Two years on…

It’s been two years since I went on a semi-break/sabbatical. I know this from all the lovely Aberdovey (Ooberdoobey) sunset photos popping up in my timeline. I remember a most beautiful empty-brain feeling of heading to the Welsh seaside just to read and write and walk and relax.

Occasionally I look back and think how much taking a break brought a seachange in my work-life balance. I’m fitter now and hopefully a bit healthier than when I was a full-time sedentary editor. I try to only work on screen for half a day at a time; the rest involves some kind of balancing exercise, anything from tidying the house to health-checking rabbits as a Fat Fluffs volunteer to going for a 1km swim or walking up the Malverns with my 72-year-old mum-in-law last weekend (see main pic).

I now have strength in my arms and tone in my legs. Yes, I still have a waist tyre and bury tension in my shoulders but the feeling of being stronger is making me feel good, and that’s inspired me to step up my exercise routine to include tai chi, aquafit and even a bit of upper body conditioning using weights. Chiselled shoulders a la Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 is a life goal!

I’m still writing and editing because leaving behind the trade I learned at 19 feels impossible. It’s what I’m trained for and I enjoy it, but I’m determined not to take too much client work on because I’ve enjoyed having the time to work on my own creative projects for a change.

Taking on a bit more work means finances have eased a bit. The bodyboarding dream trip may still happen after all, fitness permitting… although it’s not a cheap hobby when you live in landlocked Birmingham.

I’ve been thinking about travelling a lot. I’m looking for my next adventure but it needs to be more meaningful than just bumming around as a solo backpacker of old. I’m torn between the simple aim of escaping the winter to work overseas for a few weeks and doing some kind of reportage story work (I have a several Instagramming photojournalists I admire).

I don’t want to end on a downer note but if I were to die tomorrow, I want to say that I’ve really enjoyed taking some time out of my working life to stop and look around for a while. Like having a glimpse of retirement.

It’s the simple things that have been the best, such as  enjoying the sun all day long, not just in a lunch hour; watching the buns hop around and surprising the squirrels (don’t ask); listening to my great-nephew as he discovers talking; catching a wave in the middle of February; working on my own writing for a change; watching the allotment sunset with Kerry and co; meeting up with friends and family in unpressured environments; colouring-in and collage nights in the local caff; having a lie-in on a weekday; hanging out with Pete; playing music; reading books; midnight blogging…

If you get a chance to take a work breather, even if only for a short while, I highly recommend it. I’ve had a very contented time thanks to working less.

Thankyou for reading this post-sabbatical ripple.

An Insta-fashionista for a month

Personally, I’m most at home in jeans and a t-shirt but I’m also fascinated by people who have an interesting style and who post it online. I’m not talking about big social media influencers necessarily but Instagram friends and accounts who post and pose in their outfits under ‘what I wore today’ #wiwt and other hashtags. Here are three examples of accounts I enjoy:

RhiannonBrum – a friend who is also a swishing, swirling dressmaker who makes and wears her own outfits.

GlacialGlow – an ethereal, elfin, silver-haired Alice in Wonderland who also has an awesome dog.

SashaEDavison – a fashion model who became pretty successful in the time I started following her. I used to dial up her Instagram as a brief to my local hairdressers and also bought some sparkly Top Shop shoes in the sale on her recommendation.

You get the picture. Anyway…

Earlier this summer, at the start of the heatwave, I decided to have another wardrobe clear out and had a sudden realisation – I buy dresses but don’t wear them and especially now that I work remotely in my metaphorical pyjamas most of the time. At least before bundling them up for the charity shop, I thought I should wear them. And so began a month of daily #wiwt poses and photoshoots – scroll down to see the full slideshow.

I never thought I’d end up doing a 30-day fashion challenge but perhaps there was something in me that wanted to document turning 50 this year. It would kind of be like a diary thing. In 10 years, I’d look back and go: Well, would you look at that – and be impressed, appalled or amused.

Along the way I learnt a few things:

1. Being your own photographer is good for a woman’s self-confidence – you only have to post the pics you like.

2. Being a daily Insta-fashion influencer is hard work – the staging, the variations, the bursts, the selection, editing, captioning and posting. I started off easy taking just a few minutes; the final shoot took an hour and a half to get the shot.

