Laura Johansen

on culture, Gentleman Jack, and ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Hear about Laura’s incredible contribution to tourism and culture in Calderdale through the Cultural Destinations project, and her lesser-known role as a diplomat!

Sam spoke to her as she was preparing to move on from Cultural Destinations, back to her job at the Foreign Office. They discuss the impact of culture, how the BBC and HBO series Gentleman Jack has given worldwide recognition to the Calder Valley, and Laura gives us a glimpse into the world of foreign relations.

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View Transcript

Show Notes

Gentleman Jack – the BBC and HBO series (series 2 is filming in Halifax as we speak!)

Visit Calderdale – find out more about Calderdale here.

Anne Lister – read more about the infamous Anne and her diaries.

Guest Info

Laura Johansen

Laura Johansen is a cultural hero in Calderdale! She was born and bred in Halifax, and for the past two years, she has been the Cultural Development Manager for the Cultural Destinations project. Laura undertook this role during a two year period of unpaid leave from the Foreign Office, which coincided with the exciting new BBC and HBO production of Gentleman Jack! Laura is now back in her role as a diplomat, but leaves a legacy of collaboration, creativity, and inspiration behind for all of Calderdale (and the world!) to enjoy.

Transcript

Samantha McCormick :

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Curious e-Motion, a podcast from Curious Motion. I’m Sam McCormick, and today we meet a cultural hero of Calderdale, someone who has been instrumental in raising the profile of the Calder Valley around the world, and who shows such dedication to shining a light on the stories of less heard people and places, Laura Johansen. Until recently, Laura was the cultural development manager for the Cultural Destinations project for Calderdale.

Samantha McCormick :

If you aren’t familiar with Calderdale, it’s a borough situated in the beautiful South Pennines, about halfway between Leeds and Manchester. The central town is Halifax, and there are smaller towns making up the Calder Valley, including Elland, Sowerby Bridge, Hebden Bridge and Todmorden. Calderdale prides itself on being a place of beauty, resilience, and kindness. It’s also become a hotspot for TV productions, as you’ll hear more about in this episode! This chat took place back in September, during Laura’s final two weeks in her Cultural Destinations role, as she was preparing to go back to her main job with the Foreign Office. Laura is an example of how, in her words, ordinary people can achieve paths in life that may seem unattainable, but are actually available to us, given the chance. This chat was such a positive and fascinating experience for me, and I’m sure it will be for you too. Let’s jump in.

Samantha McCormick :

Welcome, Laura. Thank you very much for joining me. The first thing I just wanted to ask you about is, so you’re moving on from your role now on the Cultural Destinations project, and what it’s been like. So what’s your journey with that role been like, and how does it feel, especially in this bizarre world that we’re in? How does it feel to be moving on? I can imagine it’s quite a big change.

Laura Johansen:

Yeah, it’s really… It feels really sad, actually, Sam. I’ve really, really loved this job. So just for a bit of background, I have got a day job as a civil servant, and so I have been doing this Cultural Destinations job on unpaid leave from that. And I took this job specifically to develop a few skills, and I wanted to develop some comms skills and leadership skills, and this job fit the bill. And so the job that I’m doing at the moment, the Cultural Destinations job, is a project that looks to increase cultural tourism in Halifax and Calderdale.

Laura Johansen:

And so I do that in different ways. I work with a consortium of the local quality cultural organizations, and try and build collaboration and cross-promotion and sharing of good practice and networks. I do some audience research and development. I do some things around shared box offices. And I also do a lot around PR, marketing, telling the story of the Calder Valley as a destination, working out what that is, building itineraries, that kind of thing. And I really love it, because I’m from Halifax and Calderdale myself. I came back so that I could spend more time with my family, because I like them.

Samantha McCormick :

That’s good.

Laura Johansen:

Yeah, it’s… I feel very lucky. And also, I was working in London and I think it’s just so hard, being able to afford your rent, and the commute. It just… I love London, but it just got too much. So all of these things came together, that I was ready to leave London, I was looking for a bit of personal development, my family were here. And this amazing job came up that played to things I wanted to develop, but also was just an amazing job, talking about a brilliant part of the country, with organizations that I already knew quite well and really loved already. So yeah, it was just one of those moments where the stars align.

