Author Archives: June Burrough

Time, Space and Clarity

Spring always brings an air of optimism – there’s just no avoiding it!  Light was flooding into the building from the conical lantern.  Flowers were being planted in the Square outside.  And we had some fascinating small-scale events on our hands.

International Women’s Day in March saw us working with Speakers’ Corner to re-enact the classic speeches of Emmeline Pankhurst and Martin Luther King with Kirsty Cox and Leo Wringer playing to a packed College Green.  And in the evening we showed Colin Thomas’ provocative film about the freedoms that World War Two brought to many of the women caught up in it.  Eye-opening!

In the face of chill recessionary winds, I restructured things slightly.  On the one hand room bookings were down, but on the other we now had hard-won skills in staging and publicising events.  So we took the 2nd floor Lounge room out of circulation, and moved some of the team up there away from the day-to-day turmoil to act as event consultants.  I moved back too into my little study next to the Lounge – because however reduced our income was, the level of activity and the number of lovely people putting their heads round the door, made the main office a difficult place to concentrate in.

For the first time in seven years we narrowed our Refugee Week focus right down.  There were two reasons for this.  After three years of work we’d finally got City of Sanctuary status granted and the Refugee Week committee planned a very big Launch for it in Refugee Week.  And secondly I knew I had to get ahead of events.  I had to clear enough space in my head and my diary to think pro-actively.  For the past few years we’d been delivering events that we’d committed to long before – and as soon as we were over one, we’d be into the next.

Back in 2007 we’d used the wonderful Juice Creative to redesign our website and sharpen up our image.  As part of it we changed our strapline to “Time, Space and Clarity” – because that’s what we felt the Pierian Centre offered to the world.  But thanks to our growing success, we now found ourselves woefully short of all three!  We’d always used the image of a swan, serene above the water but little legs flapping like mad below.  It was crucial we gave full time and attention to our visitors – but behind the scenes, we were now running pillar to post!  And too much of my time was taken up with  a depletion of my emotional, spiritual and physical energies along with the  money pot depleting too.  It was a situation that couldn’t go on…..

We had one of our best ever Refugee Week exhibitions in the Centre.  Artists Ricky Romain and Heather Fallows had done extraordinary work the year before with St Michael’s on the Mount primary school.  The workshops this year produced amazing, thoughtful, expressive artwork which visitors thought had come from adult students rather than 10 year olds.  And we were relieved to be in the hands of old friends there – tried and tested and brilliantly talented – because we had something very big on our hands elsewhere!

I knew in my bones that the City of Sanctuary launch was likely to be our last really big event and I referred to it as our swan song once!  Decisions were being made somewhere deep down in my psyche.  But if that was the case, then it had to be one to remember!

The artistic direction was in the hands of Liz Mitchell, who had done such a good job with A World Beyond.  We chose a turquoise blue as the colour we would fill the Council House with, and then College Green, and finally Bristol Cathedral where the extravaganza would end.  It was a magical mix of the serious and celebratory.  Hundreds of people crowded into the Council House for speeches from civic leaders and asylum seekers.  Then they were issued with blue umbrellas as they emerged into the sunshine of College Green, snaking their way across it with drums and song.

The final hour saw a dozen performance slots fill the Cathedral with music, dance, poetry and song.  It couldn’t have expressed our message of welcome and sanctuary more clearly or more colourfully!  Afterwards a few of us followed the two Tibetan monks down to the docks and watched them pour the sand mandala they’d created in City Hall all that week into the living body of water……

The next morning I decided to close.  I decided that if I didn’t close the Centre in a planned and caring way, then I might lose control of events and have a messy, painful closure forced on me.  I checked that everyone was OK with this – and then gave way to such a flood of relief that I realized at last how much I’d been carrying!  Two days after we had a Board Meeting and the decision was formalised. We agreed to take some thinking time to be sure but within two weeks I had an overwhelming sense that we just needed to start planning the closure and that is what we did.

When searching for a name back in 2001, my first impulse had been to call it the Anahata Centre.  One of the qualities of the Anahata chakra is the capacity to make decisions “following your heart” – and this closure was one call that I just knew was right.  The alternatives would have turned the business into something very different.  And though I’m sure I was right in the end to choose a different name, I do wonder whether at some points in the Pierian story I let the Centre stray from the wisdom of my heart…..

We carried on with a full programme of bookings and events.  Joe Hoare’s monthly Health & Wellbeing talks were blossoming – and July brought the Vietnam vet turned Zen Buddhist monk, Claude AnShin Thomas to stay with us.  He proved such a compelling speaker that we used the greater capacity of St Stephen’s Church for his talk, with his workshop taking place back at the Centre.  His gentle, painful honesty and very human warmth were so welcome after the dramas we’d been through!

My very first blog started with the final moments of the Pierian Centre.  That culminating tableau, with the Fanfare for the Common Man soaring out into the December night, brought to an end a day of memories and reflections.  Over 800 people joined us at some point in the course of it.  We not only filled Number 27 but, courtesy of my lovely neighbours Julius and Bette, we filled the ground floor of Number 25 as well with magic, music and exhibitions.  It was very emotional, and very inspiring too – a real and fitting finale.  I knew we’d made an impact, but not as big and warm as this!

I wondered in that first blog about the legacy we’d leave.  Most of it of course will remain unknown.  We never really know the impact we have on people!  But that final Open Day gave us an inkling – and there have been a number of interesting developments since then.   The Pierian Centre was an
act of faith that something worth doing would be impactful in ways unknown, and it was an act of trust that people would do something differently in their lives as a result.  I’ll tell you more about these in future blogs, and keep you posted about the book that Nick and I are writing – a full and frank exploration of the adventure that was the Pierian Centre!

Time, Space and Clarity.

Spring always brings an air of optimism – there’s just no avoiding it!  Light was flooding into the building from the conical lantern.  Flowers were being planted in the Square outside.  And we had some fascinating small-scale events on our hands.

International Women’s Day in March saw us working with Speakers’ Corner to re-enact the classic speeches of Emmeline Pankhurst and Martin Luther King with Kirsty Cox and Leo Wringer playing to a packed College Green.  And in the evening we showed Colin Thomas’ provocative film about the freedoms that World War Two brought to many of the women caught up in it.  Eye-opening!

In the face of chill recessionary winds, I restructured things slightly.  On the one hand room bookings were down, but on the other we now had hard-won skills in staging and publicising events.  So we took the 2nd floor Lounge room out of circulation, and moved some of the team up there away from the day-to-day turmoil in the reception office to act as event consultants.  I moved back too into my little study next to the Lounge – because however reduced our income was, the level of activity and the number of lovely people putting their heads round the door every day, made the downstairs office a difficult place to concentrate in.

For the first time in seven years we narrowed our Refugee Week focus right down.  There were two reasons for this.  After three years of work we’d finally got City of Sanctuary status granted and the City of Sanctuary committee planned a very big Launch for it in Refugee Week.  And secondly I knew I had to get ahead of events.  I had to clear enough space in my head and my diary to think pro-actively.  For the past few years we’d been delivering events that we’d committed to long before – and as soon as we were over one, we’d be into the next.

Back in 2007 we’d used the wonderful Juice Creative to redesign our website and sharpen up our image.  As part of it we changed our strapline from “Inner Strength for the Outer World”  to “Time, Space and Clarity” – because that’s what we felt the Pierian Centre offered to the world.  But thanks to our growing success, we now found ourselves woefully short of all three!  We’d always used the image of a swan, serene above the water but little legs flapping like mad below.  It was crucial we gave full time and attention to our visitors – taking care of everyone who came to the door was our sole reason to exist – but behind the scenes, we were now running pillar to post!  And too much of my time was taken up with money worries and a depletion of my mental, emotional, spiritual, creative  and physical energies.  It was a situation that couldn’t go on…..

We had one of our best ever Refugee Week exhibitions in the Centre.  Artists Ricky Romain and Heather Fallows had done extraordinary work the year before with St Michael’s on the Mount primary school.  The workshops this year produced amazing, thoughtful, expressive artwork which visitors thought had come from adult students rather than 10 year olds.  And we were relieved to be in the hands of old friends there – tried and tested and brilliantly talented – because we had something very big on our hands elsewhere!

I knew in my bones that the City of Sanctuary launch was likely to be our last really big event – I was beginning to see it as our Swan Song.  Decisions were being made somewhere deep down in my psyche.  But if that was the case, then it had to be one to remember!

The artistic direction was in the hands of Liz Mitchell, who had done such a good job with A World Beyond.  We chose a turquoise blue as the colour we would fill the Council House with, and then College Green, and finally Bristol Cathedral where the extravaganza would end.  It was a magical mix of the serious and celebratory.  Hundreds of people crowded into the Council House for speeches from civic leaders and asylum seekers.  Then they were issued with blue umbrellas as they emerged into the sunshine of College Green, snaking their way across it with drums and song.

The final hour saw a dozen performance slots fill the Cathedral with music, dance, poetry and song.  It couldn’t have expressed our message of welcome and sanctuary more clearly or more colourfully!  Afterwards a few of us followed the two Tibetan monks down to the docks and watched them pour the sand mandala they’d created into the living body of water……

I decided to close.  I decided that if I didn’t close the Centre in a planned and caring way, then I might lose control of events and have a messy, painful closure forced on me.  I checked that everyone was OK with this – and then gave way to such a flood of relief that I realized at last how much I’d been carrying!

When searching for a name back in 2001, my first impulse had been to call it the Anahata Centre.  One of the qualities of the Anahata (heart) chakra is the capacity to make decisions “following your heart” – and this closure was one call that I just knew was right.  The alternatives would have turned the business into something very different.  And though I’m sure I was right in the end to choose a different name, I do wonder whether at some points in the Pierian story I let the Centre stray from the wisdom of my heart…..

We carried on with a full programme of bookings and events.  Joe Hoare’s monthly Health & Wellbeing talks were blossoming – and July brought the Vietnam vet turned Zen Buddhist monk, Claude AnShin Thomas to stay with us.  He proved such a compelling speaker that we used the greater capacity of St Stephen’s Church for his talk, with his workshop taking place back at the Centre.  His gentle, painful honesty and very human warmth were so welcome after the dramas we’d been through!

