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

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.

Words from a woman who lived in the wild for six years

I got this book for Christmas as a surprise gift and while personally I don’t even like camping, it has been interesting to live vicariously through someone who has gone off the grid and lived as a pretty wild woman.

The story… Miriam, 34, a PE teacher originally from Holland, and Peter Lancewood, 64, former NZ university lecturer, met while travelling in India and later lived for six years in New Zealand’s wilderness. They also walked the 3000km Te Araroa trail traversing the length and breadth of New Zealand.

While Miriam’s book ‘Woman in the Wilderness’ doesn’t contain the thrills or the personal overcoming of adversity of Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ (or Strayed’s writing skills – something Miriam freely admits), theirs is a quieter, ongoing feat which downplays the endurance side and spearheads the lifestyle change and how living in nature affects how they think and feel.

In the process of becoming a modern nomad, Lancewood became a hunter (from being a lifelong vegetarian), faced down her fears, learnt to be still and see things more slowly and deeply, and of course became adept at survival in the wild.

I figured it was worth documenting the learnings of someone who has so completely dropped out of human society and influence – and how this has affected their world view. I didn’t dog-ear many pages – it’s not a big book of philosophical musings – but here are some of the quotes from the ones I did.

The nature of fear

Lao-tzu: What you want to destroy you must first allow truly to flourish. So I took a deep breath and let the fear come. I was inviting the very ghost I was afraid of… Nothing happened at all. I lay in the silence and saw that it was, in fact, the unknown I was afraid of. Somehow this simple discovery made me feel unmeasurably better. … My fear was caused by my throughts. Is that always the case? I wondered.

…I had learned to look at fear and surrendered to my shadows on the wall. I wasn’t afraid to look again and again.

What is beauty?

We saw a chamois 20 metres behind us. I was mesmerised: I had never seen one up close before. … It was magnificently elegant, and it watched us with shy curiosity.

While looking at its eyes, I understood that beauty does not come through becoming, but only with being. The chamois was not working towards a better version of itself, it just lived. I, on the other hand, was always trying to become nicer, better, stronger, smarter and prettier, which caused me to lose my authentic self. I understood that the process of becoming disfigured my being. This chamois showed me, in that moment, that being is the most beautiful form of existence.

Western civilisation is broken

The future of many of these (indigenous) cultures was under threat. … ‘We’re in a bizarre position,’ Nick said. ‘In the West, we’ve ended up with a civilisation that is focused on progress and development, but is in fact an appalling make-believe on a gigantic scale. It encourages – almosts insists upon – distraction at any cost. In the public sphere we see violence, venality and greed. There is dishonesty, propaganda and obsession with the trivial… The list goes on and on. The system in which we live is a forced consensus of a self-created monster.’

What happens when you return to nature?

‘My sight and smell have become better and other intuitive senses I never knew existed have come back to life… I also feel more open. If I look at the person I was, say, 10 years ago, then I must say I feel more connected. Not only with nature, but also with other people. …What has happened to you in the last six years of living in nature?’ I asked him.

‘Compared to 10 years ago, I’m physically a lot stronger. It’s a great feeling to be fit and flexible enough to sleep on the ground and sit on rocks… In the world of academia, thought, concepts and ideas are quite overwhelming. It almost becomes more real than the natural world. But I don’t think there is order to be found in an abstract world. Even though outwardly the wilderness looks chaotic, I think it is within the natural realm that we find true order.’

What is the most important thing in life?

‘Courage is more important. Humankind evolved and survived through courage, not through fear… What do you think is most important?’

‘Maybe clarity,’ I said after some time. ‘You need a clear mind in order to see what is important. You need clarity to know what you are going to be courageous about, and you need clarity to question reality.’

Miriam and Peter are currently walking across Europe to Turkey.

On becoming a Glass Room Ingenius

I RARELY LOOK at email newsletters, even the ones I’ve subscribed to, but in September I opened ‘In The Loop’ from a Berlin technology collective called Tactical Tech, and inside was a dream opportunity to build on work begun during my sabbatical.

BE AN INGENIUS FOR THE GLASS ROOM LONDON
The Ingenius is the glue that holds The Glass Room together. We’re recruiting individuals who we can train up with tech, privacy and data skills in order to support The Glass Room exhibition (coming to London in October 2017). As an Ingenius you’d receive four days of training before carrying out a series of shifts in The Glass Room where you’d be on hand to answer questions, give advice, run workshops, and get people excited about digital security.

