October 20

A Better Entrepreneur | Chapter 3


A Grey Day To Bennie Gray

On 6th October 1997, I realised my waters had broken and the bump known as ‘the baby’ was on its way.

It was about 5 pm and I wasn’t going to be caught out like I was last time, with Irving being sent home from the hospital just when I most needed him, so I sent him to get some food into Tupperware to sustain himself. As arranged, my friend Philippa came round to look after Phoebe, by now two and a half years old.

By the time we got to Hammersmith Hospital and checked into the ‘Water Birth Suite’, welcomed by the same midwives I had seen last time, the huge bath was filling up and ‘the baby’ was well on the way.  In fact, they sent me off down the corridor to the loo for a last pee and while there, on my own, I got the urge to push! What an ignominious birth that would have been.

I barely made it back to the birthing pool room and climbed in, before ‘the baby’ started coming with a vengeance.  It was all so much faster than Phoebe had been, who took a good 18 hours from start to finish. This time… a boy!  My little family was complete.

By midnight I was being settled into the labour ward, baby in a plastic box by my side and Irving again packed off home. I was terrified he would be stolen, as this was during a spate of babies being taken from St Mary’s and other London hospitals. It was dark on the ward and I tried to stay awake but, in spite of the after-pains, I fell asleep eventually.

The next morning I was cleared to go home and we packed ‘the baby’ into his car seat.  It always feels so surreal when you walk out of the hospital with a new baby, but at least this time we had some idea of what to do.

We took him home and just popped the car seat in the corner and proceeded to make a big fuss of Phoebe.  Eventually, she noticed ‘the baby’ and said ‘What’s that?’

‘Your little brother’ we told her. ‘And here’s a present from him, because he loves you very much.’  She looked at him thoughtfully as if to ascertain the truth of this statement.

‘Where’s its mummy?’ she asked suspiciously.

After this inauspicious start, she grew to love ‘the baby’ as he was to be known for the next six weeks.  

He was very cute except for two things.  He would not be put down for a minute, you had to carry him on your front at all times.  If you tried, he would let rip with a high-pitched screech that my opera singing sister Heather said was pitched to cause grown-ups maximum pain.

Similarly, he would not sleep on his back in the cot at all.  We had six weeks of sleepless nights before I realised he would only sleep with us in the big bed or on his stomach in the cot, legs splayed like a little frog.  Of course, this all went straight against the advice of the Health Visitor (advice we now know is a complete fabrication).  However, sleep deprivation made me strong and with constant checking, we all finally got some sleep. 

We could not find a name that both of us liked, at all.  Finally, at the eleventh hour before the birth had to be registered, we decided on Nelson Levi, with a nod to Nelson Mandela and Irving’s Jewish heritage.  Little did we know the name Levi came from entirely the wrong tribe!

By this time, Irving was still temping,  I was still learning to trade with varying success, and I had found a couple of DJs to manage, who also worked as producers/remixers, called Mindchime.  I’d even managed to get one of their singles signed to a record label called Hard Times in Manchester.  My 20% of the advance just about covered groceries for a week.

Worse, the amount we’d given ourselves to live on for the year had dwindled alarmingly, not helped by the frugal wedding we’d had when we knew Nelson was on his way.  We were back to being broke again, albeit with a few shares in reserve.  

When Nelson was about 9 months old, I realised I needed to look for work, much as I didn’t want to leave my new baby.  For both of us to work, we would need to pay horrendous nursery fees for Phoebe and Nelson, so we decided whoever had no work each week would look after the children.

While Irving got the occasional temping job, he was looking for marketing and management-type roles, while I could take on the more abundant secretarial jobs, being able to type at 50 words per minute.

I signed up with the main music industry temping agencies while scouring the Guardian Media section every Monday.  They also got jobs in from other companies, hence after a few weeks I found myself driving out on the A40 to an interview at an Aggregates company in Acton.  I had no idea what kind of business this was, but it turned out to be stone.  There was stone of all kinds, plus cement and sand and anything needed to work with stone.

Everything was so grey.  The sky above was grey, it was drizzling with rain, the compound and Portakabin where I would be working were grey, the stone, sand and cement were grey and the people I would be working with seemed all very grey.

I stopped the car in a layby and had a good cry.  I knew I’d be offered that job as I ‘give a good interview’ and I was in despair.

