Category Archives: Volunteering

Goodbye to Writeidea

Look at that amazing tweet. I’ll come back to it during this lengthy, rambling but happy post. I’ve been volunteering for East London’s free reading festival for the last two years and now I’m saying goodbye. Here’s my round-up from 2013 which pays a quick word of tribute to some of the amazing writers to take part last year.

This time was different and much more demanding as I was also curating the Festival Fringe. I’m very proud of introducing this idea last year and hope it continues. Unlike many of the big lit fests, the main festival Writeidea folk actually get paid. But the Fringe folk do it for free and they are a wonderful and noble race.

It seems very, very hard to single out anyone or any session from this year to mention and time is too fleeting to do them all justice. So I am going to mention some random personal highlights both in and around Writeidea, which should not be taken too seriously by those involved.They’re partly personal as they involve the folk I invited to take part, as this is my blog and it is all about Me.

Anyway, please don’t sue me or my tiny child will not have goose this Christmas (she won’t anyway as the Great Vegan Experiment is underway. Sort of):

Best Festival Footwear: A Gordian knot of a tie between Liz de Jager’s Boots of Awesome

Sarah Jackson’s category-creating shoes

and the Socks that Launched a Lambchop into Space, as wrangled by brilliant Nikesh Shukla.

Best Creative Use of a Fire Alarm

No, it wasn’t me smoking in the loos (honest) but someone did. Despite the fact that, among others, poor Jake Arnott had his fascinating talk full of 18th century slang interrupted: I’m almost glad that it happened. That alarm gave the world its first Create a Comic on the Street by a Supermarket masterclass, from the unflappable Louie Stowell.

Look here she is in the Guardian doing something similar but sans fire alarms. I met Louie through last year’s Writeidea, making it even more of a Good Thing.

Best Historical Talks

I live-tweeted Tom Holland on the origins of Islam until my tendons howled with multi-syllabic exhaustion

And I got to talk to him about cricket in the pub after. Alhough I missed his talk, archaeologist Dave Sankey on the Crossrail excavations beneath Stepney was standing room only and easily one of the most popular events this year.

Best Local and Alternative Histories

Organiser of the East End Suffragettes Festival Sarah Jackson read from her ace book about Sylvia Pankhurst and her awesome contemporaries – in the East End where it all happened, at a time of austerity and attacks on the freedoms on women. A real privilege to hear such a generous and talented person. That was followed up by the last but most definitely not least Fringe event: a fascinating look at London’s urban legends from Scott Wood of the London Fortean Society. From Springheeled Jack (talk coming up in January) to vengeance- (or not) inspired gargoyles, I could listen to Scott all night.

Best BSL Interpreted Talk

Another superb writer I invited but had to miss, darn it, as a Fringe Curator’s work is never done – star of the YA universe, here in his factual persona with This Book is Gay *bows*: the Queen of Teen, James Dawson. At least I got to meet him during that fire alarm break. And he got some lively signing done: ‘sexyfuntime’ caused no difficulties at all … 

Personal Biggest Coup Feel

Three top indie publishers – some of whom may well have done similar paid-for prestigious events elsewhere – came to talk book trade and times for free.  These are very special people. Meike of Peirene Press is bringing contemporary European literature to new audiences, Kit from Influx has published one of my favourite contemporary poets, Chimene Suleyman, and is doing amazingly radical work (watch out for the anonymous anarchist) and Sam from Galley Beggars brought us wonders as diverse as Simon Gough, Baileys’ prizewinner Eimar McBride and possibly the greatest author ever: Francis Plug.

Best New Getting Folk Involved Sessions

I know ‘interactive’ is the right word. But it feels a little impersonal for three events that were each in their own way very special ways for people to come together in real life. Lots  got together to eat cakes and write letters. Proper ones, on paper, thanks to the lovely Letter Lounge.

 

I am very, very proud to have organised the first Death Cafe in Tower Hamlets. Lots of us talked, listened, laughed and cried. We were really lucky to have this led by Annie Broadbent, again for free, gave a wonderful talk about dealing with bereaved people.

Another expert in dealing with difficult conversations, Ione Rojas of Furry Tales, came to help. And it all came just in time for me to deal with another death.

And there was #QuizYA created by Jim Dean of YaYeahYeah who has read more, preached more and inspired more people to read, love and be social over Young Adult (and other) books than anyone can possibly do with a mere 24 hours in the day. He’s busy bringing lots of lovely indie bookshops to daily view at the moment with #indieadvent. A real star.