Having spent the first eight months of 2017 studying cybersecurity and cleaning up my own online practices, I had started offering free help sessions in our local café. Engagement was poor – it turns out that free infosec sessions aren’t in demand because busy people tend to put these things on the backburner and just hope they don’t get hacked in the meantime.

Francis Clarke, who co-runs the Birmingham Open Rights Group which campaigns around citizens’ digital rights, warned me that topics like infosec and data privacy were a hard sell. Friends and family confirmed it with ‘I don’t care if I get sent a few contextual ads’ or ‘I have nothing to hide’.

So how do you get people to become aware and start to care about their online practices?

Answer: The Glass Room.

***

The Glass Room – presented by Mozilla and curated by Tactical Tech – in every way resembles a bright, shiny tech store inviting passers-by in to check out its wares. Yet another shop on a busy London street. But the items on show are not gadgets but exhibits that help people look into their online lives and think more critically about their interactions with everyday digital services.

To be honest, I mostly saw The Glass Room as providing a readymade audience who were up for talking about this stuff because talking would enable me to get everything I’d been learning out of my head and also level up on my own understanding of the issues.

I didn’t think I would stand a chance of being selected but I applied anyway. I’ve listed some of the questions from the application and my (short version) answers for a bit more context on why I started on this journey – otherwise feel free to skip ahead.

Why are you interested in becoming an Ingenius? (provide 3 reasons)

Individually – I was blown away by Edward Snowden’s revelations and the Citizenfour documentary. I have been data detoxing and self-training in infosec, and I’m very interested in the engagement tools and workshop resources.

Locally – I’m involved in several campaigns. I want to help individuals and campaigners know how to keep their data and communications private and secure.

Nationally/internationally – I’m concerned with the normalisation of surveillance (both governmental and commercial) and how the line is constantly being redrawn in their favour. I would like to understand more about the politics of data and how to think about it more equitably in terms of the trade-offs concerned with policing, sensitive data sharing, commercial data capture and the individual right to privacy.

What do you think about the current state of privacy online?

I have concerns both about privacy clampdowns by governments and mass surveillance by commerce. I love the internet but find the fact that I have to jump through so many hoops to avoid being tracked or identified worrying. I feel I am part of some subversive resistance just to have control of my own data and this is intensifying as I have a writing project that I want to keep anonymous (almost impossible I since have discovered).  I’m also concerned that enacting the paths to anonymity may flag me on a list and that this may be used against me at some future point, especially if there is no context in the data.

I think our right to privacy is disappearing and the biggest issue is getting people to care enough to even talk about that. We seem to be giving up our privacy willingly because of a lack of digital literacy about how our information is being used, the dominance of data brokers such as Google and Facebook (for whom we are the product), the lack of transparency about how algorithms are processing our data, and so on. The issue feels buried and those who control information too powerful to stop.

How would you take the experience and learning as an Ingenius forward?

I’ll be taking it into my local community through advice surgeries in cafés and libraries. There seems to be little privacy/security support for individuals, activists, campaigners and small businesses. I also hope it will give me the wider knowledge to become more involved with Birmingham Open Rights group, which operates at a more political level.

Finally, I aim to connect more widely online around these topics and investigate options for setting up something to help people in Birmingham if I can find suitable collaborators.

***

I’M IN!

This is one of those things that will completely take me out of my comfort zone but will also likely be one of the best things ever.

***

THE GLASS ROOM when it ran in New York City saw 10,000 come through the doors. In London, on the busy Charing Cross Road, just up from Leicester Square, the figure was close to 20,000.

I was fretting  about all sorts of things before my first shift, mostly about standing on my feet and talking to people all day – normally I sit at a desk and say nothing for eight hours that isn’t typed. I was also nervous that despite the excellent four days of Glass Room training, I wouldn’t know enough to answer all the random questions of ‘the general public’, who might be anything from shy to panicked to supertechy.

But it was fine. More than fine, it was exhilarating, like the opening night of a show you’ve been rehearsing for weeks. If anything, I had to dial it back so that visitors would have a chance to figure things out for themselves. The team were lovely and the other Ingeniuses supportive and funny. Most importantly, the visiting public loved it, with 100-strong queues to get in during the final weekend of the exhibition.

