With superhuman powers possibly gifted by the Greek gods, Dr Janina Ramirez is returning to Gloucester this month to bring a series of events celebrating our diverse and fascinating history
There’s no getting away from it, the coronavirus sucks like an empty Dyson. You don’t need me to tell you that. But, in the spirit of art historian Dr Janina Ramirez – the gloriously, contagiously, fabulously eternal optimist – there is always a flip side. While physical festivals and lectures have been put on hold since March, Janina has been bringing us a stream of virtual talks via Youtube, BBC iplayer and other online sites. And they’ve been brilliant: enlightening, entertaining talks on subjects such as art history, ritual objects and goddesses, brought straight to our sofas.
As social distancing’s still a ‘thing’, Janina and I are using that other technological saviour, Zoom, to catch up... and I almost, almost feel like I’m with her in the sunshine of her beautiful Oxfordshire garden.
Janina – known to most simply as ‘Nina’ – is a force of nature, and what a force. Recently celebrating her 40th birthday, she has packed an astonishing amount into those years.
After gaining a degree in English Literature, specialising in Old and Middle English at St Anne’s in Oxford, she went on to gain an art/literature PHD on the Symbolism of Birds at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York, then a lectureship in York’s Art History
Department, followed by lecturing posts at the University of Winchester and University of Warwick – may I breathe now? – she now runs the Undergraduate Certificate and Diploma in History of Art at Oxford. But you’ll know her best for her meticulously researched, lively and engaging books – and her numerous appearances on telly, with Treasures of the Anglo-saxons, The Viking Sagas, In Search of Arcadia, Art on BBC, Raiders of the Lost Past, and very many more.
Although based in the Oxfordshire town of Woodstock, Gloucester has been lucky enough to have her as president of its successful History Festival for the last six years. With this year being the festival’s 10th Anniversary, as well as celebrating 25 years of Heritage Open Days in the city, 2020 was due to be a barnstormer of a year. Then along came Covid-19...
With all sorts of plans for the popular Blackfriars Talks and more, Nina and the festival team have been working hard to deliver a programme of online events, while encouraging visitors and residents to get out and explore our heritage for themselves.
“I’ve been saying for a long time about being environmentally friendly, in the broadest sense,” says Nina, “but there’s so much we can do now without getting in a car, a train or aeroplane and physically going and doing things. There has to be a democracy in learning. If you say to people ‘come to this hall on this day at this time’, that’s not democratic; people can’t all get to that talk, whereas with something like a virtual talk you can go anywhere in the world and, if someone has access to the internet, they can watch it. That’s a broader part of sharing knowledge – sharing internationally and with people who wouldn’t be able to access it otherwise. So, educationally, I think there have been lots of wonderful things happening over the last few months. There are obvious downsides, but I’m always the optimist!”
Throughout lockdown, Janina has been home-schooling her children, too.
‘To see a real scriptorium, to see the carvings of a bored monk scratched in a window frame – I absolutely fell in love’
“We locked down early as we had the virus, and at that stage I went for it all guns blazing. I said, ‘right, we’re going off for educational walks, we’re doing paintings, we’re creating Celtic torques...’ We were doing something different every day. I was trying not to make it all about the history of art; I was doing science, film studies and all sorts of really interesting cross-subject classes. It was OK – they knew why we were doing it – but as the time went on the enthusiasm really started to wane... although my son learnt to play three instruments in lockdown. By himself!”
Nina’s children have inherited different aspects of her personality, she says: her daughter (now eight) has all the niceties and gets on with anyone, whereas her ten-year-old son has her “crazy, mad enthusiasm and passion.”
She says that her heart has gone out to everyone who had to home school as well as cope with the other aspects of the coronavirus lockdown, and admits to feeling “really down” at times. Nina was admitted to hospital because of the virus at one point and, unbelievably, thought at the time she was a failure...
“I really felt I couldn’t keep all the balls in the air; I couldn’t be mother, teacher, cleaner, gardener, and do all my other work. My Oxford work was off the scale as we had to turn all our courses virtual, so I had to re-train all our staff and students and get all of the lectures up online. I had so much to do, and really did feel that I wasn’t doing any of it well... just trying to get to the next day. So, I have to say there is no room for perfection during times of difficulty – you just go for survival!” she laughs.
“Strangely, just before lockdown, I was made patron of the National Society for Education in Art and Design. It’s been going for over
100 years and is the beating heart of keeping the powersthat-be informed of what art education should look like – how it should develop, how it should tie in with changes in historical as well as cultural development. It’s a wonderful organisation and I was so proud that, when I was taken on as patron just on the brink of lockdown, how important that body has become in the last few months. I’ve seen so many people turning to the creative arts – to writing, to playing instruments, to making things... even the rainbows made with crayons for the NHS! We have to take that as a chance to show just how important the arts are.
“I think they’re just starting to listen and, when the museums and galleries reopen there’ll be such a flood of passion and desire to get into those spaces. It has to be acted on, and it must filter down to primary school level.” Though she won’t admit it herself, during lockdown Nina has been juggling enough balls to keep Giffords Circus going for the next ten years. She’s not only been writing two children’s books – and Goddesses – but also penning a tome called Femina, which will rediscover lost women of the medieval period, and propose new ways of engaging with the past. Oh, and there’s a new series of Raiders of the Lost Past coming out, so she’s scooting off to Knossos soon as the first stop in the tour. Phew!
