21 May 2021
Sydenham High School’s Lecture Series continued with alumna Marianne Grant who captivated pupils with the story of her life and career to date.
Marianne’s tale is a love story – a love of life, people and adventure – some born out of adversity but also luck, grit, bravery and disappointment. She emphasised that people and experience are the most important currencies that you can possess in life.
Marianne was the eldest of three children (her sister Alison also attended Sydenham High). Her mother, from Hungary, and her father, from Jamaica, met in London when her mother was working in a church. Her father was in the Army and served in Egypt during the Second World War. It was hard for them to find a house to live in, Marianne recalls, as in those days, mixed race or black people trying to buy a house was very difficult and her parents “learned quickly that they would have to depend on my Mum being the one who went to look at houses.” Eventually they bought a house in Brockley Rise. Music was key part of family life and Marianne started learning the piano when she was four, encouraged by her father’s whose theory was if you played music to children before they were born they would be able musicians – and indeed she and her siblings all are!
Marianne’s father believed strongly that it was important for children to have the best start in life and particularly because he knew through experience that his children were going to have difficulties growing up in the 1960/70s society. Her father was very impressed by Sydenham High School girls that he saw on the bus and so they approached the school and, even though the school year had started, Marianne was interviewed and accepted into the Junior School in 1960. Marianne believes herself to be the first non-white girl to go to Sydenham High.
Marianne was supposed to leave the Junior School to give her younger sister an opportunity to attend instead but the Headmistress of the time, Miss Yardley, intervened and said it was important that both sisters stay. Fortunately, Marianne passed the 11 plus and received a scholarship, thus ensuring her place at the Senior School. Marianne embraced Senior School life – enjoying music, especially choir and swimming at Crystal Palace Sports Centre. Her year group was pretty innovative – forming the only Bridge Club at a girls’ school in London and competing against the boys’ schools in the area.
They were wonderful experiences but adversity had dealt Marianne some difficult cards. On 26 November 1968 Marianne’s life changed forever. Her father had come home from work unwell and he died that night. Marianne was only twelve – it was a huge shock for the family, “I had to step up and be a real support to my mother who had to take care of us all” she says. Marianne suffered several serious health problems with her knees, preventing her from doing any sport at all from the age of twelve, and a very late diagnosis of endometriosis which took its toll physically and mentally, and meant she spent much of her school days “looking like I was ok when I really wasn’t ok”. Academically she had to also deal with the bitter blow of not achieving her dream of becoming a gynaecologist. In spite of this, and against 1960’s backdrop of what girls could do, she embarked on a diverse and fascinating career path which has taken her from newspapers to Government Affairs to trade associations, the automobile and the film industry, from the UK to South Africa and the States.
Marianne shared with us her key career takeaways which are that individual careers are the product of unique experiences gained and the data of those experiences used in future interactions. She asserted that 50% is good enough. People and research will help you fill the gaps and you should take every opportunity to learn from everyone you meet. Listen actively and use your experiences to inform your future. Marianne advocates being Meccano rather than Lego as it’s more structural and the framework is flexible – we all need to be able to adjust.
Marianne closed by advising everyone to start where you are now as you all have something to begin with.
“You all have this road ahead of you – I’m excited for you, even with the trials and tribulations of COVID and how its changed things – in lots of ways it’s going to change things in a way that is going to make your lives easier – as its more easier to communicate with people and learn different things. I’m really happy to answer questions in the future. I’m a proud Sydenham High girl and I’m happy to be able to give something back to Sydenham finally after all these years.”