Gaynor Asquith, 1952-2011
Too soon gone: Gaynor Asquith
I first met Gaynor Asquith, loyal Mancunian, in a Liverpool jail that had been deemed historic and converted into a restaurant – and if place bespeaks character, this was an apt choice, mixing as it did adaptive reuse, sociability, and a wry sense of implied humor.
Strange place for a meeting: a bridewell become an eatery
From that first meeting nearly a decade ago developed a friendship of shared interests that led, eventually, to her being one of the three authors of AHI’s book, Mission Entrepreneurial Entities, where her contributions cannot be measured in words.
By no means least among the three authors
Like me, Gaynor was a long-time houser focusing on affordable rental. Unlike me, she had started out on the government side, then (like me) had migrated into consultancy. Like me, she had become interested in housing internationally. As we wrote it in her MEE book bio:
Gaynor is a sought-after public speaker, and has used her communication skills both internally for a national training program at the Housing Corporation, and as an invited speaker at housing, regeneration and other conferences and professional events. This work has taken her to the Czech Republic and, working with UKTI, partnering Czech Invest to understand and develop their national regeneration plan. Subsequently she has advised the city region of Karlovy Vary on the action plan for their regeneration strategy.
Distantly related to Herbert Asquith – “All Asquiths are related to each other,” she once said – she seemed to have a deeply embedded spirit of civility, of doing what one could to make things better, whether it was a family, a property, a program, or a place. When I met her, she had just started her first UK consultancy, abra. She had a thing for small letters or unusual formats in corporate names, about which I used to tease her because they were so hard to typeset. When, five years later, she merged abra with another group, they named it arc4 (yes, the 4 is supposed to be a superscript), intended to stand for their motto: Affordability Research Communities, and the four principal partners.
Her portrait from the arc4 web site
When I offered her the chance to be a co-author, Gaynor threw herself into the work. In March, 2009, we invited her to Boston for a two-day work session with me and our third co-author, Ray Christman, as we made sense of their detailed research.
Insight at work, fueled by coffee: Ray Christman (left, out of shot) and Gaynor Asquith in AHI’s offices
When it came to discussing the failure of some Housing Associations, and how in fact the UK regulatory system uses an aggressive forced-marriage strategy of merging the weak into the stronger, Gaynor almost shyly asked permission to write a brief essay that she titled:
In praise of the fallen (sideways), a personal elegy by Gaynor Asquith
After that opening, I had to include it, especially as with gentle surgery it sliced apart the curtains of decorum regarding the UK’s failed MEEs:
The word most prominent in the Housing Association (HA) structure profiles within this document is ‘merger,’ which in the eyes of the current HA culture has become synonymous with growth and success. It is also the reason why the UK has so few HA ‘failures’ – not fallen, but fallen sideways, into the arms of another.
A visual metaphor Gaynor would doubtless approve
In the past, we had a fail-safe mechanism: the Housing Corporation, which through coercion and incentive match-made numerous mergers.
Gaynor’s humor was always just below the surface, or just behind the curtains, subordinate to her keen desire to learn more, to figure out how to make things work better, and to persuade others to improve their practices.
Barely tall enough to touch the toe: Gaynor in Harvard Yard
Gaynor in Washington, relaying experience from the mother country
Gaynor loved cities, especially older ones, and gave me as hosting gifts several books of Manchester’s great architecture which I still have on my bookshelf – and I was thinking of her when I posted about recovering the lost urban poor via archaeology in downtown Manchester.
She also had a strong charitable impulse. Having become enraptured by Malawi’s beautiful scenery, she founded Project African Wilderness:
Great name, great logo
The idea for PAW was first formulated when Gaynor Asquith travelled to Malawi in 2003. PAW was registered in the UK as a not-for-profit company in 2004, and as a charitable trust in 2005.
The Trust has a legal agreement, called a concession, with the Government of Malawi and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, to deliver conservation, ecotourism and poverty reduction programmes at Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve.
A tiny reserve in south Malawi
Writing this, I realize that Gaynor personified the attributes we seek in Mission Entrepreneurial Entities. Her bio is a litany of endeavors conceived, started, and grown – every one of them innovative, every one of them a success, every one of them impactful and deeply personal.
She was so intensely private that it was only through a mutual friend I learned, a few years back, that she had had melanoma, and only after it had gone into remission. Gaynor was of the cheerful sort, who made little of her tribulations, and if she was untroubled by it, then so would we be.
Then, a week ago, I heard it had returned, and Gaynor was taking time off from work.
On Saturday, she died.
In Gaynor’s elegy for the fallen (sideways), I found this:
Within this document you will find many examples of ‘failures’ hidden within the structure section of the HA profiles.
Here, with honour for their service and compassion for their troubles, are a few examples:
Here, with honor for her service and compassion for her family, this reflection on Gaynor Asquith.
Gone too soon