Ros Fry

‘I grew up in Hampshire—I was born in Portsmouth, my father comes from Gosport, and my mother from the Isle of Wight. She was a teacher, and my father sold insurance, later becoming an estate agent. I lived in Portsmouth until the age of 18, when I left home. My brother is ten years older than me, so I think I was a much wanted child. I went to Portsmouth High girl’s school from the age of 8 to 18 and did politics and economics, which was unusual. We were expected to become teachers or doctors, but I was interested in ideas and people.
At first I didn’t really want to go to university, I just wanted to go to London for the excitement. Then I heard about Media Studies, now a bit of a cliché, but at the time it seemed exactly what I wanted to study. I was lucky to get a place at the Polytechnic of Central London, the only place that offered it. It was a really well-resourced course and I felt quite privileged to do it, although most of the other students came from rather more interesting backgrounds than me, making me feel a bit provincial. But I loved London life and did well, leaving with a First, the only girl to get one, and the first person in my family to get a degree. I got a job in a museum, the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington, against considerable competition. It was a wonderful place; it was about promoting multiculturalism and in some ways quite radical. I started off stuffing envelopes, a job nobody should be too grand to do; in the seven years I was there, I went from being a clerical officer to being head of marketing. This was during a crucial period when the completely new idea of applying marketing principles to museums was invented. When I left, I was 28, and went to work as Head of PR at the South Bank Centre, the world’s largest arts centre.
I knew nothing about classical music. Most of the people working there, at the Festival Hall, the Purcell Room, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery, were experts in their field, but knew little about how to encourage more visitors. So I learned very quickly about music and art, but I think it helped to be able to ask the “idiot” questions; the job was pressurised and crises seemed frequent. My office led through a back room to a box in the Festival Hall, so at any time you could watch performances; we had speakers wired in to the office so we could hear rehearsals too, all the great conductors and all the great jazz artists. And I met my husband Chris there; we had both come from quite radical previous jobs to this slightly establishment one. We met in the foyer of the Festival Hall and when we go to London these days, sometimes we’ll meet our son Matt there, who’s a musician.
Meanwhile my parents had bought a house in Askerswell and were spending week-ends there. So we spent a good deal of time here in Dorset and found it a most intriguing place. Perhaps it would be difficult not to, walking on Eggardon and seeing those white deer; Chris enjoyed the natural world in the countryside and I always missed the sea living in London. We were married in St Michael’s in Askerswell by Gregory Page-Turner, a fantastic, proper wedding. When we had our first child, increasingly we would come to Dorset; we’d go to the Arts Centre in Bridport, noticing how the issues they faced were similar to the South Bank Centre. We were also finding it fairly uncomfortable bringing up a child in London—we had very little support and few of our friends had children. So one day, sitting on Eggardon Hill looking at the view we said to one another, “We’ve really got to move out of London to the fresh air, and one of us will have to get a proper job.” That was a Sunday, and on the Monday we opened the Guardian and there was a job at Bridport Arts Centre. And on the day we moved to Dorset some of our friends actually cried because it seemed inconceivable that anyone could leave their well paid jobs and the excitement of London life, to live down here. A headline on the Bridport News the week Chris started work at the Arts Centre was “Sheep Loose on West Bay Road”, which at the time we thought really funny, but now I’d be wondering whose sheep they were, and what sort of sheep. So in the twenty years, times have changed, especially in that fantastic and worthwhile jobs don’t have to be London-based.
It was lovely living near my parents, although at first I felt quite isolated, not really knowing many people. But it got easier when our second son Dominic was born and I was able to do freelance part-time work, including lecturing at Dartington on arts marketing. Both of our children went to St Mary’s in Bridport and I got very involved with school life, fundraising, becoming chair of the PTA and as a governor. Meanwhile, Chris managed to turn the Arts Centre around, so that it became what it is today, a leading venue in the South West. Over the next few years I organised cultural events in Dorset; I did six arts conferences around the county and co-curated a successful exhibition called Made in Dorset, which brought together art, craft and food. I also organised a couple of festivals called Blah-di-Blah, which were about words and voices.
Our sons both went to Colfox, then Hardye’s in Dorchester. Matt went on to Oxford where he got a First in music—he plays trombone. Dominic is going to Manchester to study biosciences; at the moment he’s on a gap year in Borneo on Operation Raleigh.
After Chris left the Arts Centre, we formed our own company called West Mead Creative, doing arts training and consultancy. These days Chris runs the company alone and divides his time between here and teaching at the Arts University in Bournemouth. What I do now came about because two of my closest friends were diagnosed with breast cancer. Helping them through their treatment and recovery, I looked up Cancer Research UK and Dorset on the internet, and although I wasn’t looking for one, found there was a job on offer, working from home as a community fundraiser. I thought my skills in arts fundraising might transfer to charity work and successfully applied for the job. I found it quite a challenge working for a large organisation, being managed, and I’ve had to learn a lot, but in my first year in Dorset we raised half a million. In Cancer Research UK we know exactly what we are doing; we are beating cancer by raising money. The best part of my job is working with the supporters; everybody is touched by cancer in some way, everybody has a cancer story.
Two years ago I took a new role in the charity, Regional Legacy Manager for the South West, to encourage more people to make legacies and gifts. We do that in three ways; we have events where scientists and nurses talk to supporters; we run marketing campaigns, through print and on the web; and I work with solicitors who offer our free will service, which means that Cancer Research UK will pay the cost of making your will, with no obligation to leave us any money. Fortunately most people do. Gifts in Wills raised £167m for Cancer Research UK last year, £15m of which was gifted by our generous supporters in the South West. I give talks, which go down well and arrange for people to visit the labs in Southampton to see the research in action. I love my job; it’s great to be involved during a golden age in cancer research. When I was a child in the ‘60s, the average survival rate was around 1 in 4. It should soon be nearer 3 out of 4, a very positive trend.’