I meet Judith at her house in Cambridge four days before Christmas, writes Amelia Walker. The colourful and eclectic interiors reflect Judith to a tee – her life decorating the walls through unique art, photographs and tie-dye throws and cushions from her far-flung travels. We settle ourselves in, cups of tea and Christmas cake to hand and begin.
“It was my parrots and Stephen Hawking.”
Courtesy of this single sentence, immediately I realise that the three pages I had originally dedicated to her interview are certainly not going to be enough. In fact
I could most likely have filled every page of this issue with her words. “My life has been a story of great journeys, loves and loss,” she states emphatically. And over the next three hours how apt this statement proves to be.
“Early influences – being born in Singapore was a huge one because my family was based in the Far East. My Scottish father, before he and my mother had married in Kuala Lumpar, had been a Japanese prisoner of war for three and a half years on the infamous Siam railway. My English mother, grandfather, grandmother and my uncle Colin were POWs in Bangkok. My earliest memories are of Singapore and of Thailand. I remember when I was about seven or eight years old coming back to the UK and what a terrible shock it was. My first language had been Kitchen Malay taught by my Ayah and now I had to speak English all the time in a cold and gloomy new country.
“We often went on long sea voyages across the oceans that would take a month. As an eight year old I had seen the world, I had seen the planet; my expectations about life had already in a sense been fulfilled.
“It was a terrible shock having to conform to the rules and customs of British schools. I hated the girls’ private school I was sent to; it was like a prison. My greatest claim to fame at school was sword fencing (foils). I was captain and winner of the shield. You learned to attack and defend with chutzpah. Although I was sensitive and artistic, I became a tomboy to escape the monotony of classwork.
“On leaving school I was expected to get married to someone from a well-off family and with good professional prospects – but that was not my plan. I had always had a burning desire to travel, as well as plenty of large and unrealistic aspirations. My mother was a great inspiration to me, being an Anglo-Saxon scholar and member of Mensa with an IQ of 161. But academic studies were not for me, so she advised me to do a secretarial course and see the world.
“I lasted three months; it was intolerably boring! However, I did enjoy Pitman’s shorthand – I learned in a month and got to 120 words a minute, although my typing was pretty ropey.
“But I couldn’t wait to get out into the world. Even aged 12 I was an avid ornithologist and to this day birds remain an endless source of interest for me. In childhood they honed my observational skills and taught me patience and to enjoy solitude. It’s amazing how all the weird desolate things I did as a teenager slowly came together later.”
For her first job Judith was Personal Secretary to the Financial Advisor at IBM in Hampshire. Then she was called unexpectedly to London for an interview at the Foreign Office. “I found myself in a very interesting branch of Her Majesty’s Government. I had been recruited on a secretarial basis but as sometimes happened I was trained to do other things.
“Bahrain was my first posting; from here I was poised to move on to Oman. But in Bahrain at the age of 21 I met a charismatic man who stopped me in my tracks, a composer and explorer named David Fanshawe. It was a chance meeting at a cocktail party. He was like some untamed creature from the Victorian age. Very handsome, piercing blue eyes. He wore a strange Arab costume in which he had hitch-hiked from Africa! It was love at first sight, a whirlwind romance, a glorious affair and those clichés are no exaggeration! Within six weeks we were engaged and within six months we were married.
“We travel to East Africa together on a Churchhill Fellowship David won so he could record indigenous music. We had many adventures. We hitchhiked everywhere and one occasion were arrested and thrown into prison in Tanzania.
“After the birth of our children, my husband continued his hairy hitch-hiking expeditions alone in the wilder parts of Sudan. After he had written his world-famous work African Sanctus, he decided to change tack and record indigenous music in the South Pacific, leaving me to pack up our London home and set off to Viti Levu.
“I set up home on the island with two small children and lived in Fiji for 10 years. I took a degree course in theology and learned Hebrew and Greek, as well as liberation theology and wrote a short dissertation on the Emergence of Fijian Ethnic Nationalism that was eventually published by the Fiji Museum.
“The stresses and strains of our wandering life caught up with my husband and me and very sadly we divorced in 1985. I finished my degree, graduated and then did many jobs in Fiji. I was a freelance arts consultant, a pioneering art therapist and contributed to the Trinity College of Music exams. I also did a teacher training course and became involved with the museum. But all the time technology was evolving and I realised I was being left behind as the workplace had changed out of all recognition. Without computer knowledge, I knew I would be a doomed dinosaur! I realised that I needed to get back to my roots and find out who I was again, while reintroducing my beloved children to the country of their birth. By this time I had adopted a gorgeous Fijian baby boy.
