Recovery

recovery

There has been a lot spoken and written about mental health in recent months.

The prompt for this post is my own story of recovery over the past year after completing my Phd and the decade since my dad died. This has been a process of grief and re-engaging with life.

Triggers to mental health issues can occur anytime to anyone. The cause can be new experiences, ongoing ones or circumstances from our pasts. Unfortunately, the road to recovery is rarely simple or straightforward. It should never be taken for granted.

The focus around Mental Health Awareness Week in May was greater this year than ever before. This public relations initiative undoubtedly achieved its objective in awareness terms, and more importantly, in terms of outcomes relating to knowledge, understanding, attitudes and behaviour regarding stress and mental health.

But recovery from mental health challenges that cause anxiety, depression, fear, and other deep emotional trauma is not a matter of a single week. It requires more than a PR initiative or short-term public awareness of the issue.

There was a question behind this year’s focus on male suicide:

Stress: are we coping?

Coping involves responding to life’s challenges minute by minute, day by day, month by month. That’s why the Mental Health Foundation, as with many organisations and individuals, is dedicated year round to support and research good mental health.

The real value of any campaign around mental health issues is in the long-term measures – and cultural changes. Are we helping ourselves and others to cope with whatever comes their way? However they feel or behave? Today and tomorrow – not just when prompted by the news, memes or PR campaigns?

At my PhD graduation ceremony last November, my PhD supervisor, Professor Tom Watson, cautioned me that I’d experience a sense of loss over the next few weeks. Fortunately for me, the opposite was true. Graduation marked the start of recovery – in finding a sense of myself that had been buried under books, research and writing.

I’m sure that a sense of loss is felt by many young people who may not have achieved the grades they wanted or needed as exam results have been announced over the last week in the UK. They may feel distressed if things haven’t gone well – or maybe they’re sad about the end of their schooldays.

If we are able to, it is important to reflect at such moments. If we can’t see a way forward, others can help us get things in perspective. Can we move in new directions – or revert to other hopes, dreams and ambitions? Or take the time to process and rethink.

For me, I found recovery initially in being able to read anything but academic texts. This slowly helped me return to research, writing and other things I enjoy – such as dog walking and spending time with family and friends.

I had suffered in the final stages of completing my PhD with stress-induced eczema and typing-induced tendonitis.

My mental health had suffered in other ways – some of which I’m still addressing. But what had concerned me most at my graduation was how I felt about myself physically. I’d gained weight slowly but steadily over many years.

To complete my 80,000 word thesis, I spent months sitting in front of a computer or a pile of books. There were weeks when I didn’t go outside my house apart from quick dog-walks and trips to the supermarket. Eating more and exercising less not only piled on the pounds, but took a toll on my self-esteem.

Whilst relieved to have reached the point of submission and then to defend my thesis successfully, I wasn’t really happy in myself. More than that, I struggled to remember what happiness felt like.

I knew I had to make a change and recover my mental and physical health. I noticed there was a SlimmingWorld group in the next village and thought it was worth a try.

I found a group of wonderful, funny and welcoming people – and since last November, with their help, I’ve achieved a weight loss of over 3.5 stone (as a child of the ’60s, I don’t think in kilos).

I consider this milestone as a mark of recovery and gradually feeling better about myself. The tendonitis remains, and life continues to bring challenges. The support of others – strangers and friends – has been vitally important, especially as it is easy to isolate yourself when experiencing mental and physical health worries.

Recovery is a hard road – but we don’t have to travel it alone, especially when we are moving backward rather than forward. Recovery is about taking small steps and recognising our achievements, even if we don’t always feel the positive emotions that we think we should.

Life

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In the first episode of the excellent three-part BBC documentary examining the murder of Stephen Lawrence, his mother says it is important “to talk about Stephen a bit more. So people can see he had a life, not just in death, but before.”

