“This is what a Feminist looks like.”
The first time I met Laura, we were going in opposite directions. I was entering the Felixstowe Radio premises just as they were switching presenters and Rob Dunger was about to go on air before conducting a short interview with me. Laura was coming out of the recording studio having just finished her programme and stopped to ask about my reasons for being in the building as well as to reassure me all would be well. We chatted for a little while and when it emerged Laura has lived in Trimley St. Martin’s for several decades, it was a natural progression to extend the conversation further. Hence, I found myself walking down the footpath of one of the village’s oldest cottages on a bright, brave day at the end of March.
Almost immediately, it emerged we had shared the same senior school experience, although I had been living in St. Martin’s and Laura in Ipswich.
“I was bussed in from Ipswich,” she said, “as I was living on the Broke Hall estate. My parents wanted me to go to Felixstowe to ensure I would have the opportunity to do ‘A’ levels when the time came. But I didn’t enjoy the place, really lacked confidence and once told the Head I hated his school – and I did.”
Laura is a great example of a late learner who was interested in diverse subjects but for whom the school bell rang too slowly. It was not that she failed to achieve, it was simply that the achievements were not in the right areas. Her ‘A’ level results gave her the passport to go to Teacher Training College at Middlesex University, which she did but at the end of the first year it was obvious this was not the course for Laura and she returned home. There was an inner yearning for the theatre but it wasn’t possible to follow this at the time and Laura parked the ambition in a corner of her mind, where it remained dormant but not forgotten. Instead Laura set off to find work and this was to be the start of her real life.
Aged just 19, Laura became employed by Townsend Thoresen in a Courier capacity. Such a heady experience for a young woman. She delivered short European package trips for the company in easily accessible places such as Brussels, Amsterdam and Paris, all of whom fell victim to her capabilities. Being sent out with nothing more than a script and her own wits, she informed and entertained her tourist clients. Her time as a Tour Manager lasted about five years and,
“It was a formative experience and the making of me,”
she told me. Her early lack of confidence was replaced with a positive, ‘can do’ attitude and her successful work as a courier had engendered enough confidence to consider starting her own Tour Company, which was going to be called, L.M. International. It never left the drawing board or went anywhere because at this point, Laura met her husband. She later moved into John Hilary Travel, starting as as Travel Consultant and then becoming an Office manager. The marriage lasted ten years and during that time two children were born but as with many women, there was always a conflict of interest between the domestic sphere and a career. The constant juggling of responsibilities created different tensions and Laura’s career sat on the back burner waiting for the heat to be turned up and her abilities to start bubbling. Both children went to the local schools and many parents would agree schools hours and dates dominate the way the days and weeks define themselves and there is no disagreeing with educational authorities. Laura is immensely proud of her two boys, Ben now 35 and Josh, aged 29.This was counterpointed by Laura’s desire to engage in theatrical work; in fact, was desperate to do this. She recognised within herself the necessity to move forward and although she was able to sustain the friendship with her husband. After separation, Laura found an inner strength she didn’t know she possessed and made the decision to step the unknown, grasp the pedagogical nettle and sign up to do a Drama degree. Her confidence was on the rise.
Laura applied and was offered a place at U.E.A. to do the degree but she before she started was advised to take an ‘A’ Level. Consequently, her mature studying started not in the rarefied and refined quarters of a University but instead, it was Orwell High School who provided the stepping stone to studying when Laura joined the school’s Sixth Form course. Of course, she emerged stronger and more determined once she achieved an A grade and was all set for the degree course at U.E.A. but, this didn’t happen. Practicalities disagreeably raised themselves and Laura had to amend her original direction. Instead of U.E.A. she headed for Suffolk College and despite funding difficulties completed her first year following an ‘Individually negotiated learning route’ (I.N.L.R.) developed within the Suffolk Modular Degree Programme directed by Dr. Peter Funnell, who was something of an educational entrepreneur. He was later to become her Manager when Laura worked for Suffolk College. The degree was a good one and she could use existing modules. Unfortunately, the Drama component of the course didn’t work out as Laura had expected.. All the negotiations were tailor made and she was given an extra tutor. Her work in Film and Literary studies were receiving ‘A’s and decided to give up the theatrical studies and focus on Literature and Film. It was during her University days, Laura absorbed and refined the teachings of one of her feminist lecturers, Melanie Self, and these have informed the second part of her life. Her final dissertation concerned gender and identity in fairy stories.
I was fascinated to recognise the pivotal texts Laura had used for her work, which were reflected a different and ground breaking way of viewing fairy stories. They are not quite as innocent and pretty as they appear on the surface. After several years of intense studying and parenting, Laura now aged 39, emerged with a First gained through her long, self-motivated engagement in education. The extended years of studying had developed a taste for discovery in Laura as well as the desire to share her learning and understanding.
