Secretarial: We Work For... - All-singing, all-dancing

SALLY SLANEY AND NIKKI MANSERGH JOB-SHARE AS ASSISTANTS TO QUENTIN BLAKE, THE ILLUSTRATOR, WRITER AND CHILDREN'S LAUREATE
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The Independent Culture
Sally

I have always worked in publishing; my first job was as assistant to Paul Hamlyn the publisher, who, being tough, demanding and a real perfectionist, gave me a thorough grounding. I'm passionate about children's illustrations, and met Quentin through my bookshop in the King's Road. This job was low- key when I started eight years ago, but following Roald Dahl's death a huge number of his fans wrote to Quentin as well. For years Quentin valiantly answered each letter, but as they swelled to thousands it became impossible. Hundred of requests each year from schools, institutions, libraries, literary festivals, etc mean that with support from me he has reluctantly learnt to say no.

Initially I ran the office on my own, but two years ago I decided to cut back and now work mainly organising exhibitions around the world. I am also in the process of reorganising the hugely valuable portfolios that make up the archives. It's fascinating to see drawings from more than 50 years ago coming to light, such as his first cartoons for Punch when he was only 16. Until recently the "office" was a bedroom in Quentin's flat, but when it became so crowded that we were in danger of being buried underneath artwork I persuaded him to buy another property, which we converted. It is a perfect work space which he loves to visit as an escape from the studio.

For years I ran publicity departments working for big-name authors who tended to have fragile egos - in fact we used to joke that the only drawback to publishing was the writers - but Quentin is different. He is absolutely charming and without side, despite his fame. Ironically, although he doesn't have children himself he has the ability to get inside the mind of a child. Far from being influenced by what is happening around him, his work seems to come from an interior landscape. He has a spontaneous sense of fun and loves suddenly to announce treats; his other side is private and quite reserved, and I remember he once wrote: "Sometimes I draw much more cheerfully than I feel." His intellectual side is catered for by illustrating adult books and reviews.

He's been my real linchpin. When my husband died three years ago my doctor said, "you must keep working". Quentin was marvellously supportive. When I recently moved he produced a a wonderful change-of-address card for me, featuring my cats. Although it was my decision to do a job share I felt a bit nervous, but it has worked out well. We interviewed several people but Nikki was the one we liked best and she is now providing a nice new spark, while I suppose I still have overall responsibility. With our wonderful bookkeeper Vicki, we form a trio. Sometimes people ask whether I find it a bit of a comedown being an assistant, having done all kinds of high-powered things, but the truth is I love the freedom that allows me to spend three days a week in Suffolk.

Nikki

In order to job-share effectively you have to be assiduous in detailing what's happening, to avoid mistakes. We hit it off immediately, but is jolly strict with me and will tick me off if I leave a dirty cup out. Our jobs do overlap but generally looks after the artwork and I am the suit, dealing with everything from fan mail to Quentin's role as Children's Laureate. I had to learn to handle big personalities such as heads of publishing houses, as well as Quentin's artist friends. I feel the need to protect him, so that he can get on with his work. Often, for example, an entire class writes to him and asks for letters back.

An illustrator friend recommended me for the job. I thought that Quentin wouldn't be interested as I had no publishing experience, but when he asked "you could walk to work, couldn't you?" and I answered yes, he employed me. I had understood this was going to be a quiet job, but on the first week Quentin invited me and my eight-year-old daughter to the premiere of Matilda, where we mingled with Hollywood stars such as Danny DeVito, then went on to a huge party for kids. My daughter thinks I have the job from heaven, she finds it so thrilling.

It is fantastic for me not to have to switch off from a child's language when I come into work. As well as having a well-developed, deadpan sense of humour Quentin does have a naughty streak. Yet unlike many famous people who live in a fantasy world, he has his feet on the ground. Instead of being a vague and eccentric artist, he's a relaxed man with his finger on the pulse. I'm always amazed by how gentle he is; he's never cross.

He is genuinely unaffected by fame - his sole motivation is his love of drawing. He draws all the time and I love to watch him at his drawing- board. You can be who you are with him; he puts on accents, sings and dances - and so do we.

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