Helen Carless

Helen Carless

‘My mother and father met in Cyprus, where my father was doing his National Service. He was Welsh, and she Cypriot, sadly both dead now. They were both quite young, perhaps a bit naïve, but terribly romantic, and they returned to the UK so that he could take up a place at Cambridge. His ambition was to join the UN; a PhD was needed for that, so he chose to read Arabic Studies and spent some time in Cairo, from which arose a love affair with Arab people, their culture and language, which lasted the rest of his life. Rather than join the UN, he joined the Foreign Office and became a diplomat, and an Arab specialist.

Geographically Cyprus sits in the Eastern Mediterranean, quite close to Lebanon and Syria, and at the time segregated into Greek and Turkish zones. So the Middle Eastern ambiance of Cyprus, and meeting my mother, probably also had a lot to do with that Arabian love affair. My father’s career took us as a family all over Europe and Arabia. My sister and brother (both younger than me) and I all went to boarding school from about the age of 10, the alternative in those days being home tutoring or a local school, so boarding school it was. My father’s postings were in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Lebanon, then later in Paris where many Lebanese live. I spent my formative years from the age of about 14 to 18 in Saudi, so of all the places we lived that remains for me the most evocative. The smells, the sights, the tastes, and the heat and humidity, all remain powerful memories. Most of the Arabian Peninsula at that time, the early 80’s, was quite a closed place. You either lived there, were a diplomat or were on business; you wouldn’t go there as a tourist.

Before we went to Saudi, we lived in Bulgaria, which at that time was very deep behind the Iron Curtain. Both Bulgaria and Saudi were fascinatingly similar in that they were closed countries, but obviously different in many other ways. Looking back, I was privileged to experience life in both countries at a time when life was so very different to ours in the West, but as a teenager I remember being resentful at being unable to buy the clothes and other essentials that my friends in the UK could. In both countries the average local person just got on with the only life they knew. This was pre internet and the majority didn’t know any different, but with a low crime rate, a strong cultural heritage and strong family ties many seemed to enjoy a relatively happy life. Living in a diplomatic community, interaction with the local people was limited, especially in Bulgaria, and frankly wasn’t encouraged. There was more socialising in Saudi, but in the 80s simply being a woman meant you couldn’t go out alone, making life pretty restricted. However I did meet many people from all sorts of backgrounds, which I just loved, and still do, because in a diplomatic community socialising isn’t just between the British and the host country, there would be representatives from all over the world.

I think I knew from quite an early age I wanted to go into advertising, and I honestly don’t know why. But I wrote to Saatchi’s and J Walter Thompson, the two big agencies of the day, and they said go to Oxbridge. That wasn’t an option for me, but I found a course at what was then called Thames Polytechnic in international marketing and advertising, after which I joined Saatchi’s on their graduate training scheme.

It was a mad, fun time to be in advertising in the 80’s; there was a lot of money in the business then. It was hard work, but with new ideas, thoughts and mediums making it an exciting time. Among my clients were Castlemaine XXXX—whatever happened to them?—and Blackpool Pleasure Beach. At the end of the graduate scheme at Saatchi’s I joined what was then a boutique agency called White Collins Rutherford and Scott, to help launch the Today newspaper, edited by Eddie Shah. At the time, journalism was run, pretty much from top to bottom, by men. There were those at the very top with large egos, like Murdoch and Maxwell, and Eddie Shah was a strong character too, but he was at all times very fair to me. His priority was whether you could do the job, regardless of whether you were a man or a woman, and even though I wasn’t that senior, he was always interested in what I had to say. His was the first newspaper to be written in central London, but linked to the printers elsewhere via computer, a process which famously necessitated overcoming union opposition.

In the world of advertising you had to move out to move up, so after 2 years with WCRS I went to work for Publicis, now part of one of the biggest networks in the world, on the large Renault account. They were specifically looking for a woman’s view on car advertising, as after all women do in fact buy cars. I got my first company car, the iconic Renault 5, in which I used to cruise around London, pre congestion charge and with an office parking space. Unthinkable now. If you were lucky enough to have a good job, and were young and carefree, then London in the late 1980’s was an exciting place to be. It’s so different for young people today, struggling with crippling rents and job insecurity.

By now I had met my husband Andrew, who had lived in Dorset, and we began to get to know the area. He was in the wine trade in London, and he and his friend Andrew Mangles and I saw an opportunity to set up a “Majestic” style business in Yeovil, supplying wine to wholesale and retail customers. Supermarkets were scarce enough in Dorset, and they certainly weren’t selling much wine, so the business flourished. With his accountancy background, Andrew eventually left the business and joined Symonds and Sampson, where he has been for nearly 25 years.  I was approached by Simon Lawrence, whose family had set up and owned Lawrence Fine art Auctioneers in Crewkerne, to use my experience in advertising to give an overview of the business. We developed the project, and in time, as we got on very well, he asked me to become his general manager, which I accepted. Eventually there was a point at which he offered me the opportunity to lead a buy-out of the business. I remember thinking to myself that in a situation like this, you say yes first, then work it all out afterwards. That was 1992, some 25 years ago; I was a 31year-old woman in a traditional industry in a conservative, rural area with a young son, Henry, so life was not always plain sailing. My daughter Izi was born the following year and we also moved house. A whirlwind 2 years. I am lucky enough to work with some fantastic people and many exceptional specialists who have made Lawrences the huge success it has become. I love the work I do, because rather than being simply about the objects we sell, it’s about people; the staff, the specialists, the sellers of the objects, and the people who become the new owners.

When we moved to Dorset, we first lived in Stoke Abbott, in the house that Andrew was brought up in. Andrew and I knew the owners of our current house in Broadwindsor, and were very fond of it so there was no choice but to try to buy it, even though I was 7 months pregnant at the time, and had just bought Lawrences so the timing wasn’t great. We’ve almost finished doing the things we said we would, nearly 25 years later. Henry and Izi are both in advertising in London, doing well, and we love life in Broadwindsor, a thriving village. We play tennis, and bridge, and walk sections of the South West Coast Path when time allows.  My year as President of the Melplash Show in 2014 introduced me to people, ideas and areas I had never known about before; farms, private gardens, allotments, crafts people, thatchers, volunteers, charities etc. We are so lucky to live in such a vibrant community, and I still pinch myself that I have ended up spending the last 30 years in this wonderful part of the world which I am constantly learning more about.’