Samantha McCormick :

Definitely. It’s amazing. And I think focusing on place and Calderdale, particularly, it’s such a creative borough. I’ve had a similar experience, having moved here from London, and I’m not from here originally, but my husband is from nearby, and I went to uni up this way and there’s a real vibrancy here that is just… I think it’s quite unique to Calderdale, in a way, and a really lovely way of organisations, artists, and all of that collaborating as well, which… Yeah, I’ve loved getting to know that, and you’ve been instrumental in helping me do that, too. So now, how long have you got left in your role? Just a few days?

Laura Johansen:

Yeah, just a couple of weeks, but I’ve still got plenty to do, so the foot is on the pedal till the last minute.

Samantha McCormick :

I can imagine. I can imagine. So in the past couple of years, what sort of impact have you found the project has had, in terms of… I mean, I could go on all day about how culture is important and all of this sort of stuff, but it would be lovely to get your perspective on… You’ve really delved into that and what that means for this particular part of the country, and what that means for our communities as well.

Laura Johansen:

Yeah. So the project was funded, and it was a pilot project from the Arts Council and Visit England. And it was an attempt to make the cultural and tourism sectors work better together, because they’ve got so many mutual objectives and I think that’s worked incredibly well. But in terms of your question about culture and its role, it’s fundamental, and I think there’s probably four reasons around that, I would say. I think around wellbeing, around profile, around economy, and around community, like you say. So I would say that in terms of wellbeing, I mean, we all know ourselves, don’t we, how much better we feel after you’ve had a dance in the kitchen, or you’ve sung a song, or been to a gig, or seen an amazing film. And all of that applies even more, actually, in lockdown. The things that we’ve turned to are cultural things. Culture isn’t always opera. It’s Kylie in your kitchen. It’s the same thing.

Laura Johansen:

And so that’s anecdotal. We all know, ourselves, the value of culture and the arts, but I think there’s been lots of research done. So I was really struck, for example, by some Arts Council research that said music therapy reduces agitation and the need for medication in 67% of people with dementia. So there is a growing body of research out there that shows that it’s not just anecdotal. There is concrete evidence to show how culture and the arts and interaction can improve your health, your wellbeing, and all that kind of thing. And then I think, in terms of profile, that’s something that obviously I’ve worked a lot on in my project, and I think that’s really linked to civic pride and how people feel about the place they live in. So things like the Piece Hall on Antiques Roadshow, or, Eureka! is a national museum.

Laura Johansen:

Or when you see, on telly, Last Tango in Halifax, Gentleman Jack, Happy Valley, you’re seeing the place that you’re from on the TV. It’s really cool, and it makes you really proud of what you’ve got, and when you hear other people talking about your place and going, “It’s amazing,” that is a really lovely feeling. But some of this doesn’t happen by accident, and so the project worked really, really hard to change perceptions around the Calder Valley, and to change the language around it, as well. So as you say, it’s a really creative place. And so that’s something we’ve really focused on with national, international press. And we’ve talked about what kind of language we want to use, and it’s really worked. So, for example, The Times, in their Best Places to Live list in 2019, had creative Halifax on their what’s-hot list. And that wouldn’t have happened two years ago. [crosstalk 00:07:52].

Samantha McCormick :

Definitely.

Laura Johansen:

That was hard work. The Calder Valley, Hebden Bridge and its restaurants and independent shops was on the National Geographic global cool list for 2019. Above Hong Kong, above Oslo, above Indonesia. [inaudible 00:08:06] that was a direct result… I can point, I can tell you the story of that and how that happened. And that came from concerted collaborative work to change perceptions and language around this place. And then that all feeds into the [history 00:08:23] economy. And I mean, for example, 43% of people who are moving will say that arts and culture are a really fundamental part of their decisions. And so it’s really central, and visitor… Tourism, I work in tourism, and tourism supports more than… Well, for the year before last, it supported more than 7% of jobs locally, and it was worth nearly 350 million pounds to the local economy. So it’s nice to feel good about the place you’re coming from, but you also want people spending money and giving you jobs and doing that.

Laura Johansen:

I think… And retail’s moving away from the High Street, so culture and experiences are increasingly important to keep places alive. And then finally, like you said, community. Again, research has said that 68% of people feel arts and culture events are really important for fostering community feeling. Not only does interacting in culture reduce loneliness, it makes you feel better. You can enjoy it. I think projects can say something about a place, and you can raise the profile of a place. So I think that was a very long answer to say that culture is really at the heart of a place, a community, and its economy. It’s absolutely central.

