The tiny advertisement in the Western Morning News in March 1977 read: AUTHOR, non-fiction, some journalism, active in general spheres, needs young, literate, resilient, deft all-round Aide about 3 days weekly, mainly in Exeter, preferably with some business or PR acumen, research ability, accurate shorthand typing.
I was just finishing my post-degree secretarial course at Exeter College and was looking for a job nearby which I could combine with campaigning for Dartmoor. This job seemed ideal. On 23 March I met Charles Owen for an interview, with his wife Felicity, in their flat above Torquay harbour. The next day Charles phoned with an offer which I accepted. He appreciated the fact that I had done a university degree before doing a secretarial course, although I did not have all the skills listed in the advertisement (no business or PR acumen for a start).
I began work for Charles 40 years ago today, on 20 April 1977—a significant date for me as on 20 April 1972 I had first met my campaigning friend Sylvia Sayer.
Room on the Quay
The ‘office’ was a room above the Exeter Maritime Museum on the Quay, long before it was redeveloped. The Owens had a house in the neo-Georgian Dinham Crescent, in Exeter, as well as the Torquay flat. A year or two later they moved to Furlong in Ferry Road, Topsham, about five miles south-east of Exeter. I had an office in their house—more spacious that the Quay, but rather cold and dark. However, their living room was lovely, on the second floor with a view over the Exe estuary to Haldon Hill. I was summoned there by an intercom to receive my instructions.
This was my first proper job (my only other had been temporary, working for the Dartmoor National Park Committee in summer 1975). Fresh from my course I had little practical experience. When I typed my first letters for Charles, my mind went haywire and I typed the addressees’ details on the right not the left. I realised this after I had gone home and returned to the office that evening to retype the letters so that he would not know of my mistake.
Charles had a varied career. Born in 1915, he had been in the Royal Navy, achieving the rank of lieutenant-commander; he was awarded the DSC. At the end of the war he left the Navy and began a career in industry, working for United Steel, HM Treasury and the Board of Trade. In 1958 he became a management consultant and later an author. His books included Britons Abroad (1968), The Opaque Society (1970) and No More Heroes (1975). During my time with him he wrote (and I typed) The Grand Days of Travel, which was published by the Exeter firm Webb and Bower in 1979.
My three-day-a -week job was varied and interesting. Charles had a wide range of interests and liked to write about them. He was perceptive and held strong opinions. I helped him to research for a booklet One Man’s City: A Newcomer’s View of Exeter, which was serialised in the late (and sadly missed) Exeter Flying Post which appeared rather erratically.
Charles was not complimentary about the city, its postwar architecture, its car-centricity and poor public transport; he considered Exeter to be humdrum and introspective, failing to make the most of its assets—the river and the canal in particular. Exeter was ‘parochial’ when compared with ‘metropolitan’ Plymouth and ‘cosmopolitan’ Torquay.
He had a great idea of creating an Exeter Metro centred on the neglected Exeter Central Station, relegating the car to the outskirts and reinstating the square outside St David’s Station so that visitors had a good welcome to the city. He wrote of the Guildhall shopping centre, pictured above: ‘its outward appearance from some directions, alongside a multi-storey car park, is unforgivable; from St David’s Hill, the mass is crude, monstrous, overbearing’. He said it should have been given open vistas towards the cathedral and High Street and should provide ‘a gregarious rendezvous’. His articles invoked a robust response from the city’s planners—as they were intended to do.
Charles formed the Central Exeter Habitat Project, with Exeter University’s Sociology Department, which worked on a survey with the aims of bringing more life to the heart of Exeter and providing more living accommodation in the city’s centre. He tried to set up a literary group, and he took me as his guest to the West Country Writers’ Association AGM in Plymouth. He had aspirations for Exeter, but found the Devon people too laid back.
Gendall and Havell
I also worked for Felicity, who was an art historian with a fine collection, and I did some research about the artists John Gendall (an Exonian) and William Havell for her. When we ran out of typing I helped in the garden.