3. It was a bit of fun – and the feedback was like getting a reward. I looked forward to the reactions. I got loads of positive comments from ‘This is epic’ to ‘A___ said it was the highlight of her week (and she’d just given birth).’  And then someone took one of my pics – the kaftan one – and created a meme: the ultimate honour.

4. I can laugh at myself – I couldn’t resist posting a bloopers reel on my Instagram. You can’t take life too seriously.

5. Finally, turning 50 ain’t so bad.

So here’s the full shoot. Enjoy! (Update: I’ve cleared out at least nine of these outfits, which leaves 21 things to wear. Turns out I quite like wearing dresses.)

 

 

 

Viva Stirchley!

Stirchley is cool right now. I would even say it’s at its peak. So what does that mean? I’ve been thinking about my home neighbourhood of Stirchley, B30, not necessarily coherently but I need to write about it because, well, I’m a writer and occasional local reporter and I was actually born and bred here, so there.

So here I am on a Saturday afternoon, thinking about how Stirchley is at that point of pre-gentrification while tottering at the edge of becoming something far less likable in future years. Such pronouncements of coolness are kind of ridiculous and subjective, but there is still a sense of it being true in the way that old travellers remember with nostalgia how this or that place ‘was so much better and less touristy back in [year]’ and ‘you should have been there back then’. Except in this case, back then is right now.

I think I’m saying this because there is a definite Stirchley ‘scene’ going on. It’s not exactly Liverpool in the ’60s or Bromley in the late ’70s but something is happening and there is an excitement and feeling of connectedness in the air. For years, there was little reason to go to Stirchley high street, unless you wanted an antiques shop treasure or a hydroponics set-up or a Saturday-night balti. Now it’s like a private members club whose playground is a shopping parade of weirdness unlike any other local high street. Everyone knows everyone and strangers are welcomed – if they fit (the criteria is kind of loose but there, judgmental in that you should be non-judgmental and open to joining in). Or maybe this is just the view from my seat.

Stirchley responds…

A lot of positive change is happening. In fact, I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the UK right now (that isn’t on the coast or in the mountains) because what is happening is a rare, beautiful and organic thing of a community coming together in interesting ways. In a way, this is my love letter to Stirchley – a place I left at 19 and never thought I’d return to because, to be honest, it was rough as guts in my childhood.

A practice session in Hazelwell Park.

Now there are micropubs and breweries, a community bakery and cooking school, a community market, a bike foundry, coops, cafés, a houseplant shop, vintage clothing, record and music shops, art spaces, even a spoon-carving, clog-making wood crafter, plus other odd independents creating a miscellany of shops on the main strip. There is a mini version of Birmingham’s famous King-Kong gorilla, who sits above the carpet shop and get’s lit up with festive lights at Christmas (who needs a local BID and a budget for fairy lights – we make our own fun). Online, multiple Twitter accounts organise and extol. There is a hashtag: #vivastirchley, which started as a pisstake and has now been adopted. Unicyclists and alpine horn players have been spotted.

Artefact is a big part of this shift from people being visiting consumers to active community members. This art café space, together with Stirchley Baths, Stirchley Library and other community spaces host so many interesting events and groups that there is little need for the Stirchillian to venture beyond B30 for her social entertainments.

I’ve even stepped up and put on my own events (cybersec sessions, Interrogang discussion group, Glass Room pop-up), something I couldn’t imagine doing in a more commercial, less community-oriented high street. Artefact made it more than easy to start something up, actively welcoming and encouraging participation. Word must be spreading – they’ve had both an Edinburgh Fringe comedian hire the space and a secret gig booked by well-known band.

Artefact in Stirchley.

My own favourite Artefact nights FWIW are the Felt Tip Bender, the crazy rambling What is a Watt? quiz with Johnny’s live art news round, Stirchley Collage Club, the regular art show launches and our co-founded Interrogang discussion group talking about the opportunities and dangers of the data economy.

This is the good stuff. But I’m also starting to worry about the dangers of gentrification and local development planning. Some crazy planning applications have gone in – one recent one was for 40 student flats in a tiny corner-shop bit of real estate. Another by Lidl UK ended up razing the popular Fitness First gym and bowling alley to the ground, and has stalled because of ‘reasons’. Then there is a rash of new housing being built at the old Arvin Merritor site, which could bring new customers to the high street but also swamp it with traffic. More development is expected at the vast Seven Capital wasteland that Tesco sold off after sitting on the land for 17 years.

