into my life at a later date when we bought our first mattress from the blind workshops there.

One morning I set off walking to work through Chester Square along my usual route. I often stopped at an Italian delicatessen to pick up a delicious roll or two for lunch but that day I was diverted by the sight of a crowd standing outside a house near the far side of the square. It turned out to be the day after Lord Lucan disappeared. The nanny had been found murdered in the basement and the police had cordoned off the house. I told John St. J. about it and I think he entertained the idea of doing a book about it later on. It is still a mystery as to what really happened, as Lord Lucan was never found. He and his friends all gambled at the ‘Claremont Club’, which was near to Heinemann in Mayfair.

One of the directors of a small publisher I was to work for in the future ended up himself as manager of the ‘White Elephant Club’, again just round the corner in Curzon Street. It was, in some ways, quite a small world, closely connected. Jimmy Goldsmith, the financier, was also part of the ‘Claremont’ set, I think, and later on, John got to know his brother Teddy, who set up The Ecologist magazine, down in Wadebridge, Cornwall. I think of all these people every time I go to see a film at the ‘Curzon Mayfair’ – my favourite cinema.

Alternative London: TEST and Wildwood

By now, John was working in Floral Street, Covent Garden, for TEST, (Transport and Environment Studies), run by a very likeable man called John Roberts. There seem to have been a lot of Johns in my life at this time. Weirdly, when I applied for the job at Wildwood House, I realised it was in the same building as TEST, on the floor below.

Wildwood House was a very small, start-up publisher, run by two ex-editors from Penguin – Dieter Pevsner and Oliver Caldecott. Oddly enough, I am writing this on the day I read in the newspaper that Niklaus Pevsner’s house in Hampstead is up for sale. He lived in Wildwood Grove.

I arrived for my interview and got on very well with both Olly and Dieter. The office was one large room with lots of windows. Helen and production were at the far end, Dieter was in his own corner, Oliver and I sat opposite one another in the middle and David, the sales director who spent much of his time out at ‘the sharp end’, sat with his P.A., Beverley, near the door. Beverley had perfect make-up and outfits, including false eyelashes. She must have got up very early every morning to look so pristine. There was a caretaker called Andy, who drank heavily but who loved us all. His desk was on the far side of the building and it took some while, running up and down endless steps and corridors to emerge into the obverse side of the universe.

The front end was smarter and shinier and lots of PR people shimmied in and out. Andy had a uniform for sitting in the foyer on that side. I have a feeling he slept somewhere in the building at nighttime as he was often there early in the morning, but in a slightly grievous looking state.

We published some great and fascinating books, like Alternative London by Nicholas Saunders, who set up Neal’s Yard, just off Neal Street in Covent Garden. He was eccentric and fabulous and a much welcomed visitor to the office. I once went with Olly to a house Nicholas had in Edith Grove. The corridors had been made into round burrows with papier mache. The cistern above the loo was made of clear glass and had goldfish swimming around in it. It wasn’t quite as dire for them as might be thought, although, on second thoughts, maybe it was. For some reason, this water system was connected to a pond, which was half in and half out of the house. There were some ducks on it. I had been thinking that the fish might on occasion escape to the pond for a more pleasant view of the world but obviously that would have constituted another hazard for them.

The possibilities were endless. Olly was very creative and artistic and playful and we published people like Studs Terkel, Talking to Myself, a book on the drovers’ roads of Wales and a similar one on the Ridgway, with photographs by Fay Godwin, and I remember one called Getting There without Drugs by Buryl Payne. Then there was Radical Technology by Godfrey Boyle, which John took great interest in, a book on self- sufficiency and one about the Findhorn founders and their giant vegetables. I was particularly keen on The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra and although I don’t think we published him, Lyall Watson used to come in and see us. I remember my friend Celia, who worked at a nearby literary agency, found him irresistible. But I think the book that possibly sold the most copies was probably The Tao of Love and Sex, by Jolan Chang.

Chang looked Chinese but I’m not sure what he was. He used to come to the office on a bicycle. He lived in Sweden and told us he had sex ten times a day. One day he arrived with a large bag of pumpkin seeds, which he said were an aphrodisiac and proceeded to offer them to Helen, Beverley, and myself. Beverley announced that she was married and very much looked down her nose at Chang and his antics. Helen and I ate a handful of the seeds but, sadly for Chang, did not feel able to oblige him in his regime of ten times a day. Chang went off, saying that English girls were frigid and that was why he lived in Sweden.

Olly thought we could have managed it at least once each, if only to keep the author sweet. We did not agree, pointing out that Chang was not the same as Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck or Omar Sharif. Or Paul Newman, Robert Redford, or George Clooney for that matter! But we never did get around to doing a book on film stars…

One of my jobs at Wildwood was to do some simple accounts with the hope of balancing the books at the end of each month. Dieter explained the mystery of bookkeeping and I did get the hang of the columns quite quickly. If people didn’t pay on time I used to ring up and harangue them viciously. Just as well I hadn’t studied accountancy, because I fear I would have become very grumpy. Getting some people to pay was like squeezing blood out of a stone.

I loved working at Wildwood with all these idiosyncratic people who were creative and civilised, witty, wild and well informed and had leaps of imagination and a Stephen Fry sense of humour and were so warm hearted. This was my top job along with John St. John’s at Heinemann (whom I introduced to Olly and Dieter). I think they enjoyed each other’s company over lunch at The Reform Club and Poon’s in Covent Garden (Oliver’s favourite lunchtime venue). I miss Olly in the same way that I miss John St. John. They both died about the same time and I still think of them as if they were here. I felt very much at home with all these people.

ENDS and Beginnings

Next, I became pregnant. We had finally and reluctantly left Elizabeth Street, leaving the carpet to continue developing under a carefully placed black rug. We had managed to buy a house in Barnes in 1975, just south of the river.

The house needed massive renovation, which John undertook with a succession of builders, notably Dick Sharp, who lived nearby. We used to drag huge baulks of timber home on the train from skips in Covent Garden and John fashioned them into kitchen units. All our spare time was taken up renovating this ruin, over the space of several years.

Meanwhile, John had moved on from TEST to run a monthly magazine called The Ends Report, published by Environmental Data Services. He co-founded this with David Layton and Max Nicholson. It was a far cry from putting dresses on hangers in Peter Robinson (now Top Shop), which was something he had done while writing his M.Phil.

The move to Barnes signalled great changes in our lives. We now had a mortgage and I was about to give birth to Gaia. We had a garden and I set about trying to be self sufficient in those early days. I wasn’t to see my old haunts for quite a while.

To be continued …
Barnes: Saturday, 16 February 2008