Ingrid, the natural daughter I never had, asked me who I thought I was! A big question to ask a woman embracing her twilight years at the young age of 73.
I have been many personas depending on the decades and life experience. An identity is not what you do work wise, it is a passion or how you feel doing what you love most. This may have nothing to do with your work but is however your identity.
You must have a goal and a passion or you are lost. An involvement and relationship with yourself before you can embark on a positive relationship with others. I roamed through life aimlessly with dreams, like the wandering Jew, always finding out what I didn’t like doing. It’s hard without a goal which should give you your identity.
I had an epiphany when I was about 30 and followed my decision and dream, without any experience, to become a successful vintage collectables dealer in Paris, the City of Lights, of culture, style and enlightenment. For 30 years that was my identity. A full time successful vintage collectables dealer. I was in the right places at the right time. London, Paris and New York.
You learn through your mistakes. People usually ask what you do in life rather than who you are. Revealing who you are leads to better communication. You must take off your mask and reveal your true self. To thine own self be true wrote the Bard.
I had a passion for my work. I was a workaholic 24/7, buying and selling, only thinking of profit. I was a woman possessed and obsessed by greed. I delved into the minds of my clients, a dealer of dreams honing into their passions in their private world so they loved me because I mirrored them. I was invited to view their private collections and fill in the missing pieces of their jigsaws. My identity was that of a dealer, never the collector. Life was easy. Profit was easy. I was what they call today an entrepreneur.
I didn’t realise who I had become until one day a French book dealer, observing me, spoke his mind and cracked my outer shell. He brought tears to my eyes and I became softer and more human thinking of my suppliers and colleagues for a change, their feelings, their profit margins and showing an interest in who they were too. I thus became a collector of people ‘rich’ and ‘poor’.
Then disaster struck. I became, horror of horrors, a collector! My identity shifted away from profit. I had bought a collection of vintage luggage labels from America that were too beautiful to part with at any price and a Napoleon 111, 1860, sample book of the most magnificent alcohol chromolithographic labels. The worst thing that can happen to a dealer is to become a collector!
I became obsessed with vintage packaging. I had a new identity now, that of a collector. I no longer wanted to sell my treasures but to learn and acquire more. Knowledge was the key. Knowledge was and is power. Know your subject. I felt powerful.
An archive was born, like the baby I never gave birth to! Retrograph Archive was founded in 1986, the history of packaging and consumer advertising from 1860-1960, 100 years of the history of graphic design. Another identity emerged, that of a picture sourcer, researcher and archivist. The archive grew into a commercial photo library. The business side was not for me. Looking back I should have delegated the administrative side but I did not. I was like a bird in a gilded office cage for 20 chaotic years. The enormity of what I had created consumed me weighing me down. I was no longer the decision maker but had to wait for editors and book designers to make a decision as to whether they were using Retrograph images in books or on greetings cards. It was a waiting game, not only for the decisions but also to be paid. No hanky panky here. No cash sales. It was daily administration with emails and invoicing plus Vat. Mamma Mia!
Despite being the 4th nostalgia and illustrative Archive in the UK, I was ahead of my time, a BAPLA member and in all the professional directories like The Knowledge, The artists and writers year book, The white pages, Mary Evans picture library directory et al. The passion had gone even though I still had the identity. The trick is and was to have both at the same time.
Then two disasters happened simultaneously in the 90s. First the digital age came upon us and I was an ignorant technophobic, then Ebay, which killed my dealing in Portobello Road market where I had happily had a stand for 25 years enjoying meeting Global collectors and specialised dealers, speaking foreign languages, another lifelong passion. I had made a living based on the culture gap between London, Paris, New York and beyond. Ebay destroyed my culture gap dealing world. Now that my dealer identity was striped away, there was nothing to replace it with. ‘Go back to conjuring and pre-cinema dealing, what you know best’ my magician husband would insist, observing my decline. You can never go back doing what you used to do in my book. You must move on and I had nowhere to move on to! I therefore fell into depression.
Martin and I moved from our beautiful Edwardian ‘Biba’ house in Notting Hill, London to Brighton, London-on-Sea to a large Georgian house of historic interest in Hanover Crescent once owned by Horace Smith, a publisher whose guests included Dickens and Hardy. One hour away from London but a world away from the glitter of London, Paris and further afield.
Suddenly, my faithful husband of 25 years, betrayed, ‘stole’ and tormented me. At the age of 69 it was sex, drink, drugs and rock n’roll that took over his new found life in liberal Brighton and destroyed mine, stripping me of my identity. I lost 4 years of my life which I refer to as my ‘lost years’. No identity, no passion, no Retrograph, no material possessions and no home. I collapsed like a pack of bicycle cards but I never stopped writing.
My first vignette was entitled ‘The Outsider’ written on the Greek island of Skyros in a taster class. ‘You have 5 minutes, start writing now’ Nell Dunn, the acclaimed novelist said. Decades later I still write every day. I never stopped! Writing is healing and kept me going in my darkest years but at that point it had not yet become my new found identity.
