Elizabeth Carter is a transformation lead at NHS England, working on a campaign to promote nursing as an aspirational career of choice. A change leader, feminist, and radical, Elizabeth is determined to enable young women in education and their careers to unlock their full potential. In her discretionary time, she coaches and writes with a focus on her passion, women in leadership. She is a fierce advocate for living well until dying and sees this fourth quarter of her life as a time to embrace the inevitability of death and preparing for a good death by living a good life. Elizabeth is appearing at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival as part of the AoA session on Sunday, June 9th at 5pm in the Mortuary Chapel. She will be reading a piece she wrote – with Nadia Chambers – for AoA on Living Well until Dying.
Age (in years)
59 ( 60 in October)
Where do you live?
Oxfordshire right now. I moved here last April having spent 5 years in Spain. I have lived all over – longest I have ever lived anywhere ( since I left home at 18) is 5 years. I always know when it’s time to move on and I act on it.
What do you do?
I walk my dogs, I dream a lot, I write stuff. Oh and I coach leadership development especially women in leadership and coach narrative to leaders.
Tell us what it’s like to be your age?
I feel exactly the same as I did when I was 17. I sometimes feel like it’s a bit of a joke that I am actually the age I am but clearly it’s true!I think the best thing about being this age is that I am incredibly kind to myself and allow large amounts of selfishness to keep healthy emotionally and physically.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
An ability to sit still, to meditate, do yoga. I was so full on then.
What about sex?
I like sex! I am very comfortable with my body and have no shyness or hang-ups. Great sex is wonderful and I have had some great sex!
Hmm – someone recently said we are hard-wired to be in a relationship – I don’t agree. I think society tells us that. I am currently single and very happy and fulfilled.
How free do you feel?
Totally. I really do as I please. It’s like being at a permanent festival.
I love it!
What are you proud of?
My friendships and the feedback I get when I coach.
What keeps you inspired?
Other people – my faith and trust in young people – I think that Gen Z is amazing. i am so hopeful for the future in their hands. And the night sky.
Wherever I am I gaze at the stars – always amazes and inspires me.
When are you happiest?
Pretty much all of the time! Particularly if I am having a great one to one with a friend or family member. Sparking off each other. When I am dancing and listening to music
And where does your creativity go?
On paper – I write and I write. Also into the work that I do – I love thinking up cool ways to engage people.
What’s your philosophy of living?
Do it – every day. Live it well with kindness and thought for others and always smile and say hello to elderly people – you might be their only contact in any given day.
It’s inevitable. Embrace it and lean towards it using every living breath well.
Are you still dreaming?
All the time awake and asleep. I am a master day-dreamer! Or should I call it visualisation? My night and sleep dreams are wonderful.
What was a recent outrageous action of yours?
I don’t know that I do anything outrageous. I am prone to spontaneity and follow impulse and it usually works out ok!
I am a woman who has lived, learned and loved. I am planning to do more of the same as I embark on the second chapter of my life. In terms of what motivates me – I came across this quote the other day which simply says: “I am not impressed by your money, position or title. I am impressed by how you treat others”.
If you have a job, what do you do for a living?
I am a Social Impact Co-Pilot. This is actually a niche that I have carved out and a role that I’ve created for myself and what it equates to is that I help successful business people to supercharge their social impact without the pain of wasting their precious investment and resources.
What’s my magic source? A carefully targeted mix of 25 years+ change maker space expertise and well-honed virtual assistant toolkit. My changer maker clients include Philanthropists, Impact Investors, Social Impact Consultants, CSR Professionals and Social Entrepreneurs.
How long have you been doing this?
Officially, since 2017 when I founded Be the Difference Services and, unofficially, I’ve been doing elements of this throughout my entire career.
What do you find most satisfying about your job?
What I find most rewarding is the fact that I’m able to help people who are being the difference through doing good stuff in the world to do it even better and to do more of it.
Is your work primarily a means to an end ie money, or the motivating force of your life?
It’s my life force and I completely thrive on it.
When you were 8, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I actually can’t recall what I wanted to be when I was eight. However, by the time I was 16, I knew that I wanted to be a Careers Officer. I worked at the local Careers Office part-time during my holidays, I did my work experience there, based my dissertation thesis as part of my degree on research into careers guidance and so nearly became a Careers Officer. In the end, I adopted a wider view and did a postgrad diploma in Youth and Community work. That marked the start of my professional career.