Other generous people helped that to happen – that’s brilliant debut writer Robin Stevens on Jim’s left – @redbreastedbird mentioned at the beginning. She’s taking over the Young Agatha Christie mantle: one murder and bunbreak at a time. Robin also gave up her time for free, to chair a terrific session with Tanya Byrne: Tanya makes such beautiful, original writing look effortless. More pride here, at getting such hugely-talented YA writers involved. I don’t think I’ve ever written such a pleased with myself piece 😉

But that tweet, back at the beginning, has to be my Desert Island highlight: the one thought I’m taking away with me. This isn’t a humblebrag but a proper, delighted, ”I done good one. I helped out at a festival, invited writers and publicised it to booklovers. Sally, a young writer and bookblogger came to see, hear and meet writers she admires. Now she’s even more inspired to write. Here she is with Liz de Jager, author of the utterly brilliant Banished and Vowed, who also gave up lots of time and energy to give a brilliant free session on fan fiction.

I’m really sorry to step down as the Festival’s only non-staff  volunteer organiser but I’ve taken on a big role with the Society Of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and only have so much volunteering time to spare. But that tweet gives me a truly wonderful, my work here is done feeling. It’s been fun. And next year I will be in the audience.

 

 

 

Seventeen

Alex_Sophia_Amelia_Capel_Manor__2013My daughter Amelia is 17 tomorrow. This time last year, I posted 16 photos of her. She wasn’t happy. I thought I’d do something different, so I’m trying to get a snapshot of what she’s like, by looking at what she likes, aiming to shoehorn seventeen in awkwardly.

The photo of the girls, pinched from her Facebook page, was taken at the Federation of City Farms & Community Gardens annual harvest show. She’s been for the past few years with other young Stepney City Farm volunteers, The link shows a video made about the great work of the FCC&CG , featuring her being overly competitive with pride about an award-winning chicken. Show, Farm, chickens: three.

She’s just told Mum she’d like a duckling for her birthday. Same as she told me. Of course: what else for a fourth floor London flat with no outside space? And two cats. Ducklings make four.

Amelia’s on the right, with two of her four friends who’ll staying here tomorrow: wired on industrial amounts of sugar (I shall count ‘friends’ as making five in total, unless my deadline slips and I cheat to count them singly.)

She has several Pinterest boards. There’s ‘My cats :)’ featuring the love of her life: Loki.Loki_cat_newspaper I rather like her caption to this: ‘Loki is perfectly normal.’ I’m counting both cats together to make six. And ‘South Park!!!!!‘ I shall say, with no further comment, that her favourite character is Cartman: seven.

‘Inspirations (well, a mix of my role models and favourite actresses/actors ect’ (proofing isn’t up there, sadly) can help get the numbers up: there’s a couple of photos from Buffy the Vampire Slayer alongside Withnail and Marwood from Withnail & I (Hurrah. Top parenting marks to me and nine.) And, oh dear, Dakota Fanning, for ten.

Game of Thrones’ mainly features Daenerys but has this (eleven):

George_RR_Martin_Game_of-Thrones‘Penguins’ is self-explanatory (twelve.) As is ‘Merlin :D’, if you think TV pretty boy rather than Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. I don’t think a week goes by without her lamenting its absence (thirteen.)

There’s ‘No Category in Particular’, with pics from Harry Potter, Dr Who and The Big Bang Theory (sixteen.) ‘Quirky Nails!’ makes seventeen and she can barely shut her bedroom door for nail varnish.

I’m going to cheat and sneak in an eighteen, as it will be her 18th year. Here is my opportunity to ruin all her future employment chances by displaying the four-letter word cover picture on her wonderfully-named ‘Muhahahahaha! (board of truth?)’ I think it sums up her sweet, quirky nature. Yes, I’m proud of her. Happy Birthday x Alice_Dorothy_crossover

 

 

 

Simply the Best for International Women’s Day

CommsCommittee2
Metropolitan Police Service, New Scotland Yard. Mid 1990s

I am sitting in at a large table surrounded by men, both in uniform and civilian suits. We are here for a first meeting to prepare for a major football tournament. The man in charge sweeps in:

‘I am Commander Chap: May I introduce Superintendent Fellow; Chief Inspector Geezer; Deputy Assistant Commissioner Man; Acting Chief Superintendent Bloke; Sergeant Machismo; Inspector Secret-Guy (Special Branch.)

