I went to a funeral today. Yes, they do become more frequent diary entries with age.
This one marked a farewell to my first-ever boss. It was a very, very long time ago and, although we only worked together for a couple of years, the birthday and Christmas cards arrived like clockwork across the decades.
When I went to work, as an 18-year-old, for Margaret Cox, the BBC and indeed the world were light years’ away from where they are today. I won’t say “better” entirely but, in many respects, it was a gentler, kinder, less self-absorbed and less self-obsessed time.
Miss Cox (she was always Miss Cox, becoming “Margaret” only after one had left her employ) ran the Transcripts and Tapes Unit, a small department of six or seven tucked away on the ground floor of a 1960s office block behind Broadcasting House.
She was, on the surface, a formidable character. An ample, bespectacled lady with exacting standards, no tolerance whatsoever for sloppiness or lack of attention to detail and, by God, she ran a tight ship.
She taught me two of the most important and valuable lessons of my working life. No matter how small or mundane the task before you (even a bit of filing) always do it to the very best of your ability. And, secondly, if you make a mistake own up straight away – and learn from it.
Margaret Cox was also one of the kindest, most thoughtful, encouraging and genuine people I’ve crossed paths with in my life.
You knew your place with Margaret. For about the first six months I worked for her and, until another newbie arrived, I was always, when being introduced to any one, referee to as “this is my junior”.
From her office (there was no hot desking or “touchdown zones” – yes, honestly – in those days) she would sit, surrounded by pot plants, a photo or memento of New Zealand (a country she adored) a copy of the Daily Telegraph, and piles of correspondence from licence fee payers awaiting attention.
I wouldn’t call it a bark, but one would occasionally hear one’s name emanate from the inner sanctum, a summons to present oneself before Miss Cox. There was always a slight sense of trepidation but, in truth, it was inevitably for an insightful, kindly word (accompanied by her lovely, warm smile) on how you’d phrased a letter to Mrs Smith in Grimsby who wanted a tape of a poem she’d heard in the middle of the night on the BBC World Service.
We also had sacrosanct office routines. We’d stop for coffee at 10.30 am and tea at 3.00 pm; strawberries and cream were always served on her birthday in June and, occasionally, come 5.00 pm you’d be offered a sherry – “just a little one”. They really do not make bosses like that these days.
Aside from work, Miss Cox also instilled some life-long interests in me, such as the theatre. And her frequent trips to Italy (another country she loved) and the planning of extended holidays to see her sister Angela in New Zealand where I’m sure, in part at least, responsible for my obsession with travel. I think she was also pivotal in developing my love of the written word, playing around with phrases and sentences to create the best message. I still love this type of work today and occasionally hear her voice on a point of grammar or style.
She was less successful at converting me to her love of opera (Dame Kiri te Kanawa being a particular favourite) and ballet but she took her young charges to Covent Garden on office outings so we had at least been introduced to the experiences.
Over the decades those birthday and Christmas cards would arrive. They were always accompanied by a letter composed on an old typewriter and which, with the passing of the years, saw an increasing number of letters failing to land successfully on the page, so you had to decipher the content (probably Margaret’s way of ensuring you paid attention!) as she told you about her visits to the theatre and Covent Garden, annual trips to the tennis at Eastbourne or to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s summer school in Stratford-upon-Avon, or a visit to Italy or New Zealand.
I’m sad as I write this tonight. Margaret Cox was of a different time; a time of discipline, dignity, values, loyalty, a sense of dedication and, perhaps most importantly, a time of kindness.
You taught me a lot in the brief time I worked for you and they remain things I carry with me all these years later. Thank you Miss Cox.