Did you get there – and if not, are you happy/sad that you didn’t?
As I mentioned in the previous question, I nearly got there (the Careers Officer). The youth and community work qualification and social impact route that I took has served me well. It’s meant that I’ve had a very grounded and strong understanding in working with young people and also community development approaches which I’ve then been able to apply both strategically and in collaborations, developing different offerings throughout my career.
What is your dream job?
My dream job is the one I have!
If UK-based, are you glad, indifferent or disappointed that the
official pension age is rising?
I have very mixed feeling towards the pension age, particularly for women.
Women should be able to receive part of their pension earlier, with the option to work part-time. The reason for this is that, from my observations of women around me, we must recognise that many have menopause-related health issues. This can be unpredictable at times can render women unable to work in the way they would like (or had planned) to.
At 70, I may still want to work and keep my brain active, even if I’m not as mentally as sharp or as physically fit as I used to be. I’d like to see real optionsand consideration of things that are rewarding, which also take into account the wisdom and skills that older people bring. It will herald an opportunity that didn’t previously exist, society will change in that older people will be more accepted and a welcomed part of the workforce. Employers will want to take them on and trail blaze with them as a cohort. Personally, I want to be in a position where there are an array of new opportunities and challenges on offer for me to access, well matched with my desire to stay active and channel my insatiable curiosity. I’d like these to be underpinned with a realistic understanding of what it means to be 70.
I’d also like to see more inter-generational learning because certainly with me coming back to the 2nd chapter of my career, in lots of ways, with founding Be the Difference, I have been doing much more work with new colleagues who are 20 – 25 years younger than me. Some of what they do is the same but some of their approach is different. My younger colleagues are from new sectors like ethical marketing, social impact etc. I’m doing a lot of learning from them but that’s melding with my experience and skills that I can bring, which have been collected over a career.
You can find out more and contact Annie via: https://www.bethedifferenceva.com/
The summer of 2015 was a challenging one. I had accepted an offer on my family home of 16 years and was set to move into a rental property because we were waiting for the people whose house we wanted to buy – to sell up. I was worn out from the break-up of my long-term relationship, then being ghosted by my most recent lover, and trying to sell the house for two years. My health had suffered big time. I was having terrible recurrent chest infections and I just couldn’t find the energy to pick up afterward.
A friend told me about the Unicorn Natural Voice camp and I thought this would be a good holiday for me – something I could handle as a newly single person. There would be lots of community, fresh air, and singing; it would be good for my soul and my lungs. Once I had a confirmed moving date, I eagerly went on the Voice camp website, only to find that it was happening in the very same week I was moving! Then I saw another tab saying – Constellations Camp.
I had heard about Family Constellations but despite being intrigued, I had never found the time to go. Constellations Camp was a five-day camp, taking place immediately after the Voice camp, it had the same principles – camping in circles, cooking in community, no electronics, no mobile phones, no alcohol or drugs. It was also cheaper than the Voice camp, and smaller. I was excited, and I suggested to my friends Edward and Naphia who both had told me about constellations in the first place – that we book on. To my surprise, they both said yes, and a few weeks later Naphia and I found ourselves packing up the car, stopping at my solicitor’s office to sign the final documents and hand over keys, and we were on the way!
We had to take it slowly because it was hot, I was extra-exhausted and just couldn’t rush. I had really bad oedema in my legs and was worried I had heart failure by this time. I had no strength, and we had to stop at various services during the two-hour drive to Somerset. We finally arrived in a bizarre field full of tents and a few hippies. We drove around it a couple of times in the car. In the end, we found someone who told us we were in the wrong field. As we entered the opposite field, we again saw a load of tents, but this time no hippies. We really didn’t know what to do!
At the top of the field was a yurt, so we parked up and gingerly lifted the latch. The entire population of the yurt (about 35 people) stared at us as we crawled in and found a place to sit around the edge. There was a talking stick going around, and we realised when we saw Edward that we were in fact in the right place. After the introductions, feeling extremely awkward because of having arrived late, and with still no idea who was running the camp or what was going on, we did an exercise in groups of four, where we set up representatives for our parents and for life. We stood facing our mother and father, with a representative for life in between and behind them. Life comes to us through our parents. The deepest experience for me was representing someone’s mother. Through my years working as a homeopath, I have developed strong powers of intuition, but this was on another level. I could see this man as a little boy, I could see his dominating brother, I could feel his mother’s struggle trying to balance things out between them, all just standing in the position of the mother. We hadn’t even started on the constellations yet.
