A recollection from Andy Gardner from his time at Stratford Careers Office
Read how a Careers Officer, Merlin Callender, from Stratford Careers Office in Newham, played a small part in changing the face of the British fashion industry by helping Alexander McQueen find his Savile Row Apprenticeship.
It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Merlin Callender. Our thoughts go to her family.
A few weeks ago I was sitting on the sofa with my wife watching telly. I always have complete control over what is watched, as long as my wife and three sons aren’t in. Therefore, we were watching a programme about Vogue, the fashion magazine, which I was paying a passing attention to (documentaries about coach travel in the 1950’s on BBC4 are more of my cup of tea). One bit I did notice however, was a shot of celebs going into a Vogue 100 year gala dinner, with a huge projection of Alexander McQueen, the now deceased world famous fashion designer, over them.
This then started my mind whirring back to 1986.
In 1986, I was just starting my first job as a Careers Officer (not adviser) at Newham Careers Service. The clear matriarch of us Careers Officers was Merlin Callender, who combined a tremendous warmth and friendliness with a stern dedication to the job. Merlin started working for Newham Careers Service in 1973 and while she may not have been the first, she must have been one of the first black Careers Officers in the country. I was 10 in 1973 and my memories of these times make me feel that this was a big achievement, Merlin was a trailblazer.
So, on this day in 1986, I was at Stratford Careers Office, it must have been a duty day, when you saw whoever came in to the office. I remember Merlin coming up to me and saying in her warm Trinadadian accent “I’m seeing this boy, Lee McQueen from Rokeby (this was a school Merlin worked in, her other one was Sarah Bonnell), got one O’level in art (at the time this made him a bit of a high flyer in Newham), very shy boy, wants to do something in art, got him interested in a Savile Row Apprenticeship, waiting for Central London Careers Office to call me back”. Merlin then spent most of the morning with him, liaising with CLCO who had sourced the apprenticeship and who would then prepare Lee for the actual interview.
What’s clear to me is that Merlin played a small but significant part in nudging Lee (who had no connections, no cultural capital) in the right direction. Bizarrely, it now feels like she intuitively knew that she needed to spend a lot of time with him. Also, we must give credit to CLCO, who no longer exist. Merlin had probably known about the Savile Row apprenticeship through one of their training seminars (which Central Careers Hub is trying to replicate). They would have also sourced the apprenticeship through their relationships with the Savile Row tailors.
I have never been the Careers Officer/Adviser for anyone that is world famous (as far as I know!), but Merlin, through her skills that day, helped Lee McQueen (now known as Alexander McQueen) on his way to discovering his gift and turning the British Fashion industry into a world leader.
To bring us back to the present day, we no longer have public careers offices in all localities. Which if you are connected to the “chumocracy”, may not be a problem. But for young people, some of whom are lacking connections, and often appropriate qualifications, a friendly local careers office should exist (and Stratford Careers Office in the late 80’s was an exceptionally friendly, if slightly bonkers Careers Office, and that’s how the kids liked it!). JCPs and websites are not the whole answer and never will be.
Merlin retired from Newham Careers Service in 1993 (I remember going to the leaving party) at the age of 64. Sadly, Merlin is now living with dementia, cared for by her husband Edward. In fact, Merlin and Edward, who were married in 1965, were a real trailblazing couple. Edward achieved the role of Higher Executive Officer in the Personnel Division of the Department of Trade and Industry and was awarded the MBE in 1998. Many thanks to Edward for helping with this article.