“I decided to head for Cambridge because some of the best academics that I had ever met, the ones that I really respected, the ones working on off-beam subjects like archaeology and ethnography, linguistics, ornithology and marine biology were so often from there. I’d also got to know a few Cambridge people in Fiji in the course of my freelancing jobs.
“I wanted a fresh start; so Cambridge it was rather than London. But it took me nine months to land a very humble job as a secretary for Doctor Helen Patrick at the University of Cambridge Examination Syndicate. In time I was promoted in the job. She had given me a start, for which I was very grateful.
“I’d never imagined how difficult it would be to relocate from the South Pacific. I felt like a refugee, my children were depressed and missed the sun and it had taken me nine months to land a job after hand writing many applications. You needed a PhD to clean the loos it seemed! Eventually I was promoted to work as PA to the dynamic Director of the Research and Evaluation Division, Alastair Pollitt.
“Being poor, my children and I took to our bikes like everyone else in Cambridge. It would be 16 years before I owned a car. After 11 years at the Syndicate, our research division was disbanded and I briefly found myself redundant. I spotted the ad for Stephen Hawking’s PA in October 2004 and within a month I was called up for interview and was offered the post of Chief Secretary, PA to Professor Stephen Hawking in the Department of Mathematics and Theoretical Physics.”
At this point I ask Judith if she happens to still have the job profile for the position. Incredibly she does. The job description is three pages long. I scan the pages – 60 per cent of the role was visits in the UK, financial arrangements, dealing with mail, press and media, negotiations, securing of fees, organisation of conferences and preparation of research grant application – to name but a few of Judith’s many responsibilities.
“I was the gatekeeper for Stephen Hawking – it was relentless but fascinating. You never knew who or what would appear on your email, from presidents to astronauts; it was a roller coaster!”
What can she remember about the interview itself? “I was so thrilled to have been shortlisted I couldn’t believe it – and to be interviewed by the great man himself put me on a high. He just said to me ‘tell me about yourself’ – and for me, with my peripatetic background, it was a lot to talk about; so I limited it to mentioning how I’d seen Halley’s Comet in Fiji, how the Milky Way was absolutely astonishing, how I had studied O-Level astronomy. My love of stars and space grew from living on the beautiful islands.”
Having worked with Professor Hawking for 10 years, I wonder how well they actually knew each other. “He is very busy every day and it is hard for him, battling with Motor Neurone Disease, to keep up with the enormous demands people make on him. His ability to communicate through the power of technology gives him the will to live and to keep on using that huge brain of his so he can advance and redefine all our understanding of the universe. I was always intent upon mastering everything he wanted me to fulfil as his PA and I certainly never expected to talk about myself or give my own opinions. But over the years, in helping him keep abreast of the multiplicity of things he had to do, we got to know each other pretty well – as people do when engaged in a co-operative venture.”
She describes her working relationship with him as: “Not always easy. I went through some harrowing experiences with Professor Hawking. Professionally I got him through a lot of situations that weren’t really part of my university PA job. My relationship with him was intense and holistic because I was not just dealing with his work life but with the many aspects of his personal life – and I was in contact with his carers and with the university. Above all I did everything I could, by patient transcription, to ease the process whereby his great brain made highly complicated physics accessible to millions of people through his books, all written in beautiful English.
“I worked on three of his books and on some of his lectures and in pretty much every sphere. It was an all-encompassing thing. I didn’t have any relationships then and my children had grown up, so I dedicated myself to Hawking and my parrots – a Mitred Conure and a Blue-Fronted Amazon! I got them in 2000. So they were with me all my years with Stephen”.
She describes a ‘typical’ day working for Professor Hawking as: “Never routine. He often came in very late which was wonderful because I’d come in late too. It suited me and it suited him. I didn’t mind working late at night and I didn’t mind doing spread sheets at nine o’clock when I would be the only person in the building. Unsurprisingly my social life was limited.”
“Starting the day I would open my computer and voomp! Straight into the gateway, into that world, everybody asking for something. It could be someone from California, the Far East, or anywhere in the world. Wanting him to talk, go to a conference, give a lecture, write a book; I was dealing with his agents in New York, his finances, the media, his PhD students and his colleagues.”
How did she stay on top of this endless stream of demands? “I always tried to clear my emails every single day. I had to read everything and know exactly what was going on. Often it took me days to get the information from Stephen himself, since the best his technology enabled him to do was write at one or two words a minute. Then it would require great patience to get the words out of him in order to interface. I did press conferences by getting all the possible questions and his answers and keeping them in a database so Stephen didn’t have to keep repeating himself and wasting his precious time.”
