A long way home (1970s to present)

Location : Norwich

Eileen Conway worked in a variety of roles, including Hilton Davis Chemicals, with an interior designer, CBS record company, United Newspapers, British Ship Builders and in Germany and the Netherlands. In Norfolk, she volunteered at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich and is now doing her best work ever, editing the Mattishall People’s Magazine.

Getting a passport to London

At school I liked History, English, singing in the school choir and I won the poetry reading prize at school. I did really well at dress making and, as a Mod, was really keen to be in the latest fashions and used to make a lot of my clothes myself, making Mary Quant dresses from Vogue patterns. I was going on to do A levels but in the summer holidays my favourite teacher died and I was going to be taught then by my arch enemy so I thought, no, I am not going to stay on if she is going to be my teacher. As an alternative, I went to the College of Commerce to do an HND, or an OND as it was then, in business studies, including economics, accounts, an introduction to British law and, of course, shorthand and typing. This was my passport to go to London, which was the big temptation at the time. I had visited a friend in London a couple of times and it was a really cool thing to do, to go to London and to Carnaby Street.

But my first job really was in Newcastle for Hilton Davis Chemicals, which was a big chemical company – part of the Winthrop Group, working there as a purchasing assistant. We used to put in big orders for chemicals to make aspirin and other items; I think they made Alka Seltzer. I was a progress chaser. If the chemicals didn’t come on time it would hold all the production up and I would ring up saying ‘where is the…?’ I loved doing that, chasing. One chemical I always remember that we couldn’t get, because of shortages, was used in Agent Orange during the Vietnam War that was on at the time. It was the time of flower power and I was very conscious of what was going on around me.

London and rubbing shoulders with the stars

Then the opportunity came to go to London and stay with my friend. That would have been at the end of ‘68/69 and my first job in London was working in Hampstead. I was working for an interior designer, Robin Guild and his wife Tricia, in a really super-duper shop. Tricia is Joan Collins’ cousin and they did the interior design for her house in Los Angeles. So, from a fairly humble background to be then rubbing shoulders with Joan Collins and people like that! I was in the shop one day, sitting behind the counter to answer the telephone and to type out the different schemes we were doing, and Ringo Star’s first wife, Maureen, came in and she said ‘can my little boy use your toilet?’ so I took them to the lavatory, which was on the next floor. On that floor there were lots of fabrics and Maureen said ‘I’m looking for a new carpet and some new curtains, can I come and have a look some time?’ and I said ‘yes of course’. And so we became acquaintances and I helped her to choose fabric and we went to her house, to take measurements, which was in one of the millionaires’ rows opposite Kenwood House. Later, Lulu came in with her husband, Maurice Gibb. They had just moved in opposite to Ringo and she was having work done by Robin and Tricia. At that stage though, my boss Robin was in financial trouble and eventually they went bust in the middle of the scheme that we were doing at Lulu’s house. I ended up supervising the workmen to complete the scheme and living with Lulu and Maurice Gibb and that was quite an experience. Ringo used to come around for tea and I remember Lulu’s 21st birthday. I was in a cool environment, shall we say, and it was really exciting and I really liked it.

When I went to London in the late 60s and 70s, it was very easy to get a job and okay, flats were a bit expensive, but we shared with friends. I got offered another job, I think through Maurice Gibb, for CBS, an independent record company in Bond Street. I was the lable coordinator and had to keep track of the record sales so the production company always had enough copies if we had a hit. Making sure you had enough copies was actually quite an important job really. The last hit before I left was a song called A Broken Dream by Python Lee Jackson; the singer, who had been a session singer at the time, was Rod Stewart. I got an offer of a job with United Newspapers and I left. The record company was already on rocky ground and it folded shortly after I left.

I was now working as PA to the General Manager of United Newspapers and that was really the most prestigious job that I had had, working at the office we shared with Private Eye and Punch magazine. We had weekly Punch lunches, which was when all the best journalists and celebrities and writers of the day would be invited to lunch. I was there for a couple of years, but my mother was ill and I wanted to go back to Newcastle. I went up for a holiday and thought to see if I could get a decent job there and I landed a plum job with British Ship Builders.

Newcastle and British Ship Builders

That time was at the very end of ship building. I was PA to the Secretary so it was quite an interesting job, it was different but not as exciting as the designers or the newspapers. I was home and it had seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t like it after being in London for so long and I didn’t really feel as if I had engaged again with the North, and my mother had got better.

