Reminiscences of Luck, Love, Life
- by Diana Clifton Sewell
I was born on 4 September 1946 in Exeter, Devon, the home of my maternal grandfather as accommodation was in short supply post-bombing. I was literally the celebration of the Peace. Any life, whether my own or that of my father, who, in many ways I mirror, is rarely easy. Not all goes to plan, and much of what propels one is pure happenstance. Unexpected helpers become one's teachers, learning by example, taking risks, coping with unintended consequences. And what one makes of those unexpected opportunities and what one learns in doing so, give us memories to savour.
At the outbreak of the war, my father served as Security Chief in the British Army Intelligence Corps in Egypt where he was responsible for security on the Suez Canal. At the fall of France, he found himself in Normandy right behind the German lines of Occupation. Walking by day and hiding from the Bosch by night, he reached Calais where Allied troops were being rescued. My mother said once they were reunited in Bournemouth, the whites of his eyes were yellow and the soles of his feet like leather. His little niece was so scared of him she refused to embrace him.
Later he was posted to Nassau, Bahamas, where Churchill had positioned the Duke of Windsor as Governor. There was considerable worry that Hitler would persuade him to assist the Germans to win the war, after which he would be restored to the monarchy with the Queen of his choice. My father was ordered to shoot if the Duke was proven treasonable.
In 1947 my father's next posting would have been Palestine, but my mother put her foot down, saying she'd waited eight years for another baby. The officer who took the posting there was killed in the explosion at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Really, my mother's intervention saved his life. Who would have known?
I was raised in Wimbledon and attended there a private primary school run by Ursuline nuns, continuing at the Ursuline Convent Grammar School. These ladies gave me a great start in life, but my greatest teacher was my mother who taught me how to love. Unfortunately, places for girls at University were limited, particularly in Literature and Journalism, my two loves. So, my Pa sent me to, Mrs. Hosters, a fairly posh secretarial college in South Kensington, to gain skills, such as shorthand and typing, to help if I managed to get a university place the following year. Mrs. Hosters served the employment needs of the Establishment - some important places including Buckingham Palace; however, I ended up temping in the Garden Room at 10 Downing Street. Working there opened my eyes to living standards other than our own, and significantly widened my knowledge of the outside world. It was also great fun – especially when visitors saw me leave out of that famous black door and asked if they could take my photo. “No, sorry. it's against the Official Secrets Act.”
I never bothered re-apply to University. After Downing Street, I worked in the Finance Department of the monthly The Economist. This position in publicity and advertising didn't get me any closer to journalism, but I stayed until my mother became ill with a heart problem. During her convalescence, I babysat for a Canadian couple who loved that I could be relied on for Thursdays when the parents enjoyed ballet, opera, or theatre. So, bathing and feeding their kids led to another in a chain of events. The father was affiliated with the Nova Scotia Bank which were seeking staff for new branches in the Bahamas. I got an interview and then a job in Freeport.
I remember weeping at the airport. My mother was weeping too, and my father suggested she go to the Ladies to mop up. He turned to me and said, “I'm only going to tell you three things”. Oh, no, I thought. Not the sex lecture. Not now! “First, I want you to write to your mother every week. A postcard is fine, so she knows you are OK”. I managed that! “Secondly, go to Mass every Sunday”. Didn't do so well on that!! “And lastly, remember you are my daughter. You will receive a lot of hospitality, and receive it gracefully, but remember you must return it but not necessarily to the person who extended it to you”. Succeeded better with that!!!
Freeport – What luck! Such a lovely place. I shared a flat with Ann who remains a friend to this day. She was an Army brat, daughter of an Protestant Northern Irish Major, so her dating an Italian Casino inspector was a bit iffy! When she returned to the UK, she set me up in her job with a shipping company, agents to mercantile ships and also cruise ships out of Miami and New York. I managed to get all my friends aboard the QE II on her maiden voyage. It was all very exciting.
Perhaps the greatest fun on the island was participating in the Freeport Players Guild (FPG). Again, Ann who introduced me to the theatre group, where I learnt so much from my colleagues in the company. They taught me to act by example, and I was lucky to get cast quite frequently. I can remember my first notice in the Freeport News when I played the maid in Noel Coward's Blythe Spirit. I “showed promise”!
Thanks to a wealthy patron, we built a 365 seat theatre which had a roomy backstage, wings, and lighting facilities. Our audiences were a mix of ex-pats and American tourists who lapped up comedies and a wide range of plays. At one point, we took a deep breath and produced Oliver – literally a roaring success. That gave us courage for another big step, Pantomime! We also wanted to include the local black community, so we wrote our own story, Blackbeard and the Ckickcharnies, which wove in local folklore about a magical creature, half bird and half fish – Spiderman and Mr. Rainman. I was cast as the Wicked Witch, complete with green face makeup, a blacked-out tooth, and a long black wig topped off with a black pointed hat. I was so scary that the Island's little triplet girls began to cry, and their parents took them out to the bar where Peter Aston, the Director, tried to reassure them by saying “she's actually a very nice lady. Would you like to meet her after the show?” Increased howls of fear and alarm!
