I moved to Canterbury in 2000 to take up the post of Head of Culture with the City Council. When I was interviewed, I knew with absolute certainty that this was where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do and who I would become. I got the job and I loved it with a passion. I learned over time that I was an enabler. I had good ideas, I could bring people together, I could develop projects and find investment for them, I could write policy and strategy, drive change and influence decisions. I could make things happen. The job changed and grew and so did I. It became who I was and vice versa. I lived and breathed it. It was work and play. It was everything. Until it was deleted and I was made redundant.
In March of this year, I celebrated my 59th birthday. Nearly a decade earlier I’d reached fifty filled with anticipation, excitement and threw an extravagant party. Five years later I greeted fifty-five with a sense of satisfaction and optimism after a period of big achievements at work. But from the moment I turned fifty-eight, I dreaded being fifty-nine. I saw it as an unwelcome milestone, a drum roll sent to dramatically reveal the big 60, glittering on the suddenly not-so-distant horizon. And I was very scared of being sixty.
It’s not that surprising. A year ago I was tired, jaded and close to burn out. I felt I was on the brink of sliding non-stop into old age with a shorter temper, thinner hair and diminishing energy. I was juggling a demanding job with caring for my increasingly frail parents. My husband, Andrew, had recently lost his father. His mum, who lived 100 miles away, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He himself lived with the after effects of late- diagnosed Lyme disease. Anxious, stressed and pulled in several directions, I was feeling less and less equipped to balance my personal life with my professional life and I could only imagine it getting more difficult. I was sure something would break and thought it would probably be me
Then both our mothers died, sooner than we’d expected and within half a year of each other. These two foundation-shaking events were devastating and eclipsed everything else for me and Andrew. They stopped our world and put it on pause for a while, but as we moved on and began to move forward, a new clarity emerged. Priorities shifted. The order of things began to fall into place. I started to move with the flow rather than resisting it and my eyes were opened to opportunity and change, though I can’t explain exactly how this happened. I’d been seeing a counsellor for a few months, and she had certainly helped me to reconsider my identity and to ask myself some starkly honest questions about me, my work, my relationships and my future. When mum died, the loss helped me answer those questions and put things in perspective. I’m sure it set off a chain reaction, because from that moment, my life changed.
There had been talk of a senior management restructure at work for months. All of us on the team knew there were big cuts to be made. I thought about it a lot. There were days when I desperately wanted to be in the firing line, other days when I hoped I’d dodge the bullet. Looking back, the very fact I was having those thoughts at all was an indication that it might be time for me to go, but I didn’t fully recognise it.
Then, one chilly October morning, just three days after my mother’s funeral, I walked into my boss’s office for a meeting about the proposed changes, fearing the worst, and I was right. Yet despite the news that my post would be deleted in the new structure, our conversation was positive and upbeat (all credit to my boss for that) and I walked out filled with a sense of liberation.
When you face redundancy at this stage of your life it can be devastating. For some, like me, what you do is who are – your identify is completely wrapped up with your work and status, a key to how you see yourself and how other people perceive you and behave towards you. Removing that piece of you is major surgery, and it’s life-changing.
My first reaction to the news was fear. Of course it was. Suddenly you find yourself on a cliff edge and you have to go forwards – to fly or fall. But that acute anxiety lasted only seconds, then something else – excitable, unsure, but full of anticipation – bubbled up. I wanted to physically jump for joy, right there in the Chief Executive’s office. He could see it happening in front of his eyes. My boss had given me the opportunity to take my life back, and a few months later, two days before my 59th birthday, I left my job of eighteen years and walked out into a brave new world – scared, energised and ready for a fresh start.
My professional and personal passion is culture and the arts. I absolutely believe that it is a transformational force. Culture can empower or enlighten a life at a deeply personal level, or sweep in on a spectacularly grand scale, making and changing places for a moment or forever. My work in this sector has been the motivating force in my life for 35 years, so how could leaving it all behind excite me, thrill me, reboot me?
My early jobs, straight out of university, were in bookselling and the BBC. I loved those jobs and knew I was privileged to have them, but I wasn’t ambitious in either. They were, I suppose, moving me along a route to somewhere else, but I had no idea where that might be and I didn’t really care. I remember the day that all changed, when a colleague told me that a wonderful old cinema in Leeds, the second oldest in the country, was having to close down. We hatched a plan to save it by organising a weekend festival to build public support and raise money. The idea took root and started to grow – soon it had turned into a week – long event, then two weeks. The council gave us £20k and persuaded a sponsor to match it. That was a lot of money back in 1985 and expectations were high. Thankfully the festival was a great success and the next year I left the BBC to run it full time. I thrived in that role for eight years, nurturing the Leeds International Film Festival as though it were my child. I suppose in many ways it was. It broke my heart to leave, but new opportunities beckoned, leading an organisation in Glasgow that supported and developed young Scottish filmmakers.