‘And Karen. Our press lady.’

No-one asked me to make the tea but I recall that I was deliberately confrontational, largely in an effort to get across how I was as expert at my part of the big picture as they were at crowd control, disaster planning etc.

It took time and a lot of professionalism but I did win over Commander Chap: we became friends and I helped him with interview skills that progressed his career. And I got to see some terrific football.

Fast forward many years: I am sitting at Stepney City Farm on Tuesday 5 March 2013, at 6.30pm after a day’s work, surrounded by and large by women: some of whom are pictured above.

They are the Farm’s Communications Committee and I want to pay brief tribute to them as my post for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

For the record, the two men on the Committee were also there: an immaculately-suited City-regulation and online analytics’ expert and a hugely-talented young artist.

And, to lend Olympic-level masculinity to the meeting, we were joined, as a first-time observer, by the Farm’s artist blacksmith, straight from t’forge. He is from Yorkshire.

I’m not going to go into personal detail about all the bright, capable and gifted women who form the Committee. Some are Farm Trustees, who give up ridiculous amounts of time from family and friends and globe-trotting careers to help with everything from networking with potential celebrity supporters to cooking lunches for volunteers and cleaning.

There are staff members. One swapped a career as a doctor, to deal with day to day Farm life: ministering to guinea pigs with constipation, persuading banks that they should pay money they owe us for their team building days, building dementia programmes.

Interns and volunteers have written successful fund-raising proposals, not turned a hair at being asked to build a whole new website from scratch, come up with new ideas for merchandising and taken endless minutes of meetings.

Some have been around for years; others are new. They are from all over the UK and, indeed, the world. They are parents, cyclists, thrift-shop and designer dressers, clubbers, campaigners; many ages and stages of living. And they are the best women out there: doing their wonderful best for a few acres that one women set up as a City Farm, 30 years ago.

Raekha
’As a young communicator in a far-away land, I came to the Farm, and subsequently the Comms Committee, for two things: experience in my field of study, and refuge from the city’s every day.

‘Little did I know that I’d receive much more. Being part of the Comms Team has surrounded me in a group of strong, intelligent women of all ages, giving me that nudge of support lacking at times when one finds themselves away from home and family

Thuy
‘I spend my waking hours either thinking how wonderful the Farm is and/or telling people to come to visit to see how wonderful it is themselves.

‘Attending the Communications Committee allows me to share my ideas of how I’ve been spreading the good word as well as adopt ideas from members on how to promote the Farm. It is very encouraging when you’ve got a roomful of people who want to spread the love of the Farm as much as I do.’

Nafisa
’One of the reasons that I joined the Comms team was because over half of Tower Hamlets’ population are from non-white British ethnic groups, with a third of these being Bangladeshi Muslims.

‘I noticed that the fellow volunteers & visitors did not fully reflect this dynamic and I hope that as an Indian Muslim woman I can build a bridge to communicate with and engage this community especially.’

Tor
‘I wanted to be actively involved in my local community and improving the area. The Communications Committee demonstrates that the Farm really does have something for everyone: you don’t have to get your hands dirty to be an active part of this community initiative and meet some fantastic and inspiring people.

‘I love marketing and so spreading the good farming word: letting others know about where they can find a little oasis of calm and a friendly face in the big City.’

Bessie
‘I come to the Comms Committee because I get an insight into a mysterious world I never see in the NHS (alas, I love the NHS) where you can be excited, professional, productive and efficient.

‘I hear words I’ve never heard of and see things happen quickly. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and making it look effortless.’

Linda
‘My own experience at the Farm has been so rewarding and fun that I really do feel the need to spread the word, from standing out on the street markets talking to people or in the online space. More people need to know.’

Rachel
‘I suppose my story is that I got dragged to the Farm [by Volunteer Manager Katharine] and ended up staying because of all the wonderful things the Farm does.

‘Animals not necessarily being my thing, I try to volunteer with what skills I have – and seeing how much the Comms team has achieved in the last year has been wonderful.

Tori
‘I enjoy getting involved in the Comms Committee as it gives me a chance to use expertise I have gained in my work life (working for an advertising agency then as Creative and Communications Director for a social enterprise).

‘I love the practical and physical ways I can help on the farm (shovelling poo, planting vegetables etc) but the Comms Committee is an area I can bring my brain to as well as my body!’

