After my last blog piece about working for Alistair Horne I had several interesting emails from people who wrote to me about the influence of an encouraging boss. These people had shifted some internal and external blocks for the individuals working for them, pushed them to do more than they might have done without their influence, sometimes helped them change direction entirely. It made me reflect further on turning points – those moments where something shifts or you may take a completely new direction. Some of these happen unexpectedly and others happen because you make them happen. Perhaps, as you read this, you might remember those people or events that have changed your own life.
I am experiencing a turning point now – selling my flat near Gloucester Road. It’s been a fabulous place to be, for work and for leisure – close to the tube, the park, my grandchildren, the museums, the Albert Hall and all of London. Room in which to see clients when I was working and just about large enough to entertain a few friends or family from time to time.
It’s a wrench, letting it go. I have had a place in London since 1968 so this will be the first time I have not had some kind of pad here since then – some 50 years! I started off in flats in Rosary Gardens, Observatory Gardens, Harrington Gardens (lots of Gardens though no actual garden to be enjoyed in any of those!). There were sometimes four of us sharing, sometimes five. We were strangers to one another – finding flatshares through ads in The Times or Evening Standard. The flats in Rosary and Observatory Gardens were in the basement and there would be slugs crawling up the walls and condensation crawling down. But we had fun. I remember Harrington Gardens cost me £22 per month rental – but then I was only earning around £800 a year in 1968!
And now I have broken out in shingles. Blast! Funny how the body reminds you of the pain you are in (sometimes rather painfully, as now!). Of course I should know all about it, having written Emotional Healing for Dummies with David. I knew that it hurt to let go of this flat and yet I was too busy to stop and feel that sadness – and selling it is anyway an essential part of David and I finding a nice house in Kew. And sometimes we have to let go of one thing in order to allow in another.
As I walk these familiar streets before moving out, I remember the ‘60s, High Street Kensington and Biba, the platform boots and short skirts. The air of optimism. It feels different today – but then of course none of us knew, in 1968, how ghastly the 1970s would be with power cuts, having a meal or bath by candlelight, the three-day week. So none of us know what is around the corner now. It looks gloomy but who knows? The ‘70s doom was followed by the ‘80s high. Life often surprises us.
Reflecting more on turning points, my first one was when I was around four years old and my parents returned to the UK, having lived in Portugal for many years. My father’s family, the Bucknalls, had a long history in the cork and shipping trade in Portugal but he was advised, in 1954, that plastics would transform the cork business and he would be better advised to return to England and find a new direction. Both my parents loved their life near Lisbon. My sister, brother and I had also been very happy growing up in the sunshine and warmth of Portugal and its people. So it was a sad moment for all, I think.
We sailed home and, if my memory serves me well, my brother, aged 6, dropped his teddy bear into the water as we were leaving harbour. It says much about the Portuguese love of children that the ship stopped and a nearby fisherman pulled the sodden bear out of the water, came up the gangplank and gave it to my brother. Of course I imagine I can remember a picture of this scene but, as with much of our lives, those images could well have been planted by my parents telling of the story!
Arriving in England was a chilly experience. We stayed near Chester and my memories of those years were of beautiful countryside but grey skies and grey playgrounds with Lowry-style streets and nasty little boys in grey shorts chasing me with stinging nettles! My mother found the people incredibly kind. And, looking back on it now, this turning point must have been a really challenging time for my parents, as they adjusted the family to life in the UK.
I was probably an odd child, speaking a mix of Portuguese words interspersed with English, and not used to English ways. I hated school until I went to Knighton House in Dorset. I remember so clearly making friends on the school train with Penny Corke, with whom I am still friends, and Ali Stamp. I felt I was in heaven in the Dorset countryside with ponies in the field and pet guinea pigs or rabbits in their pens. I enjoyed life in the dormitory with its chatter, dares and midnight feasts (I wrote home to tell my parents that it was “just like Enid Blyton”) and my independence. Boarding school isn’t all bad!
And on to Cranborne Chase where I started to write poetry, became totally Beatle-mad… and then read Dr Zhivago. Boris Pasternak became my hero. I had his photograph above my desk. He sparked my interest in Russia, politics and love, and has, I think, influenced my tendency to write a personal story within a socio-political setting.
And there’s always a teacher, isn’t there, who changes one’s life? My history teacher, Miss Jones, with her red hair, feisty spirit and her love of history moved me towards studying history for A level. My mother had despaired at my continued statements about “what’s the point of history, I am only interested in the future and space travel now!” and was delighted that Miss Jones, together with my wise tutor, Countess Zamoyska, managed to pierce through this idiotic girl’s brain and help me see that history was indeed a fascinating subject.
E H Carr’s What is History caught my imagination during A level and later I was lucky enough to study under Professor Richard Overy when I finally read history, aged 39, at King’s College, London. Overy taught The History of Political Ideas. He was both scary and inspiring and I was enthralled by his lectures on Wittgenstein, Marx and Hegel.
From school I went into publishing – where I earned a pittance but loved being surrounded by books. My boss at Macmillan, Caro Hobhouse, introduced me to research when she suggested I work for the jacket design Art Director, Cherriwyn Magill, in the role of picture researcher. This gave me the opportunity for a peripatetic life where (as has been the case for the rest of my career) no day was the same. I would be out at picture libraries, museums and newspaper libraries tracking down engravings, paintings or photographs for use on Macmillan’s cover designs. And from there, as I mentioned before, to historical research and Alistair Horne.
Towards the end of my history degree my tutor at King’s observed that I was good at pastoral care of the younger students and asked whether I had thought of working with people? A personality profile suggested that I could be a teacher, counsellor or coach. But, aged 42, to change career was terrifying and I needed some qualifications. It was during my Post-graduate at Thames Valley that my lecturer in communications, Lex McKee, gave me the idea of business training – his job as a lecturer looked such fun. So I decided that would be the way I would go.
Since then within Positiveworks there have been so many people who have supported my development – my sons, Bruce Abrahams, my late brother-in-law Leo Cavendish, Shirley Conran who suggested I do all kinds of things I never thought I could! And so many more. Then, as I moved towards retirement, meeting my creative writing tutor, Chris Sparkes, whose observation “I see you like to write narrative poetry” gave me a genre, setting me off on the journey to my first poetry collection, The Alchemist’s Box. And now here I am writing my blogs and exploring life after “work”.
And, as I say goodbye to my flat, and Kensington, I wonder …what’s going to happen next, for me… for you?
Lovely reflective piece, Helen. Because you always think positively, you’re in David will always make the very best of whatever you put your hands to. The vital thing, in my view, is having plans and a range of interests, which I know you both have.
I’ve just finished a short autobiography, about five and a half thousand words, in poem form. Great fun to do.
Just read this again, Helen. Great piece! Apologies, though, for my typo … obviously should read “you and David”. Oh dear! Feel free to correct it. Do I need a proofreader? xx
Helen, a beautifully written, engaging piece. Loved reading it and your positivity, (despite shingles!) shines through – you are inspiring.