My very first blog started with the final moments of the Pierian Centre.  That culminating tableau, watched on that cold December evening by about 350 people,  with the Fanfare for the Common Man soaring out into the December night, brought to an end a day of memories and reflections.  Over 800 people joined us at some point in the course of it.  We not only filled Number 27 but, courtesy of my lovely neighbours Julius and Bette, we filled the ground floor of Number 25 as well with magic, music and exhibitions.  It was very emotional, and very inspiring too – a real and fitting finale. As the lights faded to blackout and everyone left with their little key ring lights flickering away from the square,  I knew we’d made an impact, but I had never realised that it was as big and warm as this!

I wondered in that first blog about the legacy we’d leave.  Most of it of course will remain unknown.  We never really know the impact we have on people!  But that final Closing Celebration gave us an inkling – and there have been a number of interesting developments since then.  I’ll tell you more about these in future blogs, and keep you posted about the book that Nick and I are writing – a full and frank exploration of the adventure that was the Pierian Centre!

Back at the Ranch.

It’s hard to stop backing a winner.  We’d learned the knack of bridging communities and staging events.  We’d built great friendships and fertile partnerships.  We had a growing sense of our place in the wider city.  But we also had a business to run back in Portland Square!

Looking back, I’m amazed at the sheer range of events we were mounting.  We provided over half of Bristol’s Refugee Week events in 2009 – but it’s their diversity as much as their quantity that surprises now.  Theatre from the Sameboat Project.  Poetry from Philip Gross.  Personal and political history with an evening on Hungary 1956.  Children’s workshops with Sandra Barefoot.  Film from the Unchosen anti-trafficking project.  Visual art in our 8-day exhibition.  Music and much more on Zimbabwe Day.  And then there was Jamyang Ketup, the Tibetan monk we brought over to create a sand mandala in John Wesley’s Chapel – allowing Broadmead shoppers to watch him grain by grain build a model of the sacred impermanence of life.  Every one of our nine Muses must have been satisfied with that spread!

But a week like that stops our income for 9 days, incurs extra staff costs, requires a budget, and needs months of planning.  We made a modest charge for most events, but all Refugee Week events were free.  And that year we also had our Social Enterprise Mark celebration (we were the first CIC to gain the Mark)  at Holland House Hotel in February, an amazingly successful Mind Body Spirit Festival in April, the Anne Frank extravaganza throughout May, Doors Open Day in September, and the big Indigenous Perspectives conference in October.  And this ignores ongoing things like our monthly Film Nights, our regular Trainers Forum and running the conference facility!

The day-to-day business was ticking over in the background meanwhile.  The recession was a year old, but wasn’t hitting us too badly yet – and I’m sure that was thanks to our emphasis on relationship.  Wherever possible we tried to defuse the defensive poker game that the client/supplier interface often becomes.  We had a nominal scale of room charges, but basically we would do our best to work within an organisation’s budget.  We put our cards on the table, and asked them to do the same!  And this honesty system worked 99% of the time.

We had one organisation that told us they had no budget, but needed a room for a meeting.  We gave it to them – and the next time they rang for a room, they asked us to charge the full rate because for this project they did have funding.  The therapists and practitioners who rented the one-to-one rooms weren’t charged for hours in which they didn’t have clients.  We didn’t want to penalize beginners who were trying to grow their practice.  All we asked was for them to come in and be there for a while, to add their energy and commitment to the place.

The original plan had been for the top two floors to be my flat – but the business had steadily encroached on that.  My sitting room had been surrendered for a third training room, the very comfortable Lounge – and my study now had other members of the team tucked into its corners.  In the early days I was scarcely in there – I was mostly downstairs, meeting, greeting and seating our delegates.  But as the burden of planning and administration grew, I began to feel exiled up on the 2nd floor – and in the end we moved the office down into the Library, and turned my study into a second one-to-one room.

Our quarterly Programmes would now have eight staff photos listed in them – half of them working full-time.  Everyone was paid the same, but everyone had to maintain Pierian standards!  These were expressed in the freshness of the coffee and the cleanness of the carpet and the loos, but crucially too in the warmth of the welcome.  I wanted that elusive mix that I remembered from theatre of utter professionalism and genuine individuality.  And usually we got it!

If I wanted the team  to be Pierian ambassadors, the same of course was true for me.  I was on duty even when not in the building, when out at a meeting or even at the cinema!  I had two ex-partners working happily alongside me – but no love-life of my own.  I was surrounded by interesting and inspirational people  every day – but maybe the role of ambassador brings a certain isolation along with it.  I bought a studio flat round the corner to try and create some privacy and distance – but found that I was spending all my time in the Centre and was missing the place I thought of as my real home too much, so within a year I moved back home!

Back in 2004 we had galvanized the occupants of Portland and Brunswick Squares to raise jut over £1000 to buy and  plant 10,000 bulbs in the central gardens.  We’d then gone on to work with the City Council, St Pauls Unlimited and English Heritage to get the railings fully restored and Portland Square properly opened.  I was now chair of the Portland and Brunswick Association, and very plugged into my immediate surroundings.  Right on our doorstep was a focus of growing concern.  Number 28, the corner property right next to us, was one of the last real eye-sores in the Square, and a source of worry as its increasing dereliction began to threaten the fabric of our building.

I had pleaded with its Dublin-based owner to repair it or use it or even sell it to us.  His application to turn it into umpteen flats had been turned down, and he seemed happy to sit on it until the whole thing collapsed and he could ride rough-shod over its Grade 1 listing.  I had no money of course, but it wasn’t worth much to him if he couldn’t use it!