A chance encounter leads to work in Germany

One day I was in my local teashop in Jesmond and a couple walked in and asked me about Jesmond. They said they were from Munich in Germany. I had never been to Munich and they said ‘you must come for a holiday; come and visit us if you want to see what it is like.’ It was getting near to Christmas time and they said, ‘you can come to the Christmas market, you’ll love it.’ The next day I was reading The Times newspaper looking at jobs and different things and there was a job advertised in Munich for an English-speaking secretary to work in Munich. It was a Bedford number, I think, so I rang them up, and it was the German woman, Fay. She worked for the company and whilst on holiday had placed the advert. She said, ‘if you want to come over for an interview we will pay your fare.’ It was working for a patent office and I said, ‘mmm, it sounds a bit dull’, so she said ‘if you like I will put an advert in the Deutsche Zeitung (the equivalent of The Times) in Bavaria for an English secretary and see what replies you get when you come over for my job.’ Which is what we did.

I didn’t take the patent office job but there was another offer from a solicitor, who really wanted some French but my French was a bit rusty, and one from a shoe polish salesman (rather odd) and then the plum one – the one I thought most interesting – was one again with links to science, working as a sub editor/secretary. The work was based in the offices of the Max Planck Institute fur Biogeochemie working on a scientific biochemical journal. I would only have to look at the English text and correct it. I wouldn’t need to have a scientific background because all the articles would have peer review. I just had to check all the references, which I did in the library. It was a really nice job and a great way to learn to speak German because I only had rusty, basic German. When I went I quickly picked it up from my boss who spoke German all the time to me. Really it was quite remarkable that I managed to survive.  It was a very interesting job and I was there for nearly five years.

When I first went to Germany I met someone and moved in to his house and I was with him for four years but it didn’t work out and so I found myself at a watershed. We had lived close to where I worked and once I wasn’t with him it was very difficult to get to work and I began to think this was a sign that I should be going back home. At the time my sister was living in Rotterdam in Holland and she asked me to come and visit, so I did. I don’t want to criticise the Germans, they have their culture; they have their way of doing things; they are very efficient, but the Dutch seemed a bit more relaxed and a bit more like the English and I thought, mmm, there’s an opportunity, time to move on.

Working in Rotterdam

I pulled up roots again and got a job in Rotterdam, as a temp initially. Everybody speaks English there. I think it is good to learn another language because you get the opportunity to express yourself in a different sort of way, so it would be a good challenge for me to learn to speak Dutch. I worked as a temp for a small computer software company. There were only three of us, the boss, another English girl who was an engineer, and a salesman. After a year or so they got another contract with a big Swedish company and sold the system to the Dutch government. Suddenly we went from being a small company to the top. There is a big world trade centre in Rotterdam and we were on the top floor. We were Software Enterprises. I was on the desk there, greeting customers, helping with whatever was needed at the time. I was there for a year I suppose, perhaps 18 months, but then I had a very bad accident and the boss died shortly afterwards of a heart attack so the company was gone.

A new life in Norfolk

The accident, a serious car accident, left me with a fractured skull and I was in an induced coma for two weeks. My mother came to Rotterdam and brought me back to England and by then she was living in Dereham. They had moved there, when my father retired, to be near my brother who lived in Necton (although he has since moved to Spain and my parents are both gone now). So that is how I came to be in Norfolk at the end of ’86. I came and stayed to convalesce with my parents for a couple of years. It took me a long time to be able to deal with things myself; I had short term memory loss and still had double vision. Both my eyes were crossed looking at my nose, so it was very difficult to read and I used to have to read with one eye only and with a straight edge but had operations correcting both eyes.

Eventually, I got a little council flat in Thetford. I decided to do an Open University degree to try to get my memory back together, with the idea that I could move on from a vegetable state to somewhere very near my old self. I always had an interest in art and science so I did Arts Foundation and Social Science foundation courses because, in ’91, you had to do two foundation courses. I then did Art and Enlightenment, which I loved, and wonderful summer schools and tutorials, and extra summer school at Madingley. I did about 10 different courses at Madingley. When I completed those, I got a voluntary job with The Sainsbury Centre having school groups regularly and taking people on extra tours and talks. I did that for 16 years until last year.

I have moved to Mattishall and I don’t think I am going anywhere else. Here I was able to do, I think, my best work, editing our village magazine. I do all the photography for the magazine. I really enjoy photography. Where I live overlooks a meadow and there is a large pond in the middle and it is just wonderful to see the wildlife that comes every day; herons, little egret, large herons, swans and the latest visitors are two beautiful Egyptian geese as well as the little robins which land outside my kitchen for the seeds I put out.

Eileen Conway talking to WISEArchive on 26th March 2018 in Mattishall.

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