Tomorrow, 22 April 2018, it is 25 years since Stephen died, aged eighteen. His life had been happy, full of promise. Yet a bare 70 words on the Wikipedia page, titled Murder of Stephen Lawrence, talk about his life:

Stephen Lawrence was born on 13 September 1974. During his teenage years, Lawrence excelled in running, competing for the local Cambridge Harriers athletics club, and appeared as an extra in Denzel Washington’s film For Queen and Country. At the time of his death he was studying technology and physics at the Blackheath Bluecoat School and English language and literature at Woolwich College, and was hoping to become an architect.

His mother, Doreen Lawrence, is quoted as saying,

I would like Stephen to be remembered as a young man who had a future. He was well loved, and had he been given the chance to survive maybe he would have been the one to bridge the gap between black and white because he didn’t distinguish between black or white. He saw people as people.

Public relations is about people. The relationships that people, individually and collectively, have with organisations and the people within them.

These relationships may be fleeting or long-lasting. They may be insignificant or highly significant in someone’s life.

When we talk about managing public relations, the emphasis should be on how organisations behave in their relationships with people. Yet stakeholder management is too often reduced to analysing, categorising, prioritising and working out how to influence or control those who have an effect on the organisation.

Listening becomes surveillance. Communication is directed ‘at’, rather than ‘with’. Systems are designed to gain advantage and rarely to learn, adapt and benefit others. In short, too little thought is given to the effect the organisation has on people and the lives they live.

This was evident in the relationship between the police and the Lawrences. In contrast, Detective Chief Inspector Clive Driscoll gained the family’s trust.

Today, 21 April 2018, it is 10 years since my father, Richard Liddiment died, aged almost sixty-eight. It is not a day that I want to remember, as I prefer to focus on life and the happy memories before death.

I believe it is important to talk about people who are no longer with us. What they did, felt, said and who they were and continue to be in our hearts. Most importantly, keeping them alive through talking about the life they shared with us.

And we should do our best to remember in our personal and working lives, to see, and treat, people as people.


Image adapted from: Designed by Freepik

Dedication

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At this time of year, it is common to look back over recent achievements and plan ahead to how we may dedicate our time and efforts in future. This approach is a key step in sustainable professional development and involves two of three stages of reflective thinking:

  • Reflection on action – what have we done?
  • Reflection for action – what are we going to do?

A third stage, Reflection in action, sits between these and focuses attention on what we are doing now. Monitoring our actions in the present is an important link between the past and future – what I call pastpresentfutureness. We have an opportunity to learn from previous experiences (good or bad) in improving our current lives. We can also consider changing direction or continuing a current trajectory in planning ahead.

Sometimes we make or face decisions that have the potential to fundamentally change our lives. The end of a year can seem a good time to take stock and decide to transform our professional or personal circumstances. Such reflection is a worthwhile exercise in critical thinking and enables us to apply higher order cognitive capabilities (drawing on Bloom’s Taxonomy) of analysing, evaluating and creating.

In my PhD research investigating career strategies in public relations, I developed an innovative timeline interview technique that enabled participants to reflect and think critically about their career experiences and possibilities. Analysis allowed them to identify connections and patterns in their career histories. Evaluation of the timeline drawings involved reasoned judgement of the past, present and future. Creativity is applied to gain original insight into career influences.

This process involves reflexive learning as it focuses on how we think about our career behaviours. A framework of factors can be considered affecting us at micro (individual), meso (occupational and organisational) and macro (societal) levels.

In reality, I found that most PR practitioners do not dedicate time to routine thinking about their careers. Generally they are reactive in responding to, or seeking out, career changes rather than proactively planning their career development. This is understandable in an occupation that lacks a clear career design and where the future can seem uncertain. Indeed, my research reveals the tendency to rely on opportunistic career strategies in public relations is long-established.

As a result, public relations practitioners – and the wider occupation – are missing out on the benefits of career reflexivity. In my experience, reflection for action is vital to identify possibilities and inform future career moves. Further, I contend that we need to dedicate ourselves through proactive career strategies if we are to turn our hopes for fulfilling careers into intentions, adaptive plans and actions.