I had nothing but brush-offs from him – so eventually I drew up detailed plans part sponsored by £1000 donation from Sheila Simmons for a mixed use development and submitted them to the City Council.  I kept everyone informed of my moves, but the splutter of surprise when I told the Dublin developer I’d won planning consent on his building was a wonder to behold!  Would he like to come to the small celebration of stake-holders I was having?

Surprise, surprise, he didn’t come – but 45 people did crowd in as we unveiled our plans to turn 28 Portland Square and the 3 adjacent properties on Cave Street into more facilities for the Pierian Centre, a Health Centre, an Art Gallery, a Café and bookshop, two flats, one 3-storey house, and a room displaying the work of the leading local designer, William Godwin!  The collapse of the property boom soon caught up with him eventually – but I’m delighted to say that the developer who bought him out is trying to put an adapted version of my plans into practice as I write!  So watch this space…..I would love for Sheila to see the fruition of her donation actually happen!

So as you can see, 2007–2009 was a hectic time on both the home front and with partnerships across the city. Both my mother and my brother had died and left legacies which were keeping us going and allowing us to grow.   Time, money and energy were being invested – and, though they were yielding rich rewards, it was also stretching me thinner and thinner.  But success has its own momentum, and it’s very hard to say No to the interesting possibilities that were now opening up for us.

Riding the Tiger.

Looking back now, I can see that Bells Unbound opened a new door for us.  We’d climbed over a stile and found a very different view opening up – a prospect of projects and partnerships that would take us far beyond Portland Square.

That summer’s Refugee Week was bigger still, and introduced us to Christien van den Anker, Reader in Politics at UWE.  We’d worked with Canon Tim Higgins on Bells Unbound, a source of vision and energy at Bristol Cathedral.  We were now part of the network of groups and individuals concerned with refugees and human rights in the city.  Exciting people with important ideas – but where was my “calling” in this?

The momentum though was building.  With Christien van den Anker we hosted a big Human Rights conference in December.  I’d spent the autumn poring over Memorandum and Articles and turning the Pierian Centre into a Community Interest Company-(CIC).  In Spring we held a wonderful multi-arts festival called Journeys – and then we celebrated an early 6th birthday at the Colston Hall.

In the early days we’d have a birthday party every June 21st – these days though the date was always swallowed up in the mayhem of Refugee Week.  I wanted to make our 5th birthday a special one but the last half of 2007 was so busy, that we were into 2008 before we could draw breath.  My plan to launch us as a Community Interest Company was to bring together all the groups and communities that had made the Centre what it was, but when I looked at the list I realized that we’d need somewhere three times the size of the Pierian Centre!  And that’s when Graeme Howell offered us the Colston Hall  after I cheekily asked him if he would support an event….

We went for it!  We were definitely biting off more than we could chew, but we knew that and we still went for it!  A Passage To Bristol was the title we gave the event – an attempt to trace the roots and the stories of as many of the communities of Bristol as we could.  It was a huge success – the Colston Hall had never seen such a diverse audience – 800 people from over 69 nationalities and such a buzz in the place!  But it was a challenge too, with the artistic side only loosely in my grip and the technical side a great deal more complex than the events we had mounted at Portland Square.  But it put us on the map!

So two months later we took over Temple Meads Station for iWITNESS.  This was our most ambitious collaboration to date, especially since we were also running our usual banquet of Refugee Week events back at the ranch.  Seventeen 4-metre high banners were suspended opposite the main platform – and on them were Tom Stoddart’s harrowing photographs of Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.  It took the Refugee Week message out across the city, and was seen by over 20,000 people a day.  And it was a focused project, a delight to work on – especially with Tom’s colleague John Easterby overseeing the technical side of it.

It’s always been my belief that the more you give out, the more you get back.  Certainly with these high-profile collaborations, each one we did seemed to trigger more invitations.  In the autumn I was asked if I would join Tim Higgins and others on a steering committee to try and bring the Anne Frank [+ you} exhibition to Bristol Cathedral.  We’d found Arts Council money and commercial sponsors for iWITNESS, and we needed to do so again for this extraordinary show.

Things weren’t plain-sailing though, and as the fund-raising fell behind schedule the group began to contemplate pulling out.  Maybe I was unused to committees, but I felt (and said) that it was too late for that.  We’d raised expectations and we should have the courage of our convictions!  Committees have “commit” in their names but sometimes caution in their genes, and it had to be everyone’s decision, especially the Cathedral who were hosting the exhibition.  So we took a deep breath and on we went – somehow the funding would arrive……

We reached our funding target in the end (money has a habit of following commitment sometimes!) – and found that we had a hit on our hands.  Throughout May 2009 Anne Frank [+ you} filled Bristol Cathedral with children and visitors of every background.  In fact it filled Bristol, because there were related events in other venues.  Ten of them were events we put on ourselves at the Pierian Centre – so while it stretched us to the limit, we certainly made friends and influenced people (in the best possible way of course)!

We were looking after the day-to-day running of the business, helping to get this massive exhibition on, mounting a programme of 10 special events – and planning a Refugee Week extravaganza for just a few weeks ahead.  A little voice was beginning to whisper words of caution in my ear.  Could we go on like this?  Should we go on like this – what did my calling have to say about these adventures? But the momentum of forward planning and events was inexorable – 15 amazing events for Refugee Week and the annual onslaught of Doors Open Day after that.  And on the horizon, Europe was beckoning….

