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.