Personally I look back over 2017 as the year I finally delivered on my intention to achieve my PhD. Reflecting on the dedication this involved, I have learned a lot about myself and ways that I can help inform sustainable career development in public relations. My proposal in my thesis of an original tapestry career paradigm challenges established theoretical models of a basis technician-manager dichotomy. Importantly, I argue that there is a need to develop customised career strategies and adopt reflexive professional development methods in practice.

You can hear me talk about career strategies in PR with Philippe Borremans in a recent Wag The Dog podcast here: https://www.acast.com/wagthedog/career-strategies-in-public-relations-with-heather-yaxley

What comes next is a question many people have asked me. Although I don’t yet have a clear answer, I know my 2018 plans require dedication to make them a success. And, as with the PhD, I cannot achieve what comes next on my own.

One of the greatest pleasures in finalising my PhD was writing the acknowledgements. This short statement allowed me to reflect on the support of others in reaching the end point of submission. Importantly these words of dedication are placed at the front of the doctoral thesis.

My PhD doctoral thesis: Yaxley, H., 2017. Career strategies in public relations: constructing an original tapestry paradigm. Doctorate Thesis (Doctorate). Bournemouth University is now published online. See: http://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/29913/

I’d like to end this post by sharing my acknowledgements. These started with a quote by Umberto Eco (from Foucault’s Pendulum, 1989) as a reminder of how our present selves develop continuously, whether we are paying attention or not. They end by giving thanks.

“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”

This doctoral thesis is dedicated to everyone who has contributed towards the many interconnecting threads comprising my personal and professional career tapestry.

I am indebted to the research participants who kindly shared their career histories within this study. Their generosity stretches far beyond the canvas of this work.

With humility, I acknowledge the support of my supervisory team, Professor Tom Watson and Professor Candida Yates. Their guidance has been invaluable in helping me overcome the occasional knot in crafting my thoughts into a coherent design.

I am formed by many scraps of wisdom, not least from my much missed father. My amazing mother continues to be a source of inspiration.

Finally, I am forever grateful to the much loved few – who add colour to my world, purpose to my life and passion to my soul. We know that a kite flies against the wind, not with it.


The photograph is of a Underwood Standard Portable Typewriter that I bought from Vintage Mischief in Beccles, Suffolk to celebrate my PhD graduation. I began my career after University by training as a personal assistant and retain my love of typing – even though the dedication to typing my thesis led to me developing tendonitis. I make a pastpresentfutureness connection for my career every time I look at my new old typewriter.

Researchers

MindthePRGap_Twitter_Banner_TextMind the PR Gap is a new initiative that aims to bring together research and practice in the field of public relations. It is open to PR practitioners, academics, researchers and students.

As I’m involved with the event taking place on Wednesday 12 July 2017 at Birmingham City University, this post is partly promotional. With tickets at £10, it will be a great opportunity to look at some critical issues. More details here:http://mindtheprgap.com/.

Topics for the inaugural Mind the PR Gap event include developing an academic-practitioner PR research agenda, update on the Global Capabilities framework, employability and a series of talking points with action plans that are being finalised.

Besides my own role in the employability session, what I’m most interested in is positioning research as a common denominator between PR practice, academia and scholarship.

Here are five reasons why I think that viewing ourselves as researchers is important, as it encourages us to:

  1. Demonstrate commitment to building knowledge and understanding
  2. Underpin our work with an informed evidence base – and linkage to scholarship
  3. Remain open to innovation and continuous improvement
  4. Develop competencies in critical thinking and problem solving
  5. Apply reflexivity as a professional practice

Far too often there is a failure to foreground the importance of research. For instance, the recent endeavours to change evaluation practices in public relations championed by AMEC, do not overtly indicate how research is required to inform objectives that in turn support measurement and evaluation.

In this regard, the work by Jim Macnamara is a welcome focus on creating an ‘architecture of listening’ in organisations.

Further, it is a weakness in the PR occupation that many practitioners – and too often the occupation’s professional bodies – make assertions and sweeping generalisations that are totally unsubstantiated or supported by research that frankly lacks rigour.

