Books, Bulbs and a Life of Crime
There are a few things I love more in the world than a whip-smart woman, but not many. It doesn’t have to be academic smarts; she just needs to be a woman that will think for herself, look at the world with a broad mind, challenge what she believes to be wrong and beat a clearer path for the generation of girls below her. Is that a bit much do you think?
What if I were to tell you I think I may have found her? Or certainly a damn close version of her. Jane Cox is my Big Personality this week and I spent an empowering couple of hours sitting in her café at Glendoick Garden Centre, listening to how a director for one of the UK’s leading literary agents ended up knee deep in soup, scones and a Christmas Shop.
We’re going to travel back to the heady days of London in the early eighties, when a young Jane had applied for a job as an assistant manager in a book shop. She had left school at seventeen and spent three months living and travelling in Italy; having grown up in France and Germany as an ‘army brat’ she picked up the language quickly and within 3 months, was working as a translator. The experience had given her a confidence beyond her years and by 18 she was running the book shop, making decisions on space allocation and rubbing shoulders with the authors of the day.
“I loved it. I love books and it was a perfect job for me. At the time, managing a book shop was so much more relaxed than it is now. There were no big publishers buying up the prime promotional space in windows so we’d pick and choose what felt right for our customers. I remember allocating a window to the new Jeffery Archer book, ‘Kane & Abel’, and a few days later he barged in demanding I give him the second window as well. Of course I said no and we had a blazing row in the middle of my shop. I met him again years later and I never did take to him. He’s an awful man. Jilly Cooper, on the other hand would come in and instantly recall your mother’s name or the fact that your child had been in a play. So charming. She always got two windows!”
Jane was to spend another year in Italy working as a picture restorer before finally settling in London at the age of twenty four. She was working as a secretary. And she hated it.
“I went into a secretarial agency one day begging them to find me something else. The woman interviewing her was flicking through her big book of jobs and I glanced down spotting an ad for a literary agent’s assistant. She tried her best to dissuade me, telling me the woman in question was extremely fussy. I eventually convinced her to ring up and within an hour, I was heading to my interview. This woman was the doyenne of British publishing at the time and my interview seemed mostly to be held with her dog. In the time I took me to travel back across London to my home, the agency had called and offered me the job. I spent 25 years in publishing after that, all thanks to my gut feeling and powers of persuasion!”
Jane worked with her doyenne for about four years before moving over to Chatto & Windus, a leading publisher at the time for literary fiction and non fiction.
In a random, passing comment I discover that just before she turned thirty, she felt compelled to scratch her itch for travel and spent a year in India with a girlfriend.
“I was an army child so we travelled all the time. I think it’s just who I am, it’s ingrained in me. In my soul. It was an amazing experience and I loved every minute of it. Travel is good for you, it makes you realise who you are.”
On her return she quickly reinstated herself into a leading publishing agents, working for Scottish publisher, Mainstream before embarking on her true vocation as a literary agent with Curtis Brown, where she was to realise the full extent of her passion for books and the literary world. She would receive hundreds of manuscripts a week and her job was to weed out the good stuff, look for great writing that would sell, package it all together for the publishers, negotiate contracts and look after the authors. Her interests at the time included politics and sports so she counted Ken Livingston, Clare Short, Dickie Bird and Brian Lara among her clients. She spent fifteen years with them in total, working up to director level and taking responsibility for a number of the big name authors of the nineties.
“Curtis Brown was, and still is, one of the world’s leading literary agents and I was looking after the sort of fiction that might get shortlisted for the booker prize. I also picked up travel writers, politicians, documentary makers, journalists and sportsmen and women; agents end up doing what interests them. It’s not difficult to work out why I looked after who I did.”
“Getting across London was a nightmare, so I bought a motorbike and zipped around on that, rocking up to meetings in my leathers. I was working on a book proposal with with Ken Livingston at the time and I’d arrive at the House of Commons on my bike and the guards always thought I was there to deliver a parcel!”