I suddenly regained my passion for colourful jewellery on a trip to Spain with a friend. Cheap but attractive artistic costume jewellery. Colour and sunshine has always uplifted me and, like music, been a great influence on my life. I bought some earrings for myself and for gifts. Back in Brighton, other ladies wanted to buy them. The Indians and Chinese had not yet flooded the market with cheap bling merchandise so I went back to Spain, buying more plus accessories. Retail therapy works and I am the living proof. Back I went to Brighton charity shops, always hunting and searching for that jewel with a professional eagle eye but not antique fairs. I did not want to go back into the exciting world I was no longer a part of. The chase that thrills the hunter. The hunt for the bargain of a lifetime. But this time without the greed. The passion but not the identity had returned.
Then came an invitation from successful Eve, a close friend who I had originally met 35 years earlier in Portobello, to visit her in Florida. Eve became my advisor and my mentor. So I decided it was time to go and visit via my old stomping ground, New York, New York.
Vintage costume jewellery came back into my world with a passion starting at the now defunct ‘Garage’ with snowballing consequences.
I was approached by a walking art apparition, the Queen of Colour, American Sue Kreitzman who recognised my Sultana Style asking, ‘Who are you?’ It takes one to know one I always say. Sue, living between London and New York, would become the catalyst introducing me to the bright, eccentric colourful world of ‘The Colour Walk’ back in Spitalfields, London.
I had a new identity indeed. I had rebranded myself as Sultana Jilliana, a self styled Fashionista born out of the ashes as the Phoenix had risen again in 2013 when I embraced the sun, colour and textiles and wanderlust in my life. And so for 2 whole years I enjoyed myself buying, buying and buying without any thought of selling. Thankfully I kept a stock book and receipts but I had no intentions of stalling out or taking a cabinet in an antique market. Been there, done that. You must never go backwards, only forwards. I had cured myself through retail therapy not ‘normal’ therapy.
During my ‘lost years’ I met, in a creative writing group, a multi talented creative woman called Susi Oddball, herself a writer, poet, educator, juggler and clown. Susi invited me to read in her newly founded Mad Poets Society and later on at Brighton and Hove Community Radio, her new local radio station. I found it was like talking on the telephone and Susi proclaimed that I projected my voice well, was a natural and gifted for radio broadcasting. At the time I was in melt down, on heavy medication without goals and identity. Her perceptive encouraging observation did not penetrate my addled brain. I had no brain! I was like the ‘walking dead’ in mental pain, even barking like a dog. No wonder they describe people as ‘barking mad!’ Believe me it’s true!
Susi’s BHCR grew and expanded so she moved studios and registered as a not for profit company. I was invited again to read one of my vignettes, about 4 years ago now. She liked my style and invited me back several times, always as a guest.
I was proud of my writing, my memories were very clear. I wrote as I spoke and spoke as I wrote. Words poured out of me, like an endless river. Amazing true synchronistic stories that had bored my darling husband, found willing listeners, hungry for more storytelling. Then I turned my hand to prose poetry in the same way and Open Mic without fear. Bingo!
After a couple of years, one Friday I decided to invite a guest to her show, ‘Your voice matters’. The show, 4 years ago was a spontaneous drop-in, but after that first guest, I invited more and more specially selected each week. I had no shortage of subject ideas for our listeners plus I had a plethora of willing guests.
One fine day in 2017, Susi upgraded my status live on air, calling me her co-producer! I was thrilled. At last I was appreciated and praised. We all need to thrive and grow on recognition, praise and encouragement. When she was away, I with Alan her studio manager, would conduct the guest interviews but I always briefed the guest before the show and followed up afterwards. A personal service you might say, just as I had done with my global clients in my past careers.
Suddenly I had a new identity, that of broadcaster and also co-presenter. I was even offered my own radio show but turned it down because I wanted the freedom to travel, my old lifelong passion. The lure of exciting places, tastes and new faces, languages but most of all the challenge of leaving my comfort zone. More to write about and photograph. Yes, I had even become an amateur travel photographer and vlogger, creating an unpublished website called ‘Jilliana’s Travels’. The wheel had come full circle from once founding, curating and owning a commercial pre-digital nostalgia picture library for 20 years, to photographing faces and places, not for profit, but simple enjoyment. I had found yet another passion. Photography.
The history of photography and pre-cinema had been one of my previous subjects in my world of antiques and I had married a professional ex-Sunday Times photographer - hence I had a professional photographer for my photo library Retrograph. But that is a story yet to be penned.
In 2013 I travelled to The Balkans, through happenstance, and made some Vox Pops and travel videos effortlessly with my new iPhone and loved doing it every day. Another new lasting passion was born.
Exactly a year ago in Orgiva, Andalusia, I had the good fortune to meet a delightful cultured English Octogenarian Kibbutznik who was a black and white portrait photographer. I decided to interview David properly. In time he emailed a complimentary testimonial and the rest is history so they say. I now have my own YouTube channel and have put up more than 500 interview videos or Vox Pops. I have yet another identity, that of an interviewer. There is no stopping me now as people love to talk about their favourite subject - themselves!
And today in 2018? My ‘adopted’ Cuban daughter, Ingrid from Havana now living in Miami, asked me this morning. Who are you Mama? What is your identity? She is now soul searching and questioning her life as I did at her age. Now I and Wayne Dyer are her mentors!
My answer to her is a long list of current identities.
I know at last who I am
I am SULTANA JILLIANA
The Phoenix has risen
The Eagle has landed
VIVA SULTANA JILLIANA!
Written in Brighton in April 2018.