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Meet John, a Charismatic Old Millhillian

This week we spoke with one of our incredibly charismatic Old Millhillians John Henley (Weymouth 1953-57). John was very engaging and has bundles of life experience. He spoke fondly about his time at Mill Hill School.

After leaving Mill Hill School John started a magic dealership. He shared his advice about being an entrepreneur, finding a job you’re passionate about and adopting a positive mental attitude. More recently John works on movie shoots and is heavily involved in the publication of the ‘Mill Hill Times’; a quarterly newsletter produced mainly for Old Millhillians (OMs) and Old Belmontians (OBs) in North America.  

John spoke about supporting young people in today’s job market. He stressed the importance of an ‘education for life’ and teaching pupils how to apply for jobs, budget, rent properties and more.

Read the full interview below:

Since being a pupil at Mill Hill School what are you up to now?

Over the past two years, the Covid pandemic has reduced my external activities to a minimum. Prior to the outbreak I was working regularly on movie shoots but have opted to keep away from sets for the time being. At about the time of the outbreak in early 2020, Roger Holliday (Winterstoke 1953-58) and I ceased publication of our quarterly newsletter ’Mill Hill Times’, produced mainly for OMs and OBs in North America, and so I have spent numerous hours preparing the 22 issues for publication as a hard cover limited edition book, which should be ready later this year (2022). 

I have also spent a lot of time digitising and editing my collection of home shot 8mm films and videos which will be shared amongst family members once the job has been completed. I have always liked film editing. 

Outside the home, I also take care of various property investments. 

What are your career highlights so far?

One of my earliest photos is of me standing behind a table in my back garden in Edgware when I was about 10 and showing off some of my magic props. I was truly “bitten by the bug” and magic featured in my life for decades. That probably explains why, a couple of years after leaving Mill Hill School, (I would have been 19) I started a magic dealership business with a magician friend of mine and two years later took the plunge and decided to do it full time. Becoming self-employed was a major step forward and despite many ups and downs, enabled me to enjoy a pretty good life-style. 

Undoubtedly one of the highlights was organising a one-day magic convention for members of the Mad Hatter Magic Club at the Children’s Polka Theatre in Wimbledon. The atmosphere was electric and the Gala show consisted of TV and award winning magicians. Such was the impact of this event back in October 1981, that even now, some 40 years later, I am occasionally contacted by adults who were kids at the time and who are still enthusiastic magicians and collectors of Mad Hatter products. I think we all feel that we would like to be remembered for having impacted someone’s life in a positive manner. 

A highlight many years later would be the ‘Mill Hill Times’ newsletter. Truly a labour of love for Roger and myself it allowed me to exercise the creative part of my alleged brain. 

What is your favourite memory from your time as a pupil at Mill Hill School?

This was also connected with magic. There was little in the way of entertainment laid on for us, but we did have the occasional film shown in the Large. The Conjuring Club, which used to occupy one of the Top Field shelters (now sealed up but, at the time, a great place for our club to operate during Hobbies’ Hour on Sunday evenings), decided we would organise…. and I use that word loosely …… an end of term Variety Show called ‘Variety Top Hat’. 

The acts would consist of a number of magic acts by various club members, a musical act consisting of “The G.C. Dixie Six” who played some skiffle and jazz music, and concluding with a TV magician, Robert Harbin, who was our guest artist. 

I think the timing for an event like this was perfect. The Large was packed, the sense of expectation was amazing and the audience support and reaction to the acts was out of this world. I don’t think the school had ever encountered an evening like this before. To call it a resounding success is almost an understatement. 

I left Mill Hill School in 1957 but a second ‘Variety Top Hat’ was mounted in 1958 and it is possible that others followed. 

What is your favourite book and film, and why?

Over the years I have built up quite a large collection of both books and films. I always wanted a library and now my office looks like a library with hundreds of books. I cannot honestly say that there is one in particular that I would name above another. 

My movie collection is also extensive and I have my own home movie theatre with surround-sound which is awesome. Ever since I was a child I have loved anything to do with 3D. Whether these were simple books with those red and green drawings that became 3D when you donned the special red/green glasses, or 3D movies which one can watch in the cinemas today, to me they were all a source of great excitement. My theatre is equipped with a 3D TV and 3D Blu-Ray player and recently I decided to spend a few months watching each of the 3D movies in my collection – one a night until all 77 had been viewed. 

