Thursday, 26 August 2021

Relax - through reading and writing

I'm delighted to be hosting a pilot workshop in Burton Market Hall on Tuesday, September 28, from 10am until noon to explore the mental health benefits of reading and writing.

The cost of £6 per person will include a hot or cold drink of your choice from Summerhouse Bakery and a £1 voucher off the price of ANY book or magazine from Aidan's Books. 


Reading and writing has always been a pleasure for me, but over the years I have come to realise that it can also combat stress and anxiety, boost creativity, enhance your memory skills, improve sleep quality and increase your ability to focus and concentrate. Come and find out how and pick up some tips on how you can fit reading and writing into your lifestyle - however busy you are.

During lockdown a lot of people discovered the pleasure of losing themselves in a good book. Other people found themselves compelled to write down their experiences and feelings. Why was that?

We'll explore these ideas, share some experiences and try a few quick creative writing exercises. Don't worry! You won't be asked to share what you write. It's for your eyes only.

If you've always wanted to try journaling or creative writing, as a way of expressing yourself and relieving stress, this workshop will help you get started and could open up a new hobby for you.

A limited number of places are available. We'll be meeting in one of the shop units around the inside of the market hall. To reserve your place, I can take the £6 payment by online bank transfer or Paypal. Contact me for more details or to ask any questions. 

You may already know that I've been a professional writer for almost 40 years, initially as a newspaper reporter on local and national titles. Since 2010 I've run my own award-winning writing services business helping businesses, public sector organisations and charities to share the stories that matter to them. I have also ghostwritten and edited books in partnership with a number of authors and I've just written my first play.

Saturday, 15 May 2021

A venue and dates are now in place for The Godmother

 It gives me the greatest pleasure to tell you that my first play, The Godmother, is to be performed at The Trinity, on George Street, Burton-on-Trent, on December 9 and 10, 2021.

The Trinity – which used to be George Street United Methodist Church - has a special place in the story of Lily Thomas, the Burton woman at the centre of The Godmother. It feels to me as if Lily is coming home.

I am also honoured that the talented students of StageScreen, founded and run by Heather Gallagher, will be premiering the play.

It was at The Trinity that I began writing The Godmother in 2019. Every Friday, until the pandemic broke out, you would usually find me at one of the ‘hot-desks’ that Steve Wardle, owner of The Trinity, has created on the balcony of this beautiful building. 

Interior of The Trinity, George Street, Burton
L to R: Heather Gallagher, Elaine Pritchard and Steve Wardle inside The Trinity.

Local freelancers, like me, can book a desk for an occasional day or more regularly. It’s a great way to get the creative juices flowing by working from new surroundings.

103 years before opening night                          

In the course of my research I found out that the George Street church had been a big supporter of Lily’s fundraising during World War One. They often let her use the Sunday schoolrooms – now converted to apartments – for concerts. These were one of many events across the town that raised money for Lily and her helpers to buy food, medicine and clothes that were sent off in parcels every two weeks to every man from Burton held in a German prisoner of war camp.

Also, exactly 103 years before the planned opening night of The Godmother, on Monday December 9, 1918, The Burton Mail carried reports of a thanksgiving service that had been held at the George Street Church on the previous day. That service was attended by Lily and many of her ‘godsons’, which was how she referred to the prisoners she supported. By that date, many of them had been released and sent home to Burton. They joined with Lily to give thanks in the very space where the play will be performed.

Opportunity to join the cast

The Trinity has been lovingly and sympathetically converted by Steve and his team and many original features have been preserved including the stunning stained glass windows, much of the beautifully carved woodwork and the ornate ceiling. I found it a calm and inspiring place to work on my play and it did make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I realised its close connections with Lily.

Stained glass windows at The Trinity
Original stained glass windows inside The Trinity

The StageScreen students will be starting rehearsals for the play in September and there is still an opportunity for any under-18s to join the Saturday morning classes if they want to take part in this and the other exciting end-of-term projects and productions that Heather and her tutors have planned for the school over the next 18 months.

Restoring Lily to the spotlight

This year also marks the 80th anniversary of Lily’s death. As I wrote previously, I think it’s very sad that few people in Burton know about the tireless work that Lily and her helpers did between 1914-1918. Lily fought red tape and negativity for years, but she never gave up. She wasn’t officially honoured after the war ended and for many years her grave in Stapenhill Cemetery was neglected. Her only daughter died childless, and she’d left her home in Guernsey when she married in 1906, so there are no descendants here in Burton (as far as I know) to keep her story in the public eye.

Thanks to the efforts of local historian Malcolm Goode, and supported by funding from East Staffordshire Borough Council, Lily’s grave has been restored. But, it might be nice to do more to remember the lives she saved by getting food and medicine to men who were starving and suicidal. Hopefully, these first two performances of The Godmother will be the start of returning her to the spotlight.

Grave of Lily Thomas before restoration
Lily's grave was in a sadly neglected state

Grave of Lily Thomas after restoration
Lily's grave following restoration

My thanks to Heather Gallagher, Steve Wardle and Hannah Beesley, The Trinity’s events manager, for sharing my passion for telling Lily’s story.