Stepney City Farm ‘can change the world’

I love my job at Stepney City Farm. I love the Farm, the staff, volunteers and trustees and (most of) the animals: from Dunstan the Drain Avoiding Donkey and all the teeny-tiny guinea pigs that appear at regular intervals to the recently dear-departed Rodney the Kune-kune pig and Henry Ferret.baby_guinea

As I’m still unwell and my brain has turned to slush, I am going to take advantage and include this wonderful guest post written recently for us by the Guardian’s acting comment editor Libby Brooks.

Libby spent a month with us and now comes in most Fridays. We are lucky to have her and the other 90 or so volunteers who make such a difference. Her words, not mine, deserve the widest audience possible:

Libby_Brooks_Guardian_and_Farmer_Tom_Forster_Stepney_City_Farm_East_London

Libby Brooks, Guardian, and Farmer Tom Forster, Stepney City Farm, East London

‘As my month at Stepney City Farm draws to an end, I am left reflecting on all the weird and wonderful things that I’ve done over the past four weeks. I chose to spend this sabbatical from my day job as a comment editor and columnist at the Guardian because, having spent the past few years commissioning and writing articles about how this country is – for reasons various, economic and political – going to hell in a handcart, I wanted to spend some time with people who are walking the talk.

Clipping the ferrets’ toenails or filling up the leaf mulcher may not appear to have anything to do with the global recession or benefits cuts, but the ethos at Stepney City Farm – self-sufficiency, education, community outreach – is exactly what a lot of folk are groping for at present, be that through the Occupy movement or even David Cameron’s much-derided Big Society.

Essentially, having spent a month here, I firmly believe that Stepney City Farm can change the world, and I’d challenge anyone to do likewise and not come to a similar conclusion.

I’ve done a load of things here that have made me think about much more than just the task in front of me. Planting broad beans to store in the polytunnel over the winter makes me realise what a different rhythm there is to working life when the seasons are in charge, and light and temperature cannot be fixed at the touch of a button.

Working in the media, there is an unappealing tendency to get sucked in by the notion that WE are the insiders, and WE know all the secrets of the universe. It’s been really good for me – humbling in fact – to be reminded that there are whole worlds of skills and knowledge for me to get learn from.

Stepney farmers like Tom have forgotten more about gardening than I will ever know. Feeding the goats one afternoon in the field by Stepney Way, and watching the cars speeding past, I was struck by the fact that – though I have a tendency to romanticise the countryside at something ‘other’ – all of the urban environment was once fields, and can be fields again, while fields themselves are human inventions of course.

Not that the majority of my time here has been spent standing around thinking deep thoughts while the goats go hungry. The great thing about volunteering here is that there is always something that needs done, and if there’s not then you can pass a pleasant half hour playing with the ferrets (my favourite farm animal by a country mile and no arguments).

I’ve helped to build vegetable beds, groomed the donkeys, landscaped the pond, swept up a lot of leaves and shifted a lot of hay and mud and general detritus around in wheelbarrows.
Two_ex_battery-hens_Stepney_City_Farm_London
New ex-battery and one year resident ex-battery hens, Stepney City Farm, London
Zanier moments included chasing our rescued battery hens around as I attempted to spray their poor bare arses with anti-peck lotion. (These hens arrived with us in a terrible state, and were so traumatised that they were pecking at each others’ bald patches. Think on that when you’re choosing your supermarket eggs.)

And I shall never forget Goose Thursday. I arrived in the morning to the news that the local fox had attacked one of the geese in the night. The poor bird was barely breathing,and had to be humanely killed by one of the farmers. Then – and I genuinely think that this was what it would have wanted – we strung it up by the feet and plucked its feathers for down. Expertly gutted by our resident medic Katharine, the bird began to look a little less like a corpse and more like dinner, and I took on the task of roasting it with potatoes and fresh kale from the edible garden.

We made our own approximation of foie gras too, and saved the fat for another day. By 5 o’clock that evening – yes, I am going to say it, I can’t help myself – our goose was truly cooked and we sat down to a delicious roast dinner. Where else can you go from field to plate in under 12 hours? Or see every element of a bird, feather and feet inclusive, utilised?

It’s been a wonderful month, and I’m hoping that I can carve out some space in my working schedule to maintain my connection with the the greenest, greatest place in Stepney. And the ferrets would miss me.’