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With Bradford City of Culture 2025 just one year away, its Chair Kersten England reflects on the people who have helped pave the way in her career.

Kersten England

Despite a long and successful career in local government, my first debt of gratitude is to the people who brought me up.

Joan Lingard - mother

My most important guru gave birth to me. Joan Lingard was my mother. An Irish/Scot who grew up during and after the Second World War in Belfast and moved to Edinburgh as a young adult.

She was a prolific author of some 63 books, plus TV and radio scripts, best known for her Kevin and Sadie series for teenagers, charting a love story across the religious divide between a working-class boy and girl from Belfast. 

These books - and my mother’s Belfast friends - taught me about community and identity, and about the brutal and distorting lens of sectarianism. But more than that, my mum taught me to stand up for what is right and to pursue ambitions and dreams. 

She set out in the mid-60s, a single parent with three small children, to build a career as a writer. This meant I experienced her working world directly, sitting through script readings, being an extra in a schools’ TV programme or, later as her career took off, hosting the likes of Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer or Melvyn Bragg at home.

Mum was a founder of the Edinburgh Book Festival, part of the team that secured the UNESCO City of Literature designation for the city. The quote of hers I most love is: “Life is limited, but by writing and reading, we can live in each other's skins and in the minds of other people, and, in this way, push the boundaries of our own lives.” 

Martin Birkhans - stepfather

The person who had the next greatest influence on me came into my life through my mother. My stepfather Martin Birkhans is a Latvian Canadian who taught architecture at Edinburgh University. Brought up in Riga during the 1930s, his father, Alfred, was the city’s architect. 

Forced to flee during the war, the Birkhans family spent four years in transit camps across Europe as displaced persons, before being sponsored to settle in Ontario, Canada. Over the years Martin has shared more of those desperate circumstances. 

He’s never lost the sense of being a ‘DP’, showing showing great gratitude to Canada. Like many refugees, he has shown huge resilience and determination to make a good life.

He introduced me to building and urban design, dragging my sisters and me round castles and cathedrals as well as modern buildings, and taking us to debates about liveable spaces and places. He fostered in me an enduring love of Frank Lloyd Wright, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and David Hockney. 

Jill Liddington – feminist historian

It was as a member of the Manchester Women’s History Group in the early 1980s that I encountered Jill Liddington. As a newbie feminist historian and postgraduate researcher, I was in awe of feminist academics, writers and activists such as Sheila Rowbotham, Hilary Wainwright, Lynne Segal, Dale Spender and Jill Liddington.

Jill Liddington co-authored One Hand Tied Behind Us, with Jill Norris, chronicling the radical activism and agency of women textile workers in the mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire and their campaigns for women’s suffrage. 

Robert V Hughes – former Chief Executive Officer, Kirklees Council

At the start of the 90s, I joined Kirklees Council in Huddersfield as a gender equality officer. I moved to Bradford so beginning my love affair with this great city and district. As the first local government leader I worked with, he was not a typical CEO (he had been a minor pop star - Bobby Valentine - in the 1960s). 

Within a week of joining, Rob invited me – a junior employee – for coffee to talk about a development programme for female support staff. The programme concluded with a workshop at his house, which boasted a recording studio. While everyone prepared flipcharts of their life journey, Rob wrote a song which he performed.

It was a great time in Kirklees, with permission and support to create positive change and build an organisation that tapped into the talents of employees, beyond hierarchy or boundaries.  

Dame Julia Unwin – former CEO, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Over my career in local government, I owe much to many people who shared their wisdom and who have supported and challenged me. But Dame Julia Unwin stands out. Her belief in social justice - in the agency of individuals and communities and in our ability to end poverty - was inspiring. 

When I became Chief Executive of the City of York, she was very generous with her time as we in the local authority set out to create prosperity and wellbeing for our communities. 

Syima Aslam MBE – Director, Bradford Literary Festival

My final guru is a more recent acquaintance. Syima Aslam has been Director of the Bradford Literature Festival (BLF) for eight years and has achieved something quite remarkable. She has energy, vision, chutzpah and determination. BLF is now up there with Edinburgh, Hay and Cheltenham. 

Her curatorial skills are phenomenal. The programme is authentically ‘of Bradford’ but its themes are universal and global, with outstanding featured authors. From manga, lyrical mehfil, poetry with a punch, Brontës, Blake and Northern Noir, to debates about race and gender, international politics and the creative economy, it's all there. 

The festival is most inclusive in terms of audience, with a radical approach to discounted ticket prices and a huge schools programme. It consistently reaches people and communities rarely seen at other literature festivals. 

This is culture at its best: inclusive, accessible, inspiring, challenging and life changing – exactly what we want to deliver for Bradford City of Culture in 2025. With the dynamic leadership of Creative Director Shanaz Gulzar and Executive Director Dan Bates, and a young, diverse and energetic team, all supported by a talented and experienced board, we can’t wait to take the stage.  
Kersten England CBE is Chair of Bradford 2025 
@Bradford2025 | @kersten_england

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Headshot of Kersten England