A Wider World.

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…..

What’s in a Name?

I haven’t told you about our name!  Well, a rose by any other name smells much the same, but names are chosen for a reason and they do affect how the world reacts to us.  So where on earth did “Pierian” come from?

The year of Refurb gave me thinking time – but I needed to get the Centre’s name on things like planning applications as soon as poss.  My first impulse was the Anahata  Centre.  In Sanskrit, the 4th Chakra is the Anahata or Heart Chakra.  It’s associated with a calm serene sound, void of violence – and its major function is Love on a global basis.  The love in a relationship wants to possess the person; on a global level it wants what is best for the person. This chakra is also associated with compassion, charity, psychic healing – and basically everything we stood for.  But my friends groaned!  People aren’t coming to the place for Buddhist philosophy or New Age enlightenment, they’re coming for good coffee, nice biscuits and an inspiring place to work – full stop!  Don’t ram philosophy down their throats – they’ll stay away in droves!  I stuck my tongue out and growled, but went back to the drawing board……

Okay, a Sanskrit word was a bit weird for a training and conference centre.  But I was determined to keep the Heart and Inspiration in there somewhere.  Inspiration seemed to me a missing ingredient in almost every aspect of modern life.  The whole point was to create a learning environment that was an improvement on some of the soulless and dispiriting function rooms I’d spent the last ten years working in.

Google wasn’t around back then, so it was out with the reference books and off with the search parties.  I hunted high and low; I tried hi-falutin’ and I tried low-brow basics.  I tried different words and concepts.  And then I looked up Learning – and, lo, I came up trumps!  Alexander Pope’s lines leapt off the page: “A little learning is a dangerous thing: drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring!”  The words had familiarity combined with authority – but they also had an almost threatening sense of urgency.  Pierian!  What and where was the Pierian spring…?

Nick and my parents and I eventually traced the Pierian spring, through those old fashioned things called reference books, to the flanks of Mount Olympus.  There the winged horse Pegasus had struck the sacred mountain one blow with his hoof and a spring had gushed forth.  For the ancient Greeks it had evermore been the home of the Muses and the source of inspiration. So Pierian was synonymous with knowledge and inspiration.  It couldn’t be better!  And appropriately for my Georgian building, the term was enshrined in Pope’s elegant eighteenth century verse.

So I had my name – and I set my cartoonist friend Geoff to work on the Muses.  He produced a very funny and rather beautiful set of drawings – one for every single room in the Centre.  The Muse of the Loos could have stepped straight off an Attic vase, except that what she held in her hand was a bog-brush not a lyre!

The Nine Muses of course were concerned with the arts, with poetry, dance, music and so on.  And the Centre, as it entered its first Autumn in 2002, was dealing chiefly with the world of work and also now of healing, self-development and complementary therapies.  But the arts have always been dear to me.  I spent my formative years working in theatre – a world where the different muses often collaborate and sometimes collide – and I felt that the arts were an ingredient missing from the Pierian pie.  I’m not an artist myself, but the service a poet tenders to his muse seemed very similar to the demands my “calling” made on me.  So what was I going to do about the arts?

I had the platform – a beautiful Georgian building – and I had some pretty good contacts.  So in November we went ahead and unveiled the first of our Themed Evenings.  We wanted to treat people.  We wanted a sense of stimulation and abundance.  So we adopted a sort of three-ring circus format in the sense that there were too many goodies for any one person to catch them all.  Four workshops ran simultaneously in separate rooms, and were repeated after a break for food and wine.  People had to choose which two of the four they’d most like to join – and the result was a Piccadilly Circus of ideas, impacts and dreamy impressions.  The theme for that first one was Story-telling – and was followed by more over the next six months on Making Music and the Greek Myths.

We had the blissful Exultate choir rehearsing weekly in the Music Room, and Shakespeare-at-the-Tobacco-Factory auditioning in the Freeman Room.  But the visual arts were lagging.  The walls of the main training rooms, I felt, should remain unadorned.  Pictures and images can colour the work and shape the energy in a space – and besides I’d installed wooden rails round each room so that flip-chart paper could be pinned up without harming the walls.  But the Morning Room and other common spaces already held what pictures I possessed.  So I began adding to them.  I bought some of the early oils of my good friend Clare Du Vergier – atmospheric studies of Scottish moors – and Janet Margrie did me a beautiful, spare painting of Portland Square in winter.  But a huge step was taken when we turned the Centre into a gallery for the first time under the guidance of our first curator Annie Davenport.

The effect was like climbing into your showiest party frock.  The uncluttered simplicity of the Georgian architecture had a beauty of its own, but its very openness made it a perfect host to other works of art.  That winter we filled wall after wall with vivid works by local artists.  It was only for a weekend – the rooms had to return to sober neutrality for Monday morning – but it was a glorious glimpse of what this building could do.  And we would go on to do so much more! In fact the seeds of many future events were already being sown in the arrival of Joe Hoare as Centre Manager.  Joe would become our Laughter Workshop leader, and head up the team for our Health and Wellbeing days and programme of talks.

