It was 1994, a Saturday, but not the usual lazy Saturday to relax in the garden. On this Saturday I had to give a presentation on memory techniques to around 200 people in central London, and I was terrified. I had given one or two talks to small groups but never to a large crowd and never on a stage. I remember thinking that I needed to stand tall, project my voice to the back and try to smile into all four corners of the room. I could hear a hum of conversation as I stood in the wings. Then the drums rolled, the music blared and I walked on. What I hadn’t realized was how difficult it was to see anyone’s eyes clearly when one is in front of such a large audience. So I had to pretend that I could meet their eyes and engage with them and I had to remember that it was the information I was sharing with them that mattered more than my nerves. It worked. They clapped. I sighed with relief and walked off again. This was the beginning of my new life, my new career. I was 42.
I was brought up to be a secretary, teacher or nurse, but mainly to be a wife. Women of my generation were given the impression, as we grew up, that we would just do a job (and it was a job, not a career) ‘until’ we got married and then would focus on family, husband, children and keeping house. We frequently under-estimated our own abilities in the outside world. Few of us expected to run our own businesses, travel the world, get divorced, date in our fifties or find love in our sixties. But many of us have found ourselves doing just that, including me. But despite this, when you look at how few women are at the top of Government and business today it is obvious that it is a slow path to equal opportunity, and much of that comes from personal perceptions.
My own life changed dramatically when I was forty. Everything flew up into the air and there were several years when I didn’t know where those pieces would land, or indeed whether they would ever land again. I had been a researcher working for Alistair Horne, an eminent historian, who was writing the Official Biography of Harold Macmillan, but I decided to retrain and set up my own business, Positiveworks, in the area of personal development. It took me four years of tears, fears, doubt and uncertainty but it has led to the most extraordinary twenty years of my life. I never knew I had it in me to do this and so it gives me huge pleasure that I am able encourage other people to discover and develop their potential.
New Life, First Job
I was on the way to Grimsby,
Gateway to the North,
trudging up the M1
in deepest winter.
Inside my tiny Renault
the radio presenter’s voice warned
“Don’t travel unless you need to”.
But I did need to.
It was my first booking,
my new business,
no question of ducking out:
no job, no pay.
The snow began to settle.
I stopped in York,
met a pharma company,
parked in the visitor’s bay,
opened the car door:
a blast of frozen air hit my cheek,
my shoe sunk into 6 inches of snow,
slush seeped over my glossy nylons,
my smart black heels now muddy white-
not a good way to start the day.
An hour later I was seen to the door;
the HR director was auspiciously credulous,
as if I’d been years in business.
I set off North on the motorway,
snow now beating the windscreen.
I couldn’t see a thing.
Lorries on either side began to slip and slide.
Synchronised braking brought all to a halt.
In the middle lane I dreamt of home,
lonely and far from my sons,
a regret at leaving my safe housewife’s life,
half-wishing I was back at the kitchen sink.
The night got darker,
the need to connect got stronger.
No mobile cover, no-one home:
I was alone.
Slowly, slowly we progressed,
the lorries, white vanmen and me,-
up to the slippery turnoff
to a Lego-block hotel,
and a cold bedroom.
Next day I taught Mind Maps
and read Wendy Cope poems,
Kipling’s If and Wordsworth’s daffs
to the Managing Director
of a fish-packaging company,
a rugged man, the no-nonsense type.
What must he have thought?
Not his usual day,