After finishing at Suffolk College, Laura found a different occupation, writing copy for Suffolk Business Magazine, then part of the Archant Group. She did this more in the role of a Features Editor for a couple of years, conforming to the tight deadlines copy writing imposes and with all the inevitable pressures this creates. At the end of two years, the work didn’t seem to be taking Laura in the direction she wanted to go and it was time to consider a different role. In 1999 the opportunity arose to work at Suffolk College as a Research Officer and Facilitator with a focus on Internet based learning. It was a project using money from European Social Funding and the aim was to make people Internet literate. It was and is an interesting area of study. Many people think they know how to maximise their use of the Internet and indeed, some do. But many of us are not Information Literate when it comes to the digital world. The ability to view online resources critically is a vital skill; it was important at the close of the twentieth century and is even more so as we move towards the end of the first quarter of the twenty-first. The academic world has always recognised the necessity for rigorous critical thinking and the work Laura undertook united traditional critical thinking skills with the challenge of those presented by the digital world. It’s a difficult concept for many students to grasp but one which has become increasingly important in contemporary society.
The internet training started in a comparatively simple way the in late nineteen nineties and was delivered at a comparatively base level. Education is full of undecipherable acronyms so I’ll leave those out and concentrate simply on the nature of the projects. One of the first was the Heritage Volunteer Educational Training which focused on thirty people, all at different stages of internet awareness starting with those who were not online and those who were further along the process. This particular course involved partnership work with Suffolk Record Office and History tutors at the College. Tutors posted material online and the volunteer students worked their way through the course work, learning as they went.
Another project followed, this time with more of a business orientation. The aim of the next one focused on Virtual learning, or, if you like learning through digital means. It was a means of helping businesses to learn online and Laura’s former Literature Tutor recommended she should be the Team Lead on a number of projects. This project involved working with British Telecom and College staff to help Businesses get online. It involved writing promotional material, using business management materials and developing training. Because it was online, it was accessible from anywhere. Online learning, whilst not in its infancy, was still in the early stages of growth. Other projects followed including one technologically based course concerning Learning opportunities in Suffolk.
Over the period of the last twenty or so years, technology has become much simpler for the end user and its earlier complications are easy to forget, to the extent many Millennials have never experienced them. Training was an important stage in improving understanding of peoples’ understanding of the possibilities computers offered. iPads hadn’t been invented and laptops were not in the everyday domain of the majority of the population. Laura’s work was an important move towards revealing the opportunities the Internet could offer education, learning and businesses.
Laura eventually moved into the area of tutorship and lecturing at Degree level, where she savoured working in a team with staff and students. Her outlook has always been one of enthusiasm, particularly towards the students. Many of them have been mature women, juggling with children and family responsibilities, as Laura had done in her time. The Degree level work coincided with the move to the Waterfront building in Ipswich, which Laura regarded as,
‘…a real place for a University in Ipswich…’
This was to remain her place of work until voluntary redundancy came knocking in 2017. It was a hard choice to make and take, albeit a logical one and as others who have done made the same decision themselves will say, it is one which is exhausting. After years of working at full pelt, it is common to experience a feeling of loss and bereavement. Laura has not given up all connection with the University and is now a Visiting Fellow. Her teaching commitments have continued this year as she has been covering a course for one day a week called, “Event and Tourism Management’. Her enthusiasm for teaching is undiminished and she enjoys the responsibility for student learning together with the opportunity to keep in touch with her teaching colleagues.
But new horizons have now opened up on two separate fronts for Laura. The first is her creation of a local “Lean In Circle’, a Women’s networking group for personal support and development. Originally founded by Sheryl Sandberg, you can find details of the organisation on Facebook and also on the main Lean In site, where Laura’s own group may be found. It is a supportive organisation which believes the world would be a better place if women and girls were valued as equal to men and boys. Laura knows the difficulties of being a single parent and can empathise with those in a similar position who are working to make a career for themselves. Parity is not a given in today’s world and the Lean In group is all about empowerment and motivation for women. There has been one meeting so far at The Oaks Tearooms and another is in the offing for May 2019, with a more intoxicating venue.
The other new venture brings me full circle, back to Felixstowe Radio, where I first met Laura. Rob Dunger, who is a regular presenter, interviewed Laura and clearly found her an entertaining and appealing speaker. He asked her if she would be interested in hosting a one hourly slot a week where he focus would be on women. There was an added incentive because the programme would play music by women. Laura accepted and from what I’ve heard, appears to be a natural. Once again, her enthusiasm is to the fore as she broadcasts across the River Orwell to Harwich and then back again to Felixstowe and the surrounding villages. I see this activity as another part of Laura’s love of learning and wanting to discuss and share thoughts and feelings with other women.
Taking voluntary redundancy also allowed Laura’s creative interests to develop. She is part of an a capella group, Stellar acappella, who have performed in Ipswich and has recently taken up art classes. Her love of Theatre has been maintained and she is now a Trustee on the board of Eastern Angles Theatre Company. Feminist theories have helped to shape Laura’s perspective in the second part of her life. Her search for equality and parity has helped to create a strong and independent woman who is always interested in learning, always interested in being creative and perhaps most importantly of all, always interested in listening to other women and sharing the interests and concerns of their lives. There is something about her zesty enthusiasm, which encourages participation in things you may never have thought of doing before. As I left, I noticed a water colour on her table, half-finished and peering upwards hoping for competition; Laura is a completist and you can be assured it will be finished to perfection because Laura never stops learning.
If you have any comments or would like to be part of the Trimley St. Martin project, please contact me at:
 Bettelheim, Bruno The uses of enchantment. 1976
Warner, Marina. From the beast to the blonde; on fairy tales and their tellers. 1994