From hot lead to computers to laptop, Berwyn Lewis witnessed dramatic changes over her forty-year writing career. The teenage typesetter who had a winning way with words became an award winning copywriter and later, a journalist. She tells her story to Clare Kennedy
I grew up in Bowral, about 80 km south of Sydney. My parents owned a towel and linen shop in Bong Bong Street. You can take the bong out of the girl but you can’t take the girl out of the bong!
In 1962, I went to work with Grace Bros Department Store in Broadway in the advertising department. I was trained at a young age to set type for ads for the department store. Things like, ‘Two Socks, One Tie or ‘Think of Dad on Father’s Day’.
We had to select the type and set it with an em ruler. It was great training. You’d have to measure the width and depth of your copy and you’d work with the art director who was sitting at another big table. When the art was done, I’d have to take the sheet down to Smith and Miles, the hot lead printing company in Sydney’s Kent Street, and it would get set in hot lead in wooden frames.
Going down to this Dickensian workshop on the ground floor in Kent Street, I’d be feeling very nervous. I was only 17 and from the country and didn’t know many people at all. I barely knew my way around Sydney.
In the workshop, people were dressed as if they were about to moonwalk, because it was an inferno. They were wearing great big helmets, gloves, heavy suits and great big boots because it was very dangerous. The hot lead was being melted and you could easily get burned. They must have been in meltdown in those suits.
There must have been 15 or 20 people in the room throwing the type into the frames. They did it with such expertise. I was afraid because it was so dark and hot and I was scared of these great big guys lumbering around. It’s just an unbelievable technological leap from those days to what we’re doing now.
I had always wanted to make my living from writing and I realised that working in the department store was not going to lead to anything great. So every moment I could, I read and tried to educate myself about advertising.
In 1962 I landed my first job at the advertising agency, Pritchard Wood. I was apprenticed to a very experienced, much older copywriter, Mary Bell. I often wonder what happened to her. She’d be sitting at her typewriter with a roll-your-own cigarette dangling from her lips. She taught me a lot. She was very nice to me and would invite me back to her little flat in Lavender Bay for dinner sometimes.
Being ambitious, I decided there were bigger agencies and I got a job as a copywriter at J Walter Thompson on the corner of Liverpool and Elizabeth streets. They were riotous times. Honestly, it was so much fun. Just the outlandish people! It was flower power time and guys would wear bright purple shirts with yellow ties and bell bottom trousers. We’d go out for lunch all the time, because in those days the budgets were enormous. It was my first experience working with real professionals.
My creative director was Rob Hatherley, who in his spare time directed musicals. Australian artist Ken Done and Bryce Courtenay also worked there. It was just laughter and fun all the time. People were real characters and because it was the beginning of the 1960s and feminism and the sexual revolution were booming, you could wear anything to work.
I used to wear a blue workman’s singlet with no bra. It sounds terribly pretentious, but we used to call it ‘pauvre chic’. You had to look like you were a labourer from the wharf – that was the look. We were already rebelling against flower power.
I worked on some very interesting accounts. The Australian Women’s Weekly was one of them. Every week we’d go down to Park Street, troop upstairs and have a meeting with the then editor about how we were going to promote the next issue. She was an absolute tyrant. She never spoke to me because I was too lowly, so Rob Hatherley would take over and perform in the most eccentric way and charm the pants right off her. There was a lot of that.
I didn’t like Mad Men (the TV series set in an advertising agency). It has been pointed out to me since that that was the American way. Women here did not wear box pleat skirts and push-up bras and have affairs with men in the office. Women in advertising in the 1960s in Sydney were much more liberated. We weren’t considered just ornaments.
I didn’t like the way in Mad Men women were portrayed as the victims of powerful men. It was not the case at all at J Walter Thompson or Pritchard Wood. They were much freer and wilder times in Sydney.
At J Walter Thompson, after work everyone would either go to the pub or Martin’s Bar (in Oxford Street) and get incredibly drunk. Martin’s Bar was so revolutionary for its time. The women behind the bar were bare breasted for a start, and it was a pretty wild place.
One night I was at the pub talking to colleague Peter Lenny. All that time I was learning about how to behave in meetings, say the right thing, how to pitch to clients, how to do story boards and understand the industry. A guy across the other side of the circle bar winked at me, so I winked back. He came around the bar and Peter Lenny introduced us. His name was Bren Claridge and he was a stills photographer from a Sydney agency called Rogers, Holland and Everingham, which had a notorious reputation for wild behaviour. Six weeks later we married and we took off for London.
I saw Mick Jagger, I’d barely heard of him back then, performing on the corner of Hyde Park wearing a dress. I’d never seen a man wearing a dress. It was a sort of Doris Day dress with puffy sleeves and a Peter Pan collar. So it just turned my head right around because I’d never been out of Australia before. It was 1967.
Berwyn Lewis is writing a novel and a memoir. From 1982 to 1985 she worked as a freelance contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald, The Times On Sunday and The National Times. From 1986–1992 she was a Senior Features Writer at The Australian.
A selection of her writing can be found at www.berwynlewis.com.
Photos supplied by Berwyn Lewis.