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!

Fuerteventura crater walk

 

I don’t know why –I suspect it is something to do with being brought up on 1970s disaster movies – but I love volcanoes and volcanic islands. Visiting Keli Mutu in Flores, Indonesia, in 2002 probably tops the list of my volcanic visits. Since then I’ve mostly been getting my fix in the Canary Islands.

So far I’ve visited La Gomera and Lanzarote, and been very impressed with both. This year for my 50th birthday we went to Fuerteventura and on day two decided to walk around 10km from Lajares to Corralejo along four or five craters and volcanic badlands, and also climb the Hondo caldera.

We hitched a quick ride from a friendly French surfer to get to the camel parking (!), then began our hike. We had to turn back from the non-official route up to the Hondo crater because it was too steep and slippy, and Fuerteventura was delivering some of its famous 40mph winds. There was a grave on the way up so I think it was the right decision not to push ahead. I turned back at the rock circle.

Instead we walked a contour line around the back of the crater and up to a viewing platform that was overrun with chipmunks. Chipmunks and camels, who knew FV’s fauna was so unusual?

The drop of 70m down into the crater was pretty dizzying, and we could see two people dots on the opposite steep slope, giving it ridiculous scale. You’d have to zoom in to see them.

In the other direction we could see vigorous Atlantic rollers crashing along the wild north-west shore. I’d be bodyboarding in that tomorrow, I thought, with a fair bit of trepidation.

The colours are all shades of warm brown, peach and orange, making FV kind of glow in the sun. Although the wind is relentless but you can usually find a sun-warmed lava rock shelter of some kind – and a herder’s hut is where we stopped to have our bocadillo picnic. It really is beautiful.

The journey back took us along a dirt track road via a few more craters and badlands, with goats straying along the sides. It was pretty deserted – we saw one runner and one car on our three-hour walk through the peaceful but desolate scenery.

In the near distance we could see Corralejo and its two large wind turbines spinning fast from the north wind on Bristol Playa but the distance was like a desert oasis illusion – the more we walked, the further away it got.

Our city legs were seizing up by the time we hit the final Bayuyo Crater and walked into town, but those rooftop beer sundowners were some of the best beers of the trip.

 

Six-month therapeutic confessional sabbatical check-in post

Six months have passed since I started my inadvertent sabbatical. There are no fireworks or big announcements or even possibly any major achievements by most sabbatical standards. In fact, this may be the most boring sabbatical story you’ll ever read and here’s why…

When you work eight hours a day, you think three months off will be enough to achieve your dreams, but you don’t account for the need for an actual break. From three to six months, you start in earnest working on your ideas and plans, only to realise that life still gets in the way and procrastination still happens and you’re not even sure of what your dreams are any more. Six months in and there’s no sign of a book (or even an ebook), new business, travel caper or other big bucket-list tick of some kind. But, man, have you sorted out your shit – the house, the clutter, the finances, the open tabs and bookmarks, catching up with people, latent DIY projects and so on.

It’s not all procrastination, though, because when you’ve only known one career for nearly three decades, it turns out you need quite a bit of time to have a proper rethink about the final third of your life (we’ve had learning and earning, so what’s next?).

It’s like my sabbatical inspiration Sam Underwood said to me a few weeks ago: once you’ve started a sabbatical you kind of want to work out how to continue it (as he has managed to). Up to now, I’ve been logging what I’ve been doing to prove to myself that things are moving forward and that I’m not frittering away this precious time. To mark six months, though, I thought I’d look at how things have changed and what, if anything, I have achieved by dropping out for a bit.

Before…

From Feb 2009-Sept 2016 I worked as a full-time digital content editor for a London content marketing agency and my own private clients. Eight hours a day on a chair (or stepper!) at a computer doing the work I love – writing, refining, publishing, strategising; rinse and repeat.

For seven fortunate years, I rode the wave of brand publishing’s shift on to the Web and into social media and apps. Budgets flowed online, opportunities abounded, the publishing world I had known was changing fundamentally; it was really quite thrilling to be part of it. I threw myself into self-training and signed up for conferences from London to Paris to Texas. I set up Blogger and WordPress blogs, Tumblrs, Second Life, Flickr, Scoop-It, Ning, Storify, Delicious, YouTube, LinkedIn, Vimeo, Digg, Stumbleupon, Reddit, Vine, Meerkat, Instagram. You name it. I loved this new world of connection and freedom and the old hierarchies levelled.

I climbed the new digital career ladder eagerly and easily as digital skills were in high demand, going from journalist to blogger to website editor to content strategist to digital skills trainer in the space of two years. An even bigger change was being able to work remotely, which meant I could move away from hectic media-centric London to a less stressful lifestyle in my home city of Birmingham.

But as digital marketing became mainstream, I found my enthusiasm dwindling. Learning (for me at least) had plateaued and a new normal had been established that was less interesting.