How does she handle stress? “I articulate it. I don’t sit in silence over stress. I’ve found one has to share it or suffer the consequences. The stress level of the job can mount unexpectedly, making it much harder to cope with.”
When she started the job in 2004, her “workload got more and more demanding. Stephen’s communication started to dry up, so everything slowed down for a while. Over the years he taught me everything about the job. I got used to the complicated language of theoretical physics; he always made it sound easy! But it wasn’t, of course. He said to me very early on that I could use my judgement. He trusted me to get on with the job. That felt like a turning point. It was certainly a great honour.”
I ask what her thoughts on Professor Hawking are. “I have an enormously deep respect for him, though – I have to admit it – there were times when he annoyed me, but there were times when I annoyed him! He could be a typical celebrity with a touch of the prima donna, but I also found him humble, generous and empathetic. He can be marvellously witty. I loved the positives of working for him. He is a great genius who has overcome almost inconceivable odds. His like will probably never again appear on this earth. He is truly a one-off.”
So what did she most enjoy about her role? “That there was enormous variety. I enjoyed being in control of press conferences, knowing I’d done all the work to prepare for them. Woe betide anyone who muddled up the questions and answers. I felt a great feeling of relief and achievement when they were over.
“I worked on the Para Olympics too. Now that was a lot of fun. I also helped organise with a team of professors Hawking’s 70th birthday, which had to run over three days, inviting such luminaries as Richard Branson and Daniel Craig. Another great highlight was organising his trip in the Zero Gravity Comet in Florida in 2007. That was unforgettable. Months of planning – persuading doctors to go with him – ended in a Hawking sublime moment when he left his wheelchair behind and floated in mid air!
“Back on terra firma in Cambridge, he had his own students and every week he had to supervise them. They were a great bunch. Every Tuesday they had a curry lunch and a seminar in his office. I really enjoyed looking after them. Coming to work was so important to him. It was like a show – pure theatre. It was intense, but fun too. It was one thing after another. Keeping up with Stephen is like keeping up with a comet. He was travelling five or six times a year to conferences. I didn’t travel with him all that much. But I flew with him to places I wanted to visit – Chile, including Easter Island, China and Hong Kong, South Africa, Israel and the West Bank, several times to Spain, also to Germany, Italy and Geneva. In Geneva I visited CERN and the Large Hadron Collider with Stephen and the team. I have so many wonderful memories.”
Evidently the list of qualities needed to successfully fill this role was extensive. What qualities did she pride herself on as his PA? “Humour and super-human patience, as well as observational skills, accuracy, painstaking attention to detail, good general knowledge and being able to prioritise. You had to have eyes at the back of your head and expect the unexpected. An instinctive understanding about certain situations and communication – communication is life, non-communication is death. I learned to appreciate the team that worked around him. I’ve always been able to adapt to new circumstances. I’m flexible. I hope I’ve got wiser as I’ve got older and wisdom plays a part in certain situations. In order to make a legend work well, you need to function behind the scenes as a facilitator, not right in the front row, preening oneself in the great man’s reflected light!”
So what’s next on the cards? “I am now Stephen’s consultant for the Starmus 3 Festival in Tenerife this summer. I’m working on a great project, ‘Beyond the Horizon,’ where science, music and the stars meet! My other boss is the dynamic Armenian astrophysicist Professor Garik Israelian. Starmus is about inspiring people to love science. I’m working on all the nuts and bolts. We’ve just secured Hans Zimmer and 12 Nobel Laureates. Hans was at the recent press conferenceat the Royal Society. It is a great tribute to Stephen.”
Judith predicts the future of the role of the PA will be “much more running the hub from home. More technologically advancement, definitely. I don’t even know if the job title could still be called PA. Maybe ‘technical assistant’ and not a ‘personal assistant’, maybe a ‘personal technical assistant’? There will always be a role because people will always require other people to make their business lives run smoothly. I can see the role changing and becoming more technical. It is not an easy job. A PA is special; when people get a PA it means they have arrived.”
Her words of wisdom for someone starting out as a PA today? “Get a degree. You could turn into a slave very quickly being a PA. A lack of self-esteem can also add to that feeling. Do something that is special to you. Always have a goal. Don’t think being a PA is the be-all and end-all of life. Widen your horizons. The more experiences you have, the better you get at the work.”
“As one professor was overheard saying to another in the department: ‘Judith survived at least three Battles of Britain working for Stephen – how did she do it? No one knows’.”
Well, with great power comes great responsibility, evidently. “Is there life for me after Stephen? I still have an awful lot to do! Stephen’s last words to me at my farewell party were: ‘Gas the parrots’ (jokingly of course!). Actually I’ve had them adopted. So I’m free for who knows what!”