Naomi, who writes the excellent and funny blog Coulda Shoulda Woulda has begged for me to write a post about Interior Design in London. Now, I've said to her I'm not sure it will make it sound that fab, but she has insisted, so here it is.

Back in The Olden Days (1998), I did a course in Interior Design and Decoration at The Inchbald School of Design in London. I had a wonderful time, and truly felt I had Found My Calling. Then, I finished my education and began to search for work.

I had a couple of interesting Job Interviews. One of them was with a woman who kept asking me what exactly a "Bachelor of Architecture Degree" was. Then she expressed surprise that there were Universities in Australia. After a half hour of name dropping about her clients to me, in a round about way she wound up the interview by offering me a position... although really, she couldn't pay me. Would I like to work for her for free? No, I wouldn't. She then Sighed Loudly and expressed her concern for my future in the industry, saying "it's such a pity that you have to Work For A Living". Other gels, she explained, had trust funds... so really, she was sorry but it just wouldn't work out.

I felt enormous relief to be released from The Pimlico Lair of this woman. On to the next interview.



My next interview was with a very well known Interior Decoration firm, owned by a talented American woman... whom we shall call Jackie for the sake of this blog post. Jackie was married (for the second time) to a wealthy Englishman. She had a noxious socialite daughter from her first marriage whom we shall call Lucy, who also 'worked' in the office from time to time. I should have realised that I was lined up to be cannon fodder when throughout the interview Jackie showed little interest in my resume, or me, and just obviously needed a body to do some work ("can you start tomorrow?"). But she would pay me (badly).

I was hired.

The project I was put to work on was a very large free standing house in a very good area of London owned by a wealthy and aged Middle Eastern Businessman, his third wife and their 8 year old son. There was no budget. It appeared that he was using Jackie's services to inveigle himself into London Society. I was set to work doing things like designing plaster cornices that would also conceal air conditioning vents (impossible, and for which I was yelled at for being unsuccessful at). I did the estimating and priced up the decorative schemes with their horrendous markups (son's bedroom had wallpaper which came to 60,000 pounds at trade price. I checked with Jackie as to whether she realised this fact, she yelled "yes, so?" at me, as if this were perfectly normal). I had to fill in the bits of schemes with fabrics which Jackie had not completed, I made up sample boards, sourced tap fittings, attended site meetings and watched Jackie give orders to her personal household staff when they would come into the office regarding the exact brand of canned tuna she wanted them to buy. She would often yell about how stressed she was, but in the 8 weeks I worked there (yes, that was all I lasted), she took holidays three times.



I sat at a desk alongside the noxious daughter Lucy, who had a strange passive aggressive thing going on with my calculator, as she would regularly steal it. Lucy spent a lot of time on the phone to her Psychiatrist speaking to him loudly about her current state of mental health. I tried to pretend I couldn't hear her (I sat 1 meter away from her).  When speaking to old family friends she would adopt an American accent and refer to "mom". When speaking to English people she spoke the Queens English and called her "Mummy". There were three other that worked in the office - one of whom was eating a "green food only" diet in her efforts to fit into a Chloe evening dress for a wedding she was going to in France in a months time (a wedding I later saw featured in Martha Stewart's Wedding magazine and in which the bride wore her mother's vintage Valentino couture bridal gown). All three co workers were what can only be described as moody (plus independently wealthy via trust funds).

When we had a visiting rep, I would be the one to meet them, go through their range and select samples for the fabric sample library we kept. I was also given the task of doing the Interior Design schemes for the Servant's quarters in the St John's wood house.. all by myself!  I was the one that would be ringing the Fabric companies to call in the samples and doing all the general boring stuff that one does as a Designer. There were a few other small jobs I worked on, but I think you get the picture.



After my escape, my next job was working for a lovely man, who had his own very small firm near the Chelsea Harbour Design Centre. It was my job to make up the sample books of his fabric and wallpaper ranges to give out to clients. I also designed and drafted all the joinery for a large house in Ireland, and a house in the Royal Crescent in Bath. I used to look up historical document books to see examples of traditional millwork, panelling and furniture, and then discuss with my employer what he was looking for (he couldn't draft, but he'd be quite specific about the style he wanted "William IV style vanity unit" for instance). I then would draft up the design for the client's approval and then for the cabinet maker... using a large piece of cardboard in lieu of a proper drafting board or computer (my employer was pretty tight, and wouldn't buy a proper drafting board. He also insisted on using a 1988 computer for his invoicing that you had to type "RUN" into to get it to start). I would regularly go into the Chelsea Harbour Design Centre nearby to find some trim to match a fabric we were using for example. Or I'd assist in the showroom with walk in customers.