Samantha McCormick :

Yeah. And it’s just amazing when you look at those stats, isn’t it? Because I think a few years back, we’re not talking that far ago, two, three years. Those stats just… I don’t know. I don’t know that people paid attention to that quite so much, and I think lockdown has shown us that we really rely on culture and creativity and all of these things. And breaking that barrier down, of misconception and stuff, is… It’s vital, not just for one thing, but it’s really tied into the health and wellbeing of people and their experiences, and their lives, which is… It’s amazing, it really is. That is so cool about Hebden Bridge. I didn’t know that. I bet they were really, really impressed. Above [crosstalk 00:10:14] Hong Kong. Above Hong Kong.

Laura Johansen:

Yeah. Hong Kong. Also Indonesia. But I think it was below Pittsburgh. So, you know…

Samantha McCormick :

Oh.

Laura Johansen:

We tried. [crosstalk 00:00:10:27].

Samantha McCormick :

I love it.

Laura Johansen:

[crosstalk 00:10:30] cool list. So it was the Calder Valley. It talked about the Calder Valley, and it talked about Hebden Bridge. Yeah, so that was a really big moment.

Samantha McCormick :

Yeah. That is amazing. And what you’re saying about being proud of seeing your place on the TV. Even though I’m not from here originally, when we moved, it was probably when the first series of Happy Valley had come out, and I suddenly realized I was driving through Sowerby Bridge and stuff, and thinking, “That’s the school, and that’s…” And every time people come up now I’ll be like, “Have you watched Happy Valley?” And they’re like, “Yes.” “Okay.” And as we drive, I always take the drive to Hebden or something, I’m always like, “That’s where that was filmed.” And I think they think I’m a bit mad, but it’s lovely. It is a real sense of pride. And Sally Wainwright’s work, as well, has been… It’s really incredible, isn’t it?

Samantha McCormick :

So Gentleman Jack has been a really instrumental recent project, I suppose, if you want to call it that. Again, that’s been another one where I’ve been like, “Have you watched this? You need to watch it,” to so many people, because there’s a lot of layers to that story, I think. Can you give us a bit of background just on Anne Lister’s story, and then the story of the BBC program of Gentleman Jack and how that came about, and what that’s done, as well, because that’s had a big impact in terms of drawing people to this area, I think, as well.

Laura Johansen:

Absolutely. Yeah. So, Anne Lister, for those who don’t know, Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, in Halifax, and so Anne lived from 1791 to 1840, and she was a really remarkable woman. So she wrote a diary of over 5 million words, at least a sixth of which was in code, and that diary, which detailed every single aspect of her life: financial, sexual, medical, business. Absolutely everything. So this diary of over 5 million words is so significant that it’s on the UNESCO Memory of the World register, along with Samuel Pepys’s, because it gives such a fascinating socioeconomic portrait.

Laura Johansen:

So yeah, Anne was a diarist, but she was also a traveler, a mountaineer, an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, and importantly, a lesbian. So this is something that has really struck a chord with people globally, particularly women, and particularly lesbians, who are really excited to discover a history that they can own. And Anne is such a complex and rich person that everybody can find something they find fascinating. For me, it was the travel. So I grew up in Halifax. I worked in the Shibden Cafe as a teen, which is where I first learned about Anne Lister. And obviously [when you’re a teenager, you hate the place you’re from. So I loved the story of Anne Lister, this woman who had got out of Halifax and seen the world. I thought that was kind of amazing. [crosstalk 00:13:14].

Laura Johansen:

So yeah, Anne was a really remarkable person, and she’s from here. It’s a true story. And so when you’re walking around in Halifax, when you go to the Piece Hall, or the Minster, or you’re walking on Blackledge past HBOS, you are walking in her footsteps, where she went, the places that she talked about in her diary. It’s absolutely incredible, and it’s really magical. And so [inaudible 00:13:38] you mentioned. I mean, she’s been interested in Anne Lister for a long time. She went to Shibden as a child. And the more… Again, as with everyone, the more you learn about Anne Lister, the more you want to know, because, can’t believe the richness of this character. And so she has had the idea for a drama based on the life and loves of Anne Lister for over 20 years, I think.

