Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

60 years in the same job

60 years in the same job

From the Queen to a model, a cider farmer and a quantum physicist

From the Queen to a model, a cider farmer and a quantum physicist

Charles Nevin | January/February 2012

Daphne Selfe

Daphne Selfe (above) is 83. She likes sugar in her tea, cake with it, biscuits, Downton Abbey and raising money for her local church. She has a son, two daughters and four grandchildren. Daphne doesn’t like playing bridge, or sitting around. She also wears a black leather jacket without looking ridiculous, and has been working as a model for 63 years. In the past two years she has been on assignments in Paris, Prague, Berlin, Beijing, Ibiza, South Africa and more. She is, to be fair, a little bemused: “What’s going on? Perhaps this is my swan song.” It seems unlikely, although she does have “certain limitations”, such as being unable to wear high heels now, unlike, as she acknowledges, the Queen.

“She’s amazing,” says Daphne. “She looks even better than when she was younger.” Which might also be said of Daphne, who got her big break when she was working at a Reading department store in 1950 after her ambition to work with horses had suffered a setback, and “Mummy said ‘you just can’t sit around’.” First it was a local magazine cover, and then she was off to London: “Mummy thought that was a lot better than horses…less dangerous, to some extent, or perhaps dangerous in a different way.”

Daphne, you will gather, has a twinkle and an accent of a type—somewhere between Fenella Fielding and Joanna Lumley—heard less often now than then (her father was a schoolmaster who read Greek in bed for fun). London and modelling in the early Fifties, though, “wasn’t anything special. There were no supermodels, it wasn’t talked about much at all…I wasn’t nearly as successful in my 20s, I didn’t get anything really exciting.” Daphne married Jim, a television stage manager, produced three children, and returned to modelling in the Sixties. “But they didn’t like me. I wasn’t the right type: Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton had the blonde fringe, I was dark with wavy hair, much more classic, really. I didn’t fit in at all. But I did do a lot of what they call store modelling, wearing somebody’s clothes and walking round the restaurant.”

And so her career continued, supplemented by any number of appearances as a television and film extra, and arriving, in a stately way, in the early Nineties, at an advertisement for Stannah Stairlifts—“first floor, please, Stan!” Work became more difficult, as she was caring for Jim after he’d had a stroke. Then, in 1998, the year after Jim’s death, came her great rediscovery, at the age of 70, when she was hired by Red or Dead for a London Fashion Week show. Suddenly, Daphne was in Vogue, “which I’d given up dreaming about years ago…I was very surprised, extraordinarily surprised…70 was very unusual for a model…I’ve been very lucky, the camera likes me.”

She was 5ft 7 and 10 stone (“a big strapping horsey girl!”) when she started; she is 5ft 6 and 8 stone now. She exercises “most days”. She has always had energy, doesn’t get jetlag and loves doing new things, a trait she clearly shares with her son, who has been, inter alia, a banker and an explorer, and now teaches yoga in India. One of her daughters sculpts; the other has been a ferociously keen sky-diver. Daphne has modelled for Mario Testino, Mary McCartney and Rankin, who told her that the difference between her and younger models was that they had nothing behind their eyes because they had no experience. Or, as Daphne puts it, “The reason why I’ve lasted so long is because I’m not quite as thick as some…you have to bring an element of intelligence to any job, that’s what sustains you and the people you work with.”

And, “You’ve got to take rejection. I go to lots of auditions, and you only get one out of several, that’s how it is. It’s not necessarily your fault, it’s what they’re looking for, and if you don’t fit the bill, it’s nothing to do with how good or bad you are. That’s quite difficult for young girls to get used to. But I’m old and sensible—or insensible now—so I don’t worry about it, and on to the next one.” With that, she was off home to watch Sir David Attenborough, 85.  

Sir peter hall

Sir Peter Hall, at 81, with 60 years of directing theatre and opera behind him, with achievements that include founding the Royal Shakespeare Company, running the National Theatre, introducing the world to “Waiting for Godot”, and conjuring fresh marvels from Shakespeare, has no time for dwelling on all that. “I don’t deal with the past very much,” he says. When I saw him, he was about to leave for Chicago and New York to discuss the future, new projects, exciting projects, but best to say no more, yet.

