A chance meeting was how it started – but a meeting that changed so much! My friend Rich Cookson had been asked by the Bristol Zimbabwe Association if there was somewhere they could gather. Rich had worked with their chair, the exiled journalist Forward Maisokwadzo, and suggested they meet at the Pierian Centre. Rich had been doing some Press and PR for us so he knew that the coffee and biscuits would pass muster!
I knew a little about Zimbabwe from relatives who had farmed there, but those news reports of violence and repression take on a very different colour when heard from someone who’s been on the receiving end. I was amazed to hear that Bristol held several dozen Zimbabweans who’d fled their homeland in fear. Forward used a phrase that stuck in my mind. He said that they saw themselves as Bristol’s silent refugees – denied a voice to tell the world about their plight.
Well, I had a platform! The Pierian Centre by now was attracting a growing footfall and increasing media attention. Refugee Week was coming up in June, so I decided we would mount an exhibition of art by or about refugees. And it would last the whole week, not just the weekend. But we would also stage a 12-hour “Zimbabwe Day”. We’d done plenty of exhibitions and events on big baggy themes like Enlightenment or the Environment – but here was an issue that affected the lives of people I knew in a very direct way.
Forward put together a programme of speakers, music, film and debate. There were Gumboot Dance classes. There was Zimbabwean food, prepared in my kitchen by an army of big, brightly clad women. And there was a crowd of people that ebbed and flowed throughout the 12 hour day – black and white, African and British – relaxed, joyful and passionate. The evening debate was a serious one, full of heart-felt opinions and heart-rending stories. I will never forget the dance at the end of the evening to beautiful Zimbabwean Mbira music. Forward walked me onto the dance floor down in the Old Kitchen and I was “whooped” by the whole community in recognition of the voice they had been given that day. No longer silent refugees, they had found a home away from home!
That was the summer of 2005 – and even at the time it felt like a landmark. The business had been going well – we’d been named Business of the Year the previous November by Bristol East Side Traders (BEST) – and we’d mobilized the neighbourhood to plant 10,000 bulbs in the square and got the council to unlock the gates. But from now on we would have a growing community focus to set alongside the corporate, the arts, education, healing, and the occasional wedding or celebration. I was beginning to realise that casual statements like “A business is a part of the community in which it exists” had a habit of dictating the organic progress of the Pierian Centre.
Mbira classes started that autumn; Gumboot Dance classes were added in the New Year; and the next Refugee Week was a serious escalation! We’d learned that visitor numbers to the exhibitions could be increased by holding themed events during the run of the art-show. So 2006 Refugee Week comprised another week-long exhibition and six days of workshops, film shows and discussions – as well as the obligatory 12-hour Zimbabwe Day!
The arrival of Louise Chalice had brought our small staff up to four – and she alerted me to the film Peace One Day about the work of Jeremy Gilley in persuading the U.N. to make every September 21st International World Peace Day. It sounded exactly the kind of thing we should be involved in, so on 21st September 2006 the Centre was given over to a day of music, witness, film and healing. The crowning act was the erection of a beautifully carved 16-foot Peace Pole in our front courtyard. It turned heads and caused comment for years to come!
I now truly felt that the Pierian Centre was a vehicle, road-tested and robust, that I could put at the service of appropriate causes. And one was coming up soon – a big one! I was aware that 2007 was the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade. And I was aware that the whole world would soon be aware of it too! But what could we do to celebrate it? Our hands were full with the day-to-day business, and my mother in Norfolk was unwell, but I found time to do a little digging. We had a weekend art exhibition planned, with a book launch and a discussion – and I then discovered that 12 noon on the Sunday was the exact time that George III had signed the Abolition Act into law. My brain began to plot….
Bells Unbound stretched us to near breaking point. It was the moment that the Pierian Centre went global! And it was also the moment at which I lost my mother. Bells would be rung around Bristol, around Britain and around the world at noon local time to mark the precise moment at which the slave trade was outlawed 200 years before. We linked with Bristol Cathedral and other churches. We lined up bells on bicycles and the bells on Morris dancers’ shins. We contacted pubs called The Bell. We got friends and peace groups around the world to ring along. It was our first taste of what the world wide web could do!
In the end we had ringers in Antarctica and Zimbabwe, in Australia and Sierra Leone, in Kenya, France and the USA. And a good crowd of us gathered in Portland Square with bells and gongs and pots and pans – and we rang and rang and sang. And at 12.30 too, my mother, hand held by my father, with the dying resonance of the local church bells in her ears, died, my father having gone out to the old school bell that hung by their door to ring for all he was worth…..