Laura Johansen:

But it’s only recently that it’s become possible, and I think, actually, it’s a good thing it wasn’t able to be done earlier, because I think now is really the right time, in terms of Sally’s profile, so her creatively and artistically being able to realize her vision, and having the clout to do that. But also, there’s… In terms of LGBT rights, in terms of where lesbians are, in terms of the stories they want told and the visibility that they would like. The Favourite came out. There’s a lot of [inaudible 00:14:34] very zeitgeisty at the moment. So Sally Wainwright finally managed to get this show done. It’s an HBO and BBC co-production, so it’s a global one and it’s based very heavily on the diaries. And so, as everyone will know, from April 2019, it was broadcast. It was broadcast globally. And it has struck such a chord with people worldwide, particularly lesbians, as I say.

Laura Johansen:

Because my job is tourism, and you were asking about the Gentleman Jack effect. I organized a really light-touch Anne Lister weekend last July, just to see if anyone… After it had been broadcast, see if anyone would pick up on it, if there was any interest. So I organized a little talk in Book Corner in the Piece Hall, and agreed to chair it because it was only going to be 15, 20 people. Anyway, and we organized events, the archives and elsewhere. It all went completely berserk. I mean, absolutely insane. Things sold out in seconds. So my little event in Book Corner, we moved it to the Town Hall. Sold out within hours. Moved it to the Minster. Sold out within hours again at the Minster. Capped the numbers rather than do full capacity.

Laura Johansen:

And we had people who visited from Spain, Canada, France, the States. I mean, it was mad. And it was also quite overwhelming. Because I think people are really excited to come here to see… It’s a filming location, as well as the real site for Anne Lister and her life. It was filmed at Shibden. Most of the shots that were meant to be Shibden were filmed there. And they filmed around in Halifax and other places. And everyone was so… And mainly women, mainly lesbians who came, but… And I was very overwhelmed by the emotion of that weekend, because there was an event at the Minister with Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington, two of the local experts who have been working on Anne Lister for a while. Helena was the one who really kicked it off in the Eighties. And they gave a talk and some readings, and it was really special to be in the Minster, as well, which is Anne’s [inaudible 00:16:45] baptized. She worshiped. She’s buried there.

Laura Johansen:

And at the end, there was a Q and A, and a woman from the States stood up and just gave this amazing speech about what this meant for women, what this meant for lesbians, how much they appreciated it, the welcome they’d had. And the entire audience was in tears. And then there was this standing ovation for Helena and Jill, and it was overwhelming. And since that point, this level of emotion and personal journeys that people have been through, and what it means to come here on almost a pilgrimage for many people. It’s quite a responsibility as a place to make sure that you’re going to respect that and honor it, and meet that weight of requirement.

Samantha McCormick :

Yeah. It’s really incredible, isn’t it? I read an article, I think, around that time. You might have shared it on your Twitter, that might have been where I saw it. But it was somebody’s journey, who… She had traveled all the way from Bristol, just driven up, just to go to the Minster, and just to be in that space and to have that time to process what that means.

Laura Johansen:

And again, when you look at the visitor figures, as well. So, for example, Shibden Hall, normally they used to get about 20,000 visitors a year. 2019 to 2020, they had 60,000. And their capacity’s limited, not only because it’s quite a small space so you need to manage that, and, obviously, recently with COVID and everything, that’s become even more difficult. And again, yeah, looking at the Minster visitor figures, they’re record-breaking. It’s having a demonstrable and measurable impact. And again, it’s just such a wonderful feeling to have people all over the world who are excited about coming to Halifax. I was listening to a podcast, and they were planning their visit to Halifax. And [inaudible 00:18:42] “Can’t wait. We’re so excited to be visiting Halifax.” Again, two years ago, someone in New Orleans who is super-excited about their visit here. It’s just the most fabulous feeling.

Samantha McCormick :

Oh my goodness. That really is amazing, isn’t it? Yeah. People all over the world. And you think about it, and you think, “Yeah, this really speaks to people.” And for me, I suppose if you hear the story of Anne, you think, “Okay, that probably will speak to people.” But when you realize how much we all need these stories. It’s really important that people are represented, their voices are heard, and culture is a way to do that, I suppose, in some ways. So there’s another series in the pipeline as well, I think. Is that right?

Laura Johansen:

Yeah, that’s right. They were meant to be filming earlier this year, but obviously that’s been postponed. But yeah, we’re hoping they’ll be back before too long. And again, they’ll be using this area for the locations, which is absolutely fantastic. Yeah.

Samantha McCormick :

Yeah. Wow. Oh, wow. I can’t wait.