It must be a complete rarity for people to want to come in, peruse and engage with items about wireless signals, data capture and metadata. But by materialising the invisible, people were able to socialise around the physical objects and ask questions about the issues that might affect them, or about the way big data and AI is affecting human society.

Day after day, people wandered in off the street and began playing with the interactive items in particular: facial recognition to find their online lookalikes, nine volumes of leaked passwords to find their password, newsfeed scanning to find the value of their data, the stinky Smell Dating exhibit to find out who they were attracted to from the raw exposed data of three-day-old T-shirts (c’mon people – add some metaphorical deodorant to your online interactions!).

They also spent time tuning into the trailers for highly  surveillant products and brands, and watching an actor reading Amazon Kindle’s terms and conditions (just under nine hours, even in the bath).

And they gathered en masse around the table-sized visualisations of Google’s vast Alphabet Empire that goes way beyond a search engine, Amazon’s future Hive factory run mostly by drones and other robots, Microsoft’s side investment into remote-controlled fertility chips, Apple’s 3D pie charts of turnover and tax avoided, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s House where you can buy total privacy for just $30 million.

***

THERE WERE THREE themed areas to explore inside The Glass Room, with three further spaces to go deeper and find out more:

  1. Something to hide – understanding the value of your data and also what you are not hiding.
  2. We know you – showing what the big five of GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft) are doing with the billions they make from your online interactions with them.
  3. Big mother – when technology decides to solve society’s problems (helping refugees, spotting illegal immigrants, health sensors for the elderly, DNA analysis to discover your roots), the effect can be chilling.
  4. Open the box – a browsing space on the mezzanine floor full of animations to explain what goes on behind the screen interface.
  5. Data Detox Bar – the empowerment station where people could get an eight-day Data Detox Kit (now online here) and ask Ingeniuses questions about the exhibition and issues raised.
  6. Basement area – an event space hosting a daily schedule of expert talks, films and hour-long workshops put on by the Ingeniuses.

During the curator’s tour by Tactical Tech co-founder Marek Tuszynski, what impressed me most was the framing for The Glass Room. This is not a top-down dictation of what to think but a laying out of the cards for you to decide where you draw the line in the battle between convenience and privacy, risk and reward.

I handed out kit after kit to people who were unaware of the data traces they were creating simply by going about their normal connected life, or unaware that there are alternatives where the default isn’t set to total data capture for future brokerage.

Some people needed talking down after seeing the exhibition, some asked how to protect their kids, others were already paranoid and trying to go off the grid or added their own stories of life in a quantified society.

***

THERE ARE THREE LESSONS I’ve taken away from my experience in The Glass Room to apply to any future sessions I might hold on these topics:

  1. Materialise the invisible – bring physical objects (art, prototypes, kits, display devices) so that people can interact and discuss, not just read, listen or be told.

2. Find the ‘why’ – most people are unaware of, or unconcerned about, the level of data and metadata they produce until they see how it is aggregated and used to profile, score and predict them. Finding out what people care about is where the conversation really starts.

3. More empowerment and empathy, less evangelism– don’t overload people with too many options or strategies for resistance, or polarise them with your own activist viewpoint. Meet them where they are at. Think small changes over time.

***

IT’S BEEN A MONTH SINCE The Glass Room and I’m proud of stepping up as an Ingenius and of overcoming my own fears and ‘imposter syndrome’.

As well as doing nine shifts at The Glass Room, I also ran two workshops on Investigating Metadata, despite being nervous as hell about public speaking. There are eight workshops modules in Tactical Tech’s resources so it would be interesting to work these up into a local training offering if any Brummies are interested in collaborating on this.

I wrote a blog post for NESTA about The Glass Room – you can read it here: Bringing the data privacy debate to the high street.

I did the Data Detox Surgery at an exhibition called Instructions for Humans at Birmingham Open Media, and also set up a mini version of The Glass Room with some pop-up resources from Tactical Tech – there’s a write-up about that here. The Ingenius training gave me the confidence and knowledge to lead this.

Leo from Birmingham ORG has also had Glass Room training so we will be looking for opportunities to set up the full pop-up version of The Glass Room in Birmingham in 2018. Get in touch if you’re interested– it needs to be a place with good footfall, somewhere like the Bullring or the Library of Birmingham perhaps, but we’re open to ideas.

