Ruth In Print

Writing is a constant thread running through my varied life.

From mid-teens, I had freelance articles published. I self-studied three A Levels while gaining shorthand and typing skills. Determined to be a journalist, I refused a scholarship to the LSE and at seventeen became a trainee journalist on the Mid-Devon Advertiser in Newton Abbot. In the early 1950’s, to become a journalist without patronage it was essential to start young. By age nineteen, I was living independently as a staff journalist on the Western Morning News (Exeter office).

In both locations I was the first woman reporter. But there was equal pay and no discrimination: very remarkable at that time. I soon also wrote features; added the role of local correspondent for The Times, the Church Times and the Electrical Times: and started occasional broadcasting. I bought a pre-war Austin 8 which proudly displayed a PRESS notice on its windscreen. Handwritten reports were often dictated to copytakers from public telephone kiosks.

Almost all information was gained ‘on the hoof.’ The following offers a flavour. I learned first hand about the education system; health services: and the intricacies of the legal system through attendance at Magistrates Courts (including Domestic Proceedings), Assizes, Divorce Courts et al. Knowledge of government grew from reporting prospective parliamentary candidates at well-attended hustings; attending parish councils: and Devon County Council. I spent two days in Exminster Asylum to learn first-hand how ‘inmates’ lived. The evening following, my destination was a Hunt Ball. That involved being appropriately dressed. A clothing allowance was paid for attending an evening dinner and/or ball, a wedding or funeral.

Interviews included an Arab Sheik; a hermit living on Dartmoor and a young woman tending her dying mother in a cottage without facilities or help. At seventeen, I saw my first dead body laid out in someone’s front parlour (I was sent to report her funeral). I rode in the 13th car of a Royal Procession from Exeter Guildhall, and attended the opening by the Bishop of a Mother and Baby Home. I loved Exeter Cathedral Precinct: shades of Trollope!

I occasionally reported football matches, speedway racing and learnt how to record dog racing results; featured an Exeter pioneer scheme about families who adopted a ‘grandparent’: and became theatre critic when required. This entailed late working: like my rota for contacting hospitals, fire services and visiting the Central Police Station for ‘anything to report today?’ Returning to the office late meant walking past printing presses on full throttle.

Those years taught me much about people, how the institutions of the country ran and, for instance, how (and why) there could be immense differences in neighbourhoods in the same district of a city. Accuracy was then a paramount requirement of reporters. Those years provided me with the bedrock for much else in later life.

For complex reasons, after the birth of my three children I was never again a staff journalist. While supporting a family and making a contribution to society, many women of my generation created their opportunities. In other circumstances, I would have concentrated on what is now called ‘creative writing.’ But, I have edited magazines, newsletters and books; researched and written community history books and had work published, including poems, in anthologies. My big book St Ann’s Nottingham: inner-city voices has developed a robust life of its own, travels the world and entered academia. Since 1995, I have run a small not-for-profit community publishing house www.plowrightpress.co.uk

My freelance articles have appeared in a wide variety of newspapers, magazines and journals, including Accountancy Age; Actions; Architecture East Midlands; Bankers’ Magazine; Best Ideas (compendium of social innovations); Building Design, Caduceus; Child Adoption; Contact: magazine of the Pre-School Playgroups Association which I edited 20 years earlier; Co-operative Consumer; Educational Forum (Indiana, USA); Financial Weekly; Industrial and Commercial Training; Journal of European Industrial Training; Liverpool Post; National Bureau for Co-operation in Child Care members publication; New Sector; Northern Echo; Oxford Mail; Patternmaker; Poetry Today; Professional Administration; Psychology Today; Quaker Monthly; Social Inventions; The Business Graduate; The Friend (Quaker weekly); The Guardian; The Times; The Natural Death Handbook; SHE magazine; Voluntary Action: and Voluntary Housing journal.

Writing with accurate [not glossy PR] information has been a key to achievement. For instance, my original application for grant to enable purchase of land/buildings for Nottingham’s Family First Trust met a positive response from the Gulbenkian Foundation. Ten years later, in the words of its Deputy Director Richard Mills: “Occasionally, a new application [for grant] makes an instant appeal to both heart and mind. This was one of them . . . As the first successful embodiment of contemporary ideas of the one-parent family’s needs and how they should be met, your organisation points the way forward, not just for Nottingham, but the country as a whole . . . “

My writing survives in diverse places including attached to House of Commons or House of Lords select committee reports. It is quirky what proves helpful over time, like a small booklet I wrote at the request of One Parent Families (1970) about housing needs. With its pink cover, it popped up all over the place including Bradford University library. After recovering enough mobility after a medical injury, I became an MA student in Bradford: my thesis being Company Community Involvement in the UK (published 1990). I persuaded the Peace Studies Department that this subject needed more independent research and was indeed a peace issue. It still is.

Editorials in the Action Resource Centre (ARC) newsletter for some years evoked lively discussion and worthwhile action. I like the format of discussion papers to highlight issues in a non adversarial way. For example, as national director of ARC I wrote Work: a natural responsibility? (1980). This made a case for allowing unemployed people to undertake voluntary work providing they remained available for employment. Strange now to recall the political resistance before that concept and practice were accepted! Voluntary work is now sometimes ‘sold’ as good for a CV. It is time surely that community activity became valued for itself?

I enjoy encouraging seniors to write about their experiences and ideas. They create a rich social history of the recent past. Read about the My History of Community Activity project open to all seniors who live – or have ever lived – in the UK.