Laura Johansen:

So Sally Wainwright should be on commission, basically. What she’s done for Calderdale is incredible. I mean, we’ve got the gift of Anne Lister… And I mean, we’re gifted. We’ve got so many gifts here, and I’m happy to talk about them at length. But having the gift of Anne Lister and the gift of Sally Wainwright. I mean, other Cultural Destinations projects across the country just send me emails saying how jealous they are.

Samantha McCormick :

I love that. We don’t want people to be jealous, but hey, we’re happy for this. This is great. It’s really amazing. I think that’s something that drew me to Calderdale, when we were thinking about where to move back into the north. And there is an energy here, I think, that’s just so interesting, and to see this progression over the past couple of years and that level of impact and storytelling and… Yeah. Wow.

Laura Johansen:

We did a tourism event with the tourism team at the Council, and the producer of Gentleman Jack came, and he said that he wanted to see seven series, seasons of Gentleman Jack, which obviously would be totally awesome.

Samantha McCormick:

Yeah. Oh my goodness. Excellent. That’s great news.

Laura Johansen:

So make sure everybody who is listening to this and all of your friends and family, tell them to watch it so we can get more series.

Samantha McCormick:

Definitely, yeah. The more people who watch, the longer these things can keep going.

Laura Johansen:

Exactly.

Samantha McCormick:

The more impact they can make, and obviously it’s… This is the thing. This is why I love arts and culture, and I am completely biased. That is my background. But this is the impact it can make. It can change people’s lives. It can help them feel included. It can help them feel represented. It can address issues that need to be addressed. They are difficult issues, but they must be addressed. We need to have these opportunities, and I think Sally does it in such a beautiful way. It’s that lovely storytelling, but that real representation from a really authentic place, as well.

Laura Johansen:

Yeah. And with a really strong northern voice, which is something you don’t see as often as you would like to in media and culture.

Laura Johansen:

(silence).

Samantha McCormick:

I want to just talk a little bit about collaboration as well, because I know there’s a lot of artists and heritage sites and organizations and things here that, especially now with lockdown and COVID and everything, it feels like the right time to really push collaboration and cross-promotion, and I know that’s something you have done massively.

Laura Johansen:

I absolutely agree with you. More than ever, we need to be collaborating and outward-facing. And I think the risk is, right now, that people will fold in and become more insular and focused on their own organizations and survival, and that is completely understandable. We need to be learning from each other, and sharing best-practice and sharing contacts, and also working together to really spread the message about why culture and the arts are important, and why they are so fundamental to our wellbeing and to our economy. That requires us all to be outward facing and to dedicate some very precious time and energy. And it’s not easy. I spent probably the first six months of my job getting out there, trying to meet people, trying to understand what people are doing. It does require time and energy and resources.

Laura Johansen:

In the Cultural Destinations project, I have convened a group of local quality cultural organizations. And so what that means is, again, I’ve been out there talking to them, trying to understand what would be helpful for them from a collaboration point of view. I chair monthly meetings. I do lots of soft work behind the scenes, chivvying people along. But what we’ve ended up with, after hard work, is a group of people who have got professional support network. Professional network of people that you can ring up. And so there’s that soft side, which I think is super-important. But then we also have the harder side around collaboration, where it’s about sharing, joint upskilling. So we’ve run collective sessions on how to use Google Ads, Instagram, that kind of thing.

Laura Johansen:

What we also found… So we work a lot on cross-promotion. And again, that takes a while, because your initial response is, “Why would I promote a show at another place when I’ve got shows?” But actually, what you’re doing when you’re doing that is you’re projecting something very friendly and is about your place, and collaborative, which a customer reacts well to. Also, strategically, you’re projecting something really wonderful about you as a place, to potential visitors, that this is a place where people work together and there’s loads of amazing stuff going on. So why not come for a couple of days? So the real benefit of my role was that I was independent, and I didn’t belong to an organisation or the Council or anything. And so what I could do was look across the Valley at what was happening and curate that into different stories, without an obligation to my employers. I could really curate, in the best interests of the customer, or the media, sorry, without an obligation.

Laura Johansen:

And that wasn’t always popular. It was quite hard sometimes, obviously. But I think that it was really important to do that, because people haven’t got time these days, so you need to do the work for them. So, what is the story, where do they stay? And I think you can translate that into the personal thing. Like, say, if you’re an individual creative person, I think the thing that I’ve really learned from this past couple of years in this job is the starting point is, what is your story, and what is your unique selling point? What do you offer that others don’t, and what do you want to say about that? Working that out.

