A Secretary’s Tale: stories to entertain, enlighten, inspire

You’re not very bright. Perhaps don’t worry about a career. You should either get married or ask your Uncle for a job in one of his hotels, said my Careers Advisor at school, circa 1978.

When handed an UCCA Form to complete, I stared blankly. More study was not for me; I had spent too many maths lessons at the back of the classroom, tiny transistor radio earplugs pumping chart hits into my fluffy head.

Having run amok in the hockey pavilion one night after climbing out of a window with my friend H, I spent double French asleep. I was not a natural student; I didn’t see the point; I wanted to DO things, not study them. I see now that I could have achieved so much more at school and later in life had I bothered; I didn’t realise how lucky I was to enjoy an education funded by my father’s sweat and graft.

The UCCA form was duly left blank and on expressing a wish to read a practical and useful Business Studies course my father, citing my woeful educational record, vetoed the plan and sent me to the Cambridge Marlborough Secretarial College. And thank heavens for that, for the incredible women who ran and taught at this establishment became the making of me.

You are not here to learn how to be ‘sekertries’, said Miss McCafferty, PA of 20 years to the Chairman of Fisons plc. You are here to learn how to be the sorts of women without whom businesses fold. Have I made myself clear?

A year later I left the Marlborough with top marks at absolutely everything – including Secretarial Duties, during which we learned how to design an office, respect and protect our Boss’s work, private lives and secrets and even how to sit on a desk to take shorthand without showing too much leg in order not to encourage him. I thought then – and think now – how stupid must male bosses be to think an appendage between their legs gives them the authority to be encouraged by the glimpse of a woman’s body and for women to actively have to discourage them, … all of which reminds me of the old joke:

Boy (pointing at his groin): I’ve got one of these, which makes me powerful.
Girl (pointing at her groin): Yes, but with one of these, I can have as many of those as I like.

The role of Secretary, PA or Executive Assistant is often maligned in the world of work and for those who dismiss the PA as a junior, unimportant team member must re-appraise their view.  A resourceful PA absorbs the work they undertake on behalf of the Boss and can in many cases do it for them with one hand tied behind their back. They know where the skeletons are kept, see through lies, keep secrets from those who would profit from their exposure or manoever against the Boss; they help advance the Boss’s career often moving with them. The PA is also gatekeeper to many and varied company affairs (of all kinds) and winning their respect is wise. A good PA grasps the tools of the trade or profession and is ultimately perfectly placed to run their own businesses, as I have done.

British National Insurance: PA to Director of Finance and Director of PR
The Director of Finance at British National interviewed me with his feet on the desk. Not appreciating that the Dutch have a relaxed attitude to most things I was unimpressed. When offered the job by the agency, I turned it down on the basis he had not shown me adequate respect. They were horrified.

But this is your first job out of college! That may have been so, but my parents had instilled in me the right to be respected. The outcome of this exchange was a second interview, an apology and appointment. The episode did indeed engender respct on both sides; we got along like a house on fire.

It was here in 1982 that I encountered the first Exxon Intelligent Typewriter which, when conjoined to an Accoustic Coupler and telephone delivered the very first Electronic Mail. When logged in, one typed a password and on arrival of a message, A4 paper was fed into the typewriter whilst the dancing keys created a brand new missive from afar, entirely unaided. This first email was magical.

Thames Television
I was soon bored with commuting from Hove to Haywards Heath and moved to London to temp in the world of Advertising firstly for the the affable and funny Rick Sheldon, Media Buying Director at KMP. Short shifts at Burston Marsteller, Saatchi & Saatchi and others followed. The trick to temping was to bring a carrier bag to work; any sheet onto which a mistake was made was secreted within and taken home to avoid the client seeing the wastepaper bin overflow with many and myriad mistakes …

Happily, later that year I was lucky enough to land a job as Secretary to Muir Sutherland, Director of Programmes at Thames Television, working under his more experienced and senior Personal Assistant.

The work was light but interesting; I undertook most of the shorthand and typing, welcomed and made tea and coffee for guests arriving for meetings. These included other Heads of ITV including Michael Grade, John Birt and Jeremy Isaacs as well as celebrities. Des O’Connor always remembered who took milk or sugar in their tea and coffee and amused us by making and serving it with hilarious running commentary. Michael Bentine made us laugh, Janet Street Porter swore heartily if made to wait. Alistair Burnett was usually the worse for wear; rumour had it that a bottle of whisky was ever present under his live broadcast news desk.

Two amusing episodes have stayed with me; the first when I arrived at work wearing a vintage beaver lamb coat, heavy with rain that had drenched me betwixt Warren Street and the office. I hung the wet fur in Muir’s wardrobe. By the end of the day the sun shone and I forgot all about it … until several months later a scream emanated from Muir who on opening the wardrobe found a stinking, mouldy, half rotten animal hanging there. I did my best to look as astonished and quizzical as everyone else … and Security was called to remove it.