To cap it all, my old RSI injuries – renamed ‘tech neck’ for the internet generation – weren’t getting any better in a sedentary, screen-based job. After being referred to a physio clinic, I got my final warning: nothing more could be done to resolve my ongoing suite of neck, shoulder, arm, elbow, wrist and back pain. The only option left for this unfit sedentary editor was lifestyle (ie, career) change.

After…

When a main client took their content work in-house, this provided the impetus for finally acting on the physio’s advice. Even so, I have to keep reminding myself that health is the main reason for taking this break, not to write a book or take off around the world.

As I ponder returning to the freelance writer/editor circuit, these are the three big changes that I want to keep going.

1. Health and fitness  

I’m not longer tied to a desktop computer but many of the things I want to do (write, infosec, connect) still involve firing up the laptop. At least now there is some balance: I can go to tai chi in the park or Scottish dancing or play basketball  (all new hobbies) to keep the muscles from seizing up in static tension. I now tend to work on the lappie late at night with a wine or tea.

I’ve also lost a few pounds from being more mobile and just generally feel a whole lot better being more active. There is still a long way to go until I’m fit and strong enough to achieve the South American bodyboarding holiday dream but one of the big realisations has been that I constantly underestimate how long everything will take. The important thing is to be on the path to fitness and to get there eventually and without injury.

2. Learning and creativity

I know the projects I want to do and have spent the past few months getting to grips with different ways to approach a big writing project. I’ve recently also found a few inspirations that have sent me off down the experimental-writing-text-photography-art spectrum, which feels ‘right’ to me as a blogger, more so than a straight text book does anyway.

I’ve also prioritised learning new things, such as exploring photomontage, brushing up on my Indonesian and I’m currently on my second cybersecurity course. Hopefully I can build on these without them taking up so much headspace in future.

3. Financial planning

I spent much of the first three months sorting out the immediate practical issues of a career break, namely the financial side. I’ve always put 25% of every income payment away – to pay for tax and travel – so I already had some money put aside. But instead of blowing it all on travel this time, I decided to significantly reduce my mortgage debt, get rid of unnecessary monthly debits and reduce my budget to minimum levels. We also set up a joint bills account and savings plan for petcare and holidays, and I reduced my luxuries to the occasional coffee out.

I still have some income from client work so I’m breaking even each month – and that’s fine. I see this as buying myself the gift of time rather than the gift of stuff. I’m no longer flush but I feel free.

In summary…

So this is the new lifestyle – poorer but healthier and with the hope that the new things I’m learning will take me somewhere new in time. I have no idea whether I’ll be looking at infosec jobs in a year’s time or creating text-based artworks or bodyboarding in Nicaragua, or just pottering around the garden, drinking tea and reading books with the bunnies in tow.

Other people I know have done major league things with their sabbatical – overlanding to Japan, for example, or taking the family on the road in a camper van in order to research a new business, or publishing a book.

In comparison, my sabbatical is pretty boring but I am very much hoping that by laying the sensible groundwork now, it will pay off many times over in the long run. My big achievement, hopefully, will be to ensure that a lifestyle change is just that – change for life.

Barack Obama: “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.”

My new trip camera is an iPhone

GridRecently I sold my DSLR with every intention of replacing it with a new hybrid camera. Instead I’ve been pretty pleased with the output from my iPhone 6 and so, for the first time ever, I took all my trip pix using just a cameraphone. Here are some shots from our honeymoon to Iceland. Many pics are straight out of the camera or with just a little adjustment for the confused white balance of snowy landscapes.

Continue reading “My new trip camera is an iPhone”

Poster girls, GoPro debut and a sudden Total Eclipse of the Heart

Snowselele is the now-traditional Christmas singalong featuring Moselele (“The second best ukulele group in Birmingham”) and a chorus of around 400 drinkers at the Prince of Wales pub in Moseley. I was pleased to find myself and my sis appearing as poster girls for this year’s event (photo by fellow Moselelean, Sarah Aust). Continue reading “Poster girls, GoPro debut and a sudden Total Eclipse of the Heart”

25 favourite photos of 2014

This year I’ve mostly been using Instagram and taking pictures of bunnies. At the same time, Flickr has gone downhill with every action on there seeming hard and unintuitive. Still, I’ve managed to up my image total to more than 7,000… so here’s my annual pick of the pics, featuring family, friends, bunnies, holidays and lots of rocks.

 

40 best photos of the last tax year (2012-13)

It always falls in April, my annual pick of the best/favourite photos from my Flickr uploads. Like my tax return, I’m late sorting this year’s out but here they are – featuring kittens, pigeons, flowers, volcanic Gomera and Lanzarote, a steampunk wedding, Spaghetti Junction, Loaf’s Tom Baker, backward clocks and a dodgy looking fiancé in a fez. Slides below or Flickr set for scrollers. Previous years here.