My Brilliant Careers

Forty years after she first entered the workplace, Helen Walmsley-Johnson reflects on a lifetime of telling convention to bugger off.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

In the olden days (which I can remember quite well, thank you) it used to be the case that you would leave school, get yourself a job and stay there for your whole working life before shuffling off to grow tomatoes and grumble about the state of youth today.

As an early exponent of the ‘sod that’ school of careers advice I would strongly recommend the alternative ‘getting about a bit’ life plan. Now a pre-old person nearing the end of the more formal phase of employment, it pleases me no end to recall the utter hilarity of occasions when saying an enthusiastic “Yes, I can do that” placed me on a steeper learning curve than I might otherwise have anticipated.

Helen (far left) as a secretary for Midland Catering in Leicester.

Helen (far left) as a secretary for Midland Catering in Leicester.

Occasions that involved accidentally setting fire to a dressing room or getting stuck inside a large silver box in front of 6,000 people at the Derby Assembly Rooms. Or witnessing the gruesome consequences of a workmate deciding to remove a peppercorn from a meat slicer by sticking her finger into it while it was moving, or of locking a nasty hospital consultant outside in a high wind and watching his wig fly off.

I could go on, but I doubt you’d really want to know about condom races or the time I had to find a fresh pig’s head for every performance of Richard III

In the beginning, though, there was this: I didn’t go to university as was originally planned (you’ll have to read my book for a more detailed account*) but went instead to a secretarial college from which I emerged a year later with distinctions in shorthand and typing.

There followed a brief period of excruciating dullness working for a company that produced foundry chemicals. This dullness was enlivened only by squeaky interludes during which my ancient colleague cleaned his ears with a red rubber counting thimble. My first week’s wages (£13) went on a black velvet Biba trouser suit. It was 1973.

I lasted a year in chemicals and then went to work as a secretary in a corsetry company, which was loads more fun and put me in a design room for the first time. Here I learned pattern cutting and the art of sashaying down an in-house catwalk in a bikini to the wistful strains of Demis Roussos.

In those far-off days of hypocrisy and double standards an erect nipple was considered beyond the pale so we dutifully stuck round Elastoplasts over ours. Until the day we were all sacked for accidentally setting fire to a bin with a crafty between-sets cigarette that triggered the sprinklers.

“I learned pattern cutting and the art of sashaying down an in-house catwalk in a bikini to the wistful strains of Demis Roussos.”

After that came marriage, a stint working at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester (and the pig’s head) and then babies. I made a lot of clothes for my little girls and for myself. The local Brown Owl was looking for someone to make her wedding dress and had seen what I’d been up to so she asked me.

My experience in a design room helped me build a cottage industry from that first commission. By now it was the 1980s and big frocks were booming so I started taking design commissions.

Helen models one of her own designs c. 1988.

Helen models one of her own designs c. 1988.

The one I‘m most proud of was a wedding gown in silk organza, painted, beaded and embroidered with field flowers, bees and butterflies. The bride walked through the village from her home to the church on a June day, her family and friends around her, and the dress I had made caught the sunlight and held it, like thistledown. I was so proud of that dress.

Then there was divorce and single parenthood. But while the secretarial half of my working brain continued to underpin my career and earnings, the creative side of me was always seeking an outlet.

Alongside freelance medical secretary-ing for a big nearby hospital I carried on making clothes while at the same time my art skills were called on to create murals, trompe l’oeil and stencils.

I painted a wall in my kitchen to look like the woodland behind our cottage with bluebells and violets, twisted ivy and oak, topped with a sunburst and a cloud of butterflies. Although I spent so long working alone that I took on a part-time job in a delicatessen (the meat slicer) to get me out of the house.

Skipping further forwards to 2001 and, with my children grown and flown, I moved to London and started secretary-ing again. I worked for the Telegraph, Cameron Mackintosh and in various temp roles until finally I arrived at the Guardian (where I discovered the Wikileaks Diet – mostly white wine and chips) and worked there for six years as the editor-in-chief’s PA.

I still had that creative streak and it found an outlet in dreaming up inventive solutions for the kind of off-the-wall problems that arise in busy newspaper offices when they’re breaking big stories. And then, completely by chance, we discovered I had a knack for making short films.

I say “we” because the initial suggestion came from my boss as an experiment to find out how easy it was to put something together for a website at a time when photo-journalism was very much the coming thing – and if his PA could do it…

Helen working on a ghost story c. 1973.

Helen working on a ghost story c. 1973.

To our mutual surprise it turned out that his PA could do it rather well. This set me off on yet another diversion alongside everything else. On such small chances a whole life can pivot.

Here’s the weird thing, though (because life is weird, isn’t it?): I’ve ended up doing exactly what I suspect I would have been doing if I’d gone to university 40 years ago. The penny dropped when I was sorting through some personal papers and turning up scraps of things I’d written going right back to my old school magazine.

At 59 I have been a PA-ing secretarial mother, grandmother, house model, designer, dancer (a whole other story), artist, seamstress, filmmaker and businesswoman. And all that experience has made me what I am now, because as of Thursday, 11 June 2015 I am a published author. Good lord.


*Helen’s first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now:

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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear