What would you sacrifice for your mum? Naomi Jaffa is about to quit her job to spend more time with the woman she loves most in the world
10:01 08 November 2014
Scared? Oh yes. Right moment to quit, though? Definitely.
As Naomi Jaffa presides over her last Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, just before putting herself out of a job, she tells Steven Russell why you sometimes have to be brave and jump.
It’s the thought of her mother that helped clinch it.
Several factors have prompted Naomi Jaffa to give up a job for which dozens would give their eye-teeth. After 22 years, she’s set to take a leap of faith and build a new life… she just doesn’t know what shape it will take.
But Naomi’s sure she needs to adjust her priorities and, for one thing, spend more time with her 88-year-old mother, who lives in London. Jean Grayston is a former Glyndebourne soloist who moved on to the BBC Radio 2 world of light classical music and sang on radio shows such as Friday Night is Music Night. She married Max Jaffa, one of the country’s most popular violinists in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
“I adore her – think she adores me – but if I squished together the hours I’ve had with her in the last decade, but in particular the last three years, it might be two weeks of the year. Might…” says the outgoing director of Halesworth-based The Poetry Trust.
“I go down for Christmas and cook Christmas lunch, and I’m there for a week, which is heaven. But I’m very bad at taking holidays – never feel there’s any time – and when I go to London it’s often for meetings, and I’ll shoehorn in tea with my mother, for an hour, and then catch a train back.
“She’s not going to be here forever, and she’s fabulous company, and I love spending time with her. And I don’t want to have not done that.”
Definitely the right move, then, but still scary to quit a coveted job when there’s nothing concrete on the horizon…
“I hate change. I’m a Taurean and we’re apparently stolid, set in our ways; like routine, ritual and repetition. Yes, of course, I’m very nervous about what it’s going to feel like, not having this defining role in my life. I like having a purpose and feeling useful. How am I now going to do that?”
It was in 1993 that the Londoner came to Suffolk as its first (part-time) literature development worker, to help with the growing Aldeburgh Poetry Festival founded in 1989. In 1999, she became director of what was then called the Aldeburgh Poetry Trust, which ran the festival and other projects.
She’s seen a lot of changes.
Naomi’s office in the late 1990s was a narrow lean-to, built by her partner onto her little Suffolk cottage. It wasn’t until 2003 that the trust got its first “proper” base: at The Cut in Halesworth.
The festival was held in Aldeburgh. The main venue was the Jubilee Hall, which dated from the 1880s and was used until 1967 by Benjamin Britten. The event established itself as the UK’s leading annual celebration of contemporary poetry.
There was a major shift in 2012, which saw Naomi’s dream come true to take the festival to a larger home – Snape Maltings. It’s paid off by helping to attract new audiences (40% of bookings were by first time attendees last year).
More than 4,200 tickets were issued in 2013, with an overall attendance of 5,797. (There were 13 free events.)
This weekend marks the third year at Snape. So, with everything rosy, why has she handed in her notice?
Naomi’s been thinking about it for two or three years, she admits, and there are several reasons.
For a start, she doesn’t want to outstay her welcome and ever risk jogging along on autopilot. Second, the strain of running on a shoestring an organisation that nevertheless manages to punch well above its weight has grown – especially since 2011 brought a stark choice of folding or expanding.
“I’m not 30 anymore and it is exhausting to live on the edge of a financial cliff the entire time; to be responsible for raising enough money for people’s jobs etc etc etc. In building The Poetry Trust into a bigger organisation, and building the festival into a bigger festival, I have inevitably had to move further away from poets and poetry and ever closer to all the executive stuff. And it’s tiring.
“And, also, I’m going to be a bit selfish. I haven’t written very much in the last decade, actually.” She had a collection out in 2004: The Last Hour of Sleep. Although there’s much she’d like to say, energy for writing has since been in short supply.
Seeing as this is the final year of the current Grants for the Arts lottery funding from Arts Council England, it’s a natural point on which to end.
The £195,000 award was integral to the move to the Maltings. The first year there was a triumph, and 2013 proved it was no flash in the pan.
Next year will mark the start of a new three-year plan. Having seen her dream come true, and taken the festival to “one of the most beautiful arts-equipped venues”, Naomi says it’s time to make way for someone with a fresh vision.
Handing over your baby isn’t easy, though. “It’s been my life. It’s not just ‘a job’. The Poetry Trust has been my family,” explains its only full-time employee.
The unveiling of a new director is imminent. Naomi will stay to help with the handover, but is likely to have gone by Easter – happy her new life will coincide with the optimism of spring, rather than the dark days of winter.
And next? Who knows? There’s nothing solid.
“I’m going to have a ‘gap year’ and pursue a project that particularly interests me – as a writer with musicians, with an orchestra – but this is very embryonic and I haven’t even written a summary of what I want to do.” One thing is for sure: she’s staying in Suffolk – Halesworth in particular, where she’s lived since 2004. “It’s a real place to live and work. It’s not second-home-owned; it’s not holiday lets.”
Financially, it helps to have no direct dependants. Even so, tight budgeting will be the watch-word.
She plans to cash in some savings. “I’m going to ‘pay’ myself! It sounds really childish, but I think I need structure. I’m going to arrange for a standing order-type set-up so a sum comes into my account each month that I know is enough to buy the food and pay for the petrol and pay for my horse. I’m not going to be spending a lot of money next year.
“But if I don’t invest in myself, nobody else is going to, and I need this time to do some thinking and reflecting and growing. It’s a big risk. I might end the year with zero in the bank and zero plans, but I don’t think that will happen. I’m sure I’ll find something... or I’ll start something brand new.”