The next morning was the first constellation. The issue holder was an Irish man who felt he was blocked in his romantic relationships. He was asked to set up some representatives. He did this by going around the circle and choosing people to represent significant people who had been suggested to him by the facilitator, Barbara. He then put his hands on their shoulders and moved them into a position in the circle and placed them there. The representatives were then free to move as their bodies took them.
A family member had been shot by a black and tan, the constabulary employed by the British government with the express purpose of suppressing the Irish Republican Army in the war of independence. Effectively an occupying army, they imposed curfews and restrictions on movement, crowd control etc using brutality and violence. This family member was choking to death on the floor. I started laughing hysterically and desperately, trying to hide my tears. I wanted to jump into the constellation and ask the representative if he was okay. I wondered if he was really having problems breathing. My body curled up and I didn’t know if I was laughing or crying. I couldn’t believe everyone was just sitting around the edge of the yurt observing all of this and doing nothing.
Later on, sitting around the campfire cooking lunch, a more experienced person told me I was ‘caught in the field’. Systemic theory says we create a field where we are united within a system and we operate unconsciously with one another. An example of this is a school of fish or a starling murmuration where the birds move as one in flocks, sometimes millions of birds “knowing” how and where to move in unison. I couldn’t believe how strongly I’d been sucked into this field. I immediately came to realise that this was powerful stuff, and a lot more than I had bargained for.
By the second day all of the swelling in my legs had disappeared (I’d spent two days running to pee in every break, and more) and I was starting to feel like myself again. In fact I was feeling more like myself than I had done for 20 years or more. My heart was opening and pure joy was flooding in. There was space, time had expanded miraculously and rushing was no longer part of my mental vocabulary. What really surprised me was that all of this had happened and I hadn’t even done my own constellations yet. Just being in the holding circle and representing had been a deeply healing experience for me.
We spent wonderful evenings sat around the campfire and watching the Perseid meteor showers at night, having “stargasms” as one person called them, and talking and listening in an incredibly heart-opening and authentic way. Cooking communally on the open fire, passing round the talking stick, visiting other circles, just being outside, deeply nourished my soul. By day, there would be more constellations, sometimes five or six a day, and more rituals.
After the camp, wracked with grief at leaving, Naphia and I drove around the roads of Somerset, lost. We didn’t know why or how, but we knew we needed more of this. It had somehow completely passed me by, but Naphia told me that Barbara was starting training in September that year and that a few of the people at the camp were going to do it. In fact, some of them had done it already. On that long, hot journey home, we made a decision that would change our lives. We were going to go back and do the training.
Family Constellations is a kind of group work, which sheds light on unconscious inherited family trauma and hidden dynamics. It can reveal how a system rebalances itself after traumas such as war, genocide, famine, early death, children being given away, murder, etc. This usually affects a family member in a subsequent generation, as they identify with the missing person and compensate for the imbalance. They may develop an illness or addiction, or not thrive in life in some way, be it financially, in relationships or other areas of life. It can be used to look at issues such as relationships with family and in love, finances, work, health and much more.
There are two main principles in Family Constellations work. The first is that everyone belongs, so children who have been given away or died, perpetrators and victims, previous partners, husbands and wives as well as parents, grandparents and so on are all part of the family system. The second theory is that there is a hierarchy in terms of time. So first husbands/wives come first, followed by older children and so on. This links into the first law of belonging, so if someone is excluded, for example, a stillborn child, it will upset the balance as the order of subsequent children is not correct (the next child born after the stillborn is treated as the first when in fact she is the second). It also links into rituals, which can be used to create order, and to reinstate missing people in the system. It is a profound healing modality.
Family Constellations work was created by Bert Hellinger, a German, born in 1925 who managed to avoid the Hitler youth. He was eventually conscripted and spent much of the war in a Belgian POW camp. After the war he became a priest and was a missionary in South Africa working with the Zulu for 16 years. He was eventually uncomfortable with the dogma in the Catholic Church and instead became a therapist, exploring primal and systems therapy and working with groups in Germany.