As we completed our first year, I looked back.  Corporate bookings were growing; our engagement with health and wellbeing was very healthy indeed – and our arts programme was exciting!  My relationship with Nick had run its course and ended – but life was too busy to easily replace it.  Running the Centre was calling on all the experience I’d amassed as stage manager and company manager at the Bristol Old Vic and in my brief foray into catering.  The discipline of having both Front of House and backstage ready for actors and audience was identical.  Call the half, ready at the five, green for Go, and Curtain Up!  I felt I had the measure of the good ship Pierian.  What I didn’t know was that new winds were about to change our merry course forever!

 

 

 

 

 

Setting Sail – after the opening, then what?

“A ship in a harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” attributed to William Shedd or Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

The Launch was a great success.  It was a huge relief too to complete the year’s journey and share the results with so many friends.  And interesting too to see this big building bulging at the seams at last!

But that’s when it turned into a ship, I think.  At the very moment it emerged from the chrysalis and spread its beautiful wings, the Pierian Centre stopped being a butterfly and turned once and for all into a working vehicle – a ship that I had to learn how to sail, and decide where to take it.

The business started with one booking in the diary – Mark Vaughan’s Tibetan Overtone Chanting at £30.  But I wasn’t worried!  My contacts were wide, and I was sure there was a need for working space like this.  Things would grow organically.  And the great thing about a slow start is that it gives you time to figure things out!

We didn’t use a computer.  We used the phone and a big paper diary to log the bookings.  The top two floors were my living quarters, but the remaining three floors were devoted to the business.  They comprised the two main training rooms on the first floor, the Freeman Room looking out onto the leafy splendour of the square, and the Music Room (with piano) slightly smaller and looking onto the newly restored back courtyard.  The ground floor then had the Morning Room, used for arrivals, coffee breaks and informal chats, two toilets and a small coffee station – and of course the exquisite Library which we used for one-to-ones and smaller meetings.

In the basement we had the Old Kitchen, for delegates’ lunches and cabaret-style meetings, more toilets, and the mysteries of the Well Room and Healing Room which we let out as a suite since you had to go through one to get to the other.  So our diary had to have columns for five different rooms, available for letting in three different time slots (morning, afternoon and evening), with the smaller rooms often rented by the hour.  But the big technological breakthrough was the discovery that pencil was the only tool for the job.  Bookings often changed – and ink was just too indelible to reflect the flux and flow of the real world.

People’s hearts lifted as their gaze spiralled up the staircase to the conical lantern – but stairs are still stairs, and you soon learnt to anticipate and be organized.  Nick remembers working up on the flat roof when he realized he’d brought the wrong screwdriver with him.  The Phillips screwdriver was sitting in the basement cupboard five floors below!  The stairs kept us fit alright, but lessons like those are learnt pretty quick….

But as bookings dribbled in, I was learning how to handle this new vessel of mine.  Admittedly these were inshore waters and the winds were still light, but it was all good practice!  What I didn’t worry about in fact was where to sail her to.  My “calling” had dictated the character of the Centre, but it had also established her function and purpose in the world.  I felt her voyages and indeed her overall journey would emerge from the collision of her own DNA and the happy accidents that life would blow her way.

But you can’t just sit at anchor waiting for a wind.  Sometimes you have to go looking for it!  Doors Open Day in early September 2002 was a breakthrough in this respect.  I’d gone on a course to learn about Georgian buildings, and become a firm friend of the tutor, Janet Margrie.  Her suggestion of Doors Open Day instantly lit a fuse in my mind, and I registered the Pierian Centre as one of the 40-odd Bristol properties that throw open their doors to the public each year.

I wanted to prepare a real Pierian welcome for the unknown numbers stepping over our threshold.  We put up displays on the history of the building and the long drama of the refurb – but we used it too as a shop window for the Centre and what it could now offer the world.  I was supported by a well-briefed army of volunteers, one in each room on an hourly rota throughout the day organised wonderfully for us by Alison Parry.  And the public flooded in!  They were waiting on the doorstep when we opened at 10am, and they were ringing the bell as we closed up exhausted at 4pm.  Over 400 people in all!

I’d still mainly shared the place with family and friends and a fringe of like-minded folk.  To see the reaction of perfect strangers, from all walks of life and with all sorts of interests, was a revelation.  This was what it was about!  This was what my calling had been pushing for!  They were open mouthed.  They were intrigued.  And they were hugely appreciative. They wanted to know about the history, but they also wanted to know about now.  They were interested in the courses we ran and the facilities we offered.  I could feel the wind filling our sails and our prow beginning to cut through the water.  We were under way at last!  And on Monday morning the phone rang with our first big corporate booking – the direct result of a visit to Saturday’s Open Day!

The Chrysalis Inside

My Centre wasn’t the only thing embarking on a new life.  As the building slowly took shape inside its chrysalis, I think I was undergoing a renewal and re-ordering too.  The menopause was introducing hormonal change.  But I think there was also a chrysalis inside me that was turning past experience into future capacity – and figuring out what skills would soon be needed.

In fact those skills were needed right now as I was already project managing several different contractors, furnishing and equipping the place on a very tight budget of £35,000, and satisfying the demands of Planning, Building Regulations, English Heritage, the Fire Officer and other interested parties.