One of the domes at Chelsea Harbour

After that job finished, I returned home to Australia to work in the industry here, going back into Architecture. In general, from what I heard from other's working in London, my experience was not dissimilar to theirs. There is very little money made by Interior Decorators themselves - they mostly have fabric ranges to supplement their design income. Many have an independent income source and don't rely on the wage they draw (the money I was paid was far less than a secretary). You are at the fickle whim of your client's who often wish to change major parts of a scheme. Actually putting together a scheme and presenting it to the client is around 5% of what you do - the rest is paperwork and managing trades.

You see some amazing houses, and look at beautiful things all the time. Most of the Decorating assistants spend all their time plotting to obtain free samples that they can use in their own homes (which is why most of the large samples of fabrics have strategic holes in them - as otherwise they are stolen to make cushions up). The assistants love nothing better than when a client will redo a room and throw out the old decorative scheme - it might not be that old, and they get to pick over it and take what they like.

So, that's a wrap up of my time in London, and the Interior Decoration industry there. I hope you enjoyed it Naomi!

all images via Chelsea Harbour Pinterest boards

44 comments:

  1. Heidi, you have no idea how many jobs I've had over the years ( interior design and other jobs) where I haven't been paid, I took the last person to court just ( won but still never got paid) a few years ago, it's been a strange leitmotif to to my life!

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    1. That's terrible Tabitha!! There does seem to be a culture that it's glamorous and you're therefore lucky to be working in these types of industries. There's also that strangely Brit thing where you don't actually want to work for a living historically, that it's much better to be a Gentleman or a Lady and live off inherited money...it might be slowly changing, but certainly the woman from the first interview I had made it seem just awful that I actually needed the money to live...! xx

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    2. I actually worked for nothing on a couple of short films when I was at art school. I could of course as I was living still at home . This is what makes me so angry that certain people dont get experience if they cant "afford " to work for free. still laughing about that vanity ... thats an awful word though I dont know what else is use..

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  2. Loved it!!!! Thank you so much as I just read this twice but I still have a request - MORE please. That is some juicy behind the scenes stuff Heidi... That is hilarious - this could be the format of a weekly drama series. How interesting though to see how things work because unless you work in it, one never knows what it is really like.I used to be a huge foodie then opened a cafe and it was just so different to what i assumed and while i love cuisine and cookery - when i see people say they want to open a restaurant i just shake my head in pity.

    I suppose it must be difficult because you are dealing with something so personal like a home. But do you think that all the people need to be formally trained or you would have gotten the job anyway even if you didn't go to Inchbald? I think it also worked out better for you having been left so many jobs to do as most jobs one doesn't end up doing anything but being an "assistant" but more like doing coffee rounds for everyone at the office. It must have been very rewarding to be in charge of so much. Do you think the industry is as crazy in Australia or this sort of experience is more big city syndrome like in London or New York? Maybe you can write about that another time. Soo interesting. But I did wonder how people lived on certain salaries yet were always blow dried and dressed to the hilt. I was in the Design Center as you know last week and even the receptionists were in chanel. That markup story is insane! I think you would make a great freelance designer after your own work is done. You could choose your clients and go on three holidays in 8 weeks - you are already a go to consultant for a lot of us so you should think it in the future. This was like bringing home the birkin - decor version! I think I will not be the only one who enjoyed this post as much xx

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    1. I don't think I could stretch it out to a weekly drama series! Plus it was a long time ago, and I have probably forgotten/ wiped a lot of it from my mind.
      I think it's just like opening a cafe - it's mostly drudgery and chasing things up, the fun stuff is very minor.
      But I think you should look into doing one of the courses at The Inchbald or KLC - they get a big cross section of student types - I absolutely loved my course, learnt so much and it was an entree into my jobs. I would've gone nowhere without it, despite having an Architecture degree.
      The Industry in Australia is different - not so many big budget domestic projects, so it tends to be smaller offices, often a 'name' designer might only have one assistant and that's it - they'll get in a draftsperson if they need them etc. The larger offices are commercial firms and do more hotel/ cafe type work.
      To be honest working for 'Jackie' was a lot like the novel "The Devil wears Prada". Except I didn't last as long! xx