There’s also a more commercial idea, which arose at the Data Detox Surgery, to develop this as an employee engagement mechanism within companies to help make their staff more cyber-secure. If employees learn more about their own data privacy and can workshop some of the issues around data collection, then they are more likely to care about company processes around data security and privacy. In short, if they understand the personal risks, they will be more security-conscious when working with customer or commercial data.

Update: In March 2018 I launched a data privacy email for my home city – you can read all about it here.

As ever, watch this space, or get in touch if you think any of this should be taken to a coffee shop for further discussion and development. You can also connect with me on Twitter if you want to follow this journey more remotely.

Thanks for staying to the end.

 

Happy 30th to Acorns Cotteridge – a note from the founder’s daughter

Acorns Cotteridge 30th Anniversary attendeesIt was 30 years ago, in September 1987, that my mother, Ann Cullinan, opened the first-ever Acorns Children’s Hospice Shop in Cotteridge, South Birmingham. There are now three hospices and 57 shops, and next year Acorns hopes to reach 60 shops. It is a fantastic legacy of which I’m sure she would be very proud.

Sadly, today also marks the 16th anniversary of her death, and in a week or so, the 16th anniversary of her fundraising funeral, for she used the occasion to make one last appeal for a different charity: the Huntington’s Disease Association.

I was honoured to be asked to visit the Acorns Cotteridge shop to say a few words and help kick off the 30th-year celebrations. It was lovely to meet people who had known Mum, meet the new shop manager, volunteers and Acorns senior management, and also to catch up with family friend Ivor Gornall, who was one of the original ‘Ann’s Army’ volunteers. And it was great to see how the charity is moving forward and building on its early foundations.

I’ve edited the video clips together to include a few others who spoke on the day – it’s just under nine minutes – and one for the family record as well as Acorns. The transcript of my talk is also below.

I’ve blogged about Mum’s involvement in Acorns as the Founder of the Acorns Children’s Hospice Shops previously, and my own visit to Acorns in Selly Oak, which was quite emotional – you can read about it here.

I feel I’ve become a bit of a historian or documenter of that period of Acorns’ history on Mum’s behalf. I have kept all her press clippings, letters and photos, and look forward to continue sharing these so that Acorns’ beginnings as the charity that Birmingham took to its heart won’t be lost.

Video

Transcript

In Feb 1986 Acorns became a family affair when our mother Ann Cullinan and two friends from Cadbury’s decided to raise £3,000 for the new Children’s Hospice Appeal.

My brother’s main memories are a front room full of black bags, being a phone secretary jotting down all the messages, and still wearing his fave jumper from “Anne’s Boutique.”

My sister brought her young daughters to help cut ribbons and open shops. She remembers when the scout hut with hundreds of donations was burned down a week or so before a new shop opened, and Mum using the fire as a PR strategy to get into the newspapers. She ended up with twice the donations.

I was a teenager at the time and helped collect donations, sort clothes and do the colouring in on posters.

But we weren’t the only ones galvanised into action. Ann’s Army – also known as the AA team – were a band of around 30 volunteers and helpers, many of them fellow employees and friends from Cadbury’s. Mum was known as The Commander in Chief and, although she was actually quite a shy person, she was determined – in fact, she like a woman possessed when it came to fundraising for Acorns. She always said she could never ask for anything for herself but she could ask for everything for the children and families who would desperately needed the new hospice.

Some examples of those crazy times –

  • Shops never had an opening, they had a GRAND opening
  • barge pulls
  • antique road shows
  • a giant turkey auction –
  • discos
  • belly dancers
  • marching majorettes –
  • fashion shows
  • rocking horse rides
  • the BRMB Walkathon –
  • letters went out to Adrian Cadbury, local business, Princess Diana
  • celebrity casts from the Xmas panto were roped in
  • photo opps, radio broadcasts and handwritten press releases

Mum was always sitting quietly writing with pen and pad in her armchair slowly changing the world one letter at a time. And such direct letters!

People always said yes. She would just look straight into people’s eyes, tell them what she was raising funds for, smile – then wait. She would unleash this massive human warmth that made people feel good about giving. If she needed a van, one would appear; a shop, one would become available; some carpet, she’d get the number for the NEC and somehow end up with thousands of square yards of conference carpet.

It was fun. But always driven by the kids who needed care.

