Everyone has a story on the Islington Faces Blog. Diane Burridge grew up in the Australian outback. She arrived in Britain in 1975, first living and teaching science at a secondary school in Brixton, before settling in Islington in 1981 with partner David Braine. Interview by Nicola Baird
Nothing seems to stop Diane Burridge, 61, enjoying what’s on offer locally – whether it is shopping at her nearest shops, helping run events at the Ecology Centre off Drayton Park, N5, or being on the committee for a street party for neighbours.
Diane’s organisational skills have brought in a lot of money in areas where she has worked in London, thanks to her know-how about where to go for funding. For most of her UK working life her day job has seen her working on regeneration projects in London. “I’ve raised tonnes of funding over the years, but I’m not a fundraiser. Raising money has been part of my job, just part of being a manager.”
Over a year ago Diane took early retirement, giving her time to be a Games Maker at the 2012 Olympics. And she’s dusted off her classroom skills, so she’s back teaching chemistry GCSE three and a half days a week, plus lecturing part-time on regeneration at University College London (UCL). She’s also a committee member of the Highbury Community Association, the London Forum, and Friends of Gillespie Park (the latter since 1987).
Perhaps it’s no surprise that she can juggle heavy workloads as from 1986-1994 she was also the local councillor for Gillespie Ward (now roughly Highbury West and at that time an unpaid role) taking on spells as chair of Economic Development, chair of the Environment Committee and also Deputy Leader.
“I was working full time, nearby, and so I could manage the workload which took up about 25 hours a week,” explains Diane who is well known for rushing to multiple meetings in an evening by bike (perhaps an obvious way of getting around as she does not have a car).
She claims it was her childhood in Western Australia that shaped her into a political activist. “I was very young when my parents divorced. Very few people divorced in the 1950s but my mother was this young divorcee working in the outback as a bush nurse with two young children [Di’s sister is a year younger]. The treatment of single mothers and the low pay for nurses, as well as the harshness of our lives, gave me a lot of my politics. We moved a lot. We lived in one town, Mukinbudin where there was just one main shop only open on Friday afternoons – the next nearest town was 30 miles away. It was wheatbelt country on the edge of the desert. They were still clearing land then – we used to help out by pulling out the huge roots of shrubs.”
“I’d see herds of emus and kangaroos and the sky would be covered with birds. We also stayed with my aunt every holidays and where she lived the nearest northern town was 300 miles away.”
“There was no resident doctor in Mukinbudin. My mother was the local vet, doctor and nurse all rolled into one. She even had to drive her own trail across the desert to reach some Aborigine families.”
Living in the outback, moving often, Diane’s education could have been very patchy but she won a scholarship to a Methodist Girls’ boarding school, and went on to secure a free university place in 1969 to study geology. After graduating she travelled the world for three years on her own – working as she went. “These experiences made me very independent, self-sufficient and perhaps a bit too fearless,” says Diane.
Islington report card
Despite the huge amount of energy she’s invested locally over the past 30 years, Diane is proudest of the campaign that saved Gillespie Park, just behind Arsenal tube. Not only did she and others (including Angela Sinclair-Loutit, Pat Tuson, Chris Ashby, Sue Jandy and Rev Stephen Coles) guarantee a green space for Islington they also began the tradition of running a free festival on the second Sunday in September which attracts more than 2,000 locals. The 27th Gillespie Festival will be 8 September 2013.
With so many cuts anticipated over the next few years, it’s worth remembering Diane’s tips on how to protest successfully. “Campaigns are so hard and so much work. You have to be patient and resilient,” says Diane. “It took three years to save Gillespie Park but we worked as a team and shared the work.”
Her other tip is not to dwell on the past – “I like looking forward. I don’t like looking back. ” Even so as a regeneration specialist she has some thoughts on how fast Islington is changing with ever-rising private house prices and rentals. “Physically Islington has got better but it’s suburbanisation. I cycle and used to notice the little work spaces, small factories, family-run shops and children’s homes (at Highbury and Ambler Roads). That variety of use of buildings has diminished. Even the football stadium was turned into housing! We are getting a divided community.”
“I do see the social glue weakening, not helped by greater disparity of incomes between people. That’s why playgrounds in parks and free festivals are so important. They are the areas or occasions when people who reflect the local population can mix.”
Shops are another melting pot where Diane reckons people can chat and invest in local businesses. “I find it very sad that local shops are closing down. I refuse to shop in superstores – and only use small local shops. Her favourites are Whites Fruit and Veg, butcher David Mayers and La Princesse all on Blackstock Road, and the Arsenal Food Store on Gillespie Road. “David and I know lots of really nice local people, helped by being active in the community. We feel so lucky to have been able to have bought a house here 27 years ago and to live in this wonderful part of London. We’ll never move.”
2013 Gillespie Festival – Sunday 8 September. Entrance is free. Open from approx 2-5pm.
Over to you
How much do you get involved in Islington life – do you find it a way to make friends or something to be proud about doing? By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via email@example.com. Thank you. This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.