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  3. Heidi what an interesting post! Your first workplace sounded dreadful! We just had a couple of things installed in our house and even simple tasks ended up being unexpectedly complicated so I can't even imagine how you must have felt trying to coordinate so many people when working on projects. I can't believe being paid for working can be an issue in the design world. What an experience you had xxx

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    1. Oh it was awful Fifi! I had an eye twitch at the end of the 8 weeks, and had lost 5 KG through stress!! They were very toxic people, although it's all quite comedic when looking back now. But I took it all very seriously at the time, as I thought this was my make or break to get my foot in the door. Design is just not valued very highly, so it's poorly paid, and they rely a lot on people doing free work. It's quite sad! xx

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  4. Hello Darling "Jackie" is fair and square in this month's Tatler Bystander right next to a wealthy middle eastern type who is a society member and is wearing a silver sparkly frock. Looks Thin xxxxx

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    1. Oh GOD! Thanks for the heads up. It usually upsets me for days when I see her visage again - the eye twitch comes back and I hear her barking down the office at me "Whaaaaat, Whaaaaaaat?". She is quite well preserved for her age though. But I would say it's definitely not a natural preservation....

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    2. Heidi
      If you ever have time, you could turn these experiences into a really funny book! Horrendous when happening but hilarious to read about. You definitely have a gift for the comic. Yes they all happened a long time ago and you've forgotten a lot - but if you do sit down to write, you'll probably be surprised at how much comes back. From there you can invent.
      Referring to trust funds, remember once working as a temp at the headquarters of a multinational construction company in London. Once of the Australian guys decided to take off for the Riviera. On his last day he told me he was shocked at how little he'd been earning per week. He'd just been throwing his pay envelopes in a drawer without opening them (in those days temps were usually paid in hard cash) in all the months he worked there - he too had some kind of trust fund! He couldn't understand why I was shocked and then couldn't stop laughing.
      I once also worked for the London Business School and discovered it was a hotbed of sexual intrigue. After my first two weeks one of the young senior lecturers told me he wanted to have an affair with me. How young and naïve I was! Just married and madly in love, was shocked to the core when, after informing him I was married, he said "of course you are. I wouldn't want to have an affair with you if you were single". It was that kind of place. But the pay was good, there was a heavily subsidised house restaurant with good food and wine and lots of interesting people. And it was then just off Trafalgar Square so I could spend lunch hours in the National Gallery or the Portrait Gallery. Pamela xxx

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    3. I've been trying to write a book for ages Pamela - but I don't get past around 500 words before I freeze and decide it's terrible! Maybe one day (next year, after the reno is over?!)...
      That's very funny about the Aussie trustafarian. I did know people who were being heavily subsidised by their parents while they were there, they didn't have to worry so much about buying their weekly public tube ticket etc.
      That's also very funny about the LBS - was he French by chance? Either that or a leftover of the Edwardian era?? xx

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    4. So interesting that you've been trying to write a book - could somehow detect it from your blog. I'm sure it'll be great. It's largely a matter of confidence - and bum glue is really important too (sticking at it) - that's what Bryce Courtney used to say! Was fortunate enough to participate in his last ever Writing Workshop - a wonderful experience with a fabulous group of people, two of whom are already now published writers. But can just see you as the severest critic - of yourself. Probably best if you don't read back over what you've written until you've at least 5000 words under your belt, or preferably more. Bryce was dead against reading the previous day's work before starting the next. After the reno, make a start. But you can be thinking of ideas even now. Keep a special notebook and take a few minutes at a time just to roughly jot down ideas, situations, characters as they come to you, without trying to perfect or refine them just yet. You can do that after the reno. But you never know if you get interested in doing this it might actually spark you to write bits sooner.
      Yes, the LBS was a funny place too, the lecturer, or as Nancy Mitford said somewhere, the lecherer, was actually English. Very arrogant, strange combination of Edwardian era and modern NY aggressive, one of the masters of the universe types before the words were coined. Almost all the students were from the better English public schools (all male of course) and they nearly always wore their old school ties when going for interviews (you know, Harrow, Eton etc). Some of the students and lecturers went on to leading positions in British industry and the civil service. Pamela xx

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    5. Oooh, thank you for all the tips - I shall pump you next weekend for more! My sister has written a couple of books, but they were Factual... I do think it's a discipline though (one I currently don't have)... although I'll then join the ranks of the unpublished most probably! xx

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  5. PS hope you are size 8 from the waist up as bought your Melb Gift today. Only Pammie to go x

