Roz Whistance finds there’s more to Vanessa Churchman than ballot boxes and red tape
“If I don’t win I’ll cry for a week because my ego will have been dented,” says Councillor Vanessa Churchman. “Then I’ll go and ‘get a life’.” By the time this article is published, votes for the council elections will have been cast, and Vanessa will either be half way through her third box of tissues or happily back in the mire of local politics.
If you meet Vanessa over drinks at some official do, you’d be forgiven for thinking that if you sliced her in two you’d find red tape instead of blood: suited and booted she looks every bit someone who eats and drinks order and regulation. So it comes as a surprise, when you visit her at her lovely cliff-side bungalow, to find her in trackie-bottoms and Airtex shirt, with gardeners’ hair and no makeup.
Like most councillors worth their salt, Vanessa’s life is rich and busy enough without needing the irksomeness that must characterise local government. Far from being clogged with red tape, her veins run with passion, not first and foremost for local politics but for sport, cars, business, and with love.
Sport first: and netball has dominated Vanessa’s life. Her dedication to the game played a part in ending her first marriage. “I was a tiger. I don’t believe in losing.” Beginning at school in Perivale in London she was picked for the prestigious Sudbury Court team, and made the reserve England team.
Vanessa has always given her all – in everything. Her childhood was happy: she had two brothers and a sister, and her father worked for Hoover. Educated in a convent, by nuns and secular teachers, she thrived. Her first jobs were in an advertising agency in Central London, and when eventually she entered the world of business she found it fascinating.
In the meantime Vanessa had met John and they married, but they were like chalk and cheese. “I said it was a lovely day, he’d say there were clouds up there.” Their marriage didn’t last.
Vanessa’s next career move was into banqueting. She organised Masonic dinners, bar-mitzvahs, weddings, business luncheons – and that was where she met Joe. “How do you explain love at first sight?” she asks. “Within a week we were living together.”
Joe had spent 22 years in the Guards, and as a young man during the war it had been his duty to protect the two young princesses at Windsor Castle. Years later, when the Queen was inspecting the troops at Horse Guards Parade she singled Joe out to speak to, as she had recognised her childhood protector. “He was very proud of that.”
Joe used his army transport experience and contacts to set up a top class coaching company, called, appropriately, Guards of London, which was successful thanks to their 7-day a week input. However their backers pulled out, and while Joe ran a taxi service in Coulsden, where they were now living, Vanessa ran a chauffeured car-hire service, based in Vauxhall.
“It wasn’t that I was particularly clever but by that time I knew so much about transport, I ran it efficiently. I’m good at admin, and good at thinking on my feet.”
The firm attracted big-league players, like tennis star Jimmy Connors who would ring her at home to secure a car for his next trip to the UK. But the contract which lead to some of her most memorable adventures was with Aerospatiale, the French side of the Concorde partnership. Dealing with the French called on all her tact and ingenuity, particularly at the bi-annual events at Farnborough. “I’d go down for the ten days the show was on, and run it from there. I’d take a super-duper Merc and be the spare car. Once, the French hadn’t bothered to tell us President Mitterand would need driving about all day, so it was just as well I was prepared.”
Becoming pregnant with their second child saw the end of the chauffeuring: “In those days being pregnant meant you got the push,” she says ruefully. She went into her least favourite job, working for a large photocopier firm. And it wasn’t long after that that tragedy struck. Joe had a massive heart attack and died.
Her salvation came through sport. “Joe had died in the December, two days after Boxing Day, and I was due to run the London Marathon in April. I was going to pull out, but knew Joe would have been furious with me. All I wanted to do was to go and sit in a small corner and die – but I had two small children and had to keep going.” With the help of a wonderful nanny for the children, Vanessa was able to carry on with her working life as she took over Joe’s taxiing service, and with her marathon training.
It was the first of three London Marathons for Vanessa, and she relishes the memory: the atmosphere, the streets lined with supporters and the tremendous sense of achievement.
She continued with the car company for about 12 years, during which time she met her current husband, David. “Aren’t I lucky! How wonderful to meet and marry somebody else!” He was a chartered surveyor, but the couple sought a business they could run together, and it was a picture gallery in Bembridge which eventually drew them to the Isle of Wight.
She and David gave up the gallery last year, and she is proud of what she has achieved as a councillor – though she says it gives her more grief than she cares to think about. “You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to be a councillor – what you do need is to have common sense and practical values, that’s what it’s all about.” It is time to say goodbye, just as David arrives home. It is as if Mr Darcy has arrived: Vanessa leans over her balcony like a young girl, smiling brilliantly and says “He’s a lovely man! I really think I’ve had a wonderful life.”