A NEW book by a Hartlepool consumer rights expert details how a loose thread on a child’s coat led to a 30-year career taking British expertise in consumer protection to Europe and beyond.
Carole Bell, 64, from Hart Village, has penned Baltics to Beirut: A memoir of Travel, Work, Rest and Play and describes the book as “both a travelogue to some interesting and less well known corners of Europe and a professional memoir”.
Carole started championing people’s rights in the early 1980s while running the first-ever mobile Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) in east Durham, which involved her hauling a fully-fitted van around the villages of east Durham to take consumer and debt advice to local people who didn’t have easy access to an office nearby.
It was a service which was badly needed at the time as the Miners’ Strike raged and many in the pit villages of east Durham faced severe financial difficulties.
Following her time at the CAB, Carole became manager of the Hartlepool Consumer Advice Centre, where she also helped people resolve consumer and money advice problems.
Her journey from Hartlepool to Europe began in 2003 with an unexpected phone call from a London-based colleague who is now a director of the UK National Consumer Federation. He invited Carole to work in Malta to help the small nation state prepare to join the European Union the following year.
Had she been asked a year or two earlier, she says, she might have refused.
“It was a grey rainy day in January and my job was at risk because Hartlepool Borough Council had signaled its intention to close the advice centre,” she recalled.
“Plus, I assumed it would be a one-off opportunity, so it still surprises me to be working abroad a decade later.
“I enjoyed working in the sunshine, but it came as a shock to me when I was asked to go on an 18-month posting to Lithuania, one of the Baltic states that had recently broken away from the communist Soviet Union.
“The Lithuanian culture and climate was a stark contrast to Malta, which only added to my perception of Eastern Europe, the Cold War and the KGB.”
From there, the offers of short to medium-term contracts in countries across Europe kept coming and Carole kept accepting them, becoming a seasoned traveller in the process and helping countries emerging from the former USSR to bring their consumer rights up to speed with those of countries already in the European Union.
In Britain, we take our consumer rights for granted, along with the fact that we have local offices to support those rights.
But in the countries that joined the European Union when it began to expand, and in others that would like to join or at least be free to trade with EU member states, those rights had to be introduced and officials trained to uphold and enforce them.
Carole’s work as an EU Consultant has taken her from Malta to Lithuania, Croatia, Poland, Latvia and Romania, as well as Turkey and Lebanon, as she worked to bring their consumer rights standards up to those of the European Union and, with British Foreign Office backing, trained everyone from senior government officials to front line staff who deal with traders and the public face-to-face.
Heading off on her travels, Carole left behind Alan, her husband of 43 years, two grown-up daughters, Alison and Carolyn, and granddaughter Hannah, aged eight.
She added: “They all encouraged me to go, and came out to visit while I was working abroad, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it without their support”.
When it came to Beirut, Alan did joke that if Carole ended up being kidnapped he wouldn’t pay the ransom.
But luckily she met with no mishaps despite having to walk through the Hezbollah camp on the way to the office and negotiate the razor wire and UN soldiers on the streets on her daily journey to work.
Carole kept a diary along the way, and that became the basis of her book as she used the notes she had tapped into her computer to form its chapters.
And although she was by now very far from Hartlepool, Carole looked close to home for the illustrations which appear in along with photographs from her working trips.
She asked Hartlepool artist Keith Robson to provide the illustrations and base them on her chapter titles.
He didn’t let her down and the result is a set of funny and fitting sketches to accompany the photographs from her travels that pepper the book. Keith also drew the map of the countries Carole has worked in and ensured Hartlepool appeared on it along with countries stretching from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.
But it wasn’t all work for Carole while she was away and she also details her down time in the book and reveals some of the differences in the way things are done abroad that surprised her at first.
In Malta, for example, a local colleague arranged for her to hold a public meeting in a church because “the priest owes me a favour.”
Carole also learned that Maltese civil servants only work until lunchtime in the summer because it is too hot and humid to be in the office in the afternoon, but they make up the time in the winter when temperatures are more bearable.
But, at the other end of the temperature gauge, she went on: “The Baltic States in winter are as cold as you would imagine, often getting down to minus 30, which is when your eyelashes freeze and you can walk across frozen lakes. But the people are warm and friendly and the snow is cleared from the pavements before you walk to work.”
An added bonus for culture vulture Carole was being invited to Embassy parties and getting cheap access to concerts, the ballet and the opera, and being able to visit museums to learn about each country’s history and the what life was like for the people under Communism.
It’s been quite a journey for a Hartlepool lass who’s interest in consumer rights was sparked when a Trading Standards officer told her that a sales assistant had been legally wrong to fob her off after a thread on one of the coats she had bought for her young daughters came loose and started to unravel.
Carole is still working on overseas projects and is currently attached to the Croatian Prime Ministry in Zagreb, but she returns to her Hartlepool home as often as possible and says that she is keen to speak to local groups about her travels and encourage others to do the same, or at least visit some of the beautiful cities in Eastern Europe that she writes about.
Baltics to Beirut can be purchased from the Memoir Club, Dartmoor Suite, The Courtyard, Arya House, Langley Park, Durham, DH7 9XE (firstname.lastname@example.org), priced £12.95, or from Carole on (01429) 275618.