Alexander McQueen and Merlin Callender

 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.

Comments 9

  1. What a wonderful story! I worked in Chelmsford careers office in the 80’s and remember well the vacancies we received from CLCO for all sorts of what seemed wonderful opportunities .The CLCO had fantastic occupational experts who delivered training seminars and these were invaluable in encouraging our young people to commute to London. Those seminars were a great opportunity to meet with other careers officers in the south east and maybe I might just have brushed shoulders with this great lady!

  2. Thank you Andy for sharing this wonderful story and resurrecting the careers service. In the time of austerity where careers service is hard hit and further squeezed out of existence, people forget how it is a life-line for young people for support, guidance and to access opportunities for a better future.

  3. Such a heart warming article, Andy. Merlin was my Careers Officer at Sarah Bonnell School, and I still remember knocking on the door of the “careers Office” one warm sunny afternoon. I was quite clueless about what I wanted to do, apart from knowing that I liked to write, and wanted to help people. I remember Merlin giving me lots of information, but also challenging me, which was a very good thing as it got me thinking.
    Some years later, in 1995, I joined the Newham Careers Office as an Employment and Training Adviser, two years after Merlin had left, and the team still had fond memories of her. Did Merlin play a part in me becoming a Careers Adviser? I will never know if there was a direct correlation, or whether it was the start of a series of fortunate events. That’s the thing with our work, it can be hard to measure the impact of one meeting, but I know for a fact that for every person who says “my careers adviser never helped me”, there are countless others who were enabled, guided, sparked or motivated to reach their goals in part by that one meeting. And I also know that despite the many challenges, I feel incredibly privileged to have a career where I can help others to fulfil their dreams, just as Merlin helped one Lee McQueen all those years ago.

  4. This is a great, inspiring story and a good example of a committed dedicated Careers Officer I too started my career as a Careers Officer at Wandsworth Careers in 1992 and later at Brent Careers which became Brent & Harrow Careers prior to privitisation, and subsequently Lifetime Careers I started working for colleges in 2006 but remember quite clearly the wonderful, informative training sessions at the Central London Careers Office and was very sad to see it go. There were many times over the years that I wished the facility still existed. I have been travelling back and forth to Bermuda since 2012 and they are crying out for career services like what we had back in the day. Things have changed so much from how it was then. But, I know there are a lot of committed Careers Advisers out there including myself, who would rather spend their time helping and inspiring students like Alexander to fulfil their potential rather than get bogged down by unnecessary policies and associated paper work.

  5. Thanks for a very heart warming story Andy. I do remember the CLCO days with great affection. I became the Retail specialist careers officer there in the late ’80s until ILEA was no more. I loved my job! I wrote the Retail Management handbook that went national, I ran seminars for careers officers and saw all the YTS trainees in all the major retail stores. I visited all the top department stores and our work was really valued by them. Happy days of the Gold standard.!

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  6. Thank you so much for writing this article, Andy – and thank you to everyone who left such lovely comments. It’s now been a year since my Aunty Merl died, and this webpage still brings so much comfort to her family and friends.
    God bless you all.
    (From Merlin’s niece)

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