You may think that’s more than enough to keep an art historian/medievalist/ writer/tv presenter/lecturer/wife/ mother busy but, remember, this is Janina we’re talking about – the Oxford lecturer who once sported a Wonder Woman outfit on Twitter in such a bold and beautiful way that it put Gal Gadot in the shade. She’s also been writing an – at present – secret children’s book series. While taking a rare break recently with her husband in the Cotswolds, she found herself – for the first time in years – actually relaxed. Away from the pressures and demands of work and family life, her mind started clearing of everyday stresses.
“I’ve been working on this series of children’s books since I was 21,” she says, “and I can’t even tell you the title because it’s all under wraps! This was the big trilogy I’d always wanted to write and, weirdly, it all came into focus – the whole storyline, the whole world just crystallised – and all because I’d relaxed.” And now she’s turning her attention to this year’s Gloucester History Festival, which is running from September 5 to 20 as a virtual event, with films, speakers, interactive maps, walking guides and more. Janina, in particular, was looking forwards to returning to Blackfriars Priory for the brilliant talks programme, but Covid dictated that wasn’t to be.
“That place hit me right in the heart the first time I walked in. And then I saw the Scriptorium... I was making The Private Lives of Kings at the time, and to see a real scriptorium,
to see the carvings of a bored monk scratched in a window frame – I absolutely fell in love... with the space, the team and the city.”
Nina spends months every year getting involved with the organisation of the festival, calling in favours from academic friends – “smiling and buying
This year’s festival may be a ‘virtual’ one, but there’s still so much to see and do. Here are a few highlights:
Interactive map: On the new website you find a fully interactive map, featuring 16 heritage sites across the city. A virtual visit to each location will lead you to an introductory film; drone and 360-degree film/photography, reflecting this year’s theme of ‘looking up’; and links to websites and further content.
Memory Box: A new area on the history festival website to share memories of each landmark in the form of video, sound recordings, social media contributions or graphical content, which will contribute to the communityled film and future festival opportunities.
Family fun: Downloadable activity sheets, colouring and fact sheets, plus oral transcripts.
City Voices: A day in the life of Gloucester Town Crier, Alan Myatt, as he attempts to deliver the first ever socially-distanced Gloucester Day.
Diverse City: Exploring Gloucester’s BAME heritage, including Black History overlay for pints” – to provide talks, and this year is no exception. Although the programme is still being pulled together at the time of going to press, with a theme of Voyagers and Visionaries for 2020, there’s an exciting line-up for the Blackfriars Talks, including Michael Wood, Michael Scott, Olivette Otele and Catherine Hanley, among many others. It’s just one part of a wide-ranging festival featuring a host of unique and innovative digital projects in the city-wide City Voices programme, as well as the annual Heritage Open Days. The festival’s new website also features socially-distanced live events and tours that can be enjoyed throughout the festival.
This year, City Voices has a theme of Gloucester Looking Up and will form a big part of the History Festival. “It shows you just how diverse Gloucester is,” says Nina, “but it also lets you see the city through another pair of eyes, and I think that’s the most important thing. the map and a film about the All Nations Community Centre.
Kingsholm Looking Up: An illustrated guide to the people and places of Kingsholm, including a walking map.
Take it to the Cleaners: Unsung heroes of heritage are recognised for the invaluable work they do.
Tales from the Cross: An interactive audio experience designed to stimulate individuals into thinking about their city – its past, present and future, and their part in its story.
Illustrated lockdown diary: 100 drawings documenting the life of illustrator Karl Whiteley, his partner and young son during lockdown.
British Sign Language tour of Gloucester: Deaf artist Olivier Jamin will present his unique and engaging response to 2-3 sites across the city in BSL, with subtitles for hearing audiences
Gloucester Firsts: Two short documentaries, which will explore Black History through telling the stories of firsts - The first Mosque and first Black Business.
I’m so pleased that one of the big things that’s been happening with the festival over the years has been to pump funds into City Voices; to see it as the unique aspect of our festival. We’re not trying to be the biggest, the best or the flashiest, we’re trying to do something that’s a commitment to the city of Gloucester long-term. And I think that’s amazing.”
Janina is absolutely buzzing with energy and ideas for the festival, and you can be certain that as long as we have our very own Wonder Woman on our side, it’s sure to be an incredible event.
“It’s going to be a smorgasbord of the best out there,” she says, with unabashed excitement, “and I cannot wait!”
BAME photography exhibition: Across prominent sites across Gloucester.
Black Lives Matter: Project documenting the lives of Gloucester’s black elders during the Covid-19 pandemic, to include a film, podcast and documentary.
Archives & Bristol and Gloucester Archaeological
Society: Local history talks, including the flooding of the Severn in Tudor and Stewart times; what happened to the poor in Gloucestershire; origin of place names, and more.
Ancestry/archives Family Histories: To feature two keynote speakers plus film snippets from local people.