Once more the familiar thought pushed up out of my subconscious. 

“What is wrong with me, why can’t I get a more interesting job? Why can’t I make anything work”

Well, someone was listening because on the very next Monday a rather magical-sounding job appeared in the Media Guardian.

‘Personal Assistant Needed For Arts Entrepreneur’

Those words just leapt off the page to me along with the salary of £14,000 per year, two thousand more than the jobs I had been being put forward for, by the agency. I applied immediately, with great excitement. In 1997, you had to post or fax a letter and CV because hardly anyone used email yet. 

I secured a first interview and I remember my sense of wonder as I was let into a marvellous gothic mansion in Hampstead Heath, hung with tapestries and old paintings and furnished with large antique pieces of furniture.  I loved it all at first sight.

I was interviewed by the current Personal Assistant, then shown in to meet Bennie Gray, founder of the Space Organisation.  I’m not kidding, he looked just like any of the 1970s Dr Who characters, with long wild grey hair, a long flowing velvet coat and a long knitted scarf.  

His young wife drifted in and out, holding a baby, one of Bennie’s many children, I was to learn. One of whom was called Copernicus, as Bennie had a mild obsession with the astronomer who proposed the heliocentric system, that the planets orbit around the Sun.  

An ex-journalist, Bennie specialised in turning old neglected buildings into small creative spaces and workshops, a common practice now but very new then. The Space Organisation, the company Bennie founded, owned Grays Antiques and Danceworks in Mayfair, Alfies Antiques in Edgeware Road, Canalot Production Studios (where Irving worked when I first met him, coincidentally), The Big Peg and Custard Factory in Birmingham and Ardanaseig Hotel in Scotland.  All amazing buildings, teeming with creativity.

All of this seemed absolutely marvellous to me, having been to art college and having brought myself up on a diet of historical novels and sci-fi.  

My best friend K had been very keen on junk shops and restoring furniture and my other great friend M had haunted local auctions to furnish her home (and the rest homes she bought).  I had accompanied them both many times and I loved old furniture, which you could pick up for a song in those days because everyone else wanted modern stuff.

Dazzled by Bennie and the idea of his job and working in Hampstead Heath, I determined to secure a second interview and something – another inspiration bolt from my subconscious – made me wonder just what I could do to stand out from the crowd of applicants.

So I went to visit all of his London properties, one by one.  I went as a ‘secret shopper’, wandering about, taking notes on my first impressions, reception staff, promotional literature for potential tenants, and even the loos were inspected.  

With the more distant properties, I looked for a website, and if I found one, I critiqued that, from the point of view of a potential tenant.  If I didn’t find one I made a note of that too.

Finally, I wrote it all up as a report which ran to about 12 pages, as I recall.

In great excitement, I rang the Head Office, to get Bennie’s personal fax number.  I had ‘an important document’ for him, I told them.

‘Oh, he’s in Scotland so you can fax it there.’ I was told.

So I did.  And waited confidently for a second interview.  We had a one-week holiday planned in Worthing, looking after my sister’s child Chloe while she took her pregnant self off to Turkey with her in-laws.  The second interviews were planned for Thursday, so I went back to London on Wednesday night, expecting to find a letter with my interview time sitting on the mat.

No such letter had arrived.  

So on Thursday morning, I screwed up my courage and, never very confident on the phone, I called Head Office to say that I was expecting a second interview but that the letter must have been lost in the post.

Later that day, the phone rang.

“Hello, is that Nicola?  It’s Bennie Gray here.  I understand you were asking about a second interview.  I’m so sorry, you didn’t get shortlisted for the job.  You would make a terrible PA and I just know we would fight all the time!  

However, I never let good talent go to waste and you would be wasted as a PA, so come into Grays Antiques at 10 am on Monday and I’ll find something for you to do.  Is £16k as a starter salary ok?”

Not only had I secured my dream job, working for a guy I knew I would learn a lot from, but I was going to be earning more than I had been to date, ever in my life.

I got on the train back to Worthing, bursting with excitement and dying to tell Irving what had happened.  Things could only go up from here, surely?


A better entrepreneur, author, become a better entrepreneur, becoming a better entrepreneur, Business, business book, business books, chapter 3, chapter three, Entrepreneurship, how to, new book, nicola cairncross, Writing

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