Barbara Morgan’s training was an 18-month odyssey, eight modules of five days each and 23 group members. I am just completing the second training, which I participated in as an apprentice, helping with overseeing other trainees’ practice and having extra supervision on the training. I’ve been running workshops for the last couple of years and am now really finding my feet and discovering how to pass on this deep work for the benefit of others as well as myself. One of the aspects of the work, which has really struck a chord for me is embodiment and attunement. These are central to my work as a facilitator: feeling into my body and sensing what is going on for my client. My 5Rhythms dance practice has fed into this experience of embodiment and I’m excited by the ways in which our body holds and releases trauma, all within the art and practice of Family Constellations.
I can’t recommend a way of exploring your unconscious patterns better than through Family Constellations.
I turned 57 in 2018 and, above all else, reaching this less-than-milestone age informed my year more than any other particular incident. Closer to 60 than 50, I began to see, with greater clarity than the year earlier, how my age was coming to define my life and my place in the world.
Take, as an example, my tech startup, Frugl, a website that curates daily deals from most of the leading providers such as Groupon, Living Social and Wowcher. I’d created the Frugl app in 2014, when I was 53, as an adventurous idea to help myself and others enjoy London’s culture on a budget spurred on by the rather naive belief that if I gathered enough users it would somehow become profitable. As someone who had always enjoyed hunting out fun and usually free events in London for the greater part of my life, I had witnessed, in the more recent past, how much harder it was to find them (especially as Time Out was no longer my go-to source). Four years later, having pivoted the business a number of times, burning through cash and experiencing more than my fair share of ageism and sexism, I realised:
a) with the benefit of hindsight, the original app would have made a great social enterprise (having learned this past year the difference between a social enterprise and for-profit business) seeing that Frugl had been championed and particularly popular amongst young people, often on low incomes;
b) that, generally, equity funded businesses (the ones you read about receiving large amounts of investment) are ones that solve clear, genuine technological problems and are easily scalable. In a bizarre twist, I did discover that in trying to build the latest iteration of Frugl, the one that I had hoped would feature all the deals, vouchers and sales across the UK, there was a genuine technological problem to be solved. The problem being, I just don’t have nearly enough cash to solve it and…
c) being an older woman working on a technology-based business isn’t much fun unless you enjoy the challenge of fighting the status quo 24/7 and
d) most companies that receive investments are fronted by young, white and middle-class men (see c).
Would I have embarked on this new career path having known all this back in 2014? Perhaps not. Did I regret the time I’d spent learning just how tough on women (especially) the sector can be? Maybe but, as a result, I’d met an investor, Yvonne Fuchs, that turned into a great friend and is now working with me on my social enterprise Advantages of Age, created in 2016 to challenge some of the biases I’d encountered through working on Frugl. So, in the end, there has been a silver lining (always there, if you look for it)! We’ve been discussing how we can redevelop the original Frugl app as a loyalty product with a bias towards helping those over 50 save money so watch this space!
If 2018 taught me anything it was to be resilient and flexible. My income stream, until quite recently, had been through generating PR for SMEs, diversified to such an extent that it made answering the question, “What do you do for a living?’” practically impossible to articulate in less than 10 minutes. I have become the very definition of a woman with a ‘portfolio career.’ Since then I’ve heard others in similar circumstances describe themselves as polymaths or renaissance people, both of which seem grandiose terms to describe what constitutes just keeping one’s head above water.
Here are a few of the things I have done this year to earn a living:
Rented out a room on AirBnB
Taught a business course for over 50s
Given talks at Soho House
Managed communications for a co-working space in South London
Sung bawdy blues at a club in Camden
Been part of various focus groups
As a result, I managed to stay afloat while gaining a deeper perspective of the career challenges many over 50s are now facing as we move towards an ever more distant retirement. Never before have I had to take on so much work to earn so little.
Meanwhile, I’ve watched as friends and colleagues my age struggled with redundancy and unemployment. This actually has allowed a handful to find purpose in their lives, many having previously defined who they were by what they did. The problem is – how to earn money from their passion. The past six months I’ve been trying, along with Yvonne, to figure out how to solve what is a genuine problem of how to keep over 50s in work, either by helping them to start a business or finding a job. It’s the one thing that keeps me up at night and I can’t say I’m anywhere close to cracking it yet! I’m looking forward to 2019 as the year where AofA can play a part in supporting over 50s to generate an income that aligns with their skills and passions.