You can follow more about The Godmother play and Lily Thomas herself on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, 3 May 2021

Introducing 'The Godmother', Lily Thomas

 

When I became a parish councillor, a couple of years ago, I met Burton historian Malcolm Goode and heard the story of Lily Thomas for the first time.

Lily is one of the unsung heroines of the home front in World War One. When the conflict began in 1914, she was a 39-year-old widow living in Stapenhill with her four-year-old daughter.

She decided to start a ‘little bit of war work’, as she called it, after learning that five Burton men were being held in German prisoner of war camps and had written home to their families about poor conditions.

By the end of the war in 1918, some 500 Burton men had been taken prisoner and Lily and her small army of volunteers had sent them over 25,000 parcels containing food, clothes and medicines. 

I began reading the columns that Lily wrote during the war in the Burton Mail and her memoirs, which she self-published in 1920. Her voice rang out from the pages and I became determined to make more people aware of her story. The best way seemed to be to bring her back to life on stage. Although I’ve written for a living since I was 19, I’d never written a play - until now.

The first draft of my play 'The Godmother' has just been completed and I’ll be posting news soon about its premiere in Burton Upon Trent before the end of 2021.

England remembers

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Lily’s actions saved lives. In her memoirs, she recounts the words of one officer from Burton who told her that suicides by despairing, starving men were frequent in the early months of the war.

He told her: “It is impossible to adequately describe the difference in the morale of the men as soon as the parcels began to arrive. Before they had been despondent in the extreme, and many of the deaths would not have occurred had the men had an incentive to live. As soon as parcels from strangers arrived, there went up a mighty cheer – ‘Hurrah! England remembers’. From that moment new life coursed through the veins of the men, and instead of the stony silence, whistling, singing and shouting became the order of the day, with jocular guesses and bets as to who would be the next to receive a parcel.”

So why has she been largely forgotten – including in her own home town?

A hundred years ago, everyone in Burton knew Lily. During the First World War she developed an impressive communication network including trusted British prisoners who were given responsible jobs in the post offices that were set up inside the prison camps. She invented a code that she managed to smuggle to them so that information could be exchanged, evading the wartime censors, and sounding like innocent news about friends and relatives. When serving soldiers came back to the UK to rest or recover from injury, Lily made a point of visiting them, learning more about how things worked in Germany and building trusting relationships. All this meant that Lily became the ‘go-to’ person for families across the town. They knew she would have information on injured and captured soldiers weeks before any official news was published.

No honours for Lily

Lily’s husband Edward had died when her only daughter Marguerite was one and Lily never remarried. Marguerite married but she and her husband did not have children. Perhaps a lack of descendants was one reason why Lily's name slipped from people’s minds.

Another factor may be that after the war ended, Lily received no official honour for her service. There was a homecoming party with many of the returned prisoners. They held a whip-round and bought her a tea service and donated towards a new bicycle for her.

The Order of the British Empire was introduced in 1917 to reward service in World War One. Many honours were awarded for work on the home front as well as bravery by members of the armed forces. But no awards came Lily’s way. She was an outspoken woman. Remember, this was before women had the vote and when they had less rights in law than men. It's clear that she ruffled a lot of feathers to get the job done. Maybe she upset too many decision-makers?   

Her efforts were ridiculed initially with many people believing that the parcels would never reach the Burton men, that the war would be over very quickly or that the Government would ensure that food and essentials reached the prisoners. But Lily would not be swayed. She fought red tape and complied with ever-changing rules and bureaucracy throughout the war.

Why 'The Godmother'?

The Burton prisoners affectionately called Lily their Godmother and she was delighted to return the tribute and called them her godsons. 

Lily was born and brought up in Guernsey and I'm continuing to research more about her early life there, but the play focuses firmly on the war years in Burton.

If you would like to follow the story of Lily, and the upcoming premiere of The Godmother, you can follow her on Twitter @LilyThomas_WW1 or at a new Facebook Page, LilyThomas.TheGodmother.

Friday, 26 February 2021

Staying positive and planning for a post-Covid business community

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

It's been a tough year. That's an understatement. But a mood of cautious optimism can be detected in the business community. We're daring to dream of what a post-pandemic world may look like and hopefully planning for it as well.

The coronavirus hub of the Federation of Small Businesses continues to help members and non-members alike. It's regularly updated and will be guiding people through the complex world of support grants, bounce-back loans, furlough and more - as it has done since March 2020.

The FSB has also been diligently lobbying national and regional government on behalf of those excluded from funding or not getting the level of support they need. It has listened to its members' concerns and relayed them to the heart of Downing Street, securing some important wins along the way.

Supportive, welcoming and inspiring

I am a volunteer champion for the FSB. In 2019 I began to host a monthly networking event for the Staffordshire and West Midlands FSB region at the beautiful Dovecliff Hall Hotel, just outside Burton-on-Trent. 

It was gratifying that some people travelled to join us from as far afield as Stoke-on-Trent, North Staffordshire, Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield. Little did we know that our February 2020 meeting was going to be our last face-to-face meeting for more than a year.