Much as I enjoyed my job, my priority was to campaign for Dartmoor. On 1 March 1978 the public inquiry opened in Okehampton into the South West Water Authority’s proposal for a reservoir at Roadford. Dartmoor’s defenders needed to be there because the opponents of Roadford (some local authorities and the farming and landowning organisations) were proposing Dartmoor sites as alternatives. The inquiry ran for four days a week and I wanted to be there. Charles was extremely understanding about that and I was able to go to the inquiry most days (cramming three days’ work for him into Monday).
Then on 1 May 1979 the Okehampton bypass inquiry opened in Okehampton, again four days a week and even more important to me than Roadford. This was scheduled to last for some time and in fact ran until February 1980. Not surprisingly, that was more than Charles could accept and after a few months we parted amicably.
The tireless Charles intended to run a festival in the autumn of 1980, the Devon-American Fortnight, to celebrate the many connections between Devon and America. He began to develop the idea in 1977 and in July 1978 he won the agreement of the US Ambassador, Kingman Brewster, to be its patron.
Charles raised some money and began to promote the festival. He needed a festival administrator but despite a number of attempts he failed to appoint the right person. As the Okehampton inquiry was coming to an end in December 1979 he invited me back as festival administrator, and I agreed.
It was hard work, Devon did not really rise to the challenge. Charles arranged for Kingman Brewster and his wife Mary, to visit Devon and booked the US Navy Sixth Fleet Show Band to come and give three concerts. But he needed other events to fill the period between 26 September to 10 October. Some towns joined in with gusto—Torrington, Crediton, Appledore and Bideford for instance, but many were lukewarm. Eventually we had a programme of art exhibitions and concerts, theatre and gastronomic events covering many parts of Devon.
Felicity put together an exhibition at Furlong of Devon Scenes 1780-1980, with works by dead and living artists.
I had the enjoyable task of escorting the Brewsters across Dartmoor on the sunny first morning of the Festival, 26 September 1980. They stayed at the Judge’s Lodgings in Exeter the previous night and were heading to Plymouth for lunch with the Lord Mayor, then a flying visit to the American Memorial on Slapton Sands before going to various other Devon towns. We were chauffeured in a Rolls Royce along the twisty B3212, above the Teign Valley and through Moretonhampstead, Two Bridges and Princetown to Plymouth. The moor was magical, golden and slightly misty, and I no doubt regaled them with all my Dartmoor battles. They were enthusiastic and companionable.
I made many mistakes in my time with Charles but two stand out. One was when, after a long spell of dictation, I couldn’t read back my shorthand. It was unfortunate because he had dictated a chapter of his book, straight out of his head, and my scribbles were the only record of his fine words. Of course I should have written some of it in longhand (he was quite a slow dictator). It was a black moment when I had to own up to this.
Sixth Fleet Show Band
The second was during the Devon American Fortnight. Bookings for the US Navy Sixth Fleet Show Band concert in Paignton were low. Charles asked me to ring the Western Morning News the day before to try to boost the sales. I rang the paper and told them we had not sold many seats and asked if they could help to promote the event. The next day the paper published a story that there were still 600 seats left to sell. Charles was furious; he said I should have told them that the seats were going fast and that anyone who wanted to come needed to book now.
I have always remembered that tip—and we did manage to fill the hall sufficiently, by offering seats to various institutions for free. That concert was in aid of the Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund for Children and its founder, Sylvia Darley (a friend of the Owens) was there, so it would have been extremely embarrassing for her and for the band if we hadn’t filled the seats.
Tall, dark, urbane and highly intelligent, Charles could be a bit intimidating if you got on the wrong side of him; fortunately that didn’t happen to me too often. To use one of his favourite words, he was extremely convivial; we had some good times together.
I continued to work for Charles sporadically after the festival ended and we stayed in touch until his death in 2001. He taught me a lot—starting on that day on the Quay 40 years ago.