Who will these new residents be – and will they want a homogenous high street of big money chains like Boots and Greggs over the strange but unique collection of shops we already have? Will Birmingham City Council factor in or ignore the impact on Stirchley’s changing character and community and independent businesses when more developer applications come in, or will they fold in the face of big money?

The Tesco wasteland in Stirchley.

At present, Stirchley is still fairly downmarket in feel and a bit dowdy of look, and the West Midlands Police helicopter circles overhead regularly late at night to catch the drug dealers and car thieves. That people are calling Stirchley ‘cool’ is amusing in many ways. And it’s odd to hear friends talking about moving out of their beloved Moseley to supercool Stirchley, discussing the property prices and availability while bemoaning our terraces with their lack of driveways and on-street parking. Stirchley is not the new Moseley; you don’t move here for the real estate. Here, we only joke about where is best to live: the Riviera or the Marina end.

How Stirchley develops is at a turning point. The large empty spaces offer potential for greater community cohesion but I fear this will not be realised because, so far, no supermarket developer has done anything more than offer token efforts at working together with the community and what we value. For them it is a money exercise; our views and petitions don’t really matter.

For me, the close sense of community and the independent/cooperative rebirth has almost been born out of a reaction to the greed of large commercial interests, which have tried to gobble up Stirchley’s tiny shopping strand for themselves and instead mobilised a grass-roots alternative to the endless planning fuckups and resulting wastelands.

At the moment, this couple of hundred metres of high street and its hinterlands has a new sense of identity that is the strongest I’ve ever seen it. I really hope we can hold onto that.

Houses knocked down for a Tesco supermarket that never arrived.

Viva Stirchley!

Some Stirchley community, coop and independent business accounts to follow on Twitter:

  • @artefact_bham
  • @bikefoundry
  • @boardlygames
  • @britishoakbirm
  • @brumbrewery
  • @caneatcafe
  • @corkncage
  • @fruitnutvillage
  • @glasshousebeers
  • @greenstirchley
  • @hipstirchley
  • @isherwoodandco
  • @jigsstirchley
  • @loafonline
  • @marylockelabour (local councillor)
  • @stirchleybaths
  • @stirchley_forum
  • @stirchleyhist
  • @stirchleyonline
  • @stirchlibrary
  • @stirchleymarket
  • @stirchleypark
  • @superstirchley
  • @stirchleywines
  • @theinterrogang
  • @wildcattap

Mozilla Open Leaders: You’re in, now what?

The next round (Round 6) of the Mozilla Open Leaders programme is now open to applicants. You can find out more about it and how to apply here. But if you want a more personal read, here’s my experience of the ups and downs for the record…

First off, I heartily recommend it. I’ve recently completed what I call MOLP, launched my project (click the logo below to join my data privacy email) and received my certificate of achievement. It’s given me skills in project launch and management, working open, Github, online and IRL communities, and mentoring.

Given my project idea, I’m also happy to hear that the next round will feature a ‘Data and You’ theme. So, if you’re creating tools or raising awareness about personal data, you should apply. You have a very good chance on being accepted.

I have to admit, I wasn’t really sure what I’d got myself into before I started. I just knew I wanted to get my idea off the ground. So what was the MOLP experience like?

You’re in! Now what?

After the elation of having your project idea accepted by Mozilla Open Leaders Project comes the realisation that you have to follow through. Now comes the work: 12-14 weeks of commitment. That’s always a tough moment. Ideas are easy.

I can’t start without a name…

Some names come quickly, some take forever,  some are a compromise that sticks. Someone telling me ‘you can always change it later’ was very freeing. In the end the lack of a name was holding up the project and there came a point when it was all I could think or even dream about. Each week I promised my mentor I’d have a name. It was very frustrating not to click with anything but it also felt important to get it right. Ultimately, my project name (Observed.City) arrived about three weeks in during some date night banter. It was unexpected and perfect.

The long and winding roadmap

The name of the project wasn’t actually holding anything up. I was. Procrastination is a given so at least try to procrastinate in useful ways. I read a book on data privacy. I went to some events. I started a data reading group. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you’re avoiding work.