Surely, now, after all that, there cannot be many unfulfilled ambitions? Sir Peter, at home in his Chelsea kitchen, considers the question. “To do it well,” he replies. He follows this with a pause and then one of his characteristically sudden smiles; but he has already conveyed with economy, in two phrases, how to keep on. It means, too, that it is useless to ask him about the greatest moment of his career, or whether it’s a matter of regret that many of his masterpieces are unrecorded: “I shan’t be here to worry about it.”

If pushed, he says, he can stop working for a month, if he has to, but it’s boring. Relaxation is watching plays and films and going to concerts, what you might call director’s holidays. If pushed, and clearly just to be polite, and worried about sounding “ridiculously pretentious”, he will remember Beckett for you – “a delightful man, one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. He could tell a joke like you wouldn’t believe.” But unhappy with fame: “he was shy and embarrassed and almost wanted to hide”. He will remember the era of Olivier, Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft as a golden age, but one which has continued: the theatre is healthier than ever, in his view.

The contribution to this by Hall, the son of an East Anglian station master, may be unrivalled, particularly if you also consider the careers of his children in the arts: he has six by four wives. Christopher, his son by the actress Leslie Caron, is a television drama producer; Jennifer, Christopher’s sister, is an actress, singer-songwriter and painter; Edward, Hall’s son by Jacqueline Taylor, is a director like his father and runs the Hampstead Theatre; Lucy, Edward’s sister, is a theatre designer; and Rebecca, Hall’s daughter by the opera singer Maria Ewing, is a Hollywood actress and Shakespearean.
Would he have had anything different, another career, banking or business, perhaps? Well, he says, he ran the National Theatre for 15 years, that was a business. “I had to start at 5.30 in the morning if I was going to be a director of plays. I had to have done all the admin by 10.30. Then I could rehearse the play through lunch until about 2.30. There’s no point doing the job if you can’t do any plays.” The play’s the thing.

Shakespeare is the theatre’s Everest, and Hall continues his exploratory mission: this year, with the Peter Hall Company, he directed the early history plays, revisiting his triumphant productions of the 1960s and, at 80, finding new shades and melancholies in Falstaff and his friends and rulers. But he is not keen on comparison, or analysis: “I always think it’s rather a pity that people want to know what directors do, because it’s like asking the cook to expose everything he’s doing.”

But if we wanted to talk about age, he remembered Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies coming to the National at the age of 100 (in 1991) to tell the company that the first thing with the Bard was to trust the words. They were gripped. Hall says his career, from outset to now, has been eased by the elaborate camaraderie of actors: “It’s so sentimental the theatre…so romantic…and really it’s tough as old boots.” Would he resist the application of that description to himself? Another sudden smile: “No.” And now he must continue his preparations for America. At the top of the stairs from the kitchen, he points out a poster bearing a quote from Beckett, the one about trying again and failing better. A very uncomplacent knight.

Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson, 88, is a pioneer quantum physicist, pure mathematician, metaphysicist, beady examiner of such givens as global warming and tireless explorer of our future as bio-engineering space colonisers. A Fellow of the Royal Society for 60 years, he left Britain at the age of 23 because he believed “Americans held the future in their hands and that the smart thing for me to do would be to join them.” When he took up his post at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Einstein was still working there. Startling propositions and inconvenient arguments are the signature of this human neutrino, widely regarded as one of the Nobel Committee’s glaring omissions.

His father, Sir George Dyson, was a composer and director of the Royal College of Music. Freeman has six children, including George, a historian of science, who is about to publish a history of the digital age, and Esther, an internet analyst and entrepreneur dubbed “the first lady of cyberspace”.