To put a couple of figures on those early days:

  • From a £3k initial target, a cheque for £20,800 was presented to the trustees by Les Dawson and Ruth Madoc within a year.
  • The first shop, in 15 weeks, raised £30,000 – around £2000 turnover per week.
  • A year later it had contributed £100,000 (Sept 1988)
  • By 1990 Ann’s Army had raised £350,000, had opened in Stirchley and were ready to open a third shop in Kings Heath.

All voluntary.

I know she would be so proud of what has been achieved since that first shop opened 30 years. I have some photos and letters and posters showing the fundraising work of those early days, and a picture of the first Cotteridge shop volunteers if anyone would like to see them.

I am honoured to be invited here to represent the Founder of the Acorns Children’s Hospice Shops, and the involvement of Ann’s Army of volunteers. Mum always brought it back to the children so I’ll finish with her words to the volunteers 28 years ago:

” Since we opened our first temporary shop we have, by our combined efforts, contributed nearly £200,000 to help those unfortunate children and their families get support and be given respite care. I have witnessed the relief and gratitude by parents who are using Acorns and its facilities. I wish it were possible for each of you to do the same. Whilst the staff at Acorns may have direct contact with the children, you are an essential part of the team. Without your efforts, life would be much more difficult for all concerned.” [Ann Cullinan, 15/9/89]

Thank you.

End of the sabbatical – so what’s new?

looking ahead
Thinking, thinking…

A year ago yesterday I logged off a seven-year freelance contract and started planning a different life – a healthier one with a better work-life balance preferably, and maybe a change of work focus, and maybe take some time to explore all those things I’d been stacking up on the backburner, fancy stuff like learning Indonesian and skating backwards and the more mundane, like sorting out all my crap and finances.

I’ve spent much of the past year, getting fit – through walking, swimming, Scottish dancing and tai chi – but the biggest health difference has been the ability to leave my screen and just potter. The second biggest revelation was that shorter hours meant less stress-based eating and drinking. I’ve lost a stone. I barely drink. I feel calmer. My neck and shoulders rarely ache and my arms have even redeveloped some muscles.

The big project, the thing I thought I would do was write some kind of memoir based on my travel diaries. That failed fairly quickly. I just couldn’t seem to settle into the slog of a book-length writing project while long solitary screen-based hours were the very thing I was trying to escape. I decided to just explore instead.

One year on, I’ve reinvented this project into a much more fun thing – different ways to mine a diary. Every morning I sit down and carve out something fresh from the diaries, whether that is a code-generated poem or a reworked story in a literary style or a haiku distilled from old travel emails or a vertical date slice juxtaposed with a historical event. I actively look forward to sitting down to work now.

The other big project resulted from the first book I read after stopping full-time work – The Snowden Files on Day Five. I immediately signed up for an OU/Futurelean course on cybersecurity basics, then spent the next year following its advice, from setting up a password manager to sorting out my backups to learning about privacy settings, file and disk encryption, two-factor authentication, PGP, email encryption, Tor browswer and so on. I go to everything I can on infosec to learn more – then I blog it and also share the 101 basics with others in a local café. It’s a fascinating and scary world out there but I’m aiming for practical rather than paranoid.

All this effort has led to something quite exciting…

Yesterday on the anniversary of stopping work I had a phone interview and got the ‘job’ of an Ingenius at the forthcoming tech/art pop-up event, The Glass Room London. Training begins soon and I am very excited to be part of this dystopian tech store where data privacy is the stock in trade. It signals a new beginning, of something, and hopefully something that I can bring back home to Birmingham

So yes, all the big things have changed. I’m earning a fraction of what I used to but I’m healthier and happier for it – I needed to buy time not stuff at this point in life. I’ve also done some mentoring and digital/tech/infosec help sessions and campaigning and protesting, and generally tried to give a little back. I did some long-distance travel, to Eastern Europe by train. I sorted out finances and clutter (ongoing that one). And I met a lot of people in coffee shops to ask their advice.

No, I didn’t write a book, hit my Indonesian 2000-word target (I got to 500 words on my app), invent a moveable maze for rabbits or learn to skate backwards. But I’m ok with that and, besides, there’s still time.

Still my favourite phrase of last year is ‘Everything does change, something is happening’ – it’s still changing and happening now. The sabbatical was slow to start in some ways but it has had a deep impact. The idea of nicking back some of your retirement and living it now is a good one if you can manage it. Because as my hero Ferris Bueller always says:

All my Sabbatical posts are rounded up here.