Slay your demons

Start at the beginning – or the end – but just start. Listing your tasks and goals is useful but these can always change. Mine were too rigid: two weeks on finding contacts and doing research, two weeks on creating content, two weeks on infrastructure and set up, leaving two weeks to launch. No no no! This didn’t work. What worked was addressing my demons, ie, too much thinking and not enough doing.

So I turned everything on its head and put out the first issue of my newsletter within a week – for better or worse. I realised that it only needed to be basic because I didn’t actually have any subscribers. I wasn’t launching a perfect product, I was launching a minimal viable product. The pretty pictures and structure and subscribers could come later, once I figured out what I was doing.

Under pressure

Fear of failure can stifle a project but just stick with it and something will happen. A few MOLP projects drop out because their scope is too big for a 12-week programme or people underestimate the time it will take – if it’s too much, reduce the scale of it or shape it so it fits your time and resources.

One thing I realised from getting my minimal viable product out in half the time was that it then gave me the space to focus on learning how to work openly, improving my Github and being available for the Q&As and project demos.

The pressure also came off when someone said to me: “No one cares as much about this as you.” So very true!

Create serendipitous ripples

Early on in the programme, everything is in your head and there’s a lot of work in learning how to articulate your project and your mission to others. By the end, though, you’ll be so confident about your one-sentence elevator pitch, you won’t even have to think about it.

Just by talking about your project, you create ripples: your own and then those of the people you talk to. Be direct in what you want, tell lots of people, ask for help and connections, offer to help, let serendipity occur…

There are many mentors

Having a mentor was a new thing. I thought, what can I learn from a radio astronomer? But it’s not about learning, it’s about being mentored: having someone to be answerable to, to encourage and support you, to give feedback, someone to check in with each week and talk over any issues. You’ll always be the expert on your project but your Mozilla mentor is there to help keep things on track and get your project set up for open working.

In fact, there are many available mentors when you’re mid-project. There are others in your Mozilla cohort – an academic in Addis Ababa and a New York technologist helped me quite directly on my Readme file and other Github pages, for example. I got feedback from Birmingham Open Rights Group on my approach. Even my family were mentors because calls to action such as ‘Just get on with it because I’m sick of hearing about it’ are actually incredibly valuable in helping you get on with the bloody thing.

Just nod and say yes

I was pushed out of my comfort zone a few times, for example, when presenting an online demo of my project. This was optional and so I was very tempted to ditch out and just watch others. My mentor sent me a long and encouraging email telling me exactly what was involved and said we could rehearse the tech side if I tuned in early. She added that if I could face it it would be a useful learning experience that would make me feel so much more confident after.

She was 100% right and, despite getting quite anxious when public speaking, I’m proud to say that I’ve now done two webcasts talking to a potential global audience.

It’s over!

The newsletter is out there, it’s set up on Github for collaborators to join as and when, and I fully enjoyed and will miss meeting and talking with others from around the world as we all went through our projects together. I won’t lie, I was also happy to get my Tuesday cohort time back.

I feel a sense of achievement and it was much more enjoyable to go through a project launch as part of a wider group. Would I have done this on my own anyway? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have had a deadline and could easily have lapsed. And I wouldn’t have had a clue how to set it up for inclusivity and collaboration. And the positive vibes of the Mozilla community were great for encouragement during the down times.

I’m much more comfortable with working open now so the Mozilla open learning framework has opened up the options for collaboration as well as how to structure future projects. I also understand a bit more about mentoring and how to address bias and diversity issues. So it’s all good.

A new hope…

This is a journey that started at Mozfest last year, which was an eye-opening event in many ways, particularly in how we can help each other and share knowledge with the aim of a healthier internet and inclusive society.

It’s an unusually positive environment, and one that I would recommend on to anyone thinking about attending Mozfest or applying to be a Mozilla Open Leader or who wants some positive feedback for a change.

So that’s it. The link to apply for the next round, which starts in September 2018 is here. Applications open mid-June.

For more info, I’ve blogged a bit more about MOLP and my project here.

Thanks for reading.

How to start a data privacy conversation in your city – a bulletpoint guide

This guide forms the end documentation for my recent Mozilla Open Leaders project which culminated in launching a regular data privacy email for Birmingham, UK. If you want to do this in your city or region, I hope it will be useful info to get you started. And if you have any follow-up questions as you go, email me at observedcity@pm.me and I’ll do my best to answer and update the guide.