These officials turned out to be real allies.  They realized that I wasn’t trying to dupe them – that like them I wanted to preserve the Georgian fabric while ensuring the safety of the public – and they became really constructive and helpful.  There were compromises – it proved impossible to install a lift without damaging the character of the building – but we mostly found a way to keep everyone on board and the project just about on schedule.

I’d assembled a group of Elders – six friends whose professional opinions I valued – and I brought them together to celebrate the granting of planning consent.  Their reactions told me how far I’d come – how far I’d travelled from the care-free freelance June they knew so well.  I walked them through every inch of the building, explaining exactly how each room and cupboard would look, and how it would work when the great day came.  They were amazed by the place – but some of them, I’m sure, felt I’d taken leave of my senses and bitten off way more than I could chew.  The place was a wreck!  Half the floor-boards were up!  But where they saw building site, I could see butterfly because I’d spent months plotting the path between the two.

Planning skills were vital – but so was seat-of-the-pants, where’s-Plan-B improvisation.  The number of loos, for instance, was crucial because it’s one of the factors that limits your capacity – there’s a strict ratio of toilets to bodies in the building (or bums-on-seats!).  So the two toilets we planned for the basement were critical.  However when Mike the builder was drilling through the floor to install the drains he stumbled on something that sent all our plans down the pan.  Stumbled into would be more exact, because the ground dropped away under his feet to reveal a beautiful 20 foot brick-lined well!

Mike wondered if he should chuck our growing pile of rubble down it – you know, kill two birds with one stone?  But he knew perfectly well what my answer would be.  Back to the drawing board!  The well would become one of the features of the building – and the toilets would squeeze into the boiler room next door.  The evicted boiler in its turn would have to be tucked into the fireplace in the Old Kitchen.  But, hey, plans were made to adapt! – and the planners were brilliantly supportive.

The well’s wrought iron railings were still being installed the day before we opened.  The months of planning still somehow ended in a mad scramble.  My elderly parents from Norfolk and my best friends from Australia were dragooned into service.  Henry the Hoover was being stuffed out of sight as the first guests stepped over the threshold – and on Midsummer’s Day 2002 at 4pm we opened with a terrific gathering of friends, ending late in the evening with Mark Vaughan’s Tibetan chanting echoing through the building.

The strength of my calling had been the decisive thing.  It had conjured up an image of the Centre I wanted to build.  It had thrown light forward to help me find my way there.  And it had drawn from my past the resources to make this dream come true.  But its work wasn’t over.  The challenges I would face in the next few years would make it a guide I would rely on.  It lay at the heart of my Centre and the heart of my fulfilment.  When its voice was lost, I was in trouble!

Inside the Chrysalis

Actually buying 27 Portland Square was a race against time.  There was a deadline for offers to be in by and, if I hadn’t had a crack team around me, I’d have missed it by a mile.  We made it just in time though; my offer was accepted – and by June 21st 2001, Midsummer’s Day, this beautiful building was mine!

 A lot else was mine too.  Like most of Portland Square, Number 27 had been offices throughout the 20th century.  The place was filled with desks and chairs and rusty filing cabinets.  A model of an old sailing ship stood broken on the mantelpiece.  Might some of this be useful?  I wandered around like the last hand on the Marie Celeste – room after room, one silent floor after another.  Where to begin?

The building hadn’t changed hands since 1933, so some of the clutter was interesting.  Oak desks and a large board-room table.  The goat-skin indenture of the original 1792 lease.  Three huge iron safes – one of them hidden behind a hinged painting on a false partition wall.  Experts said the safes were so heavy they would destroy the staircase if we brought them down it from the first and second floors.  Instead they had to be “flown” out of the window and lowered alarmingly down to ground-level.  The biggest we dropped right down into the basement courtyard and rolled it through to sit at the very base of the stairs’ spinal column.

I think of this phase now as the project’s Chrysalis stage – a period of deep internal transformation.  Any place takes time to renovate, but a Grade 1-listed building comes with serious extra strings attached – and I soon realized that anything under a year would be insane.  So I made a promise that my beautiful butterfly would first spread its wings on Midsummer’s Day 2002!

Planning consent alone took five months – and nothing major could be done till then.  But the council planning department were really supportive.  My proposed change of use ticked every one of their boxes.  They wanted to keep employment in the square – and I would be a business.  They wanted more residents – and I would be “living above the shop”.  And the evening courses I planned would animate the square at night and provide a different activity than the sex workers,  drug dealers  and their customers who had little competition once the offices closed for the evening.

Meanwhile I could get to know the five floors of my chrysalis, and figure out what elements of old caterpillar would become which bits of the new butterfly.  How was the building’s past going to influence its future?

I didn’t want a museum.  I didn’t want to live and work in a place that made you tip-toe round and hold your breath.  The previous owners, English Corrugating Paper, had been cutting edge in pre-War days but had done little to “improve” it since.  And though the Luftwaffe’s bombs had flattened much of that side of the square, somehow Number 27 had dodged them.  It had kept more of its features than anywhere else in the square – from the Georgian bread ovens in its  basement to the frieze of stucco fruit baskets round its conical lantern.

But the 20th century had taken its toll.  Computer cable had been smashed through cornices, partition walls had turned some floors into a series of mazes, and the room I called the library felt like a prison cell due to heavy iron bars on its tall arched window.  And of course I needed a new roof!

