Tomorrow would have been my mum's 90th birthday. Sadly she passed away three years ago, exactly a week after her 87th birthday. Needless to say, I still miss her, still wonder (as we always do) if I could have done more for her, still feel sad that she didn't live to see her granddaughters' weddings. But this isn't going to be a maudlin post. I just want to tell a story. I know I don't write on this blog very often so I realise there's probably nobody reading it - but that's OK. It's just something I wanted to write!
Mum was born in the East End of London and left school at 14 with a fairly basic education. But she had a determination to 'make something better of herself', and attended evening classes and day-release classes from her job, to get qualifications in English, French, Typing and Shorthand. She progressed to a very good secretarial post, and after my brother and I were born, she began teaching typing in the local college of further education.
Mum and Dad on their wedding day in 1943:
Mum and Dad weren't well off, but we lived in a fairly ordinary suburban semi and my brother and I benefited from grammar school educations. After my O-levels, I had what, in those days, passed as career advice: a short interview with my hated headmistress about what I intended to do. I only knew that I wanted to be a writer, so I planned to train as a journalist after taking my A-levels. But my headmistress quashed this ambition very firmly, telling me that although she believed in me as a writer, I'd never make a journalist as I 'didn't have the right temperament'. Her advice to me was to become a teacher, and use the school holidays to write my novels. I hated the thought of teaching and refused to contemplate this option, so went home in a massive sulk, feeling completely at a loss.
'There's nothing else I want to do,' I told my parents. Journalism had been my one and only idea.
'In that case, why not become a secretary,' said my mum.
I can remember scowling and making some retort along the lines of it being boring. Who wanted to sit in an office all day, typing? Of course, I didn't appreciate that for my mum, becoming a secretary had been the route out of the prospect of dead-end factory jobs - and also that it was all she knew, apart from teaching, which I'd already rejected!
I'd planned on taking my best three subjects at A-level: English, French and Geography - and we needed to be sure these were the best choice for whatever lay ahead. My school (unusually for those times) was very keen on getting as many girls to university as possible, but I decided I wouldn't go unless I needed a degree for a specific job. Secretarial subjects weren't taught at the school - but there was an option - slightly looked down upon - for sixth-formers to take a two-A-level curriculum at school in the mornings and transfer to the college where Mum taught, in the afternoons. When I still hadn't come up with any other career idea weeks later, I gave in grudgingly, dropped the planned Geography A-level and registered for the secretarial course.
Mum wouldn't have me in her typing class. I don't blame her. I was still a bit resentful about the whole thing, still not sure I even wanted to be a secretary at all. I didn't particularly like typing, found shorthand very difficult, and as for 'Secretarial Duties' (yes, that was an exam subject then!) - my friends and I called it 'Secs Duties' with the obvious connotations, and messed about in every class.
Somehow I passed all my exams. Somehow, in those exciting days of publishing during the 1960s, I got a job with Hodder & Stoughton, as secretary to the Rights manager. I didn't stay there: I moved on to work in a fashion company and then to a hospital, eventually becoming a medical secretary and finally finding my niche. To my own absolute amazement, I loved working in the hospital environment and spent almost the rest of my working life doing something that I'd never have imagined wanting to do, when I was at school!
Of course, I also, eventually, fulfilled my ambition to become a writer. Maybe if I'd followed my headmistress's advice it might have happened sooner - who knows? But over the years, I've come to appreciate Mum's advice far more than I ever admitted - or told her. If I hadn't learnt to touch-type, (quite apart from the vast amount of fast typing needed during my working life), I wouldn't be half the writer I am now. I can't imagine not being able to type my own books. Even typing this post would have taken me ten times as long. If I hadn't persevered with Pitman's shorthand, I wouldn't have been much use to my boss when he needed to dictate a quick urgent letter while holding the phone in one hand and his scalpel in the other; and I wouldn't now have the means to scribble quick random passages of prose that come to me in the middle of the night, or on a bus journey, or while watching TV. I can't say much about the 'Secs Duties' though, to be honest!
When my own daughters were teenagers, and at about the stage of choosing their careers, I remember listening to a conversation between them and some friends, when opinions were being given loudly and confidently that NO WAY would they want to work in an office - boring! - and certainly not being somebody's secretary. I smiled and didn't comment. After all, I'd been a lot older than them before I'd finally realised that 'an office' can be so many different things - and being a secretary (maybe not now, but certainly back then) was a good way of experiencing life in different environments before deciding what actually interests you. I never found secretarial work demeaning, either. As the PA of a consultant surgeon, I wasn't in the least subservient: we worked together as a team and he treated me as an equal.
The three girls now (like most of us, really!) all work in offices - all in completely different careers, all happy and successful, and none of them secretaries! Many more options are open to girls now, despite the economic climate. But it worked for me, so thanks, Mum!
There's a nice PS to the story. My first baby was due on Mum's birthday; she arrived three days late, but we often had family gatherings to celebrate their birthdays together. As often seems to happen, Mum and I became much closer when I got married and had my own children, and she adored her granddaughters. And so it's fitting that when I remember Mum at this time of year, I also remember the excitement and pleasure of our lovely eldest daughter's arrival. Happy birthday, baby!
Me with No.1. daughter.