Written by Standard Issue


Getting to know you… Helen Walmsley-Johnson

If you’re a regular visitor to Standard Issue, you won’t need telling that we’re lucky enough to have a cracking team of contributors who we love dearly. We thought it was about time we let them introduce themselves properly. Say hello to Helen Walmsley-Johnson.

Helen Walmsley-JohnsonName: Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Age: 60

Location: Rutland

Official job title: Inky fingered penurious scribe (author).

What was the first thing you wanted to be? A ballet dancer, because of all the loveliness.

When did you know you wanted to be what you are now? Oddly, only in the last three or four years – although recent evidence suggests I was actually about six. I’m easily distracted.

What’s your strongest memory from school/education? My primary school teacher Mr Noble, reading CS Lewis’s The Silver Chair to the class and me being absolutely enthralled. Other than that, being knocked unconscious by a flying briefcase, although that’s not really a memory, more a gap.

When you’re not working, what else do you like to do? To be honest, a lot of what’s involved in writing is what I like to do. I adore books and reading. A good rummage around a book or antique shop is a great pleasure, as is walking and the countryside. Then there’s good food (both the eating and the cooking), theatre, music, art, photography and dance.

Plants and a garden are excellent therapy. I’m still mad for anything to do with horses and I watch rugby and tennis. On telly I like good drama, culture and history stuff.

What has been your proudest creative moment to date? Tough one. Getting published in 2015, obviously, but also some of the dresses, art and films I’ve made.

What was your favourite day at work? Probably the first film I made for the Guardian and hearing 400 people gasp simultaneously at a sequence about Afghanistan. Mind you, that job was a belter – so many good memories.

What would you like to erase from your past? Unsuitable men.

“Get used to rejection, working hard and working alone. On a freezing dark January day you have to be able to stay motivated.”

What brings you the most joy? Seeing what my daughters make of their lives and my grandchildren – I’m so proud of them. Close second is the countryside.

What makes you angry? Bullies, bigotry, rudeness and ignorance.

Professionally, who has been your biggest inspiration? Authors I admire, although reading a really good book can stun me into writer’s block for weeks. Some of my former colleagues at the Guardian, especially Georgina Henry who died a couple of years ago.

Have you ever met someone who made you go weak at the knees? Oh god, yes! (see ‘unsuitable men’ above).

What advice would you give a woman who wants a career like yours? Get used to rejection, working hard and working alone. On a freezing dark January day you have to be able to stay motivated. Also, get an accountant – it shows you’re serious.

How do you define success? Not so much by what other people think. It’s more about whether I’ve done what I set out to do and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever had? On writing? From Georgina Henry over lunch one day: “For fuck’s sake, just get it down!” On life, something I’ve taught myself: if it’s good, take the time to enjoy it.

What’s your favourite photograph of yourself?

HWJ1 cropped
From the 80s when I was blonde and spent an unfeasible amount of time in pink lurex.

Where did you go on your favourite holiday? I still go! It’s a place called Ars on the Ile de Ré in France.

Who can’t you live without? This is complicated. I’ve taught myself to be fairly self-sufficient because I learned early on about the impermanence of life and there have been heavy losses over the years. I love my family and friends – I’m grateful for every day they are in my life.

What can’t you live without? A pen(cil) and paper. With those I can draw, design, write and work stuff out. If push comes to shove I can always eat the paper!

What do you consider your greatest achievement? Surviving.

Who is your favourite person? Unfair! I have a great fondness for Hugh Grant because he’s the only man who’s ever proposed to me – but then I think he’s probably proposed to every woman he’s ever met.


The magnificent Byron.

Who’s your favourite animal? Has to be Byron – a characterful cat of such magnificence I will never see his like again. Two stone of pink ginger mischief and a superb mouser. Coming up second is Mr Pushkin Cat with whom I share my home now, although he is a rubbish mouser.

Which song could be used to soundtrack your life so far? That Ole Devil Called Love – Billie Holiday

What are your favourite three articles at Standard Issue? Awesome Old Lady of the Week: Kim Phong (Joanne Lau); The (four letter) C Word (Sadie Hasler); and Letter to My Hometown: Lytham St Anne’s, I Salute You (Jenny Eclair).

Which question would you have liked to have answered in this questionnaire, but weren’t asked?

What are you working on now? I’ve picked up work on a historical novel I began incubating four years ago. When I was on holiday on the Ile de Ré in 2011 something happened that reminded me of a piece of information I’d heard on The Antiques Roadshow about 20 years before and there it was – a fabulous plot.

Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s critically acclaimed book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years is out now in paperback.


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Written by Standard Issue