After that I moved back to my alma mater city, Manchester, to head up the northern branch of BAFTA. My next job, working for the Arts Council in Newcastle, was a dream – running the film, photography and literature department in an organisation that was helping drive massive change through culture-led regeneration. Hundreds of million pounds of investment transformed the Newcastle-Gateshead quayside; artist-led initiatives sprang up and flourished; talent across all the art forms was nurtured, supported and given a local, regional, national and international platform. They were exciting times and I witnessed, for the first time, the power of the public sector, working with partners, to reimagine, redefine and transform a city. I was completely inspired by this and wanted to spread the word, to do the same, somewhere else.
Which was when I became Head of Culture at Canterbury City Council. We bid to be European Capital of Culture, but quite rightly lost out to my home town, Liverpool. The bid, however, created ambition and momentum and over the next ten years we attracted millions of pounds of investment to the district. Culture transformed Canterbury, not least with a fabulous new theatre and a restored, extended, art museum in the heart of the city. Organisations thrived, festivals grew and new ones sprang up. Culture was placed right at the heart of the council’s vision, and that was reflected in my changing role. For a while I led on corporate communications alongside culture, and then a new department was set up bringing economic development, tourism and culture together – a powerful mix that was a catalyst for more change and investment. They were heady days, when anything seemed possible.
But times change and so do politics. A new government brought austerity. Local councils were portrayed as profligate and inefficient and made scapegoats for all of the world’s ills. My job changed again and again. My focus now was saving money as our budgets were cut, then cut again. And again. Investment in culture fell out of favour. This cycle is a normal part of life in the public sector, but it took me further and further from the things I loved. And those things – art, heritage, creative education, cultural industries, – needed fighting for more than ever. Add my growing frustration to the fact that I was tired, genuinely burning out, and it’s obvious why my redundancy turned into more of a silver lining than a cloud. I know it isn’t like this for everybody. I’m in a fortunate position. Being over 55, my local government pension was released when I was made redundant and even though it’s much less than if I’d paid into it up to retirement age, it gives me a cushion and the means to live.
Many people facing a major life change like redundancy don’t have that, so I’ve a lot to be thankful for. I do still need to work, but I can think about doing it differently now. Maybe part time, maybe freelance. In that sense I’m lucky.
I feel in my gut that it’s time to go back to the cultural coal face, but though I’m full of energy and ideas, I worry that my age will count against me and I won’t be as interesting proposition as a younger person, hungry, ambitious and determined to make a mark. Me, thirty-five years ago. I still am that person of course, with the advantage of a lifetime of experience, but will others see that or just see an ageing facade? I honestly don’t know the answer, but I’ll be finding out pretty soon.
In the meantime, I’ve enrolled on a twelve-month photography course. It’s been my ‘hobby’ since I was given a Nikon for my 21st birthday, but over the years (and several cameras later), it’s been pushed into a mentally locked cupboard, waiting for a moment when I ‘have more time’ – and now I do. I also get to spend more time with Andrew, with my dad, and with my lovely bearded collies, Bella and Alice.
In terms of my professional life, I’m being proactive. I’ve accepted an invitation to join the board of The Marlowe Theatre. I led the project to rebuild it and it’s been an important part of my world for many years now, so I’m over the moon to be moving forward with it. To test my freelance wings I’ve taken on a couple of pieces of pro bono work for small cultural organisations. It’s a whole new way of working for me and though I’m not being paid, doing this will help my CV, while I’m helping them. And – most exciting of all – I recently managed a multimedia launch for my husband’s novel, Anatomised. It brought together some things I’m passionate about – literature, promoting creativity, being an advocate for art that has
something important to say. The buzz of producing a successful public event is hard to beat, particularly when it’s for something you’re so invested in. Afterwards, I felt the seed of an idea that’s not quite ready to bloom …but I think that it might. For now, it’s just germinating, while I decide if it’s real or just wishful thinking. Again, I’ll find out if it’s got legs soon enough.
I’ve also talked to friends and colleagues who have ideas about possible future projects and opportunities, and I’m hoping one or two of them will bear fruit. If they don’t, I think there will be others because I’m full of optimism again and for the first time in a long time, my mind is completely open to opportunity and I’m excited to see where my road will lead next. I’m also realistic enough to know that it might lead nowhere, and then I’ll return to that germinating idea and try to build something right here.
Whatever happens – even if nothing happens – I can see now that over time, I lost myself in my job. Losing it has helped me find myself again, and no matter what comes next, that has to be a good thing.