Client Corner - Marlowe Russell

By Olivia Bowen

Summary: Castlefield's Olivia Bowen interviewed Marlowe Russell, Castlefield client & author, to tell us more about her debut novel and creative inspiration, along with finding out more about her involvement with the South London Botanical Institute.


Marlowe Russell has been a Castlefield client since 2017, when we helped her prepare for retirement.     

Over recent years she’s been busy with voluntary work and writing her first novel, Bantling, which we have read and loved. The cover of the book is a painting by her Father, Ron Russell, whose life inspired the story. In this Client Corner feature, Castlefield partner Olivia Bowen asks Marlowe to tell us more about her debut novel and creative inspiration, along with finding out more about her involvement with the South London Botanical Institute.  

Olivia (OB): Your debut novel is called Bantling, but what does Bantling mean?   

Marlowe (MR): ‘Bantling’ is an archaic word for an infant or young child. It has connotations of ‘unwanted’, and came to mean brat or bastard. In the novel, it’s also the family name of the child and his mother. 

OB: What inspired you to write the novel?  

I wanted to understand how somebody who came from a bleak childhood might become a loving, empathic and creative person. It ties in with a related question of how an identity is formed outside the stability of a family. My father revealed very little about his early life, but as time went on, it became clear that it was one of not only great material poverty and limited formal education, but also one of emotional harshness and loss. I was interested in the apparent contradiction between his background and the father I knew, and also in the social context in which he grew up.  It is almost entirely a work of imagination and fiction, not about the actual person who was my father, but writing it satisfied some personal itch. 

OB: You are also a trustee of the South London Botanical Institute  ( - how did you become involved?   

I went along at London Open House about 18 years ago, got friendly with the woman who was Administrator at the time and was asked to step in as Treasurer at short notice. I was running a small business at the time, and people seemed to think that was sufficient experience. It sufficed for a while, but as the charity grew, so did our need for a professional financial oversight and management.  We have a marvellous Treasurer now, with professional skills and qualifications. It’s a lovely charity, and I’m drawn to the values of everyone involved in it. People have different botanical, biodiversity and environmental interests, but everyone believes utterly in the importance of education, both for individuals and for wider society, rather than having more materialist and individualistic priorities. We all want to share plant-relevant passions, knowledge and enthusiasms with other people. We’re based in south London, and combine a local focus with a global perspective. It’s impossible not to see the climate emergency in anything other than global terms, but we examine how that can be observed/recorded/mitigated at a local level, with a particular emphasis on urban botany. We were established in 1910, by Allan Octavian Hume, an opponent of colonial rule in India and a founding member (and only White member) of the Indian National Congress. Although the SLBI has changed in many ways since 1910, and we continue to adapt how we do what we do, we remain true to the principle of providing low-cost education and engagement with and for anybody interested in plants, in the broadest sense. It’s a very wide programme, delivered on-line, face-to-face and in different community settings. We do lots of work with schools, and more recently have run projects in partnership with various groups and on diverse sites. 

OB: What does your role involve?   

MR: I’m involved in the non-botanical aspects of the charity.  I have a fairly broad work history, and as I’m retired I have more time on my hands than my working colleagues.  As acting co-Chair, I have a fair bit to do with governance and senior staff management, with broad-aspect finances, forward planning and oversight.  I wrote our 2021-2026 business plan during the pandemic, following extensive discussions and with lots of input from other trustees and members of staff, and I’ve just written the 1st draft of our annual report.  I have a hand in some grant applications and like to volunteer at some of our many and varied events and activities when I get the chance. 

OB: How have you managed to balance writing with trustee work? Surely they are very different disciplines…  

MR: That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t really thought about it. They are different and not different at the same time.  Or at least, there are similarities. Both require an eye for both the larger picture and also for detail. You have to look ahead in time and know where you want to get to, but also keep an open mind about how you might get there – and sometimes even about the final destination. You have to read around your subject and/or do your research so you’re confident of your facts. Also, in report-writing and grant applications, like fiction-writing, have to make your meaning as clear as possible. Both activities need commitment over time, in fact, they require more time than one actually has, and either one of them can easily take over one’s life.  However, the trusteeship is essentially a communal activity, with a lot of consultation and discussion around decision-making. The achievements – or disappointments – and responsibilities are largely collective. Writing, on the other hand, is a pretty solitary affair. I hold all the strings, and any success or failure is mine. Writing is a much more exposing undertaking, or so it feels when I’m doing it.   

There are also very different outcomes at stake. The success of the charity can be measured in various ways, but behind everything it has to operate legally, in compliance with Charities Commission and Companies House, be financially sustainable and accountable for use of public funds, be a responsible employer, meet H&S standards etc etc. All this is on top of delivering its mission. If the charity is a going concern at the end of the year, and lots of people have participated, I’ve helped us do our job as trustees.   

Writing fiction doesn’t carry that legal and compliance weight. It’s all made up. I want to experience other times, other places and the insides of other people’s heads.  Some of this I research, because my experience is limited to me and my life. When I write fiction, I can use this extra knowledge in many ways or none. I can play with time, break rules, twist facts, skip over the boring stuff, have my characters do, say or encounter, for example, awful or heroic people, events, ideas and so forth beyond my first-hand knowledge or at the edges of it. As long as the final result hangs together, makes sense to the reader and connects her/him to what’s happening in the novel, I feel I’ve done my job. And that’s a good feeling. 

Pick up your copy here: Marlowe Russell | Author 
(Front cover painted by Ron Russell)