Technology would have transformed my career…

Feb 14


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Helen Whitten

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Technology would have transformed my career…

But not always necessarily for the better, I think.  Yes, it could have saved a few chipped fingernails and tired fingers when I started my life as a secretary at Bodley Head publishers in 1968, aged just 18. The old typewriters were hard work. Punch, punch, punch on those keys from 9 to 5, fiddling with two carbon copies, tippex and erasers. It was messy and stressful when one had to redo letters but the time spent taking dictation from my first boss, Guido Waldman, an editor, was always rewarding and I learnt a great deal from watching him work and talking to him about his role.

The first IBM Golfball came along when I was working for Geoffrey Strachan, the Plays Editor at Methuen, and made the days easier and the pressure on one’s fingertips lighter.  This continued when I transferred to work for Caro Hobhouse, an editor at Macmillans. In those days letters would arrive and often not be responded to for a good four weeks.  Long lunches and phone calls were the main mode of communication with authors. One still had to book an international call to those abroad. A couple of years on, it was Caro who encouraged me to apply for a role as Picture Researcher, working for Cherriwyn Magill, the Art Director in Macmillan’s jacket department.

I loved that job. I was given a brief – the title and subject matter of the book and the kind of photograph, cartoon or painting that they might require to use as part of the jacket design. Then I would be out and about in London, going to newspaper libraries, the Mary Evans Picture Library, public libraries, art galleries and museums. I met interesting and knowledgeable people who listened to my brief and showed me various examples of paintings or illustrations that would fit the bill. Then I would return with photocopies and details of potential designs. 

If I was doing that job now, I would probably just be sitting at my desk Googling suitable images, and visiting websites. Yes, I would have access to the world’s museums and art galleries, which I didn’t have back in 1972, but I wouldn’t have to move away from my desk. I wouldn’t have met half the people I did meet or had half the fun I had.

I moved on from picture research to become historical researcher to the historian Alistair Horne, who was writing the official biography of Harold Macmillan. In this case I would be given facts he needed to clarify, dates, names, events that needed confirmation and I would go out and about in London and beyond – to Churchill’s house, Chartwell, in Kent, or Macmillan’s house, Birch Grove, in Sussex, to find letters or telegrams, to glean more information and ascertain that the facts were correct. I would visit the Beaverbrook Library, go to libraries in Oxford and pull together the details Alistair needed for the chapter he was working on. I met all kinds of interesting people and loved the experience of being in these ancient libraries, of touching in my hands the letters sent home from troops in Chechnya, the feel of parched yellowing paper, the scent of archived pages.  If I were doing that work today I probably, again, would just be sitting at my desk, able to get the information I needed from various search engines. It wouldn’t be the same.

Then I came to building my business, Positiveworks, which I founded in 1992.  There were no websites at that time so I printed brochures and walked around Richmond sticking them in letterboxes, going to various local businesses and meeting key people on training courses and on conferences. I would frequently sit next to someone at a conference on stress management or some psychological profile and that person would become my next client, or introduce me to someone who would. I am not convinced that I would have solidified those random relationships had the conferences been streamed on Zoom.

Then gradually I got used to my first Amstrad computer, to laptops, emails, websites, mobile phones. Modes of communication began to change for us all. How wrong they were when the said the internet was only for nerds!

And so the benefit of this new technology was that my network of contacts spread and I travelled to run training courses in Africa, Australia, Hong Kong, Hungary, USA, Scandinavia, Europe, Lebanon, the Middle East.  It felt a little scary at times, arriving in Nigeria to be escorted by a security guard with a gun, or landing in Beirut and having President Hariri blown up outside one’s hotel, or arriving in Bahrain often in the middle of the night, but I met so many people, can touch and taste the experience of being in those distant places that I would never have seen had I just sat at my desk providing training on Zoom.

Of course, Zoom is amazing. It is just wonderful to be able to keep in touch with clients, colleagues, friends and family on FaceTime or Microsoft Teams etc. It saves the planet perhaps but saving the planet can also be eased through personal contacts, through the friendships and alliances one builds from actually being in a room together, from the understanding that is generated by talking about life as well as business.

So now, as I wait to hear from literary agents as to whether any are interested in my novel, I am aware that their reading list of manuscripts is buried and invisible in the depths of their computer filing systems. Returning to my first days of working in publishing houses, half the pleasure was being surrounded not only by the published books but also by the physical piles of manuscripts that would sit in the corner of an editor’s office, a constant visual reminder saying “read me!” And always, always, there was a polite acknowledgement of its safe arrival and some kind of acceptance or rejection letter sent as the manuscript was returned to the hopeful author. Now everything just seems to disappear into cyberspace.

I wonder how your own working life might have been different had there been no technology, no email, no Google, no mobile phone? Would your days have been different? Would you have met fewer people, seen less of life other than through a screen, I wonder?  Or would technology have changed your working life for the better?  With every advance there may be a little something that disappears into the ether at the same time.  For myself, I am glad that Google and Zoom were not available at earlier times in my career.


2 Responses

  1. Hello Helen

    As usual lots to think about. Technology is a defining part of the human condition. We are the craftsmen apes. Possibly happiest in the environment into which we are born.
    I would say that the greatest invention in communication technology, apart from language itself, was the invention of writing, first the picture writing of the early Egyptians and Chinese and then the development of an alphabet in the Levant and in the course of time the separation of words and the introduction of punctuation.
    The native Americans on first encountering European explorers attributed the European ability to convey meanings on bits of paper to magic as they had no writing technology themselves.
    To maintain our social and day today intercourse we have to adapt to whatever is used around us but there are always losses as well as gains, as you say.



    1. Thanks David. Yes, I often think that if someone ‘invented’ the pencil now people would be amazed by its versatility – it doesn’t have to be charged or plugged in …x

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