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Helene Costas, queen of the Express secretaries 

By ALAN FRAME

Here’s something I never wanted to write: Helene Costas, the lovely, clever and bubbly fixture of the Daily Express editorial floor in London for the past 40 years has died aged just 63. 

I am particularly sad because Helene was my PA for almost 15 years and during that time I owed her far more than she probably ever knew. She organised me, tried to get me to meetings on time (the fact that she sometimes failed was no reflection on her), hauled me out of hostelries and knew most of my secrets, poor girl.

Helene, or ‘Tinky’ as her family and legion of friends affectionately called her, died on June 13 after barely three months fighting cancer. She discovered she had the wretched disease when her hip became painful. A trip to the Cromwell confirmed the worst and despite a course of chemo and radiotherapy, the cancer spread. 

But Helene, who could keep secrets better than anyone else, told nobody except her siblings and two friends, Pauline and Stacy. And so it was that the rest of her friends only found out six days after her death.

Helene was the eldest of seven, born to a Greek Cypriot father and English mother in Stamford Hill, inner London. Her parents began a Greek grocery import business and that may have given her a taste for retail because on leaving school she started work at British Home Stores long before, thank God, the ghastly Philip Green got his grubby hands on that venerable institution. By the late 1970s Helene was managing the Mare Street branch in Hackney.

But BHS’s loss was the Express’ gain when Helene took a shorthand course and was soon working as a secretary at the paper. When I was appointed features editor in 1981 she came to work for me, somehow sticking it out as I climbed the greasy pole to executive editor. 

In 1995 I went to launch Liberty Publishing for that other old retail rogue, Mohamed Fayed, but we stayed in touch, meeting regularly. And there she stayed until this Spring, working as assistant managing editor and latterly as PA to Gary Jones, the Express editor.

Helene never married, though not for the want of being asked. She had so many loyal friends both in and beyond the Express. We would have a gossipy supper at least once a year, often with Wendy Payne, Nick Lloyd’s former PA, and Jeanette Bishop, stalwart of Hickey. Sometimes we would be joined by Sunday Express picture editor Terry Evans before his tragically early death. She was also a guest of the World’s Greatest Luncheon Club, a pearl among swine!

One of her closest friends, Tinu Majek of the showbiz department, said: ‘Helene always recounted that the best days of working at the Express were when we used to go to lunch for at least three hours, followed by a session in the Poppins, then off clubbing until the early hours of the morning. 

'We hardly had any sleep but still managed to be at our desks on time and fulfilled our roles with great aplomb, without any hangovers from the previous night. That was a lot more fun than their bosses were having. And we were the ones with hangovers…

HELENE’S FUNERAL

Helene’s funeral was held in Southwark Cathedral on July 9, 2021, as ALAN FRAME reports:

The funeral in April of Prince Philip, which the old boy had choreographed himself, was widely praised for its simple beauty. Similarly the service at Southwark Cathedral for our lovely friend Helene Costas was perfect in every respect, organised by her large and very special family. Clever people these Greeks.

The cathedral was full to its current imposed limit of 130 and was a mix of High Anglican and Greek Orthodox … with a bit of Bob Marley, a great favourite of Helene and, judging by the response, most of us present. Marley’s No Woman, No Cry was played as the coffin was brought in, accompanied by heavy incense (I should point out to the constabulary that there was none of that unmistakable heady scent of the Caribbean about it.) 

After the opening prayer from the Dean, the Very Rev Andrew Nunn, the Greek Cantor sang the Kontakion from the Orthodox liturgy followed by eulogies from Helene’s brother Dr Barry Paraskeva Costas who spoke lovingly about his big sister ‘Tink’, as she was known by the family throughout her life; Andy Taylor, group managing editor of the Express who recounted her phobia of the mice populating the Express editorial floor (the cause, he said, was traced to Helene’s vast stash of shoes under her desk!) and yours truly who remembered being given — often — her Knowing Old Fashioned Look, ‘which can only be described as a subtle combination of supressed exasperation, mild disapproval and Stupid Boy.’

The choir (magnificent) sang Lord of All Hopefulness and Rutter’s A Gaelic Blessing and Helene’s sister Maria Costas Awad read her tribute ‘Sister’ and niece Alicia remembered her beloved Aunty Tinky. Incidentally, it was Maria who orchestrated the service so brilliantly. Maria explained later that the family had always attended the annual carol service at the cathedral ‘so I just rang and was put straight through to the dean. Getting hold of a cantor was proving more difficult but the dean solved that — his friend was a cantor’.

The Express, past and present, was well represented: Wendy Payne, Margaret Hussey , Tinu Majek, Jeanette Bishop, Andy Hoban, current editor Gary Jones, Lisa Clark, Jane Memmler and many others.

Helene was cremated at Honor Oak and family and friends celebrated the life of this warm, funny, clever, beautiful woman in the way she would undoubtedly have approved: Eating, drinking and remembering at her local, the Lord Nelson beside her home off Blackfriars Road. Bob Marley sang … and I missed the deadline for the Saturday edition of the Drone. But from experience, I know the Editor will be the first to understand. Helene certainly would…

A video of the service can be found at 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0UWbSFRBD8

A link to a video of the cremation service will be found here but was not available when the Drone went to press.

https://watch.obitus.com

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