My sister in law is an animator. That in itself sounds rather cool. She even won a BAFTA earlier this year for a Short Animated Film. A couple of years ago she invited my wife and I to go to a screening of her latest film at a little cinema in Soho. The delightful film was called A-Z, and as the name suggests, it told the story of the woman who painstakingly put together the famous map of London.
The A to Z has become so familiar, and so essential to anyone living in London, that almost everyone had one. So much so, that in the recent updated version of Sherlock Holmes on BBC TV, a gang of foreign criminals used the A-Z to hide a secret code on the assumption that everyone would have one. Of course, A-Z maps are now available for so many places other than London. What we often fail to realise is that before it existed, there wasn’t a map of London that told you where everything was. If you wanted to know how to get from Maida Vale to Cockfosters there wasn’t a simple guide to show you. This all changed with the publication of the first A to Z in 1936. It went on to become a bestseller.
And all of this was thanks to one extraordinarliy dedicated and tenacious woman – Mrs P. Mrs P was born Phyllis Pearsall to a larger than life Hungarian father and had a challenging (my euphemism for dysfunctional) family life, and spent most of her childhood in English girl’s public schools. One evening in 1935, she got lost on the way to a party in London for lack of a decent map, and the idea of the A to Z was born. She spent months walking the 3,000 miles of the 23,000 streets in London compiling lists of streets in 26 shoe boxes labelled A-Z. After a lot of persuading, she published the book and it began to sell. It has since sold sixty million copies. If you want to know more of her story, then I recommend “Mrs P’s Journey”.
What is often not mentioned about her (including on her Wikipedia page – although I intend to rectify this) is that shortly after WWII she came to a profound faith in Christ. She was returning from The Netherlands on business in 1948 and the plane crashed in Kent. She was bedridden for months, slowly recovering. Although her business was successful and she was becoming well known, this was a dark time for her. Whilst in bed, she had an extraordinary vision of Christ, that began a remarkable journey of faith that shaped the rest of her life, and her attitudes in business.
She became someone who was happy to talk about her faith in the midst of normal daily life, in a matter of fact way, with everyone she worked amongst. This doesn’t appear to have been forced, she just believed that God was close by and should be talked about. Often I wish I could do this so easily. I love to talk about God, but so often feel constricted or unatural in doing so. Oh for a natural walk with God, that becomes as easy to chat about as my kids, my wife or Sussex County Cricket Club.
Mrs P’s faith shaped her attitude towards her staff. As her obituary in the Independent in 1996 described “In 1966, sacrificing any thought of personal security, she founded a unique trust for the benefit of the employees and joined in the parnership where she was loved and respected.”
Above it all, she was cheerful. She stayed with Chris Patten, the last Govenor of Hong Kong, shortly before she died. Chris and his wife described 2 things – her cheerfulness and her freedom in chatting about her God.
God, help me to be cheerful.
“All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast.” (Proverbs 15:15)