I e-mailed to ask him: (1) why he remained hard at work; (2) what were his strengths and weaknesses now compared with earlier in his career; and (3) what advice would he give to those who have been working for (a) one year, and (b) 30 years? This was his reply, received the next day:

Thank you very much for your friendly invitation. I am delighted to share with Her Majesty the distinction of hanging on longer than expected. Here are brief answers to your questions.
1. I continue working because I agree with Sigmund Freud’s definition of mental health. To be healthy means to love and to work. Both activities are good for the soul, and one of them also helps to pay for the groceries.
2. In my younger days my work as a scientist was deep and narrow. Now, as I grow old, my work grows broader and shallower. As a young man, I solved technical problems of interest only to a few specialists. As an old man, I write books about human affairs of interest to a broad public. In both halves of my life, I tried to make the best use of my limited abilities.
3. (a). Advice to people at the beginning of their careers: do not imagine that you have to know everything before you can do anything. My own best work was done when I was most ignorant. Grab every opportunity to take responsibility and do things for which you are unqualified.
(b). Advice to people at the middle of their careers: do not be afraid to switch careers and try something new. As my friend the physicist Leo Szilard said (number nine in his list of ten commandments): “Do your work for six years; but in the seventh, go into solitude or among strangers, so that the memory of your friends does not hinder you from being what you have become.”

Now I look forward to reading what other survivors have to say. Thank you again for including me.  
Yours sincerely
Freeman Dyson

Jens Risom

Jens Risom, 95, is a furniture designer. Perhaps his most celebrated piece is the 654W lounge chair he designed for Knoll, the German-American furniture-makers. Risom was born in Copenhagen but left for America in 1939, working for Knoll before joining the US Army, designing camouflage for Sherman tanks and translating for General Patton in Germany. After the war, he founded his own company, moving away from the Bauhaus-inspired steel of Knoll to new ways with wood. Based in Connecticut, he has lived long enough to be rediscovered: his classic pieces are back in production, and he is designing for the fashionable American retailer Design Within Reach. “I think furniture,” he has said. This is his response to my e-mail asking the same questions I had put to Freeman Dyson—why he continued to work, what were his strengths and weaknesses compared with earlier in his career, and his advice. 

1. I am still working because I enjoy continuing to create and because I still get as much of a thrill as ever in seeing my creations brought to life all over the world, especially as I still maintain control over manufacturers and distributors!

2. At 95, my main strength is my experience; after all, I have now been designing furniture for 70 years, so I have learnt a little…my main weakness is my eyesight, which, sadly, is not what it was. But I can still do enough on my drawing pad to give it to a designer to work out the details. 

3. My advice to people who have been working one year: keep searching for the organisation that is best for you and has the best chance of bringing your ideas to life. After 30 years: never forget that you can still change, never be afraid to persevere. 

The Queen

We cannot, by convention, ask the Queen directly for her thoughts on 60 years of hard reigning, but she is unlikely to be either impressed or dismayed to find herself still working at the age of 85. A great deal of official and unofficial fawning surrounds the British monarch, but it seems clear that her leading characteristic, a result of both temperament and upbringing, is a formidable sense of duty.

After 60 years, the figures are arresting. She has made over 300 state visits abroad, some 25,000 visits around Britain to greet, meet, open and tour, hosted more than 100 state banquets for foreign heads of state, including Robert Mugabe and Nicolae Ceausescu, conferred 400,000 honours, dealt with around 150 prime ministers in Britain and the Commonwealth, received 3.5m pieces of correspondence and attended to daily red boxes containing various matters of state, cabinet minutes, appointments, legislation. According to a new biography, “Our Queen” by Robert Hardman, she has fallen asleep at work once, very briefly, in 2004, during a lecture on new insights into biology and medicine with the use of magnets at the Heinrich Heine University, Dusseldorf.

She is the third British monarch to reach the age of 80, and the first to remain active: George III was pronounced mad, and Queen Victoria withdrew. Elizabeth II’s daily schedule remains little changed from 20 years ago, and in some respects has increased: as the royal family has become more open, entertaining has risen by 50% in the last five years. After a famously frugal and inflexible breakfast involving cereal in Tupperware, BBC Radio 4, the Daily Telegraph, the Racing Post and a bagpiper beneath the window, she takes to her desk to read the rest of the British newspapers and deal with correspondence and the first of the red boxes. She then telephones her senior private secretary and asks if he is free to come up, a command masquerading as a question which exemplifies the style of a monarch bound by the unwritten subtleties of the British constitution.