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    1. yes, 8 from waist up. Waist down is another matter. But you shouldn't buy me a gift!! You're very sweet xx

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      What is this!!!? Very sweet - but plse only something really little. Have some little thingies too, but they are truly little - and with some sparkle - for the garden. Looking forward!!! Pammie xxx

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  6. That is a scream! I have to say they do sound like a bunch of very silly people. Working without pay... funny I was just talking to my friend Berna about this yesterday, many young people here in any kind of creative industry are doing internships without pay after Uni, but this is Canada and trust funds are rare, these kids are living off their parents on and on which creates a load of stress for tired people in their late 50's who just want to save for retirement.
    Thanks for sharing Heidi! It must have been difficult to live in London on such a low salary, it's such an expensive city.

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    1. I think it's an industry that attracts a certain type Dani! The internship has spread far and wide, and when you are young and desperate for a foot in the door, they exploit it mercilessly. It's always been the case in Design, where there are few jobs available for graduates, so even getting internships is incredibly difficult. I can remember my parent's feeling as if I was never going to be off their hands financially - I was 24 before I started earning my own money, and it was poverty line pay (a good experience in the long term, but at the time it was HARD). I was very thin when I lived in London, as I couldn't afford to eat a lot! xx

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  7. This is fascinating! I come from a very small place where even the interior design firms are very small only used by a select few. This is almost Dickensian! You must be so glad to be back in Adelaide!

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    1. It was a relief to leave London in the end, although my last job was lovely, and it was a bit like therapy - one of the other girls who worked in that office had had a similar experience (somewhere else) so I think it's not uncommon to be treated dreadfully... xx

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  8. Sorry Heidi ,but you have made my day as I thought I was the only "schmuck" who worked for "horribles" with 18th century pay and conditions while I was in the U.K. in my much younger days.
    Linda C.

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    1. Ha Linda! I think unfortunately it is a very common experience. The only Australian's making money back when I was there were the ones working on contract in the back rooms of the Banks. The rest of us were just scraping by! xx

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  9. Fascinating story, thank you so much for sharing! Your story about 'Jackie' sounds like it could be made into a movie, like "The Devil Wears Prada"!! Even though it was stressful, it still sounds like you have a few good experiences during that time.

    I have been trying to make a career change and it is very tough out there. Unpaid internships seem to be the norm in the design industries and it really exploits people who are desperate to get their foot in the door.

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    1. The book "The Devil Wears Prada" came out about 6 months later, and I could barely read it - it stressed me out so much!
      The work experience that I had was invaluable, and I did learn so much (especially about how to run a job properly from Jackie... all the proper paperwork and systems etc).
      Design is very exploitative - there are few jobs for the amount of graduates around, so most end up doing a lot of "work experience" in Australia or internships as they're called elsewhere. There are also a lot of very talented designers whom you never hear of - the magazines just tend to showcase the usuals, who are very well connected so get the best projects to work on, and all the publicity as well. Good luck with your career change Louise xx

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  10. Oh my god what a great piece Heidi I laughed and laughed .I know it would have been horrible working with these idiots. Williams 1V vanity have you ever heard the like? I am amazed the society decorater ie not paying people lasted into the last 90's

    Talking of working for free this system of intership has emerged here. my son's friend working for nothing at a major bank whilst at university ..it's also under the guise of work experiecne when you study but I have come across internships when people have left study ..sorry for the rant it makes me really angry

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    1. There's nothing like a William the 4th Vanity! I'm sure he would've been fascinated with the concept! Oh, the society decorator is still going strong - Jackie is still in operation, as are a bunch of others and I'd say they'll still be paying very poorly and trying to find those to work for free.
      It makes me quite angry too, and yes, the banks definitely exploit it as well. But back in the early 90's when I was looking for a part time job, I was made to do an unpaid "trial" in a shop. I only did a day, and then was hired, but I watched a procession of girls going through doing it over the next year - some of them worked for a couple of weeks for free, and I knew there were no jobs available!! And this was for a part time job in a shop! But it was the recession, and part time jobs were hard to come by, so they had the ability to do it. xx

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  11. This post explains your comment on my post yesterday...yes, sad fact. My husband says all architects and designers work for $5 an hour, if the real hours are divided. Tragically, it's a passion thing.