From my perspective of having studied career strategies in public relations in my PhD, I am particularly disappointed to see a tendency to present career advice based on little more than anecdote, individual experience or personal opinion.

Indeed this seems to be the norm in relation to careers, rather than an exception. A recent post published on the CIPR Influence blog is just the latest example.

Its argument that “talent comes second to character in public relations” is lacking on so many levels. From a career studies perspective, it is laughable to see emphasis on the “right attitude”, which is presented as an inherent and somewhat fixed personal trait. Indeed, based on her own research, Professor Anne Gregory has criticised work that lists the personal qualities required by public relations practitioners as “lacking precision”.

The idea that individual characteristics are inherent and unchanging was evident in the career studies field over a century ago. Initially such concepts were developed to help young job-seekers find a lifelong career, not to judge them. We no longer accept that career decisions made in early adulthood are irreversible. Yet other concepts dating from the twentieth century continue to be part of everyday career thinking. This is surprising given that they were derived from studies of the experiences of US males in white-collar corporate roles. Career thinking, Mad Men style!

To then tie fixed trait theory to ethics, trust and respect without any evidence is redolent of the types of attitude that can be found in the historical records of the CIPR held at the History of Advertising Trust in Norfolk.

The historical context reveals tensions and divisions between who was deemed to be the right sort of chap to work in public relations. Those in central and local government looked down on those employed in industry. Consultants were excluded if they worked in divisions of advertising agencies.

Women in PR were commonly discriminated against. In the 1950s/60s, not only were they viewed as dolly-birds but they were expected to have secretarial skills unlike their male colleagues, according to Dr. Jacquie L’Etang’s published research. She also found intergenerational tensions, echoed in my own research into female career experiences in the 1970s/80s, where one participant recalled dismissively that:

“a whole lot of young girls getting into PR roles ran around with Filofaxes and champagne glasses.”

Discrimination is just one of the problems arising from an emphasis on character as a proposed criteria for recruitment, let alone as a marker of ethical behaviour.

Judging character in this way commonly relies on indirect inferences and conjecture. The ‘right attitudes’ seem to be defined as characteristics held by those doing the assessment and hence only people like them match this ‘standard’.

It also leads to absolutist approaches that seek to include some people and exclude others. It creates a narrow cultural base of righteousness, and indeed, suggests a limited understanding of the nature of ethical decision-making. In comparison, Dr. Jo Fawkes’ (one of the speakers at #MindthePRGap) has written extensively on value based ethics.

I am reminded of the Channel 4 programme, The Trial: A Murder in the Family. Despite being reminded that assessment of guilt or innocence should be based on evidence, jury members were influenced by legal spin, personal experience, bias and whether or not the defendant reflected certain behaviour, body language or personality traits that they as individuals deem appropriate.

To return to the Mind the PR Gap initiative, I’d like to see this mark a shift to recognising ourselves as researchers regardless of whether we identify most as academics or practitioners.

A continuum between pure academic practice at one end and functional research at the other is, for me, a loop where the middle is of most interest. This encourages practitioners to draw more on robust academic research. Likewise, it helps academic researchers to realise the potential of their work to connect directly to practice and practitioners.

More research that connects those working in academia and those working in practice would improve our scholarship base, and reduce the reliance on ‘gut feel’ and anecdote.

If you’ve not already booked a place at the Mind the PR Gap event, please check your diaries and come along if you can (http://mindtheprgap.com/). We will also be using social media before, during and after the event. Please follow or like at:


References:
Fawkes, J., 2015. Public relations ethics and professionalism. Abingdon: Routledge.
Gregory. A., 2009. The competencies of senior communicators in the UK National Health Service. Journal of communication in healthcare, 2 (3), 282–293.
L’Etang, J., 2015. “It’s always been a sexless trade”; “It’s clean work”; “There’s very little velvet curtain”, Journal of communication management, 19 (4), 354–370.
Macnamara, J. 2015. Creating an ‘architecture of listening’ in organizations. Available from: http://www.uts.edu.au/about/faculty-arts-and-social-sciences/what-we-do/research/reports/creating-architecture-listening
Yaxley, H., 2013. Career experiences of women in British public relations (1970–1989). Public relations review, 39 (2), 156–165.