Since then, we've taken the meetings online. We've been meeting virtually on the third Wednesday of each month. Members and non-members of the FSB are equally welcome and it doesn't matter where you are based. Feedback has been great and we've been told that it's a supportive, welcoming and inspiring hour. It's also free of charge.

Liz Abram
Our next meeting is Wednesday, March 17, from 9.30am. I'm delighted to have secured coach Liz Abram, as the guest speaker for our monthly ten-minute spot. She is going to talk about setting boundaries and expectations for post-covid business. It's a subject that lots of us may be thinking about now. 

Do we really want EVERYTHING to go back to the way it was in February 2020? We have all learned so much since then about technologies such as Zoom. Will they permanently change the way we run our businesses?

Maybe we haven't fully appreciated how much we have adapted to this strange world. 




What are you going to do differently?

Liz is going to be taking us through the questions we need to ask ourselves as we plan for our post-Covid businesses:

  • What are we NOT prepared to rush back to - and why? 
  • What has lockdown shown us about how we operate? 
  • What do we know about ourselves a year on? 
  • Are there fresh ideas and opportunities we should explore?

It's a session that won't answer those questions for you, but will hopefully prompt you to think from a slightly different and resourceful perspective and prepare for the future.  

Everyone who attends gets a chance to speak for 30 seconds about their business and post all their contact details, website links etc in the meeting chatbox for others to download. To book your place at the meeting, click here.

For more about Liz, and the performance coaching work she does with individuals, look lizabram.co.uk or visit brezilliant.com for her work with teams, which she does with her business partner, Guy Hipwell.

Free publicity for small Burton businesses

Another project I work on, which that aims to bring a burst of optimism into the local business community, is Burton Small Business. I run this, as a labour of love, with fellow Burton-based business owners Cheryl Morris and Tilley Bancroft. 

Last month we launched the #BurtonBusinessSpotlight. This was an idea from Cheryl to invite small, independent businesses in our town to share their stories with us and be featured once a month. Burton's specialist cheese shop, The Cheese Station was first off the mark and became our first-ever #BurtonBusinessSpotlight.

We aim to keep the mood upbeat on our social media channels and focus on the news and information that is positive and helpful. We're back in the routine of sending out a monthly email newsletter, so if you'd like to subscribe, you can subscribe here. If you want to submit your business for a future #BurtonBusinessSpotlight, there are more details here on our website.


Wednesday, 10 February 2021

A golden ticket to the future

The news that Derby Theatre is planning a community play to mark the 75th anniversary of Derby County’s 1946 FA Cup win has set me thinking about how life can turn on a sixpence.

The phrase ‘everything will turn out for the best’ rings hollow when it seems that the fates are conspiring against you. Maybe it’s a human trait to hold fast to the belief that ‘it will be all right in the end’ and ‘if it isn’t all right, it isn’t the end’.

So, what has this got to do with Derby County football club?

I am a woman who

My dad was born in 1930 in Woodville, South Derbyshire. His dad, a coal miner in a local pit, was a Derby County fan and dad followed suit. By 1946, dad was a 16-year-old junior clerk in the offices of one of Burton-on-Trent’s many breweries.

The story that unfolded that year, as Derby County embarked on its only ultimately successful FA Cup run to date, is one that I shared when I was invited by Sandra Garlick to contribute a chapter to her 2020 ‘I Am A Woman Who’ book.

My dad died in 2018 and I think I was still processing that when the opportunity to submit a chapter to the book came along in 2019. 

If my dad hadn’t gone to watch Derby play Birmingham City in the semi-final of the FA Cup – and been sacked as a result – he would never have met my mum and I wouldn’t even be here.

That set me thinking about the leaps of faith we all take and the consequences they have. I saw there was a clear line from his decision aged 16 to follow his team (against the instructions of his boss) to a decision I took in my early 20s to resign from a secure job on the Hull Daily Mail. I slung a duvet in the back of my car and drove to London to shift on the national newspapers. Both decisions flew in the face of common sense. I had no work lined up and nowhere to live. But it was as life-changing as my dad’s choice to go to a football game.

My dad was often surprised, in later years, at his impetuous decision – which was made after his boss refused his request to leave work early one Saturday to get to the semi-final in Sheffield.

When I look back I am equally amazed at the calm certainty with which I decamped to London. If I hadn’t, I would never have met Bill and our children wouldn’t be here.

Creative pursuits and mental health

After a year that has been hard for all of us, including creatives and theatre makers, it is great to have things to look forward to and, for me, the Derby community play is certainly one.

I’m currently working on my own first play, about the home front during World War One. I started it before lockdown, devoting Fridays to it in the inspirational surroundings of The Trinity, and have continued to work on it at home in recent months,

It’s a new type of writing for me and one I’m really enjoying exploring. Have you tried a new hobby or activity during lockdown? Creative pursuits can give our mental health a real boost. When you focus on doing, making, or learning something it can distract your brain from endless speculation and catastrophising.

Next week I’ll be exploring the restorative results of reading and writing in an exclusive online ‘lunch and learn’ presentation for the business sponsors of Derbyshire Institute of Sport. I think it may be adapted into a blog post in the weeks ahead.