Tony Sewell, the actor who played Blackbeard, was a great guitarist; and he and four friends formed the FPG band – Eight Mile Rock. Throwing caution to the wind, Tony and I began our affair in the mid70s. I was very honest with my parents when we moved in together, but my father was horror struck and wrote clearly indicating his alarm. I replied that the island was full of such doings, and we failed to merit any criticism. “In my day,” he warned, “these things happened, but one always had one's own address”. I thought this a tad hypocritical.
Eventually, Tony and I married and honeymooned in Paris. When we unpacked we found two champagne glasses carefully stowed with a matching bottle which we drank in the biggest bathtub you ever saw – complete with two clawed feet. Life continued until April 1979, when our marriage fell apart. I wrote home with the bad news and returned there -- the family's first divorcee – where I got a job with a PR company. The boss was the most unethical man you could wish to meet. I was miserable – the faces were grey, the streets were greyer.
Another stroke of real luck. The owner of Harrods, Mohammed Fayed, took responsibility for managing the new Dubai International Trade Centre. I was appointed Personal Assistant to the new Managing Director, Ralph Carver, former head of Earls Court and Olympia Exhibition Centres. Ralph was born in Egypt, educated at Winchester and Oxford, and a Masters in the U.S. He was truly an English gentleman – intelligent, courteous, and correct. Once again, I had the opportunity to learn marketing by witnessing and absorbing from an expert. Further, he offered to pay for my training at the Communications and Advertising Foundation (CAM) where I met interesting people including an Israeli guy who sold ad space on the Jewish Chronicle. Since he had freebies to fly between London and Tel Aviv, he offered me the chance to join him and his wife, for a trip to Israel. I grabbed it.
I had an unforgettable time, somewhat making up for my father's posting. I visited Jerusalem's Western Wall, wrongly dubbed the “Wailing Wall,” where, following a visit to Yad Vashem, I approached feeling religiously emotional. As I put my hand up to make the sign of the cross, I managed to reverse it against the wall in the nick of time and, instead, swayed back and forth as Jewish as they come!!
I flew many times between London and Dubai to help run a variety of international trade exhibitions such as for Water, Food, Computers. When Ralph felt the region needed to mount a Furniture Show, I was appointed its Director. Was I proud! An executive with my very own visiting card – pale grey printed in raised charcoal.
Happenstance again. One lunch hour at the London office I answered the phone to hear a male voice ask for Diana Clifton. A second Guardian Angel, this time Blodwyn, my Welsh second flat-mate in Freeport, was a mutual friend and had given John my phone number. He later claimed I'd asked him to lunch, but when we met at a Soho restaurant, he paid. John was dressed in a pink shirt and pale blue padded waistcoat; and when I looked into his dark brown eyes above his black beard, I think I fell in love on sight! He'd recently left the Navy and was involved on a project to save a Thames barge. That news led to a weekend together in Poole to visit my boat-building friend from Freeport days.
I don't quite know exactly how it happened, but I do remember a lovely seduction which led to many weekends with old friends aboard John's 36-foot yacht, Aeolus. When she was put up for sale to fund a bigger boat, I asked a friend if she thought John might think I was trying to buy him if I offered to buy Aeolus. “Noooooo,” she said. That Christmas I could write friends I was a yacht owner!
John was utterly delicious and such fun. One thing led to another, ultimately a decision to create a new lifestyle together. Ralph thought I was crazy to give up such a great job, but I didn't want my epitaph to read “The Best Events Manager in the World.” So, John and I left jobs and homes and sailed Aeolus across the Channel, around the NW corner of France, and across the Bay of Biscay. All very thrilling. We plied the French canal system from Bordeaux to Nice and headed for Malta where we found a new home on a pontoon on Sliema Creek. We loved the place, and made many friends. Then John needed to return to UK to help a sail-maker friend with the London Boat Show, leaving me to winterize Aeolus up “on the hard” -- dry land. Alas! A temporary separation became permanent. Worth the risk? You bet.
I had no clear idea what to do or where to go next, but I decided to retrain with TEFLA. I fancied learning Spanish and Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults; and thanks to my business background, I got a job in an academy in San Sebastian. So, I filled my car, drove to the ferry in Plymouth, and went to the Basque Country to start yet again.
Basques are good people but cool and distant. I made no friends and found the Academy poorly managed. So, I was overjoyed to receive an invitation to spend Christmas in Valencia with my cousin Sue, my British Angel, who encouraged me to consider private teaching in Valencia. The following Autumn, I and all my kit took the train south where I soon found a flat to share with an Argentinian and his cat. With Sue's help, I rapidly developed a clientele of conversation classes and loved the work as much as the city. I also had sense to invest funds from the sale of Aeolus in a flat near the Abastos building – complete with a terrace, now a real garden.
Valencia gave me the time and space to fully enter into a community – enjoy a rich social life, volunteer at the local British Cemetery, run the Book Worms reading group, and serve on the Executive Board of IWCV. Now, however, life is quieter in my very happy little home. The Ursuline influences tugged for a return to my roots, and, once again, I appreciate attending Mass at Buen Pastor. I also now have time to reflect – to recall a rich, tumultuous life that I think was often courageous, always unexpected. Regrets are few; memories to savour are many.