Various meetings and engagements will follow, including audiences with British and foreign diplomats, and senior clergy from the Church of England, of which she is the supreme and interested governor. Often, too, there is an investiture, where she will stand for an hour bestowing official honours, formally and individually. In the afternoon and evening there will be public engagements: as Andrew Marr puts it in his new biography, “The Diamond Queen”, it has been “a life of turning up”. And as the Buckingham Palace website puts it, “Often, one of the last lights on in the Palace at night is the Queen finishing her ‘red box’ of official papers.”

We are even less likely to learn what she thinks of this endless reading, and page-ticking, of government papers proposing, reporting and ordering matters on her behalf over which she has no power: duty, again. Hers not to question why, except in private, with the prime minister, unminuted, at his weekly audience. She will keep on, aided by her personal constitution: “She sleeps well, she’s got very good legs, and she can stand for a long time,” Lord Charteris, a former private secretary once said. “The Queen is as strong as a yak.” 

Frank Nash

In sharp contrast to the Queen, with her 300 trips overseas, Frank Naish has never left the country. In the past 60 years, Frank has not spent a night out of Somerset. Ask if he has ever been on holiday, and Frank, standing in his farmyard, below the home cider orchard, with Glastonbury Tor in finest moody mode to the west, considers for a moment before replying, “Yes, when I was in the army.” That was 1943.

Frank is 87 now. Mementoes of his working life are spread about the farm, including a gallery of tractors: Frank’s father got their first one, a Fordson Standard, in 1945. Before that it was horses, but you will get no sentiment about them from Frank: “tractors don’t get tired, do ’em?” 

On one side of the farmyard is the store where the apple juice lies fermenting: Frank goes right up to the limit of 7,000 litres of cider a year that small makers are allowed free of duty. Next door is the 19th-century ratchet double-screw press which he finally gave up using three years ago. 

It was a year before that that Frank stopped hand-picking apples from the ground and switched to a machine. Back-breaking work, half a tonne of apples in a day, no gloves—“gloves is no good for picking!”—often on icy November days as well as russet-hued autumn ones. Frank used to get up at 4am every day to hand-milk the farm’s dairy herd: “The milk lorry used to come at eight, but if we weren’t quite ready I’d go up the side to have half a glass of cider.” Frank gets up at six now, and likes a glass with his supper. But he can remember when everybody drank a lot more, like the day he and his brother, Harold, and a friend were haymaking, and got through five gallons.

That was a day; and there was the shove-halfpenny at the Tor Fair, and the time the German bomber came down the road from Glastonbury, firing, and he and Harold had to dive behind the apple trees, and the bomb bound for Bristol docks that dropped nearby and blew the lock off the door that’s only just been fixed. The army—“that were a soft job!”—even if he almost got blown up in Colchester, too. But it only lasted a few months before he got sent back to work the farm. 

There was a girl, but Frank never married; nor did his brother. They worked together until Harold’s death five years ago: there is an unshakable sense of the old country ways, that Frank’s life could not have been any other. Now he has a younger partner, Paul Chant, also devoted to those ways. But not stuck in them: they have just introduced a new production line, involving an American press, an apple conveyor belt and a bath, to stop Frank bending too much. 

At the last Bath & West country show, Frank was given a lifetime award for services to the cider industry, but he’s not stopping, because “if you give up, you’ve had it”. And there will have to be cider on the other side, because “twon’t be no good going otherwise”. He was presented with his award by Michael Eavis, his neighbour, of Worthy Farm and the Glastonbury Festival, who uses some of Frank’s land for grazing. Frank is treated as a VIP at the festival, enjoys the atmosphere if not the music, and last year met, among others, Maxi Jazz, the rapper, who was impressed. 