Grief

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Nine years ago I experienced the depths of grief when my dad died. The words of the blogpost “A private tragedy” that I wrote then remind me of the immediate pain.

I generally don’t acknowledge this “stop all the clocks” moment, when a solid knot was tied in the thread of my life. But I recognise my grief in a sentence by Seamus Perry in discussing Auden’s poem that:

Often the true immensity of love is learned through realising the enormity of its absence.

For me, there’s a silence in grief. Words fail us – and those we encounter in the days, weeks, months and years that follow. Yet we need words to help us reconstruct what we’ve lost. To make sense of our love and hopes and their absence. We are tied to the knot of our loss and words help us continue, with a strand of what’s missing woven into our pastpresentfuturedness.

Talk about loss and grief is having its moment in April 2017. I’m sure it is helpful to hear those who may appear to have everything sharing their experiences of what have been public personal tragedies.

Such expressions helped to inform the Languages of Grief model designed to illuminate the perspective of the bereaved and “the pain of the griever”.

Language of Grief

I think this framework would be helpful for those in public relations whose work involves communications concerning death and loss. This includes those working in the emergency services, charity sector and in crisis management situations, for example.

The Languages of Grief model includes four modes of expression:

  • Verbal responses (written or oral)
  • Nonverbal responses (silent or reflective)
  • Physical responses (somatic or expressions)
  • Physical activities (rituals or objects)

And four types of language:

  • Narrative (storytelling)
  • Symbolism (representation)
  • Metaphor (figurative)
  • Analysis (concretising)

As professionals we should be aware of these dimensions and how they combine to create “distinctive approaches” for communications. The model also considers the importance of being a “skilled listener” by including contingent factors that help us determine the most appropriate response. I contend that empathetic listening needs to be a more central component of public relations strategic practice.

Three types of contingent factors are proposed:

  • Internal factors (personal experiences, emotions and expressions)
  • Interpersonal factors (social support and set of expectations)
  • External factors (the nature of the loss and cultural expectations including authoritative discourse and power relationships)

In public relations practice or scholarship, I’ve seen little consideration of the importance of languages of grief. I suggest that research could reveal the habitus of professionalised speaking by public relations communicators. Also, I propose that attending to the elements of the model would help to develop a more appropriate response framework that reflects the polyphony of human grief encountered within public relations work.

I feel we should also study the biopsychosocial aspects of grief, loss and trauma as part of the recent discussion within public relations around mental health issues.

biopsychosocial

The work of McCoyd and Walter is a useful starting point. They explain how a biopsychosocial perspective helps us consider the biological impacts of loss and grief as well as psychological experiences and social contexts. I argue there are interconnected physical and mental health consequences for public relations practitioners who are involved in stressful situations that may be described using Hughes’ sociological concept as emotional dirty work.

When public relations practitioners are employed as spokespeople they are enacting a role that may suppress their own ability to express emotion in traumatic situations.

Likewise, the culture of public relations work may not allow room for discussion of personal difficulties such as coping with loss. The concept of ‘disenfranchised grief‘ concerns the expected norms of response within a given culture where support of others may be lacking or withheld.

The occupation also needs to allow room for attending to physical health which can be compromised under the pressure of long-hours, an intense working environment and the “emotional labour performed within the job“.

Given the relatively young age of many practitioners working in public relations, there is a responsibility for employers, educators and professional bodies to offer support mechanisms and address any structural causes of unhealthy grief and stress.

Similarly in an ageing society, organisations need to recognise the impact of ambiguous and nonfinite or chronic grief, where loss is uncertain – such as with those affected by Alzheimer’s. Likewise, coping with financial or other problems following the death of a parent or partner add fear to grief. There are many such issues that seem to be of particular relevance to those specialising in the field of internal communications/relations, for instance.

