My First Job: Elizabeth Jane Howard, novelist, was a canals campaigner's secretary

'All writers should have a variety of jobs'
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The Independent Online

"I was very grateful for the work," recalls Elizabeth Jane Howard. "In 1947 I was on my own and penniless. I was writing but not published." Six decades later, she is in the fortunate position of having in print all her nine novels, plus the four-book (televised) Cazalet series, plus Slipstream, her autobiography.

Even when Howard had two or three novels under her belt, she needed to have a day job as a reviewer; when she was an unpublished writer and separated from her husband, her part-time typing brought her a much appreciated £2.50 a week. And anyone who has boated along or fished in a canal should appreciate her typing.

Tom Rolt was the author of the 1944 classic Narrow Boat. This described his epic voyage over England's canals, which at the time were used only for trade and were gradually being closed down after being bought up by the railway. Rolt and a fellow enthusiast, Howard's literary agent Robert Aickman - a plaque on the Worcester and Birmingham canal commemorates the first time they met, in 1946 - set up the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) as an aquatic pressure group.

She cannot be typecast as a mere typist: "I spent four days a week typing letters, paying in cheques from the members and going to meetings." At first it was uphill, or upstream, work but "both of them were good at writing letters. I didn't do shorthand, so Robert would speak slowly and I took it down on a big, heavy typewriter." The IWA bombarded MPs with letters and they in turn flooded the House of Commons with so many Parliamentary Questions about the waterways that the procedure for PQs was changed to restrict the torrent of submissions.

The tide turned. People who wanted to mess about in boats were no longer dubbed "cranks". The disused canals were "rewatered" and new stretches dug out. The IWA is 60 this year. Its first salaried employee, Howard, left after four years: "I wanted to do more writing and was fed up with Rolt and Aickman having rows. I wanted to get the hell out."

The four years of four-day weeks had not been wasted for our young heroine. Her novel was finished and published. She wrote a short story about a boat on a haunted canal, "Three Miles Up", and her later novels contain episodes set beside waterways. There were also less specific benefits for her subsequent writing career.

Novelists need variety, in the books they read and the people they meet: "I think all writers should have a variety of jobs and meet a wide spectrum of people. I wish I'd had a wider variety of jobs," says Howard.

During this period she did some broadcasting and, occasionally, a little modelling for Vogue. If you think writing is financially precarious, try being a model.