    Your fabulous writing of this extraordinary experience reminds me of Monica Dickens (granddaughter of the more well-know Dickens) books called "One pair of Hands" and "One pair of Feet". They were written just after the War, about her shabby treatment working as a domestic cook, and always have me in stitches no matter how many times I read my very old penguin copies of them. xvb

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    1. There's not enough value placed on design I'm afraid - and you can see that by all the rip offs of furniture designs etc to get around the designer being paid royalties for their original design.
      I shall have to go and look up those books and see if I can find a copy - they sound hilarious, and right up my alley! xx

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    2. If you can't find them, I shall lend you mine. Let me know because I think you would love them!

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  12. Loved this post Heidi!

    I too worked in London as a youngster, my first job was with a very exclusive Investment Firm, most of the employees were Lord's, Lady's and Viscount's who worked from Tuesday to Thursday, they spent the rest of the week 'working from home'- home being enormous estates in the English countryside.

    One of the Partners of the firm used to date Princess Diana, prior to her marrying Charles, there were photos of the two of them stuck to the fridge! Absolutely fascinating.......my job was to greet clients as they arrived and offer them refreshments, many of whom I would read about in the next months Tatler.

    Speaking of which, I also completed work experience at Tatler Magazine during my time in the UK - and what an eye opener that was!

    The Brits are a truly fascinating bunch to say the least!

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    1. fascinating Sally! What you must've seen and heard.... I bet the time at Tatler was particularly interesting - they print such great gossip as it is, the stuff that doesn't make it into the mag must be very scandalous and juicy indeed!
      And completely agree with you - it was a very interesting eye opener of a certain Brit culture xx

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    2. Id love to hear all about Sally's experiences too

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  13. Oh Heidi, I'm so sorry you had such a vile employer! We're not all like that, honest!
    I worked at Harvey Nics on and off for years as a student, and some of my customers were very much like 'Jackie' and her daughter. Many of my friends at school had trust funds and only sort of work now.... I'm a bit jealous, but when I catch up with them I feel that my life is happier, if not as 'rich' materially!!

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    1. Ha! I struck Gold Ruth! The trust fund thing is so different from Australia - we are all agog at the Reinhart children and their "down to their last 60K" lawsuit against their mother, but it's definitely not a common thing to be living off an inheritance, and it would be almost frowned at I think (I do know a couple of people who do, and they are regarded as being very odd as they don't work and kind of float around aimlessly a lot). The UK and US it seems to be more common.
      I think everyone needs to have a purpose with their life - it's what makes you happy, even if you don't actually need to work for the money. xx

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  14. Very amusing Heidi! Although I'm sure it's more so after so many years and was completely dreadful at the time. Working for a living can be such a drag, still waiting on that trust fund...!

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    1. It was stressful at the time! I lost 5KG when I worked for 'Jackie'. I can remember saying at the time that one day I'd laugh at it...
      I'm waiting for my trust fund too Gabrielle - that or a lotto win. I'm not picky! xx

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  15. This was such a fascinating peek behind the scenes and it seems quite incredulous that you should be expected to just love the opportunity and the work without being paid a decent salary. So much of this made me smile as I was picturing these characters but I'm sure at the time it was a very frustrating experience even though you managed to see some fabulous properties.

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    1. It was a real eyeopener thats for sure, and from a design point of view my horizons expanded enormously... do did my perspective on the human race! It was an office full of characters, none of whom showed a lot of sense! xx

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  16. So fascinating- and interesting comments section. x

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  17. I'm very slow on the comments this week - been very busy at work. This is enlightening. Working in the city I think I just took for granted that interiors would not be stressful at all. How wrong? I suppose if the clients are high net worth individuals and you have all these trustafarians thrown into the mix the reality is just so different. The characters sound amazing Heidi - lots to dine out over. x

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    1. I think it's a bit like when you go to a spa, and it seems like such a relaxing environment that it couldn't possibly be stressful to work there! Same with Interiors, and yes, the clients can be very demanding - they call all the time and expect you to be available 24/7 as they consider they are spending a lot of money (which they are, you just don't get much of a cut after the fabric cost etc). xx

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  18. My god Heidi this post had me snorting out loud, it is both hilarious and horrific and unbelievable all at the same time. And the trust funds? Really? My god how did you survive even eight weeks? I have worked for a whole lot of male schmucks but that Jackie sounds like a complete horror. mel x

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    1. Oh she was/is awful! No manners at all. But somehow she was beloved in society. When she turned on the charm it was 120 watts. Unfortunately I only saw the dim 20 watt version in the office. xx

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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