Sunday, 01 August 2021

I’d never thought of being councillor until I read that stupid anti-gay letter

I’d never thought of being councillor until I read that stupid anti-gay letter

THE new Mayor of Henley had never thought of becoming a politician until she read a letter in the Henley Standard from a town councillor condemning same-sex marriages.

Sarah Miller, who is openly gay, was appalled by the comments of David Silvester, a Conservative, who blamed floods on the legalisation of gay marriage. He called the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act “contrary to the gospel”.

Cllr Silvester was widely condemned locally and nationally but refused to resign and no action was taken against him following an investigation.

That was in 2014 and Councillor Miller remembers it clearly.

“A lot of people I knew were upset,” she says. “I felt very sad and angry and he was a sitting councillor. It really made me sit up and think who our councillors were.

“If a councillor can write in the local newspaper something so stupid it made me think, ‘That’s not the right blood we need on the town council’.

“I am not a labels person, it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight or trans, it just matters that you fell in love.

“I didn’t really think I’d be a councillor — it was not on my radar at all — but that letter struck me.” Cllr Miller mentioned this briefly at last month’s Mayor-making ceremony, which was attended by her partner
Carolyn Ahara and their 10-year-old twin daughters Vivien and Ruby, demonstrating that the views of Cllr Silvester are very much a thing of the past.

She was born in Bradenham, a village north of High Wycombe, in 1963, the eldest of five
children.

She arrived in the living room of Leslie and Pauline Miller’s cottage as the couple couldn’t make it to hospital due to bad weather.

The family moved to Hambleden and Sarah attended Rupert House School in Henley before moving again to Harpsden, where she attended the village school and then
Gillotts School in Henley.

The family moved again, this time to Royal Mansions in
Station Road, Henley, which young Sarah loved so much that years later she bought a flat there herself.

Cllr Miller says she enjoyed Gillotts as she was with all her friends and she still bumps into former classmates now.

Among those other pupils was Carolyn, who grew up in Lower Shiplake, but they didn’t know each other then and their paths didn’t cross until later.

“Gillotts was the local school and it was great fun,” says Cllr Miller. “I didn’t come out with hundreds of GCSEs and A-levels but it was a great school.”

After school, she wanted to be in the music business but didn’t realise this ambition until years later.

Instead, she went on an admin course at Frances King College in London and then took a job at her father’s advertising company, Newstech Communications, in Bell Street, Henley.

“At the time it meant the world to me but I didn’t realise how awkward it was for others that I was the daughter of the boss,” she says.

“As it got bigger, he employed more people I knew. One time I was dating a guy called Andy and he said to slide his CV under my dad’s bed and it worked as he got the job!”

When her father sold the company Miss Miller moved to London to be a PR executive.

Her parents, meanwhile, moved to south-west France where they stayed for about the next 25 years.

Cllr Miller says: “I went out there as much as possible and have lots of fun memories. I remember driving through France with my dad making us feel sick as he’d smoke French cigarettes.

“There was not much to do there but read, pick walnuts and drink red wine — it was a lovely way of life.

“I can’t speak fluent French but I know enough to get by — I can order a large gin and tonic.”

Mr Miller passed away in January 2001 and her mother moved back to Henley.

“It was really hard for her,” says Cllr Miller.

Her mother still helps her by looking after the girls sometimes but is suffering from progressive multiple sclerosis.

“Thankfully it’s quite slow,” she says. “She is 79 years old and apart from her mobility, she’s great.

“She’s absolutely delighted I’m the Mayor and I might have to stop her gatecrashing some of the events.”

Cllr Miller spent about five years in London, where she explored her true sexuality.

“London was busy and buzzing,” she says. “It was really fun and it was the best playground for me. The clubs were great, such as Madame Jojo’s. Soho was buzzing and I was just getting to grips with my sexuality and coming out.

“But it was really expensive so I decided to move back to Henley and commute. I bought a house with my brother Danny in Harpsden Road and I continued travelling to London.

“But at the back of my mind the music was always there and I met a trained sorprano and we decided to set up a music management company called Voices Limited and I took over my father’s old office in Bell Street.”

She would write songs and help book bands for performances in London but was struggling to make ends meet so she also worked part-time for an advertising research company which rented space in the same building.

Cllr Miller says: “It was extra money for me but I eventually did more for them and less for Voices and they asked me to work full-time and the music management company was
dissolved.

“I worked my way up and started working on events, which was what I really enjoyed.

“I became head of events and met people like Channel 4 and other TV stations. It was fantastic. We had events in Berlin, Amsterdam and more and that’s what I did for 15 to 20 years.”

In 2001 she met Carolyn at the Old Clubhouse, which used to be in Greys Road car park, and discovered their brothers had been friends at Gillotts.

Miss Ahara’s father was an architect who had worked on Sarah’s parents’ house in Harpsden.

Cllr Miller says the formation of their relationship was “just natural”, adding: “I was getting a lot out of my system in London and then when I came back it was just the right time to settle down, which I never thought I’d say.

“It took me a while to come out to my family. I knew they wouldn’t really mind but it’s still so hard.

“When I finally told my mum she said, ‘Darling, I knew for years’.”

The couple eventually moved in together at her flat in Royal
Mansions.

Then came several pieces of bad luck.

Daniel, one of her three brothers, died from sarcoma cancer.

Then her employer moved to London and she was made redundant.

Shortly afterwards she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was shocking and awful,” says Cllr Miller. “I had to have a tumour removed and I went through chemo and radiotherapy. It was an awful time but I got through it.”

Her mother has also had breast cancer and recently finished treatment for cancer of the womb.