Frank remembers the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at the Bath & West many years ago. Frank is an old Labour man, but he thinks the Queen is “a damn good queen…we’ve got to have a queen or king, otherwise we’ll have a dictator, won’t we?” But he’s not so sure of any comparison between his and his monarch’s working practices: “I wouldn’t know about that…I expect she’s got servants, hasn’t she?”

Brian Glanville

On the Thursday, Brian Glanville had fallen with a crash in the foyer of Holland Park underground station, hurting his back and damaging his hand. But it was only his left hand, so he continued with his plans for a visit to Norwich on the Saturday, where he watched the home football team draw 3-3 with Blackburn Rovers, then composed his usual plainly erudite report before completing the 200-mile round trip back to London. Glanville is 80.

And, it has to be said, not particularly impressed with such feats. “My wife was very cross with me for going to Norwich, but I thought I would go because I felt I could, and it worked.” Football reporting, too, is not allowed to get above itself: “It’s not an art form and if you try too hard the result is bathos.” Nor does he regard it as a very hard job, even if he is perhaps the last sports journalist filing his match report the traditional way, sans laptop, dictating straight down the telephone from notes. (Newspaper copytakers are now a thing of the past: splendidly, Glanville employs the services of his son and grandson, who file his piece by computer for him.) 

Still, it has also to be said, Glanville has been doing this a long time: he started freelancing about football while he was still a public schoolboy at Charterhouse, and published his first book, a ghosted autobiography of the Arsenal great, Cliff Bastin, when he was 20. He has also written more than 20 novels, five collections of short stories, nearly 30 football books and not as many plays as he would have liked. Mellowing, it seems, is not advised should you wish to number among the octogenarian-employed. Glanville, despite all his success, remembers his mistakes in his football reports (two goals misattributed, thick fog, Brighton, 1950s) more than his triumphs. And the missed chances and bad luck for his plays and playwriting still irk. He quotes an Italian saying on luck he is fond of: “Se faceva capelli, nascono senza teste” (“If he was making hats, people would be born without heads”). 

He lived much in Italy in his earlier years, in Florence and Rome. He walked into the offices of Corriere dello Sport in Rome as a 17-year-old on holiday and was given work on the strength of an already substantial cuttings file, despite having no Italian, a gap subsequently remedied by residence and “Teach Yourself Italian”. He covered the 1960 Olympics in Rome for the Sunday Times and has reported on 13 football World Cups. He has seen England follow and surpass the highly monied example of Italian football and thinks the “People’s Game has been taken away from the people…the money has absolutely ruined football, I think…As soon as they formed the Premier League I called it ‘The Greed is Good League’, and I’ve never felt wrong to do so.”

After the Rome Olympics, Glanville became a sports columnist, the Sunday Times’s first. He began by backing the fight by English footballers against the maximum wage, which was then £20 a week. “Now players make more in a week than I can ever hope to make in a year…I don’t think it’s entirely my fault, but I take some of the blame,” he says, demonstrating that not always taking yourself entirely seriously is also important for longevity. It’s an attitude helped by being first introduced to the game at Bognor Regis Town by a romanticist of an Irish Jewish dentist father whose clients included Max Wall, Bud Flanagan and other music-hall turns. Brian’s children are talented disparates: Mark is a professional singer; Toby is a photographer; Liz, Toby’s twin, teaches at university in Rome; and Jo edits the campaigning magazine Index on Censorship. The only cliché to which they conform is that Liz and Jo follow their mother, Pam, a former magazine editor, in having little interest in sport.

Glanville has two pieces of advice for those hoping to embark on a 60-year writing career: first, to persist, “and if you’re any good, you’ll get there”; and second, to avoid the mistake of exaggerating the influence and importance of journalists and journalism, while continuing to challenge the influence and importance of others. You had, he said, just got to go on: he played for the Chelsea Casuals, the magnificently eclectic and artful parks team he helped found, until he was 69, and still remembers being kicked by the comedian Ronnie Corbett. And now he is ready to take his laptop to matches, and make his family redundant. 

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.