Challenge: Get up early for a week

Kings Heath Park
Park report: King’s Heath is my current favourite to walk to. KECH girls are already going to school at 8am, flicking the finger at friends/enemies and checking out the boys. Drivers are driving like arses in 20 zones. It’s warming up for a 27 degree day. Grass is dewy but drying. A bee is hovering and checking me out – probably the smell of Soltan. Baby Driver soundtrack is playing. A hay fever sneeze. End of year accounts await and later an epic Moselele summer singalong. It’s gonna be a good day.

A random wish on my sabbatical list – and one of the toughest for me as a night owl – was to get up at dawn for a week to see what it would feel like and discover if/how it would change my day/life.

With sunrise at 4.45am in June and dawn at 3.55am, this was a bit too much of a stretch. Still, on the week of the longest day of the year I started to go to bed at 10.30pm in order to get up at 6 – three hours earlier than usual.

Three spare hours at the start of a day! What would you do?

Birmingham is a city often maligned and mistaken for a concrete jungle. Its critics are not aware of how much greener it is than, say, London. We have so many tree-lined streets but also a multitude of parks and recs. Within 30 minutes walk of our house, for example, are 12 or so parks: Kings Heath, Highbury, Cannon Hill, Holder’s Lane playing fields, Row Heath playing fields, Hazelwell, Stirchley, Muntz, Cotteridge, Cadbury’s ladies recreation ground, Bournville and Raddlebarn/Selly Park.

Waterwise, there is also the Lifford Reservoir, the Rea Valley Route, and the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. And, of course, my local Hazelwell Allotments to which I have the key.

I didn’t consciously set out to explore the parks and open spaces of south Birmingham in the early morning hours but it was a natural consequence of walking any short distance. The sun was shining, most people were still asleep or at breakfast, the day felt fresh and new. I downloaded a playlist on to my phone and started walking wherever (admittedly sometimes singing, dance-walking or air-drumming) to the beat of the music.

Here’s what I saw…

Hazelwell Allotments
Cotteridge Park
Muntz Park
Cadbury’s Ladies Rec
Rea Valley Route
Birmingham and Worcester Canal at the Lifford Curve
River Bourn at Stirchley Park and a shadow-me on the bridge

The walking felt good, the views were uplifting, the day started with a feel-good factor, and the music was a key part of the experience, giving me a lift and making me walk further and further, for an hour or more at a time. Coming home, my tea and toast never tasted so good. I even fitted in a meditation for extra deep levels of calm and relaxation, or visited a friend for a tea. And I still haven’t got over the weird feeling of having done so much and it being only 8 o’clock.

There were some downsides: losing my creative time at the end of the night and needing a nap to get through the day. But…

At the end of the week I was convinced enough to keep going with this new regime of getting up early Monday to Friday (and lying in at the weekends). Sunset walks were added, walks with friends and some trips further afield…

Harborne Walkway with Danni and Emma – a disused railway line close to the centre of Brum
Cannon Hill Park
Cannon Hill Park
Holders Lane playing fields and a paddle in the River Rea with sis
Kinver Edge walk with bro
Kinver Edge Rock Houses and breakfast overlooking the Black Country

On one walk I even discovered a secret canary yellow canalside breakfast caff in Stirchley, called the Barge Thru Café. It caused quite the stir on Twitter and I felt a little Lewis and Clark, discovering new things in an area where everything seems to be known. A breakfast expedition with other Stirchillians is already being planned – and if not a walk, an approach by raft or inflatable like the pioneers we aren’t. The adventure continues.

Brazilian-looking cafe at Stirchley ‘marina end’ – an unexpected find

And so…

It has had a big effect on me, and my mental and phyiscal health, this getting up early malarkey. This is the call to action bit. Is anyone else interested in an early morning walk around the B13, B14, B29, B30 post codes – there are some areas I don’t want to venture alone, namely the canals and commons.

Get in touch if you do.

What’s the point of yoga?

book cover

My mother-in-law is a long-time yoga teacher; my sister is in her second year of a yoga teacher training course; and many of my friends are yoga addicts, some to the point of getting up at 5am to practise or get to class.