The advent of lacy tights heralded a blushing afternoon after I wore a newly purchased pair bought in lunch break; hearing what I thought was my colleague in his office, I threw one full leg around the door, swung it up and down a la Folies Bergère and asked in husky tones So what do you think of this, then? Pause. Very nice Giovanna, cried Muir. My guests will be here soon, can you put the kettle on?

Not fifteen minutes later, the above stellar cast of ITV Directors were assembled around Muir’s coffee table. What do you think of Giovanna’s new tights? asked Muir. She was keen for my opinion earlier. Blushing, I sped from the room, locked myself in a loo and cried.

Happily, more cerebral highlights included typing the Pilot script for The Bill and Reilly, Ace of Spies, meeting writers and editors, learning how new programmes were commissioned and funded.

Two more years at Thames were spent as PA to the Reporters of TV Eye, current affairs news programme. On my first day, each of the five reporters to whom I was secretary gave me a briefing on what they expected. Three encouraged my opinion on scripts, welcomed suggestions as I typed them up; did I want to learn how the editing process happened and what was my specific interest in being there, would I like to see what happened in the cutting room – you bet I did. The remaining two were at pains for me to understand which of the women who might telephone for them were Mistress or Wife and provided clues to avoid any mix-up, hence the Secret part of Secretary foreshadowed by the Marlborough arose without much dignity.

After 18 months or so I was appointed Secretary to the kind, late Terry Kellegher, Editor of local news magazine programme Reporting London. Terry was a fantastic boss and encouraged me to think ahead: You are too clever to stay a secretary, he said. My efforts to move on led to a Blonde Glass Ceiling as my application to become Trainee Researcher in the Children’s Department was denied on the basis that I was just a secretary and therefore not qualified for the opportunity. This rejection was delivered by a woman whom it transpired had been Terry’s secretary three years earlier.

The world of exhibitions
From here I joined a trade events business led by a man widely acknowledged to be the Godfather of the Exhibition Industry. Richard Copley-Smith was a supremely clever, impressive, vibrant man. His routine was to read mail, dictate replies, deliver instructions, ask questions, demand explanations … educate. Within a week I was briefed on the science, purpose and tone of voice attached to a successful Direct Mail campaign.  I was given to understand the logic behind an exhibition floorplan, organization and promotion and told in emphatic terms what Exhibitors were paying for and how Visitors should be seduced into attending.

Richard was the first to encourage my writing, asking me to draft Editorial for the regular Exhibitor Updates. My work wasn’t quite up to the mark, but he didn’t criticize, he pointed out how it could be improved and employed a fully-fledged journalist to complete the task and explain to me the science behind her craft.

Richard also made sure that I got freelance jobs when FirstBorn arrived and I set up my Exhibition Support Services business. Highlights came by way of being asked to chat with famous guests; my clients often thought their celebrities would prefer to chat with someone young, attractive and articulate over one of the hairy male sales-folk.

The most surreal experience was when helping Richard launch the first Exhibition Industry Awards at the Cafe Royale; once Barry Cryer had finished handing out the gongs I sat with him, consuming between us three bottles of red wine. Laughter? I cried with it, but for the life of me cannot remember a thing we discussed.

Being appointed to a similar role with Antonio Carluccio I learned his secret addition to the Tiramisu recipe I already followed in his book. He asked about my children; to my enquiry if he had any of his own, in his deep, signature Italian accent he replied… Not to my knowledge … My then husband didn’t believe I had really met the chef we admired so much; two weeks later as we approached the Neal Street Restaurant, Antonio emered from the door, flung wide his arms … Giovanna! You have come to see me! Proud? I was completely thrilled!

Enough anecdotes; it is time to come full circle to the purpose of this blog. A talented PA is indeed the sort of person without whom businesses fold. If anyone reading this is at a crossroads, or at a loss as to how to train or even retrain, take my advice: the world of the secretarial PA can be a rich tapestry of experience, real-world business studies, a whole lot of fun and the foundation for a solid future.

I have run my own businesses since the age of 26 but could not have done so without the knowledge, expertise, business methodology and chutzpah shared by and instilled into me by the generous professionals who helped drive my Secretarial Journey.

© Giovanna Forte 2023

About fortewinks

A PA at 19 and self employed PR at 26, Giovanna is now a British healthcare entrepreneur and public speaker. She is also a bon vivant, mother of two accomplished, entrepreneurial daughters and recently became a Nonna. Youngest-of-All is a Melbourne Top 30 under 30 Chef and founder of monforteviennoiserie.com, the city's finest destination for pastries and soft-serve. FirstBorn is a published author as well as Certified Aromatherapy Practitioner; her studio is in East London and she can be reached through amaromatherapy.com.
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