NOTE: You don’t necessarily have to follow all the steps below but I really do recommend starting with an Open Canvas as a way to unpack the ideas in your head into something more practical and workable.

Image: (CC) Michael Coghlan/Flickr

Short term (research & development)

  • Fill out an Open Canvas outlining your aims for the project, the problem you are aiming to solve, the needs and resources, and target users and contributors. Here is an example showing the open canvas for ObservedCity
  • Content calendar – compile list of events and online activities in your area (data privacy, data research, art, tech, activism). Place events under each month on a calendar doc; extract interesting people and organisations for potential contacts. Subscribe to newsletters that are relevant to your project.
  • Contacts/network list – find everyone you should connect with in your area who are working with data/privacy in some way or run relevant events: university researchers and academics, privacy activists, digital artists, curators and galleries, a local Open Rights Group, Meetup.com groups, Chamber of Commerce, local government initiatives helping businesses with big data, ‘smart city’ groups, police and neighbourhood alerts, potential contributors, hacker groups, coding clubs, local Mozilla Campuses, tech drinks and meetups, open data groups, relevant social enterprise startups, ImpactHub, collectives and coops, event organisers.
  • Research email providers – how will you distribute your email? I looked Mailchimp and Tinyletter’s pros and cons. I chose Tinyletter for a more personal curated feel and an easy introduction to email setup; I may move to Mailchimp if I change the tone or go in a new direction with the content.
  • Decide on the title of your newsletter – does it need to work across other platforms, such as a website or social media? If so, check the name is available for use in these environments. Look for a name that suggests the content, eg, Observed.City suggests surveillance, privacy and that I’m looking at what is happening in my city. Try to choose a memorable and engaging name – maybe avoid the word ‘data’ as this can make for a dull word that turns people off subscribing. If you want to keep it hyperlocal, add the name of your area or city into the title of the newsletter; if you want to potentially reach a wider audience, this may be limiting. Sometimes you don’t know what your project is going to be until you start – it’s ok to change the name later; the important thing is to start!
  • Decide on regularity – this will depend on your resource/time but you could do a shorter email weekly, a medium email monthly, or even quarterly. I’m aiming for every 3-4 weeks and trying to keep it shorter
  • Expertise, experience and mentors – if you don’t know how to start a newsletter or how to build a community of subscribers, find and talk to people who have done it. For example, I took the editor of IChooseBirmingham listings email (17,000 weekly subscribers) for coffee and learnt more in an hour than I ever could have learned online (thankyou Tom!). You may even be able to find a mentor of whom you can ask questions as you go along. Meeting people in real life both helps build community and gets experienced people on board with your project.

Medium term (set up, soft launch)

  • Consider setting up a new email account if you want to keep your newsletter project separate from your personal/business email. I used Protonmail and the name of the project: observedcity@pm.me – unfortunately this caused some delivery issues in Tinyletter as Protonmail is very tight on its privacy and was triggering spam alerts, so I had to change it to an alternative email that did work.
  • Set up a newsletter account with your chosen service – go through all the account settings and fill in any blanks.
  • Set up related accounts, eg, a Twitter, Facebook page and website for your project – these may form your future discussion/comment/feedback areas and somewhere to upload blog content. You can keep it basic for now but it still takes some time to set up, to write the about/bios, add links to your project, upload a picture or logo, and cross-link between these different sites.
  • Decide on the format of email and content to include – what kind of things do you want to write, what does your target audience want to know, how will you make it engaging and easy to read, do you need images, do you want to have an informal conversation tone or a more professional corporate style, what do you like in the newsletters you receive, what makes you open these?
  • If working open (as I did on this project), create your Github repo or shared Google doc, and start to document your project – what it is about, how people can contribute, how the work is licenced, issues you need to resolve, etc. Here is the ObservedCity repo so you can see and fork/duplicate the content.
  • Start to build community – both users and contributors – start to connect and follow your contacts list through social media channels, subscribe to their newsletters, network at events, tell people about your project, email people directly if you think they will be interested, consider arranging a coffee meet with potential contributors.
  • Logo/header – basic design – there’s a lot you can do with editing software, such as Preview and Photoshop, to get a look/feel for your newsletter’s title. You can also source Creative Commons images for use in your headers/banners, for example, I used a great free image from Pixabay in return for buying the photographer a virtual coffee.
  • START! Do a first draft so you can visualise what your newsletter will look like and how much time it takes to create it. Send yourself a test email. Get a friend to read it over with their fresh eyes. Amend, check links work and finalise. At this point, if you like what you’ve done – why not send it out and start to get feedback and subscribers? You could also do a soft launch where you send it to a small group of people – friends/family – to get their feedback. Getting the perfect newsletter takes time – months and years even to build up a community of readers. Don’t get too bogged down in the set-up phase – you can iterate and improve as you go.
  • Note: I have a background in publishing so I have a basic understanding of media law around issues such as copyright, plagiarism and defamation (libel), and data protection. I recommend you read up on these and your country’s laws around publishing in order to protect yourself.

