As we head into 2020, like many people I’ve been reflecting not just on the last year but the last ten years both personally and professionally. My life, since I was a small child has always been full of books and creativity as well as recognising injustice which in the past ten years has transmogrified itself into creating a writing world whilst still taking part in protest and activism.
Ten years ago Greenacre Writers (GW) was in its infancy but had already formed and moulded itself into popular writing groups, writing workshops, a blog that featured all things writing, a published anthology and even held its first mini literary festival. Finish That Novel 2 (FTN2) writing group is still going and we meet in North London on the third Tuesday of every month where we discuss pre-shared work and enjoy tea and cake.
On checking the most popular Greenacre posts I discovered that Diverse Author Day in 2015 is the all-time favourite – thanks to people all over the world #DiverseAuthorDay became a thing and was trending on Twitter for most of the day. I feel proud that we kick-started the beginning of some publishers waking up to realising they were missing out on some fabulous diverse authors, some of whom have since gone on to be recognised and won awards.
Another popular post was A Conversation with Susan Beale, Greenacre Writers featured many conversations with authors. The Good Guy (2016) was inspired by Susan’s life. Susan was adopted as a baby and the inspiration for the book came from her adoption files.
The third most popular post was The Jane Austen Writers’ Club (2016) by Rebecca Smith. Bursting with useful exercises, beautiful illustrations and enlightening quotations from the classic author’s novels and letters – and written by none other than Austen’s five-times-great-niece.
In 2012, I became involved in the Save Friern Barnet Library with the Occupy Movement. The library building was saved in 2013, from being sold to developers and turned into a community library. Being a supporter of public services, my involvement came to end. I was looking forward to some respite when in December, the Government made an announcement. Children in foster care could stay in their homes until they were 21, but those in residential care would still have to leave at 18. This was and still is outright discrimination. Back in 2013, I had been slowly getting to know people in the care experienced community via Twitter. Ben Ashcroft asked what we could do. I suggested we start a petition and Social Media campaign. Every Child Leaving Care Matters (ECLCM) was launched and is still campaigning today.
2013 saw the end of our family visits to Bank Farm in Pishill, Oxford. Once or twice a year, for ten years, we had first looked after chickens and eggs and then B&B guests. The owners, the local vicar and her husband wanted and did move to Cornwall. I loved and needed my Oxfordshire fix and so the first Greenacre Writers writing retreat was created and took place in St Katharines, Parmoor near Henley-on-Thames. Being looked after for a long weekend was a very different experience to cleaning up after guests!
In 2014, Lemn Sissay asked me to help with the first Hackney Christmas dinner, which I did and what an amazing experience that was. I was responsible for organising volunteers and making sure they were DBS checked and knew what they would be doing Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I learnt so much from the amazing group of people who found and decorated a venue, got all the food for the Christmas Day dinner donated, amazing presents also donated, transport for the guests and watching the team that organised the referrals of the care leaver guests. I enjoyed the experience so much I helped out for four years in all.
Always in the background, my staple diet has been the writing community. As well as conversations with authors and book reviews, Greenacre Writers ran short story competitions and the Finchley Literary Festival for a number of years which featured authors who have gone on to receive recognition and prestigious awards. The festivals were a huge amount of work but created as a way to bring zombies and the community together and feature literature in the borough of Barnet.
An off-shoot of Greenacre Writers was the Greenacre Times (GT), a community magazine published every couple of months over a period of five years, it captured local and national history, environmental concerns – we were trying to save the world from Climate Change even then, a splash of literature and illustrations by Mr Greenacres. From little acorns oak trees grow and so it was with GT, as members of the umbrella organisation Greenacre Project featured bicycle rallies, talks, eco film shows, walks (still continuing) and the recent 1960s film club.
We’ve had a lot of fun over the last ten years. Writers have come and gone – Lindsay Bamfield, who along with myself was one of the founders, has gone the furthest to Melbourne, Australia which is a pretty amazing thing to do in your sixties. Greenacre Writers created a wonderful writing community and a group of dedicated volunteers who went on to become firm friends. It is a small pebble in a very large pond but I feel very proud of the amazing work that we did.
In 2015, I started a PhD at University of Southampton, researching Orphans and Care Experience in Fiction. That is still going – though lately it has been a bit like starting a very old car on a cold morning – needing quite a bit of choke.
For 40 years I had thought I would be retiring and receiving my pension at 60 when suddenly the government changed this to 66 – that’s a lot of extra years all in one hit! When I reached 60, I found myself frustrated and growing tired so in 2018, I put my flat up for sale. And in February this year after 60 years in North London, I sold my flat in Finchley, left my job of 13 years in an NHS hospital library and moved to Hertfordshire. The plan being that I would concentrate for a while on the PhD.
Almost immediately, following this leap of faith, I was offered a fantastic job working in Oxford University on an interdisciplinary knowledge exchange project funded by TORCH to encourage better engagement between research and practice with the care experience community through Conversations for Care. Exciting things always seem to happen in my life of which I’m very pleased. From 2017-2019, I had been working with two amazing artists, Rod Kippen and Yusuf McCormack curating the care experience exhibition that ran alongside the Care Experience Conference and that came to fruition in April of this year. It was amazing to see so many care experienced people come together and talk about their experiences in an environment that was made safe for them. The exhibition lifted and reflected the amazing talent of a group of people so often underestimated and stigmatised. It was an absolute joy to be involved. That joy and fun continued when I gave the keynote speech at the much needed Your Life Your Story event that takes place every year during National Care Experience Week in October.
In between all of this creating, activism and working, I have been dealing with personal family illness that has been going on for some years. This was also another reason why I decided to move away from North London with the added bonus of being nearer my daughter and grandson. I remember Victoria-Rose’s first visit to the new house, she was very excited to have me so close. We were saying goodbye at the front door: ‘Mum’… she said. There was a particular look in her eye. ‘You’re pregnant!’ I replied before she even had a chance to say a thing. Beautiful granddaughter, Sadie-Rose was born in September, bringing with her oodles of joy.
Looking back over the past ten years, I see that 2019 has been the most life-changing year for me. To have moved house and left my job was a risk. And yet if I hadn’t done that I would not be working with the lovely Aoife O’Higgins at Magdalen College – a fabulous experience. The day I found out about the Oxford job was also the day I finally discovered who my biological father was. I’ve since met a new sister and niece. To find that missing part of myself after 60 years, has given me more confidence and a belief in myself, or it could be that reaching my sixties means I give less of a fig…
And so, as we zoom towards 2020, what now?
I look forward to working with new friends from the care experience world, having fun and undertaking one or two really amazing projects. I know that if I am to truly settle in my new home in Hertfordshire, I will have to get to know my local community and get involved. With that in mind I’ve recently joined a local book group and the first book we will be discussing is The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James. It’s good to be reading something not about orphans or care experience!
My time in Oxford is coming to end and so I will need to start thinking about a new job. I have important PhD dates in January and February. If all goes well I hope to submit by the end of the year. Alongside the creative and critical writing, I’m also including some artworks and I hope to do more of this in 2020.
So… this just leaves me enough time to say: I wish everyone a peaceful, healthy and creative New Year. See you on the other side…