Anna Grayson has had several careers in her life – scientist, broadcaster and now artist and photographer. But behind all her success is a remarkable 46-year-long love story…
“I was at the University of St. Andrews studying Geology, but there had been a virus going around so I’d fallen Ill. I was so unwell in fact, that I was sent to stay in a chaplaincy with a community of catholic nuns. As I recovered, I spent time in the evenings in their sitting room – called the Anything Room, because anything could be discussed in there – science, arts, theology, well, literally everything, and it was marvellous. While I was there, I received a letter that would change the rest of my life.
“I had had an interview in Edinburgh for a Studio Manager position at the BBC, then a second interview in London. The final letter arrived while I was at the chaplaincy. The BBC wanted to hire me! The first thing I did when I read it was to take it straight to the Anything Room and share the news with the nuns!
“I started work at the BBC in October 1974, starting with a six week training course— I would say that it was pretty much half and half…half women, half men. The BBC at the time, was the most fantastic equal opportunities employer, and they had been since the end of the Second World War. There were plenty of women producers and there were plenty of women in very senior roles.
“On the very first day I met a chap that I thought seemed rather nice, and it turned out he too had studied Earth Sciences. On the second day of the course he presented me with two lovely fossils he’d collected while doing his PhD in North Africa.”
While talking to me on Skype, Anna walks to a corner of the room and picks up the fossils. She lifts them up to the camera and for a split second I can feel the excitement she must have felt when she first received them those many years ago. “I think we both realised we were kindred spirits. Our first date was at an Italian restaurant in Leicester Square and things grew from there.
“When we finished our course—which was the equivalent to a Master’s in Radio— Des started working for the African service and I worked mainly for Radio 4, but also did things for all of the other BBC stations.
“Des and I went on field trips together. I think the first big trip we took was to the Lake District and within six months we were engaged. We loved broadcasting with each other. The truth is we still use broadcasting terms in the house today. So we “pre-fade the oven” and “pot-cut” the telly if we don’t like what’s on!
“We also travelled a fair deal. Des had done a lot of research in Morocco and throughout our marriage we have been back there quite a few times. On our second trip there we were walking around, and a man approached me. He tried to sell me what he said was a Lapis rock. I could tell it was not Lapis. I could see that it has been formed in a mountain because the surfaces were both polished and scratched—which suggests that it moved in a fault—so I bought it. I knew what kind of a mineral it was, but had never seen it before. I showed it to all sorts of people, but no one could identify it. Until one day when presenting a live programme from the Natural History Museum in London, the staff x-rayed it and discovered that it was completely unknown to science. It was very exciting.
“This all happened in 1995-96 and it was not very well received by some male scientists. They seemed to resist a woman being involved in a new discovery. Phrases like ‘How could a woman have discovered a new mineral?’ and ‘She must have made it’ were muttered. I have always found the suggestion that I could have made it incredibly funny, because how clever would I have to be to be able to make a mineral with such complex structures…it was all rather silly. The mineral was of course proved to be naturally formed and is of an intense blue.
“I spent 30 years as a freelancer working with the BBC. I produced and wrote educational programmes and reported for Woman’s Hour and became a presenter. I worked with some really lovely and interesting people. I broke new ground in making location radio programmes and went on to be the first woman to present a Natural World. I could not have done all this without the support from Des. Most people I worked with really understood what equal opportunities were, but sadly not everywhere was like that.
“In the late nineties the BBC in London lapsed a bit and became prejudiced against older women. At the same time the scientific establishment was nurturing some very bad attitudes and toxic working environments. The unpleasantness culminated when in 1999 I was assaulted and verbally abused in the library of one of the Learned Societies.
“Both Des and I found the whole thing very upsetting and soul destroying. I ended up changing direction then. I was offered a part-time academic post at Bath University, wrote another book, and also got a contract with a major educational initiative called 21st Century Science
“In 2006 we moved down to Devon. I was doing freelance writing and my husband had given up his day job to be a watercolour artist. He was really enjoying himself and a few years later I decided to go to art school myself. I spent a very hard-working, but truly wonderful year at Exeter College. I did not intend this to become another career, but within a year of leaving college one of my pieces was hung in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. When I found out that I was short listed I was absolutely delighted and then getting my picture hung there left me in complete shock. Everything in life is so interesting and unexpected,” says Anna with a smile and an inward look.
“Des often models for me and there is a wonderful two way street of understanding between us. I quite often suggest subjects he could paint. He paints pictures that look like photographs and I take photos that look like paintings. Somehow it works!
“But over the last three years Des has been seriously ill with cancer. At one point early on he had to be blue lighted into Torbay hospital and I thought I was about to lose him. The kindness of the NHS in Devon has been overwhelming and has been a major factor in his recovery.
“Art has also been a great saviour through difficult times. During his recovery and through lockdown Des and I have gone sketching together almost every single day. Walking, discovering new things about the local geology, and sketching has felt very positive, despite the difficulties and restrictions posed by Covid 19.
“Our relationship has been unshakable. We sit and do art side by side. These last years have been amazing. Des and I do gardening and spend quality time together. He has just helped me get my pictures ready for my first solo show at the Royal Albert museum in Exeter. We are both very aware that our time is limited so we try to enjoy all of it. Every single bit.”