Long term (launch and beyond)

  • Update and monitor Github repo – submit project and requests for help to hackathons: the Global Sprint, Hacktoberfest, etc.
  • Logo/header – outsource design for a more professional look (try posting this request as an issue for open working during #mozsprint or other hackfests – that’s how I got logo suggestions/design help).
  • Populate online content areas – ideas for content, attend and review events, seek editorial contributors, ask for help via social media, create original content.
  • Refine/improve launch email – ask for feedback and iterate.
  • Remember to thank your contributors!
  • Community building / outreach work – how can you get your newsletter to interested people and reach different communities in your city? Consider adding a guest section and asking for different voices and perspectives.
  • Scale – sign up for similar newsletters in other cities, start to connect as a network. Talk to local media, offer a help feature on data privacy.
  • Sustainability/governance – find guest editors and proofreaders, check resource/times, regularity of email.

Launching Observed City and learning to work open with Mozilla

Click to view (opens in new tab) – my short demo starts at 3 mins 20.

I’m very proud to say that I’ve just graduated as a Mozilla Open Leader. In a nutshell this means that I’ve spent the past 14 weeks learning how to work openly and inclusively as part of a cohort of 20 projects from around the world. The next round of Mozilla Open Leaders will be opening in June and I highly recommend applying if your project fits the criteria. Here’s why…

For me, some of the best things about the programme were working with an experienced mentor (mine was a radio astronomer from Jodrell Bank!), dedicated access to experts in topics ranging from cybersecurity to community building, and being in online breakout rooms with other project leaders from North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

There’s really something quite humbling and amazing about getting feedback on your Github Readme page from a professor in Addis Ababa or an activist in Hungary.

Of course, it also provided much-needed forward momentum and weekly mentoring deadlines to bring my idea to fruition (background and how it all started here).

To that end, I’m pleased to say that Observed.City – a new data privacy newsletter for Birmingham, UK – is now up and running. If you’re based in Birmingham or the wider West Midlands, working with data in some way as an academic, artist or activist, or just want to know more about data privacy and how to stay safe online, please subscribe here.

Observed.City soft-launched in March 2018, in the week of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, just as the issue of mass data collection was propelled into the mainstream. It comes out every three to four weeks and highlights a small number of data stories and privacy issues of individual-local-national-global interest, as well as listing relevant events happening in the city.

I’m now working on Issue 4 and already have several contributors, as well as a guest section so that I can bring different people, experiences and voices into the mix.

Want to get a copy? Here is the sign-up link.

Want to contribute? Here is the project repository, which tells you all about the project in the ReadMe file and lists open Issues where I’m looking for help. Or you can email me about the guest slot or with any local event details at observedcity@pm.me.

The project also launched at Mozilla’s Global Sprint hackathon/helpathon in early May, where people from around the world were invited to contribute to the project in a number of ways. As a result, I now have a logo design and am in the process of turning the experience in a more general how-to guide for kickstarting the data privacy conversation in other cities. Update: it is here!

Ultimately the aim is to keep working openly and perhaps start to pass the project on in a few months to other interested writers and editors who can help it develop in new ways. That should keep it interesting.

Career ideas on a postcard

Potential future office view from El Nido

I guess I should do an update of the post-sabbatical kind since I’m 18 months on from wanting to change my work/life, and six months on from the End of the sabbatical.

I haven’t touted for more screen-based writing/editing work (yet) so I’m still figuring out what to do for money – you’ll know when I start earning properly again as I’ll cut my ridiculous hair off – but I’m a lot fitter than I used to be and my work-life balance is much healthier now that I’ve halved my desk-based work.

Sabbatical hair.

