Tinderbox burning with bright ideas

THREE distinct individuals, three free spirits and three assorted opinions – the recipe for instability?

Three is the magic number for young creative events company Tinderbox. Alastair Gilmour meets the trio who, among other things, are hoping to save a threatened Northumberland mansion for the nation

THREE distinct individuals, three free spirits and three assorted opinions – the recipe for instability? Plus, if the three are collectively Tinderbox – a container for high combustibles – the advice might be to stand well back while the blue touch-paper fizzles.

Not if you are Emma Ailes, Verity Bonney and Rona Askew, however. Tinderbox Events has propelled its way into North East promotions activity as one cohesive unit with a dynamism that defies its relative business inexperience.

When each takes up the others’ conversation it’s to stress a point and to elaborate on information or simply to make sure the lines of communication are loud and clear. It’s a brilliant strategy – completely natural and unforced – that obviously works well in presentations as the three Durham University graduates have been picking up regular creative events commissions in the six months they have been in business.

At the moment, the main thrust of the operation is on behalf of the National Trust organising events and activities to raise enough money to buy Seaton Delaval Hall for the nation. The National Trust, which hopes to buy the 18th Century Northumberland masterpiece from current owner Lord Hastings, has launched a campaign to persuade 1,000 businesses in the region to each donate £1,000 in a bid to raise £6.3m by Christmas. Right up Tinderbox’s street.

“We want to involve North East businesses big and small,” said Emma. “There are all sorts of fun ways in which a company’s employees could raise funds and we are trying to get the message across that all donations matter.”

The company is based for the time-being in a Post It-festooned office at Holy Jesus Hospital in Newcastle – colour-coded reminders, suggestions, ideas, hints and prompts keep spirits high and focus steady.

“We organised a dinner at Seaton Delaval Hall for Procter & Gamble for people from all over the world,” says Verity, or it could as easily be Rona or Emma, such is their interaction. “We’ve got really clear ideas where we want to be by being creative and want to work with people with integrity. We all have different strengths and bring different aspects to the business – actually people used to say to us ‘you three should be running your own business’.”

And that’s precisely what they did once they had caught the creative events bug while still at university, organising The Art Garden, a relatively small-scale promotion of outdoor theatre, film and talks with an open-air art show which featured watercolours displayed in the wettest summer weather in living memory.

It was, however, a resounding success and made the trio realise that even better days could lie ahead. “We’ve never had proper jobs so we had nothing to lose,” says Rona, or . . . “A year ago, we never guessed we’d be here now and never thought that one event would turn into a business.

“It’s going really well, people have been very, very supportive and we’ve got a clear sense of what we can do. We can be quite persuasive, for example, we put on an exhibition for Durham University’s Gleam scheme in a derelict warehouse in the Ouseburn in Newcastle, showing 20 start-up businesses.”

Graduates Learning Entrepreneurship Accelerated Through Mentoring (Gleam) is a business start-up programme that helps fledgling owner-managers build the networks and knowledge they need to survive and thrive in business.

“We made it like a maze where you had to walk round and see different businesses. We had to get scaffolders in and even had to clean walls and paint them.

“We started to scrub them but found it was taking forever, so we just walked up the road and asked a hire company if we could have a power hose for free. They said ‘of course you can’. It was the same with the paint, it’s amazing what people will do if you ask.”

A family fun day in Jesmond Dene in July on behalf of Newcastle City Council followed, then the Northumberland Festival at Brinkburn and, following that, Hexham Abbey Festival where the Tinderbox trio persuaded craft groups from around the region to knit a giant tea cosy to fit over the bandstand in Hexham park – contributors’ panels were stitched together for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

“We’re a creative events company, we don’t do conferences,” says Emma. “We get involved in things that people want to happen but they’re not sure where to go.”

Rona takes over: “We’ve discovered things as we’ve gone along, like how to understand scaffolders from Jarrow.” Emma and Verity take up the thread. “We’ve had some great mentors,” says one. “People like Jane Blackburn (chief executive of Joined Up North) and Alec Coles at Tyne & Wear Museums,” says another.

“Jane really grilled us and Alec has been great. Tarek Nseir of Th_nk was amazing, too. We don’t want people to say ‘that’s good, yes, thank you’, we need people to tell us we can’t do it. We can fight back now. We needed people to challenge us, to ask questions.

“The three of us are quite different, we’re sounding boards and always start off thinking we can’t do that but we always can. It’s great to have jumped straight in and be as creative as we want to – and, we get to go round interesting venues and meet interesting people.”

Finally, it’s definitely Rona who says: “We’ve taken as our motto, ‘Shy bairns get nowt’”, but Verity and Emma both nod in agreement. Tinderbox Events is on fire; stand well back.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
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