My own research into careers in public relations has identified issues concerning employment volatility particular in the consultancy sector. Further modern careers lack the stability and reassurance provided by the traditional linear corporate trajectory. Expectations that individuals will be entrepreneurial, nomadic, boundaryless and personally responsible for their professional development in an age of decreasing career volition can be immensely stressful. This has potential for a significant biopsychosocial effect on individuals that cumulatively can impact the wider occupation.

There are many strands of grief that affect us as individuals and in our work as professional communicators. We can look to scholarship to understand and improve the frameworks of communications in traumatic situations as well as developing better understanding and approaches to accommodate those who are experiencing biopsychosocial difficulties within, and indeed, because of, the occupation’s working environment.

If you find yourself in need of support to cope with bereavement or other forms of loss and grief, do seek professional help. For example, you could contact Cruse Bereavement Care, the Samaritans, or a charity such as Marie Curie that provides online help. Most importantly, find someone to talk with and don’t go through grief or feelings of loss alone.


References:
Corless, I.B., Limbo, R., Bousson, R.S., Wrenn, R.L., Head, D., Lickiss, N. and Wass, H. 2014. Languages of Grief: a model for understanding the expressions of the bereaved. Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine. 2(1): 132-143. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4345827/

McCoyd, J.L.M. and Walter, C.A. 2016. Grief and loss across the lifespan: a biopsychosocial perspective, 2nd edition. New York: Springer Publishing. Sample chapters available from: http://lghttp.48653.nexcesscdn.net/80223CF/springer-static/media/samplechapters/9780826120281/9780826120281_chapter.pdf

Other links are provided to sources in the post.

Image: Shinkichi Tajiri, Overhand Knot (1995)

Submission

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When we talk about submitting an assignment or other piece of work, this verb is often viewed as a process, the action of uploading or physically presenting something for assessment.

That’s what I’ve done this week with my PhD thesis. But in doing so, I started thinking about the concept of submission.

We’ve come to think of submission as weakness. We perhaps picture a dog rolling on its back to show its belly to a more dominant Alpha male in the pack. Or a defeated lion slinking off after losing a fight. Does submission means walking away from arguments or losing out in negotiations? Submission is for losers? Losers who are subjugated by winners?.

The word submission derives from the Latin, submittere. Its meaning relates to presenting for judgement.

Submission means asking others to assess us and our work. Presenting to people with the authority to judge – who are qualified to come to an informed decision.

There is a responsibility in such judging. This is not about being vindictive or seeking to humiliate as we often see with television talent shows.

When we submit to such assessment we are hoping for a fair hearing. We view those who are expert in making decisions as having opinions that are worth listening to. We trust them.

As such, it is a mark of achievement to receive a favourable outcome from our submission.

The same is true of the dog on its back. It is asking the other dog for permission – to use its power wisely, to be merciful in judgement. In fact, to go further the dominant dog is being asked to take responsibility for the dog that has submitted. To take account of the implications of its judgement.

As well as having my PhD thesis submission assessed, I have been asked to review the 2016-17 Behindthespin #bestPRblogs by Richard Bailey. I have the responsibility of selecting a winner from a shortlist of exceptional young PR bloggers. Moreover, as the first female judge of the four year old initiative, I seem to have an additional responsibility. There’s an implication that my assessment may differ from the previous male judges.

Yes, I bring a feminist perspective to my review of the submissions, but the only thing that affects my decision is the quality of the blogs. Not my gender or that of the shortlisted bloggers. That’s not to say that gender is not a factor in the quality of the blog posts, as I would expect the writers’ personalities to be evident in their work. I favour insight, integrity, intelligence and imagination. Those are gender neutral characteristics, but flavoured by individual identity.

My view is that in submitting their work for consideration, these talented students are not demonstrating weakness. I trust their strength of character will be evident in the work they present as their public face through their blogs. They are responsible for the submission they have constructed. I take responsibility for judging this fairly. Likewise, I take full responsibility for the work that I have submitted .

In life we are constantly submitting ourselves for others to judge. At the same time, we pass judgement all of the time.

In doing so we have a responsibility for ourselves as well as others. Or rather, others have a responsibility for themselves as well as us.