The natural consequence of all the cyber security stuff has been to set up Observed.city data privacy email via the Mozilla Open Leaders project. There’s no income in that but it is in some small way campaigning for a better, less-1984-like path in our increasingly quantified and machine-judgmental world.

Subscribe here…

I seem to have started writing a blog post so my next big aim is to be more of a digital nomad, working from different cities occasionally and maybe even a surf beach in winter to escape the SAD and work on my Point Break moves.

Winter boogie

First, I have to figure out what that work will be. Maybe it’s time to resurrect my failed Thai Massage business ( ‘No Pain, No Gain’). But more likely it will involve some kind of digital comms or editing work, given I now have 30 (!) years’ experience in journalism and online content – just not too much! Or some other skill as yet unknown.

Ideas on a postcard, preferably to somewhere nice.

Best of Brum at Spring Fair 2018

I’ve attended various events at the Birmingham NEC over the years – for both journalistic and digital marketing purposes – but none so ginormous as ‘the UK’s largest home and gift show for the retail industry’ held earlier this month.

In stats… Spring Fair 2018 featured 14 show sectors, 19 exhibition halls and 2,500 UK and international exhibitors. It’s so big they added Autumn Fair a few years ago to help spread the load. Personally, I got a whole lot of exercise  in – clocking up 18k in Fitbit steps – just by visiting those exhibitors based in or around Birmingham

I wanted to do a pick of the Brum-related products that may be appearing in a store (or zoo or Birmingham art gallery) near you in 2018, and to make a few local connections and contacts. Here it is – I have to say I love the randomness of the products and stories on offer…

1. Bloom and glow

Electric flowers won’t be to everyone’s taste but the Blossom Collection’s products were surprisingly nice to look at. The company launched following a sourcing visit to China and has blossomed (!) ever since. If you have a black wall in your house (I have two), it’s the perfect backdrop for glowing roses, tulips, orchids or Blossom’s best-selling calla lilies.

2. Puns to make you cry over your chopped onions

I’m a little chilli but do nut worry…  Why oh why can’t I get a job writing food puns for chopping boards?

I was excited to meet Zodiac, a kitchen equipment company based in near to me in sunny Selly Oak, but a bit disappointed to find out that they are actually the UK arm of a Chinese company and not a local family business. But, hey, Cadbury’s…

As a content marketer, I have to say Zodiac had one of the slickest sites of all the Spring Fair exhibitors I visited, with related recipe and other support content around the kitchenware, an up-to-date news section, a listening/feedback area and a busy CSR section.

Tasty marketing chops.

3. An elephant memento never forgets

“It started with an elephant,” Kiran Chohan of Wildtouch says of his business handcrafting souvenirs, gifts, jewellery and other accessories for zoos, aquariums and other heritage sites around the UK.

The original elephant went to Twycross zoo and the company has since grown into a niche business supplying zoos and other leisure attractions with animal souvenirs from meerkats to monkeys, clown fish to killer whales.

Kiran also has his own range of jewellery and the firm is based in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter.

4.  Hanging tin

Jo Willis co-started Red Hot Lemon in 2014 after working as a sales manager at a metal sign firm that closed. She says the array of licensed metal signs attracts the rare  male buyer demographic with the VW Campervan one of their bestsellers. They have also expanded into selling a range of other tin products with that ever-popular retro-vintage feel.

5. Made in Sunderland (for Brummies)

My World may be based in Sunderland but Brum is their biggest client with a range of regional cards, prints, mugs and fridge magnets sold in BMAG, the Town Hall and the Library of Birmingham. Pretty surprised Brummies didn’t corner this market, though, especially since Created In Birmingham shop surfaced a lot of local artists a few years back. But it’s all fine and the Birmingham skyline print is a winner.

6. Cactus drinks jar for your mojito?

MD of KitchenCraft Matthew Canwell explained how the design and development (alas not the manufacture) of more than 4,000 kitchen and homewares products is done in Birmingham.

The company has been in Brum for 168 years and was founded by a local man named Thomas Plant on Edgbaston Street. The name only changed from Thomas Plant to Kitchen Craft in 1996 and the company has since grown to become part of Lifetime Brands inc, a global kitchenware provider supplying leading department stores and 80 countries worldwide. Another slick website – kitchenware is the place to be for content marketing.

7. ‘Winter is coming’ – fill your goblets!

