When Julia became the Chairman of the NHS I became her PA because I was already working within her department. The only thing I really knew about her was that she presented Pause for Thought on Radio 2. The first time I saw her was when she theatrically swept past me in the corridor. I said to myself, "there goes a handful". When I actually met her I thought, "She's one hell of a chick", but I wasn't in awe of her because she was very down to earth and approachable. Julia is tough and testy but she's firm and fair. There are no sides to her - what you see is what you get. She has a huge amount of energy and is very driven, and is the only boss who I have worked for for more than 18 months. Julia wears many different hats including being the Chairman of the NHS, vice-president of the Carers National Health Association, Chancellor of the University of Ulster, sitting on the General Medical Council, the Medical Research Council and being an author and broadcaster.
She expects work to be done, her pet phrase is "just sort it out", but she's very even-tempered. She is a proud Jew and I am a proud, fiery Italian, which makes for an interesting relationship. I can't hide anything from her and, although she would hate to admit it, there's something of the Jewish Mum in her. She quite often tells me to go and get chocolate if I am flagging, for example. I guess we both look out for each other. For her birthday I bought her some Christian Dior nail varnish and told her to smarten up her hands, and I tease her about wearing voluminous skirts. Being Italian, I want her to wear well-cut, streamlined clothes.
She has a clear sense of family values and tradition, like me. If her family is fine then so is she, but if something is wrong then she's preoccupied. Unlike many bosses she understood when commuting became difficult for me to juggle with looking after my elderly mother and my brother who has learning difficulties. Being a pragmatist, she said: "We can get round this, I don't need you sitting with me all the time, you can work from home just as well." I now have a room of my house dedicated to Julia Neuberger. Some people think working at home is all fluffy slippers and domesticity but it's more a matter of dealing with the fax roll running out at midnight.
Every week I come up to London to meet her, bringing loads of letters, invitations to speeches and general correspondence but her diary is a nightmare. I spend most of my life sorting out. It ranges from booking a hair-dressing appointment to making time for her to see her mother and daughter. The office phone transfers to my house so I can take Julia's calls. She knows a vast network of people all over the world so you never know who will call - it might be her mother calling to say that she's lost something or it could be a Minister's Private Secretary. Some of the calls are very sensitive, for example a patient might want to talk to Julia personally in order to make a complaint about the NHS. Members of the Jewish community also call with requests for Julia to hold services for them. Often they try to discuss the service details, at which point I have to tell them that being Italian Catholic I'm not familiar with their rituals. I think they are quite shocked that Julia doesn't employ someone Jewish, but I guess I sound and indeed look quite Jewish. Julia jokes about my Catholic guilt, she says that I was born guilty. For example, I will use my mobile phone to make personal calls because I don't want to waste NHS money. Like most secretaries I am protective, but I wouldn't hide anything from her. In December she takes up her new job as the Chief Executive of the King's Fund, an independent health charity, and she has asked me to go with her, which is very flattering, but we both know that it will be a challenge. It will be the first time that we work together in an office for any length of time and we just aren't used to being together as secretary and boss in that way. Both of us are set in our ways and are used to working on our own.
Julia runs a programme for female chief executives in the King's Fund and is always trying to get me to develop my skills. I think she's always afraid of Paola becoming bored, but I think Paola would tell her if she was. I am actually very happy doing what I am doing. Many people ask me why, with my modern languages degree, I am just a secretary. I explain that Julia wouldn't employ someone to be "just a secretary". I have to be an extra set of eyes and ears for her and also her friend.
A lot of stuff I do for her is personal and she needs to trust me. I need to be able to work 150 per cent and I also need a lot of forbearance because she can be very demanding, but there is something about her that would make her very hard to leave. She says that I will follow her to the grave. Maybe she's right.
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