But while I’ve been to a few classes in the gym over the years and even developed a daily sun salutation habit for a while to stretch out back stiffness, I’ve never really got it. What’s the big draw? Why does everyone love yoga so bloody much? Why are at least four people I know training to teach it? Why is an ancient Indian practice suddenly everywhere in 21st-century Britain?

It occurred to me that maybe I’m doing it wrong and that everyone else is getting some secret buzz out of yoga that is eluding me. So naturally I bitched about this on a social network, and that’s when a book arrived in the post from mum-in-law Sue.

It took me a month to get through ‘Bringing Yoga To Life’ by Donna Farhi but, even though I would say I still don’t feel it personally, I understand a bit better why other people love it.

I’m parsing the dog-eared pages here into blog post Q&A so I don’t have to read the book twice. Yoga aficionados forgive me if I’ve misunderstood. It’s not my intention to have a go, so to speak. My aim is to understand yoga in terms that don’t involve saying ‘come back to yourself’. As my sister often says: “Language always gets in the way.”

1. What’s the point of yoga?

There is a lot of gumpf in the book about how yoga is a life practice that connects you to the wild force that runs through everything. Of course, a lot of people don’t believe in a wild force that runs through everything but the point is that it’s the spiritual aspect that is the thing in yoga and not the physical focus that you get in the standard gym class.

An ongoing practice in your everyday life can help fortify you against all kinds of attack and give you a means of coping when life gets physically, spiritually or emotionally tough. Which seems a very good reason to do it –more than the need to be bendy anyway.

2. What does it teach?

What is possible as a human being; a sense of returning to oneself and becoming ‘centred’ not being separated from others/humans.

I’m not 100% sure what this means but I’m surmising that it is about removing the gazillion distractions that surround us and getting the focus back on our humanity – and the wider sense of who we are as a species (for better or worse).

(Aside: Personally I tend to think of humans as ants, although that may be too kind: as Ripley says of the monsters in Aliens: “You don’t see them f*cking each other over for a percentage.”)

3. Do you have to be perma-calm?

No (thankfully) but the point seems to be to apply the feelings of attentiveness that you cultivate through yoga beyond the mat – into relationships, work, play, etc. Less perma-calm, more ‘aliveness’. Luckily for me I don’t NEED to do yoga to achieve this. Just slowing down is conducive to flourishing, mindfulness and being a bit kinder to others.

4. Why do yoga people seem smug* or a bit too happy sometimes?

There’s a section in the book about gratitude and faith being the two supreme qualities that transform a yoga practice, which may translate into feelings of being happy to be alive in the here and now, and feeling thankful for what you have. Recognising how fortunate we actually are can turn the most difficult of circumstances on their head and affect every waking hour, says Farhi.

*I’m being a bit harsh here, it’s probably more of a radiant calm that I admire because I enjoy being fast-paced and am reluctant to slow down.

5. OK, so where do we non-yogis go wrong?

There are five causes of suffering listed by the Patanjali (from ignorance of our eternal nature to seeing ourselves as separate and divided from the world to attraction/attachment to impermanent things).

We can work on these without getting into strange postures and breathing deeply – but then again, do we? Yoga brings a certain focus. Farhi outlines some positive actions we can take:

  • Friendliness towards the joyful.
  • Compassion for those who are suffering.
  • Celebrating the good in others.
  • Remaining impartial to the faults and imperfections of others.

6. Does it have to be yoga?

In a word, no. There are many ways to channel our energies in life and to still the mind. What setting aside time for yoga (or other practice) does is provide regular time and space to ground ourselves, think on life’s big questions, face our demons, celebrate being alive, push the reset button or simply be free.

7. So why all the batshitcrazy postures?

None of the above tells me that I have to get into some weird twisty posture so why is this often the main focus? Farhi says the point of practising asanas is “to become more sensitive, attuned and adaptable” and that “great gymnastic abilities are entirely inconsequential in the context of yoga”.

I’m not sure this really answers the question of why yoga is often so focused on the physical. My own novice understanding is that yoga is predominantly about the breath, and also the breath in each posture. So my conclusion is that if yoga is a life practice helping you out when things get emotional or out of control, then the exercise element is a big part of disrupting bad thoughts and changing the focus. After all, it’s hard to give any mind to one’s existentialist angst when you are trying to do a Tree balance and not fall over, or when breathing is stretching your taut muscles so that physicality is the most pressing issue.