Another brother, Jess, passed away in 2019 from liver cancer. “I just think we were unlucky,” says Cllr Miller.

“Danny had sarcoma and it was an awful time and he had to have an arm amputated.

“He was a golf player but he carried on. For many years after he died there was a “Danny day” at Badgemore Golf Club, which was set up by his good friends.

“They would raise money for cancer charities and it was a great event that raised
thousands.

“Jess had health problems anyway and he fell off a ladder and did himself some damage.

“He was in intensive care for about 20 days and while he was there they discovered he had liver cancer. It was awful and he never came out.”

Her own treatment lasted about 18 months and she still calls her sister Kate to remind her to check herself.

“I was very, very lucky,” says Cllr Miller. “The NHS work incredibly quickly and once they had diagnosed me they started treatment.

“I have a terrible memory and the cancer has taken its toll but I’m alive with two kids and life is good. You just have to take each day as it comes.”

During this time, she and Miss Ahara tried six times to get pregnant using intrauterine insemination at a cost of £8,000.

Miss Ahara was then offered a free trial on the NHS using in vitro fertilization just two weeks before the cut-off date as she was turning 38.

Cllr Miller recalls: “At the time I’d never thought about children and, lo and behold, when we went for our first scan there were two hearts beating and I swore.

“That all happened after I’d had my treatment and it was quite embarrassing as my hair was still short.”

Once the girls were born, the family sold the flat and moved to a house in Reading Road where they still live with their cats Milo and Scruffy and miniature schnauzer Monty.

Cllr Miller is project manager for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, where she works three days a week, and
created the Henley Design Day in 2013.

Miss Ahara is director of Ruvien Ltd, a currency trading company, which is named after their daughters.

Ruby and Vivien currently attend Trinity Primary School in Vicarage Road and will be going to Gillotts in September.

Cllr Miller’s surviving brother Jo now runs the Row Barge pub in West Street. It was about a year after the Cllr Silvester controversy that she decided to speak to Kellie Hinton, a town councillor whose daughter also attends Trinity School, and agreed to join Henley Residents Group.

“I didn’t want to align with a political party,” says Cllr Miller. “I just wanted to be an independent and HRG ticked all the boxes.

“Before I knew it, I was filling out a profile and it was moving quickly. Then I was asked to canvass with a rosette.”

She was first elected as a councillor in 2015.

Cllr Miller recalls: “We all gathered in the town hall on election day and I instantly thought I wouldn’t get in but I got a lot of votes and before I knew it I was a councillor and I thought, ‘Now what?’

“I didn’t plan on changing the world but I wanted to see what I could change for the town.”

She sat on the town and community and recreation and amenities committees.

“I really got stuck in,” she says. “I found out very quickly that being a councillor is hard work and people don’t realise that we don’t get paid for it.

“I work and I have a family but the council work can be more time consuming. There are meetings and sub-meetings and working groups and thousands of emails.

“If you have an idea it has to go through a sub-committee and then maybe finance and then full council. It can be frustrating but when you put something forward and it’s done, it’s so fulfilling.”

One of her proudest moments was returning the annual Henley May Fayre back to the market place in 2017 after 30 years of it being held on Mill Meadows.

“When I was younger it used to be in the town and it was great,” says Cllr Miller.

“Then it moved to Mill Meadows, which meant that when it rained people just went home.

“I felt we were missing a trick and if we could get it back into town and it rained people could go into the shops and cafés rather than going home.

“I had to get the support of the council so I had a few meetings and they agreed to give me the square. I asked Councillor David Eggleton to work with me as he knows everyone.”

Hundreds of people attended that year’s fayre, which included Maypole dancing, tug of war, a costume competition, a flea market and comedian Russell Brand giving a reading of his children’s book, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, at King’s Arms Barn.

Cllr Miller says: “It was such fun and the rain didn’t matter as everybody had a fantastic time. I can’t wait to carry on with it next year.”

She has continued to be involved in Henley Design Day, which is an opportunity for residents to meet professional architects.

“It was one of the first things I did and it has been growing,” she says. “Henley is the flagship event but it goes on in Farnham, Winchester and elsewhere.”

She is also still involved with the Henley Refill Campaign, which she helped found in 2017, and co-chairs the council’s events sub-committee.

“Anything I can do to help I will,” says Cllr Miller.

She is also still interested in music and has learned to play the piano.

Last year, she wrote Henley-on-Christmas, with help from musician Peter Maguire, to raise money for Cancer Research UK.

It was performed by Matt Richardson, singer with local rock band Lucky To Be Alive, in Falaise Square.

Cllr Miller says: “Piano lessons opened up another world for me as I always wrote my own lyrics and poems and now I can do something with them.

“The performance was great and we hope to do it again this year as it was well received. I’m writing a song about being Mayor so maybe we will sing it this year.”

She says that her family have been fully behind her during her time as a councillor.

She says: “It was easier in lockdown as everything was on Zoom and Carolyn was upstairs and I was downstairs. It was more difficult when the girls were off school.

“It is all a juggling act but we have my mother and Carolyn’s mother, who lives in Henley, to help out and we have very great friends and a great support
system.

“I am very lucky to have a great family. The only sad thing is my sister is still in France but hopefully when restrictions ease she can come over.”

The Mayor promises to work hard and, crucially, help people whenever she can.

She says: “If you have a problem please come to us. I want to be as accessible as possible so if I can help, then that’s what I will do.

“You can’t please everyone and I’m aware of that. There will always be some kind of criticism.

“But we all work incredibly hard on the council and we all do it because we love this town and we want what’s best for it.

“I may not always get it right but I will always do my best.”

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