AE Williams is possibly most famous for supplying its pewterware goblets to Game of Thrones but, says Stephen Johnson, a partner in the firm, there just isn’t room to show them at Spring Fair. In the absence of a GoT goblet, this whisky decanter stood proudly as king of all the Digbeth-based manufacturer’s exhibits

8. A subtle celebration of your memories

Charlotte Lowe graduated in 2009 and this is her seventh year at Spring Fair, showing jewellery made in her workshop in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. I like the way she encapsulates personal memories (pets, children, simple moments, photos) into items of bespoke jewellery that are obviously personal to the individual but not at all sentimental in their design.

9. A perfectly potty invention

I liked Pot Pal because it represents the dream of being an inventor – and bringing a product to market. Pot Pal is a vertical plant holder that evokes narrowboat paraphernalia with its colours and design. It was invented by Brett Cattlin, who started out making pet products in wood. Recently he partnered with Firstpress (Plastic Moulders) Limited of Ladywood, Birmingham to design, manufacture and distribute ‘Pot Pal’ products in a lighter, more cost-efficient plastic. The product has only been out since January ready to catch some spring/summer buying.

10. ‘Mini me’ tweeds

The husband and wife team behind Chand Textiles were lovely and we chatted for ages about everything from Tamil Nadu to digital photography. Based in Highgate, they were showing their range of tweed jackets, gilets and peaked caps for children that are perfect for a country set ‘mini me’.

11. A fluffle of bunny goods

Kate Sproston from Nuneaton – that counts as greater Birmingham, right? – drew me in with her range of rabbit-embroidered goods, including a Rabbit Egg Cosy shortlisted for Gift of the Year 2018. Kate also has a number of equally lovely collections that aren’t about rabbits but the law of small animal owners is that all talk must revert to pets so I introduced her to Profession Bunminster Fuller, Clementine Bundango and Joy (yes, we our pets have a website) and in turn she told me about their guinea pigs Frankie Valli and Alan Turing (from Hutch 6). Top punnage there.

12. See this cat? He’s a bestseller

Wolverhampton-based Dean Morris has the honour of being regularly demonised by the tabloids for his low-brow comedy cards (cries of irony!) but ‘smut, filth and swearing’ just sells so very well to the great British public (as any tabloid fule kno). Dean has been keeping it rude since 1999 and was the first to offer ‘Keep calm and carry on…’ cards. This one took me back to my days working for Moonpig just as they launched in 2000. Cards are a competitive business so fair play to Dean for his success.

Fiona Cullinan works as a digital content producer, editor and copywriter mostly for B2B clients. For further information, please visit The Subs Desk.

Birthday surf and bodyboard in Europe’s Hawaii

It’s true, a few Atlantic Islands claim to be Europe’s Hawaii but Fuerteventura does lay a good claim to it as the north shore has massive waves and really does catch that laidback surfie vibe.

This was the whole reason I wanted to go to FV for my 50th – to bodyboard some waves. But I have to say I was pretty nervous, even though we were going out with a local surf school. The winds had been up for days and only a few brave souls were in the water.

Protest Surf School took us to Piedra Playa, south of El Cotillo – a well-known surf spot with long wild beaches and big fat Atlantic waves. We pulled up on the hill above the beach a few times before the boss settled on an area where we wouldn’t get too mashed.

I did try surfing a few times – but I really can’t do that Point Break ‘pop’ up on to the board. Never have been able to. Even when they showed me the sneak’s way to stand up (all fours first), I was just too tired to stay up. So I reverted to Plan A, which was to get my bodyboarding on, thanks to previous training at Bodyboard camp.

Despite the rips and strong undertow parallel to the beach,  I caught a few high-speed rides in on powerful white waves (the green ones were way too far out). Two hours of ‘woo’ and I felt fantastic. Swimming twice a week for the past eight months has really helped my fitness, even if my upper arms have a way to go yet.

It was fab to be in the surf in February in the sunshine, with Atlantic rollers rising up and breaking in the distance and regular ridable sets coming in. The last time I did this was Brexit Referendum result day – and like then, the overall physical commitment of surfing was enough to completely empty my mind of anxiety and bad stuff. I guess this is why surfing is such a spiritual sport.

I was a bit jealous of the surfers but I reckon I caught way more rides. Here’s one of them (pics by Pete Ashton). Hey surfer, no dropping in on my ride!

Awesome!