Of course, there are some things to which we should not submit. Many times when we should stand up and talk back rather than be judged in a way that is unacceptable. In such cases people may think that it is a sign of toughness to be able to take criticism. But it is not.

True character is evident in the things that we will not put up with. Whether that relates to when people judge others or when they judge us. Submission is not weakness. When enough is enough, the bravest are those who reject the opinions and behaviours of those who are unfit to stand in judgement.

This week I’ve experienced the lightness that follows from submitting your work for judgement. I’ve also witnessed the relief that results from walking away when others are not worthy of making judgements. Either way, submission is strength not weakness.

America

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I first went to Ellis Island in New York in 1980. This was my first time in America – United States of…

The last time I travelled to the US was in April 2001 when I stayed in New York with my mother to celebrate my 40th birthday. The one place that I really wanted to see again was Ellis Island.

By then, the gateway for millions of immigrants had started a journey of restoration, thanks to public generosity in response to an appeal launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. The Island of Hope, Island of Tears is a modern educational resource, now known as the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.

From my second visit, I remember the mix of people representing the myriad of races and nationalities that comprise the history of US immigration. Barely a week earlier, the American Family Immigration History Centre had opened up arrival records to everyone.

We watched with fascination the reactions of young and old visitors as they discovered details of their relatives on the new electronic database recording details of 22 million immigrants, passengers and crew members who had been processed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924.

I’d been to the US several times in the intervening years but the first and last of my visits are the most memorable.

When I started University in 1979, my room was next to an American spending a year in England. She lived in New Jersey and studied at Boston University. We became friends and she invited me to visit her family and the University. My parents managed to find the money for my airfare believing that this would possibly be my only chance to visit America.

I experienced a country that was both inspiring and depressing in equal measure. I remember huge shopping malls, noisy television gameshows, the thickness of McDonalds’ milkshakes and themed restaurants. I recall being bombarded by questions by people who were fascinated to meet someone British. They wanted to hear news of the Iranian hostages.

Their interest spoke to the concerns of a nation in a presidential election year that Ronald Reagan would win on a promise of restoring confidence, with a slogan of Let’s Make America Great Again.

After spending a few days with my friend at BU, I returned alone to New Jersey by train. This meant making a change in New York, at Grand Central Station. I was 19 years old and New York public transport had a somewhat gritty reputation. I was bewildered by the crowds of people rushing purposefully around me as I stood with my small blue suitcase like Paddington Bear trying to locate my connection.

A man wearing a suit came up to me and asked where I was headed. He gave me his briefcase and took my luggage. Quickly he took me to the right platform and disappeared into the crowds. The good side of New Yorkers.

This memory of a fleeting moment makes me think of the disorientation of those arriving in a strange country. Of trying to find your way and being unsure who to trust.

The Ellis Island that I’d visited a week or so earlier taking a ferry from New Jersey had conveyed this feeling through its haunting decay. Standing in open halls amongst the remnants of furniture, paperwork and peeling paintwork, I could feel the ghosts of millions of hopeful adults and children seeking a new life.

Shuffling in lines after an ardurous journey. Climbing the stairs of separation. Fearful of a cough or other indication of illness that would attract a chalk mark and an immediate return voyage. Surrounded by noises and smells of different cultures. Holding fast to precious dreams of the wonders that America may offer to those willing to work hard for a new future. The respite it would provide to these huddled masses.

A sense of the powerful decay of Ellis Island that I witnessed in 1980 can be gained from the stunning photographs of the Hospital Laundry building which completed its restoration last year.

Of course, immigration remains a global issue and January 2017 will be marked in history for President Trump’s suspension of the US refugee programme and plans for ‘extreme vetting’ of immigrants.

America – particular the US – has a long history of immigration, as does Britain. Regardless of your position on the issue today, we all ought to empathise with the feelings that drive people to relocate – whether in hope or fear. Nothing has ever communicated that to me more strongly than my first – and in a different way, my more recent – visit to Ellis Island.


Image: HR-ART.NET see: https://www.saveellisisland.org