Social media isn’t delivering results for my businesses like it did a year ago. Back in 2016, I invested in an internet marketing course with a ‘social media guru.’ I was naturally sceptical about a course that promised to deliver £10k a month in revenue within a year, and I quickly realised that the course was primarily aimed at those who wanted to coach or consult others and not the perfect fit for me. Word of warning – if you’re being sold a course that promises you £10k/month in revenue from the get-go, the likelihood is that you’re going to be learning how to create a course not dissimilar to the one you’re on that you can resell to others. Even so, my ‘guru’ did manage to deliver one killer piece of advice, ’start a Facebook group.’
I chucked in what little paid work I still had left and decided to spend 8 hours a day on Facebook building a community – called Advantages of Age – Baby Boomers & Beyond – of over 50s who, like myself, refused to give in to the media narrative around ageing. It now has over 3.5k members but with less active members than I expected or noticed a year ago. It may be that quite a few are lurkers, those that read but don’t post, but I suspect that the algorithms have changed and many users aren’t seeing the group posts. That makes reaching them difficult and figuring out how we can help them with some of the challenges they are facing, even more so. The more we can connect in other ways, whether it’s email or hosting events that bring our members together, the happier I will be. I fear that one day we’ll all be having to spend money using Facebook simply because we haven’t figured out how to communicate with each other in a convenient way! (Anyone who has any suggestions as to how to avoid this, I’m all ears).
The other social media channels aren’t as interactive for the over 50s community as Facebook and I’m reaching a point of wondering how to get back to stuff that happens in real life and not online. Part of this has been spurred by my renewed interest in singing, the biggest surprise, and delight of 2018.
In March 2018 I was given three singing lessons with a well known vocal coach and performer herself, Nikki Lamborn, as a present by one of my best friends and my two children. I’d been a jazz and session singer in my twenties as a sideline and missed performing in front of an audience. But, following menopause and over two decades of not singing, I’d moved from alto to more of a baritone. I couldn’t hit the notes I used to and singing along to the radio was painful for anyone without earshot. Nikki took me under her wing and, over 6 months, got my voice good enough to guest at one of her gigs where I sang three bawdy blues songs from the 1930s, my favourite era for music. This led to my own sold-out gig at the same venue, the Green Note in Camden. I’ve also been booked for two more shows and am even thinking about how I can work my set up into a one-hour history of the bawdy blues in time for the Edinburgh Festival!
I love singing now and my range is slowly coming back, thanks to lots and lots of practice. I love performing in front of others, seeing my friends in the audience and for it to be something which others are willing to pay for (maybe I’m a renaissance woman, after all). It has come as a complete shock to me that within such a short space of time, I have been able to get a show together and find a young and accomplished pianist who enjoys playing the dirty blues as much as I enjoy singing them. Nikki and her partner Been are even talking about writing a song for me and producing an EP! It’s a wonderful feeling to know that I haven’t lost my voice and a brilliant way to wind up what has been an eventful year. If you’d told me a year ago, that I’d be ending the year with my own sold-out show, I
never would have believed you.
Finally, 2018 was the year that taught me never to give up on the idea of finding love. I got divorced back in 2001 and, since then, have been in and out of relationships, some good but mainly not so great. In between, I’ve tried most online dating sites, with varying degrees of success. Friends often said they admired my tenaciousness when it came to finding a partner but were also, I’m guessing, doubtful that I ever would. Then I met a man in March with whom I felt a genuine affinity and respect. My feelings for him have deepened over the past year. Like me, he has also spent over ten years online dating and neither of us are spring chickens. It’s very much a relationship of equals, not one where one person is trying to fix or save the other. We’re having a lovely time together and I’m looking forward to the year ahead with him.
I don’t like to plan too far ahead but I’m looking forward to spending more time with friends and family in 2019; as well as developing the work we’ve been doing at AofA into a clear, strategic plan that can see us become a truly sustainable enterprise by the end of the year; and working up my bawdy blues repertoire. My motto for next year is Think Big and that’s what I intend to do.
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.