Laura Johansen:

And then the next step, obviously, is who do you want to say that to? You can say it. And so for me, on that score, it’s really been about upskilling myself on digital things, because that is the future, and I was really, really behind on that. And I’ve learned a lot off YouTube. I’ve learned a lot off colleagues. I’ve had to put myself out there, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but that was what I needed to do. And I think probably that is something that a lot of independent shops and creatives and artists will need to move into that space.

Samantha McCormick:

Yeah. It’s vulnerable, isn’t it? It’s really vulnerable. But vulnerability is the thing that moves… That makes things happen.

Laura Johansen:

You have to learn. You make mistakes, [crosstalk 00:26:21] you have to learn. In fact, I only learn through mistakes and personal humiliation.

Samantha McCormick:

Me too!

Samantha McCormick:

(silence).

Samantha McCormick:

So now you’re moving on from this role and back into your original role, and I know that has involved working all over the world, and I was saying in my little brief that I sent you, I saw your tweet saying that you’d worked in Congo and places like that. And I’m just completely curious about that, and it would be lovely to get just what your experience has been like in different cultures. Can you tell us about Congo?

Laura Johansen:

Yeah, I can, I can. In the past, I haven’t really talked about my career. I work for the Foreign Office, and so I’m in the Diplomatic Service. I’ve been a diplomat overseas and that’s why I’ve traveled. And I haven’t really talked about it much, because in Yorkshire, you don’t ever want to do anything where you look like there might even be a hint of showing off. Because you’ll get slapped down immediately. But actually, I’ve been thinking about it more recently, and I think it is really important to talk about it for two reasons. One is that I’m from Halifax. I went to state school. I’ve been working since I was 14. I worked my way through university. I did French and drama, not international relations. And the Foreign Office advertised in a paper. And so I went through a very lengthy year-long interview process, and there aren’t that many Northerners there.

Laura Johansen:

And I think partly that’s because it is so expensive to live in London, and no one works in public service for the money. But also I think a lot of people think that those kind of careers are out of reach. And so I just wanted to say, I’m just an ordinary person who didn’t study this, but I ended up doing it. And that that is a path that is available to people locally, and I think that’s really important. Because you’re hired for your skills and your interest and your curiosity. So I can speak another language or two, and I’m sure many people in this region can, if it’s at home with your family or whether you’ve learnt at school, or whether you’ve been traveling. So it’s about skills, rather than knowledge. They trust you to to learn the knowledge if you’ve got the basics of skills.

Laura Johansen:

And then I think the other reason that I want to talk about it more is I think, at this point, it’s really important that there is a wider understanding of how international relations work, because the world is globalized, and there’s no going back from that. A pandemic happens in China and we’re all affected. So I think we all have to, and I include myself, have to really work harder to understand how the international system works, and the role that we want Britain and ourselves, as individuals, to play in it over the next few years. And so that’s why I’m very happy to talk about it. So as I say, my stepmum saw the advert in a paper and encouraged me to apply. So I did. And because I was quite relaxed about the whole thing, I think it went okay, whereas if I’d wanted it, it would have been a total disaster.

Laura Johansen:

But it has been an incredibly fulfilling job, working with really clever people, learning a lot. At the Foreign Office, you work on international relations, relationships with other countries, and, basically, you’re trying to get people to know more about the UK and to like us, and to trade with us. So that was basically your job. My first posting was in New York. I was part of the UK delegation to the UN. I had the responsibility for humanitarian affairs. So that was about working in the Security Council and other places to try and make sure that the most vulnerable have access to humanitarian assistance, and workers, and that kind of thing. And that was incredible. And New York was amazing, and I didn’t sleep for three years because I was working and playing too hard. Then I went to Copenhagen, where I worked on things like climate change and counter-terrorism, and other issues. I came back and worked on consular.