And meanwhile I was living in a building with seven toilets but no bathroom.  No kitchen either!  And my “home” was slowly turning into a building site.  But – hey! – a chrysalis isn’t meant to be a holiday camp.  And the crucial thing was that day by day I could picture my butterfly more clearly.

While waiting for the planning consent we set about painting the smallest room on the top floor.  It had been a maid’s room two hundred years before, low-ceilinged but right up there by the sun-burst of the conical lantern.  It seemed to take forever!  The walls weren’t high, but even this smallest of rooms was enormous!  When the paint had finally dried I moved my bed in and made myself at home.  Great!  But I was woken that night by a noise like Niagara.  I got up and poked around, and found that the wooden boxing that ran by my bed seemed to have a river inside it.  An open lead gutter was channelling a torrent of rain water past my right ear!  The Georgian developers had frowned on downpipes marring the façade of the square, and instead sent the rain water from the hidden parapet gutter at the front, back through the maids’ room and away down the internal plumbing!  I wondered about the Georgians’ use of Feng Shui….

Down at the other end of the building we had problems though – traces of dry rot in the depths of the basement.  The front of the basement was a large airy kitchen (with original bread ovens) – or it had been before a forest of deep wooden shelving was installed.  But the Old Kitchen was light because its windows gave onto a courtyard with further arched alcoves running under the street.  The back of the basement was a series of amazing domed chambers – white-washed but entirely without natural light.  And the furthest of these harboured the dry rot.

As I stared up at this with my builder Andy, my heart sank.  I knew the grief that dry rot meant!  But Andy took a step back, put his head on one side, and came up with a typically lateral suggestion.   ‘June,’ he said, ‘we could just knock this all through.’  I looked up at the ceiling, baffled.  He explained that this part of the cellar was in fact a courtyard that had been sealed over, a twin of the kitchen courtyard at the front.  We went upstairs…..

Outside the barred Library window was a depressing stretch of slimy concrete.  Andy said that if we re-opened the courtyard, we would not only get rid of the dry rot and let light back into the basement, but the heavy iron bars could come off the Library window too because there’d be a sheer drop in front of it.  Bingo!  We did just this – and it turned the Library into one of the most beautiful rooms in the house.  So the Georgians really did know what they were up to!

It was a year of mess, much dust and things getting worse before they got better,  but I really enjoyed it: loving a beautiful building back to its former glory and preparing it for a new and busy life.  Room by room and floor by floor, we worked on it.  It felt like waking the Sleeping Beauty from her trance and bringing her back into the land of the living!

 

 

Inner Strength for the Outer World

Inner Strength for the Outer World.

 

No more doubts.  No reservations.  I knew where I was going now.  I knew for certain that my Centre was do-able.  There would be hoops and hurdles, hundreds of them – but now I knew it was possible to create a Centre here in the UK.

 

My calling had changed of course.  It had adapted to time and place.  It had first found its voice in Australia, where you could build from scratch in the open-hearted spirit of that land.  But Britain is a world away, a different country with different land values.  So where should I start?  And what should I be looking for?

 

I could have searched for a property in Wales, surrounded by hills and trees and rural peace.  I could have built an escape from the stresses of this world.  But I didn’t.  I felt that would be too easy – almost like taking people on holiday.  I felt that if my work had value, it should prove itself in the mildly chaotic urban bustle where most of us now live.  It should happen in the real world.  Inner Strength for the Outer World was what I would offer people – a strength developed here in the world where they live and work.

 

And so the search began.  I sold my flat and moved into rented accommodation.  I viewed some weird and wonderful properties, and came close to buying at auction twice.  I built a fantastic team of surveyor, valuer, builder and estate agent.  And finally I found a property in the heart of Bristol with a big light room looking onto a quiet leafy square.

 

Number 27 Portland Square was a world away from my original “calling”.  My Australian Centre would have been a low corral of buildings around a central courtyard, simple and unpretentious.  But this place – this place was a five-storey Grade I-listed Georgian town-house!  This was a million miles from what I’d pictured!

 

But this was the one.  This place had rooms the right size, proportions to die for, and potential to make the heart race!  It had an amazing past and an exciting future too.  The cantilevered staircase was like a thermal current spiralling buoyantly up to a conical skylight.  To stand at the bottom and look right up was to sigh with awe and wonder.  And the landings as you climbed were more generous and welcoming than most houses’ living rooms.  This was definitely a place I could work with and in!

 

There were downsides.  The building was shabby and unloved, and the area had a bad reputation – but that’s what made it affordable!  And by now my “calling” was not some separate voice of warning and instruction.  It wasn’t some nagging Tom-Tom of the soul.  I’d listened to its call and it was part of me now.  I could use my instincts.  I could use every ounce of judgement and experience to weigh up the options – and I knew in my heart I could make this work!

 

We learn as we go through life.  We stumble along, picking up tips, making mistakes and finding things out.  And I think a lot of this learning happens under the radar.  We learn without knowing it.  Certainly I was about to face challenges that would demand skills I didn’t know I had!  I would need skills of planning, management and budgeting – and I would need the skills required when all those plans go belly-up!  Where do they come from?  And what gives us the confidence to call on skills we don’t know we have?  And what about the skills we never reach for?  Are we a reservoir of “uncalled” skills?  Let me know your thoughts!