Wednesday 29 March 2017

Where luck comes from

Aploogies if you read this yesterday. A bleary-eye, sleep deprived editor posted the piece rather than scheduled it . . .
It's my Mum's birthday 29 March 1920 today, and I remembered to get a card in the post last week. They say that men marry their mothers. We don't of course unless we're Oedipus Rex. Cue Tom Lehrer. But we probably cue in on some aspect of Mum when it comes to mate choice. If your mother has an Imelda Marcos amount of shoes, you'd better be in a well-paying job before you hitch up with a similar sort of gal. I wrote recently and a while back about how The Beloved landed on her feet when she rocked up to Clive Sinclair's office in 1980. A couple of week's ago I was talking to my 96 y.o mother on the phone. My parents never went to college, at least partly because WWII erupted at just the wrong time. My mother signed up with the ATS Auxiliary Territorial Service and wore a khaki uniform for much of the duration of hostilities. She had an interesting war, made a lot of new pals and loss a good number as well and more or less never talked about those years when we were growing up. I'm only picking up fragments and anecdotes now.

The war being over she was living and working in London. After the Blitz, accommodation was the limiting factor and my mother was bunking in the spare room of the apartment of a married friend of hers while she was looking for work. One evening on the Tube, she got up to offer her seat to a pair of elderly ladies and later on got to sit down again opposite them. They told her that they'd been to visit their sister in hospital and hoped that she would die quickly because their nephew could then organise the funeral before the weekend and it wouldn't interfere with his work. It transpired [TMI do I hear you cry?] that this young man was having trouble with his secretary - perhaps she balked at arranging a funeral for the boss's mother? Nothing if not on the ball, my mother wrote her address on the inside of a cigarette packet and said she could secretary with the best.

Two days later, a letter appeared asking her to turn up for interview at Courtaulds. The company was gearing up from being a rather sedate family firm manufacturing synthetic fibres - cellulose acetate and viscose rayon - into a huge multinational player in the textile industry. She was hired to work for the nephew as secretary and PA and it was soon apparent why he was having difficulties with his secretary - because he was a privileged shit. My mother would be typing and filing away in the outer office and a disembodied voice would emanate from the inner sanctum "Get me cigarettes" or "Bring me coffee" for neither of which was he inclined to say thank you. Apart from the boss, Courtaulds was a great place to work they had a very flat management structure and free lunch in a basement canteen. There was no executive dining room, and the managers sat down with the telephonists in a very egalitarian manner. This went on for a few weeks but over the Christmas holiday [two days long back then] she reckoned that she'd had enough, and resolved to give notice when she returned to work.

On Monday 29th December 1947, she was pre-empted in her resignation speech with the news that George Courtauld's PA had committed suicide over the holidays, and my mother was to go upstairs to work for the great man. He was a very different person to the nephew-feller: charming, demanding, scrupulously polite and busy. My mother got busy too but she was never afraid of work, she just didn't like being disrespected. My mother finished the story with "I suppose I was lucky, I suppose I've been lucky". I demur, luck doesn't fall into your lap; you have to make it - by being alert, being able but also being willing.

Richard Wiseman has carried out a scientific study of Luck and written a book about it [available £0.01]. According to Wiseman, Lucky people . . . are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good. That sounds like the two women in my life.


  1. Thats a lovely piece there Bob, top drawer...and better for reading it twice ;)