In short, perhaps asanas offer a fast way to ‘not thinking’ about your suffering; and (with practice) take you to a place that offers a spiritual balm that allows you to “see past the immediate and fleeting feelings to a broader perspective”, to accept things as they are and “find a place of inner ease that no one and no thing can take away from us” as a result.

8. Keeping up with the young bendy teachers and pupils always causes me to get injured at the gym. What’s that about? Where’s the realistic yoga?

Accepting we are where we are is the thing to do – otherwise we’ll be contorting ourselves into an “ill-fitting suit” of a yoga practice. Easier said than done. Switching off one’s competitive head is hard, and the language around yoga teaching can make you feel inferior if you go for a ‘lesser’ stretch or other compromise.

I look forward to older, less bendy, injury-challenged role models joining the teaching fraternity. I had a practice lesson with my sister for her yoga exam and it was refreshing to break down some really simple yoga moves and make the most of the nuances of each posture. It also allowed me time to breathe – something that is often missing from yoga classes in the gym with their focus on agility.

Farhi says: “As we enter our 40s and 50s there is a noticeable drop in energy levels… this is a period of life when the focus in yoga practice needs to switch from the mechanics of practice to the subtler underlying energetics of practice… Through these subtler practices we begin to realise the deeper significance of yoga practice as the body becomes more sensitive in its role as a vehicle for perception”.

By which she means more meditative practices, less physical repetition of advanced postures.

9. Will it help with the bigger questions?

It can* – “This contemplation both on death and what it means to truly live is designed to help you distinguish between short-lived pleasures and long-lasting joy.”

* Other options are available.

10. Will yoga solve my emotional baggage problems?

Yes, no, maybe, it depends. All kinds of realisations can be had – especially with regard to what Farhi calls our “box of monsters”. Rediscovering one’s inner self, true identity, centre (or however else you term the feeling you get from yoga and similar practices) is a way to look at your ‘monsters’ in a different way, with a certain distance and impartiality, even kindness and compassion.

11. What if we don’t like our inner self?

Yoga can help us act differently on the “riptide of strong emotions” and teach us to act more skilfully once we have cooled down.

While seeing clearly is a gift, we all have blind spots, however – difficult relationships, making bad decisions, making the same mistakes over and over, resorting to outbursts of anger. Farhi suggests asking a trusted friend to tell us honestly what they see in order to accelerate the process of seeing ourselves more clearly – this awakening is probably only for the brave though.

12. What happens in the end?

Nirvana? Leaving the Matrix? Seeing ourselves and the world in a new way? The realisation that we are all one?

After reading this book, yoga seems mostly about two things: practically, it offers a coping mechanism for life with the byproduct of better physical/mental health; spiritually it offers a potential reawakening through connecting to own core sense of humanity and our place in it.

It seems a shame that I don’t get this from yoga myself but I’ve also learned from this book that yoga is just one method of transport and there are other ways to get there. The important thing is to find something that does work and to practise it regularly so that you don’t fold when the riptide of emotions comes.

So, yes, yoga –

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The bonkers magic of KonMari

‘Sorting out the house’ was mentioned several times when I asked friends what they would do with a few months off. I’ll look back at May 2017 as the month of decluttering. Like many others, I tried the Marie Kondo book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’, aka the KonMari method.

Marie Kondo is a Japanese organising consultant and now bestselling author. She sounds insane when you read her book – she was addicted to tidying up by the age of eight – and her methods are no less bonkers.

But… it works.

I still can’t quite believe how folding your clothes so that they stand up has actually transformed what I wear simply because I can now see it all in one go. Or how asking if something ‘sparks joy’ has allowed me to emotionally, rather than practically, let go of things I’ve kept for decades – from university research papers to my 1990s Thelma and Louise denim top that never came back into fashion.

It could be procrastination from other more creative work or it could be life-transforming as the book promises. I’ve cleared out so much crap, I do feel lighter and freer, and more pertinently for an allergic person, the house is becoming easier to clean. The really sentimental things are to come but that’s why you practice with your socks and pants first. It gets easier.

Here are some before and after photos. Sorting is done by category – another trick that helps massively when facing a big clear out.

TOPS

BOOKS

ACADEMIC PAPERWORK

The nice thing about this is the focus is less on throwing things away and more on only keeping things that you love. But possibly the biggest lure of the KonMari method is that you only have to do it once. We’ll see if that is true in time but my socks do remain firmly folded for now.