Despite having many of the blockbusters there is actually one short film ’Arthur Moore and the Lone Wolf’ in which I was Arthur Moore, that I really like. It was a project shot by Ryerson University students and is one of the films in which I take most pride. Interestingly enough, my character, a hunter, wanders around with a rifle and I could not believe when, on day 1, I was handed a Lee Enfield .303. I had not handled one since my days at Mill Hill School when we used to shoot them down at the Butts on Bittacy Hill. I felt quite at home with it and still knew how to strip it down and clean it! 

This film was shot in the depths of a Canadian winter but the good memories persist today. 

Can you tell us anything that you think would be of interest to the Mill Hill School community?

In my day, back in the late 1950s, getting a job was not difficult. I walked into Warner Bros Films on Wardour Street purely on impulse, asked to see the Personnel Manager who saw me in her office and I asked for a job. I had no idea what would be offered but I was asked to start the following Monday. 

Today’s job market is totally different, with many people having to take several part time jobs just to be able to make enough for rent, food and travel. The idea of a job-for-life is more of a rarity today. People move around much more. Our youth need more support than we did, and we Old Millhillains, who have achieved something in life, should be willing to dispense help and advice. Remember, we were them once! 

The only time that the topic of a job arose at school was when the Careers Master appeared for a day to dispense suggestions, most of which were cookie-cutter ideas like architect, accountant or lawyer. I believe that education should be tackling the issue of ‘Life After School’ long before final year. Students need to learn what the real world is all about. They should be taught how to write resumes, how to apply for a job and how to behave at an interview, including what to wear. They should be taught money management, how to lease a flat or premises, how to budget. Anyone leaving school with that sort of information under their belts will have a head start which no number of ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels can provide.

Could you share an inspirational quote with us? How does it inspire you?

There are a couple that come to mind. In my early days as an entrepreneur I never found a bank who believed anyone could run a magic business and make money. “Too risky”. “I don’t see any future for you”. “Will you be able to pay us back?” These negative responses were because the bank managers had no concept of my business and it was easier for them to say “no” than to take what they perceived as a risk. 

(a) “Believe in yourself…. because someone has to.” 

(b) “Winners never quit and quitters never win”. 

Unless one has really deep pockets and can ride out the ups and downs of opening a new business, most entrepreneurs set up on a shoestring. They make a mistake and they fall at the first hurdle. They never carry on because they think they are a failure. 

Experience is the result of making many mistakes and learning from them. Apart from own dogged in-built belief (a) that I would succeed, I was absolutely certain that I was being tested every inch of the way. If something went wrong it was because some Greater Power wanted to see if I could overcome the problem. If I did, then there would be another problem that would present itself down the road. This persisted throughout my entrepreneurial career but I learned a lesson from all the early mistakes or hiccups and did not repeat them later. I refused to quit. Quitting was not in my vocabulary and even if things got tight sometimes, I knew that I should believe in myself (a) and learn from my mistakes and carry on (b). 

There is another saying, “If you think you cannot do it, then you can’t, but if you think you CAN do it, then you can.” 

It is all about attitude. Think positively and you will succeed. Ignore the naysayers because if you believe in yourself and what you are doing, you can be a success. If you want a funny story, you should hear what happened in my final term at Mill Hill School when it was my turn to sit down with the careers master in the Large! 

Do you have any career advice for our pupils?

I think everybody’s situation is different. Advice for one person would not suit another. One can generalise and quote platitudes. No matter what career path you follow, learn from your mistakes because it is from them that we accrue experience which then makes us better at what we do. 

There is a saying “If you love your job you will never work a day in your life”. The majority of people end up working their 9-5 jobs and cannot wait to retire just to get off the treadmill. But, if you really like the work you do (and I certainly did with my magic business) then you look forward to going to work every day. For me, whilst I ran my company, I was having fun every day and earning money in the process. I was being paid to enjoy myself every day. 

Granted, there were ups and downs, but that is the nature of the world of the self-employed. You just need to ensure the ups outnumber the downs. Nearly all my life, whether it was my immediate family or even my ex-wife, there was never a real acknowledgement that what I was doing was actual work. I cannot recall the number of times I was asked “Why don’t you get a real job?” If I went to work from 9-5 that question would probably never have been posed as I would have fallen into the same rut as every other 9-5 worker. 

Definition of a rut: A grave with no ends. 

As far as I was concerned I had a “real” job. I made money, I owned property and probably did a lot better than many others. If you want to start a business, find a mentor who has been doing this for years. He or she will have made many of the mistakes you have yet to make. Save time, use their experience as you won’t live long enough to make all the mistakes yourself!