Jane tells me this with much glee, and it is a warm affectionate recollection of a time she clearly loved. I can’t help feeling that if my email address had ever been bikerchick@curtisbrown it would be how I introduced myself to everyone. It all sounds so heady and glam.
“I suppose it was. But at the time I was just doing my job. Parties with the likes of Martin Amis, Maya Angelou, Angela Carter and Ian McEwan were just an added bonus - you can’t let things like ‘glamour’ drive you. I was surrounded by people who, like me, had this great passion for books. Passion is a thing that pushes and pulls at you. If you’re fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who have the same passion you will never be bored, never be stuck for conversation. It was a tremendous time in my life.”
So there she was, 37 years old enjoying a hugely successful career and attending a wedding in Long Island, when she meets a Scottish author of gardening books, plant hunter and world rhododendron expert. Ken Cox must have impressed her with some seriously dazzling conversation because by the time the weekend was over she had agreed to go travelling in Venezuela with him.
“It was so spur of the moment. He asked me to go and I said yes. Having only just met, we spent three intense months together; there’s nothing like travelling with a person to find out who they really are. Just before we came home we were travelling down the Orinoco River in a canoe boat when Ken proposed. And I said yes. Just like that. By the time I was boarding the plane back, I had one foot in Buenos Aires and the other effectively in England, and all I could think was ‘what have Idone?’. He was due to stay another week with me in London and I begged him to keep the engagement secret. In fact, on the aeroplane going home I asked him for a get out clause!”
But of course, she never did execute her right to use that clause and a year after they met they married and Jane moved up to Scotland.
“I didn’t mind the move. London is great for younger people and I’d had my fun. But I did find Scotland a huge culture shock at first. We live in a house at the back of Glendoick and suddenly I was in a sea of white faces, no ethnic mix, no buzz or noise. It was really difficult to begin with but I fell pregnant quickly and felt a bit more settled. Jamie was born in 2000 when I was 38 and what shocked me then was the sexism. One doctor asked me if I didn’t think I was a little old to have a child. I had friends in London, the same age, the same situation and non-one would have had that said to them..”
Jane set up a Scottish office for Curtis Brown and commuted to and from her office doing a week in Scotland, a week in London and two weeks at home. The punishing schedule took its toll and not long after Jamie was born she sadly had a miscarriage.
“I just thought, ‘what’s my priority here?’ Ken was out in China at the time looking for plants so decided to pack in my job and that was it. It wasn’t long before I needed to find something I could do from home, in my own time, and as I’d already made it perfectly clear that I’d never eat or work in his Garden Centre (she raises her eyebrows) I looked around for something else. That’s when I started the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.”
I am, at this point in the conversation, a little in awe. I know the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, it is huge. In fact, it’s the largest of its kind in Europe. Jane formulated her idea while pregnant with Finn and pulled together a crack team of the crime writing industry’s biggest hitters. Val McDermid, best-selling author was first to jump on board, closely followed by an industry publisher and agent; before long Jane had built a fabulous committee and the first festival was launched in 2003.
“It was hugely satisfying and I could do it from home. I visited London maybe twice a year to chat to publishers and new crime writers. I felt so privileged to be doing this amazing job while living in Perthshire and raising my children. I was among the first generation of women who could do that. Running a decent business from home after the birth of your baby was only possible after email and internet access came about.
Although, I did have to go out and harass people into signing my petition so we could get dial up internet at Glendoick. We had to collect 100 signatures to be connected in those days! I’d stare excitedly at the screen as it dialled up and watch hundreds of emails drop into my inbox (very slowly!). The festival grew and grew but I’d never have done it without email!”
At the same time as the Festival was growing Jane had broken her promise of ‘never eating or working in the Garden Centre’ and had taken over the running of the café.
“It was a disaster at the time. The food was terrible. Although,” she deadpanned, “the chef was actually a grave-digger so what do you expect?. I had to teach him how to make soup. He had no talent and the place was just badly run. Ken loves the plants and is passionate and focused about his side of the business. His mother started the garden centre in 1973, with his father and grandfather running the nursery out back. By 2004 I was seriously involved in the café and in 2006, I handed over the Festival to the committee. My priorities had completely changed; I was no longer hanging onto publishing.”
