From Newcastle’s first female black councillor to lawyer to novelist. Hannah Davies discovers the many faces of Amanda Baker and how she is dealing with partial blindness.
THE one thing that’s always been consistent has been the writing, says Amanda Baker when asked about the many strings to her bow.
“That’s why it’s so wonderful to be finally concentrating on it.”
Amanda, 43, first found fame in Newcastle in May 1988 when she was elected the first black woman councillor, and the youngest, in Newcastle, for the Wingrove Ward.
Aged just 24 and pregnant with her first child, she made the headlines and launched her political career.
Fast-forward nearly 20 years and her first novel has just been published, and many careers pursued in the meantime.
Leamington Spa-born to a Guyanese mother and British father – they met at a nurses’ dance in the UK – Amanda first came to the region as a Northumbria University student to study English literature.
“I just fell in love with Newcastle and it never occurred to me to leave,” she explains.
As a student Amanda became involved in politics.
“I was an idealist,” she adds, “and it was a natural thing to do. “Perhaps it is different these days but then it was the done thing getting involved with student politics; we were all very politicised.”
Unlike many of her fellow students, Amanda took this passion beyond university.
When she left, she and a friend ran a theatre company in Sunderland. They would both do everything.
“From writing the scripts, to painting the scenery and making the costumes,” she remembers.
Amanda met and married her (now ex) husband and made the decision to run for councillor.
The reasons behind her decision were ideologically-based, she recalls.
“I really thought I could make a difference and the best way to do that was as a councillor working for the people I lived among.”
Sadly, she explains how she got disillusioned over her years as councillor because of the difficulty of getting people to listen to her.
It wasn’t because she was black or a woman, she explains.
“The main problems were my age and the fact I didn’t drink. I soon realised a lot of decisions were actually made in the pub before the council meetings.
“The other problem was a lot of the other councillors were old enough to be my grandfather.
“I found it a real struggle to be taken seriously.”
Despite these initial difficulties, Amanda fought on to assert herself and to make her mark on the Newcastle political scene.
She was re-elected three years later but with on-going problems and also a full-time job and a young family – she was pregnant with her second child when elected the second time – she decided it was time to give up politics.
Daughter Ebony, now 18, is on a year out in New Zealand before she goes to study midwifery; Ella, 15, is a GCSE student at King Edward VI School, Morpeth, and Raven, six, is at Morpeth County First School.
Amanda adds: “I think I finally realised that if you wanted to help to change the world for the better, there was no point in continuing with local government.
“I also realised I wasn’t a career politician so continuing in politics was becoming more and more pointless.”
Instead, Amanda concentrated on her work as an arts officer in south-west Durham and on bringing up her family.
But increasingly her mind was turned back to another career path she had almost taken.
“When I was younger I’d wanted to be a lawyer,” she explains, “but I’d decided against it because I decided you had to be really clever to be a lawyer and I thought I wasn’t clever enough.
“Of course when I got older I realised they weren’t any cleverer than anyone else and realised I could do it.”
Amanda decided to do a law conversion course in 1996
“It was very difficult and I didn’t realise quite how much work it would be, especially with two children.
“It was tiring as when they were in bed was the only time I’d have to study. A lot of people do it but it is difficult.”
Despite finding studying tiring Amanda found it fascinating, so she was excited to begin actually practising it.
“I loved studying it and in practise I really, really enjoyed working with the clients and I enjoyed the court work more than a lot of solicitors do.
“But the whole culture of the legal profession I found difficult. It was very machismo and workaholic.”
Among her different career changes Amanda has longingly thought back to writing. Since her theatre script-writing days, she hadn’t written professionally and she was finding it difficult to fit it in after a long day at work.
But in 2000 she reassessed her attitude to writing.
“I was pregnant with baby number three,” she states.
“I took some time off and I got my head together.
“What I was really missing was writing so I decided to start finally doing it seriously.
“I stopped practising law and devoted myself to writing.”
Amanda experimented with different prose forms. A short story The Last Child was short-listed in the bi-annual Virginia Wolfe story writing competition in 2001.
Then in 2004 she wrote a sitcom called House Normal. This was picked from 4,500 entries in a BBC sitcom competition. She recalls this time fondly.
“I spent a week in a hotel in London with the others who had been shortlisted.
“We met all sorts of TV people and comedy writers. It was a wonderful break and I loved it.”
Amanda was, however, harbouring a slightly guilty secret.
“I’d got rid of the TV eight years ago – so I was blagging my way through the week.
“I had to pretend I knew all of this stuff about TV when really I was going into it blind!”
The other thing Amanda found frustrating was the attitude of TV folk.
“The environment was very pressurised,” she says thoughtfully. “Everyone from the most senior to people making tea called themselves a producer and they all seemed up against each other.
“I quickly decided it wasn’t really a sphere I was desperate to get into.”
What the scriptwriting competition did do was give Amanda renewed faith in her writing and she decided to take it up full-time.
She began the effort of trying to get an agent to represent her.
“Anyone who wants to be a writer knows getting an agent it the big thing.
“Publishers won’t even look at your work if you don’t have an agent.”
Months of effort seemed to pay off when Amanda got herself represented by a big New York agent, who represented thriller writer John Grisham.
“I got a lot of big speak about what they were going to do for me.
“I was won over and I was thrilled.”
Sadly, Angela’s New York-based agent ended up being more obstructive than helpful.
“The original person I was signed to was moved in a reshuffle and I ended up with someone else. He’d do a lot of big talking so I thought things were happening – and then it would end up with nothing happened at all.
“So after eight months, and a huge amount of deliberation, I asked if he would release me from my contract.”
It was a hugely difficult decision for Amanda to make and she was released earlier this year to self-publish her own book The Companion Contract with Authorhouse.
“It’s great to finally have it published but because it’s been such a rollercoaster ride, I haven’t really had time to be happy about it,” she says.
“But things are starting to go really well and I think in a week or so I’ll allow myself to be happy!”
Amanda hasn’t rested on her laurels, though.
She has another novel written and being re-drafted, Eating the Vinyl, and a trilogy of children’s books, The Legends of Eleanor Catherine, Dragon Slayer and is working on a third novel.
But things aren’t plain sailing in this regard either. In September, Amanda was struck down with viral conjunctivitis which has left her with only partial sight in one eye, and unable to write for prolonged periods of time.
“It is very difficult,” she claims without a trace of self-pity. “The main problem is I’m a very organic writer. I don’t write out a plan of the novels I’m writing, I let them develop.
“So I write in long bursts. The problem with my eye means I can’t do that at the moment, I can only do around 15 minutes then I stop and I find it hard to pick up the thread again.”
Amanda will find out in the next few weeks whether her sight loss is permanent.
“The staff at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary have been fantastic,” she explains, “but I’m waiting on tenterhooks.”
Whatever happens, you can be sure Amanda won’t be kept down and there’s plenty more work to come from this determined woman.
The Companion Contract is available on Amazon, through Waterstones, Appleby’s and the publishers site www.authorhouse.co.uk
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The Companion Contract
Amanda’s first novel follows the life of socially-inept lawyer Robert Avery who loses his dignity, wife and beloved daughter in the mess of an untidy divorce.
Jennifer Lewis, having survived a disastrous childhood, stares out at a dismal future.
Chance and an inventive hairdresser bring their fates into collision by means of The Companion Contact.
Amanda says the book is a dysfunctional romance.