Laura Johansen:

And so if you’re ever on your holidays and you get into trouble overseas, people who work at the local embassy or high commission can help you out, or give you advice. They can’t get you out of jail and those kind of things, because laws apply elsewhere, but that’s the kind of work we do. And I think last year it was about 16,000 really serious cases of where bad things happen to people overseas. So that was very fascinating. Did a lot of work, for example, on British nationals who had the death penalty in the States, or people who had got into trouble in Europe, lots of… Very interesting and often unseen. And that’s where your passport fees go. And always buy travel insurance. Please, please, please always travel insurance. And then I got a job in Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the capital is Kinshasa. And I also went to the other Republic of Congo, just across the river. So that’s a quiz question answer. The two capitals nearest each other in the world are the Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Laura Johansen:

And a lot of people know it for its conflict, and it has had a really hard time. It’s at the bottom of the human development index. Really serious poverty issues, sexual violence issues. But it is the most amazing country. I love it deeply. It is the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen in the world. The people are so warm and welcoming, and from one side to another, it’s the same size as Paris to Moscow. So it’s incredibly rich from an environment perspective and political perspective. It’s just a really fascinating place.

Laura Johansen:

And then after that, I went to Vietnam for a while, which also is a really magical place, and where I learned a lot about regional security, and the rise of China and those kind of issues. So it’s been a very mixed career and you get to go overseas, which is very, very cool, and can be very glamorous and very exciting, but it is also really hard, having, like you say, to learn a new culture, or a new language, and just missing your family. Getting bitten by mosquitoes all of the time, those kind of things.

Samantha McCormick:

It’s amazing. I went to Vietnam for my honeymoon and we did a tour from the north to the south, and then went over to Cambodia for a few days, and it’s probably one of my most… I mean, I haven’t traveled the world like you have, but I’ve been to a few places. That is, I think Vietnam, particularly, there was something about the people there. It might be similar to what you were saying about Congo, that really open, welcoming, lovely energy from people. People smile at you on the street and just wave, and it’s genuine and lovely. Yeah, Vietnam really struck me as a place that was full of all of that, and the history, as well, is fascinating. Hard, a very hard history, as many countries have, but fascinating. So will you be going broad again? Are you going to be in the UK? Do you know what’s going to happen when you start back?

Laura Johansen:

Well, I think it’s really hard at that moment to know even what’s happening next week. So I’m basically, taking a very Zen approach and whatever happens, happens. But yeah, I am starting back, and I’m going to be working on West Africa, which I’m really looking forward to. So yeah, that will be fun. But to come back to your original question, work in the Calder Valley is the most enriching, rewarding, fascinating work, and I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. So I am excited to be going back to my job and learning new things, but I am incredibly sad to be leaving. But I’m from here and I live here. So I’ll have one foot in Yorkshire.

Samantha McCormick:

And people like me will probably still pester you for questions.

Laura Johansen:

Please do. I’d be delighted if you did.

Samantha McCormick:

It’s one of those things. Once you’re in the family, you never leave. [crosstalk 00:34:20]

Laura Johansen:

I’ve got a number of commitments already up.

Samantha McCormick:

I bet. I can imagine. I can imagine. Yeah. But I would like to say a massive thank you for all the work you’ve done, because it’s so amazing. The impact is incredible. And I bet you’re going to go on and do even more amazing things. But yeah, thank you so much for everything you’ve done, and for being on our podcast.

Laura Johansen:

Oh, it was a pleasure, Sam, and best of luck with Curious Motion, and with your future guests. Thank you.

Samantha McCormick:

Oh, thank you so much.

Samantha McCormick:

Wow. Isn’t Laura one inspiring human being? A big thank you to her for taking the time to chat with me. I’m sure you’ll agree that her contribution to the lives of people in Calderdale, and ultimately around the world, has created a legacy of creativity, collaboration, and inclusion, which we continue to draw upon and be inspired by. I wish Laura all the very best with her work back at the Foreign Office, which I’m sure she’s been incredibly busy with since our chat. And I hope we can catch up with her again soon.

Samantha McCormick:

A big thank you, also, to the funders who have supported the launch of this podcast. That’s the government’s Coronavirus Community Support fund, distributed by the National Lottery Community Fund, the Community Foundation for Calderdale, and the Adventure program. Curious Motion is a non-profit organization, and this support, particularly during a pandemic, is vital to help us make a difference to the lives of our communities.

Samantha McCormick:

Please make sure to subscribe via your usual podcast provider, and please leave us a review. It will really help us to reach more people. We want this podcast to provide a space where you feel inspired, empowered, and reassured that you are not alone. So the more people we can reach the better. Make sure you’re following us on social media, too. You’ll find Curious Motion on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. All the info is in the show notes, and do let us know how you are and what you think. Until next time, a big thank you for listening, and remember: tune into your body, be kind to yourself, and stay curious. See you later.