She did do a little programming for Perth Concert Hall and Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Winter Words programme but after a few years out she felt she had lost a sense of what was going on.
“You need your finger on the pulse all the time. I was asked to apply to run the Edinburgh Book Festival a few years ago and I was incredibly flattered but after four hours thinking about it and a phonecall to a friend who had been the book festival’s director, I decided to turn it down. It would have taken over my life and I had primary school children and I was now immersed in Glendoick Garden Centre.”
Jane started with the café, determined that she would bring a little slice of London up to Perthshire, with fresh, local produce a must. This was ten years ago and the demand for food provenance had only just started to take hold in Scotland’s larger cities and fine-dining restaurants. Growing up, her mother had cooked professionally, instilling in her a love of good food and fresh ingredients. This was the culture she started to nurture at Glendoick and she had visions of re-enacting the famous V&A advert of the time; “Ace Caff with quite a nice museum attached”.
“I really believed that if we got the food right then people would come for that alone. At the time our customers were buying plants and perhaps staying for a coffee and a cake.. But we slowly started to make changes and after a period of about three years the café was thriving and we had a product that everyone could be proud of. I was suddenly a business woman, managing people, looking at processes, wondering how we could improve our offer. I had accidentally found myself in a new career and it turns out I’m really quite good at it!”
Over the past few years Jane and Ken have grown the business significantly, adding a Food Hall in 2004 and doubling the size of the garden centre in 2011 with gift, home, and clothing coming to the fore. However, “Ken insists that when you walk in you know it’s a garden centre with plants at the core of what we do. We grow a lot ourselves and we buy our bulk of plants from other growers in Scotland. It’s what sets us apart from the big multiples. They’re all buying from England and Holland and the plants just aren’t hardy enough for our climate.”
I listen to this woman talk about plants with more knowledge than I suspect she ever thought she might need or want. This is the same woman who I now know shouted at Jeffery Archer for being rude and insisted on a get out clause following one of the best proposals I have ever heard. (Kudos to Ken for agreeing.)
I ask her what has been the most significant change in either who she is as a person or what now makes her tick. The two worlds she has painted for me are so vastly apart in their nature I can’t imagine how she made this apparently seamless transition using only her Harrogate Festival as a bridge. She thinks carefully for a few minutes, before explaining some of tangible things she has learned as an employer and business woman; things like employment law and the science behind a shop layout. It took a few minutes of talking, and she was cautious in her choice of words but eventually she answered the question fully.
“I wanted to learn how to engage with our team because suddenly I was working with people who were doing a very different job to me. Last year, I did a year’s diploma in Counselling and Listening Skills and I loved it – it was brilliant. What I recognised in myself was a need for intellectual stimulus and this helped me to achieve that. I’ve signed on to do a foundation year in Transactional Analysis which basically looks at what you inherit from your parents. I’m doing it because it fascinates me. So I have combined the buzz and stimulus of running the business and raising a family with the intellectual stimulus of my new found learning process . Iit all works for me.”
We chat a little about learning to work full time with your husband – “Try not to bring work home, go on holiday with other people.” – about feminism – “An architect told me recently not to worry my pretty head. He won’t say that again.” – her favourite author at Curtis Brown – “Julia Darling.” - and about what’s next for Glendoick – “If all goes according to plan I’m hoping for an educational, outdoor, adventure playground, a play barn and a wood fired pizza oven.”
Jane Cox sits across from me smiling, offering me soup and a tour of the new Christmas shop. She is clearly a woman who thinks for herself, who looks at the world with a broad mind, challenges what she believes to be wrong and who will happily beat a clearer path for the generation of girls right below her. If the old adage is true, and you only ever regret the things you didn’t do, I would suggest that Jane Cox will live to a ripe old age with nothing but a happy satisfaction.
I accepted Jane's invitation for a tour of the Christmas Shop and O.M.Goodness me! It is glorious. Pop out for a visit and find out why Jane and the team have won Best Cafe In Any UK Garden Centre for four years in a row!