At the pub in lockdown London

Published by October by Pitchfork, in December 2020.

At the pub in lockdown London

“I can’t order at the bar! They say it’s table service only!” My friend Ben is an experienced pub-goer, but the government’s new coronavirus rules, which had gotten stricter back in September, had him shook. We found ourselves a table and faced the strange at The Kings Arms, a proper boozer just behind Waterloo Station in South London. The bell for last call was jarring when it rang at 9:30 pm, but there’s a pandemic and we must all do our bit. Honestly, I was just happy to be out—every single bar and restaurant in England was shut for 104 brutal days this spring. “Cheers!” I said to Ben. “Some pub is better than no pub!”

The next time I met up with Ben, only people from the same household could sit inside, leaving us huddled around a patio heater—let’s just say you have to really want it to do that in London in November. The rules have changed so many times this year I’ve lost track, but I’ll never forget that first weekend of freedom after the spring lockdown. The relief was palpable in the streets of Soho—we would get a summer after all! The bars and restaurants flooded the newly pedestrianized streets with tables to serve us at a safe distance, and it felt like a celebration. I ordered two glasses of wine at the bar at The Lyric, my favourite Soho pub, dropping a quid into a glass labelled “Boris says stay alert and tip us.” Sitting down at a freshly sanitized table I had a feeling that this reprieve wouldn’t last, but hey, let’s ride it like we stole it. 

During this magical summer I visited my favourite pubs as often as I could. Who knew who’d survive? In November, pubs could only do takeaway, and now, in December, the rules are only slightly looser. The coronavirus doesn’t care how much we miss idling away a Sunday afternoon in the pub, and by the time this is over many of them will be gone. The pub industry was under plenty of pressure before the pandemic (running a pub is long hours for not much money, and 25 percent of UK pubs have shut since 2001) and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) didn’t mince words: this year will “make or break” the pub industry.

“For many pubs, it’s not really viable to be open. They’re not making any profit. But they are doing it anyway, because they want to,” says Nik Antona, National Chairman of CAMRA, over the phone from Staffordshire. “The local pub is where people meet, where they have a chat, where they put the world to right.” Rent and bills are still due, but pubs haven’t received any insurance money because insurers are refusing. The government’s furlough scheme has been helpful, but many London pubs found their business rates were too high to qualify for support grants. “It’s been quite a harrowing time for the industry,” says Antona, who estimates about 2 to 5 percent of pubs didn’t open after the first lockdown. “If we hadn’t gone into any other restrictions, many would probably have opened up eventually.” Now it depends how long the restrictive rules will last and what happens next in terms of formal support. Resources are stretching thin: “If pubs can’t reopen [after the November lockdown], we may see more casualties.” 

The Queen’s Head, a charming Victorian pub near King’s Cross in Central London, has been closed since the first lockdown. “Every time we plan to reopen, [new rules] come up,” says landlord Nigel Owen over Zoom. He’s hoping to reopen in January. “But right now, the area is a ghost town. A big part of our footfall is local office workers, tourists, and people travelling in and out of King’s Cross station,” says Owen. The locals are still there, but the pandemic could have a lasting effect on the way people work and travel. 

Owen has run The Queen’s Head for more than ten years. “It’s a proper pub,” he says, telling me about first going to see it: it was closed down and the etched windows were covered in newspaper, and he peered through the letterbox to be amazed by the big bar and mirrors. The Queen’s Head is a conservation site and can only ever be a pub, which is helpful; Owen has been negotiating with the property owner for rent relief because paying the full amount for the year is impossible. Asked about insurance, Owen shakes his head: “It’s a mafia. You pay all this money for insurance, but you’re not insured for anything!” Owen knows pub landlords who’ve handed back their keys—it’s been a rough year. “But one of the benefits that could come out of all this is people realising we need to support local businesses. Without support, they just aren’t going to be there.”

Heath Ball, landlord at The Red Lion & Sun in Highgate Village in North London, credits local support with keeping the pub afloat this year. Ball never closed the classic Edwardian pub, keeping it open as far as regulations would let him: “I’ve still got staff to look after. I can’t sit still. It’s about survival of the business.” Ball gives me a cup of mulled wine as we sit down outside the pub—the winter warmer is selling well to people who go for walks on nearby Hampstead Heath. The Red Lion & Sun is part of the community: “We’ve got a lot of elderly customers who we deliver food to. David, next door, he’s in his 90s, he likes a pint of bitter. We put it on a tray with his dinner and leave it outside his door,” says Ball. When regulation  for a time dictated orders must be made by phone, Ball rigged up a handset on the pavement, and people collected from a marvelous shed out front. 

Ball, who’s run The Red Lion & Sun for more than 13 years, says they’re holding their own and no one’s lost their job, even though they didn’t qualify for support grants. They are tied to the Greene King pub company which discounted the rent: “Greene King have been really supportive. I think they want to keep their tenants in place—this is a good business here.” Stark figures from the British Beer & Pub Association suggest 72 percent of pubs and restaurants could be unviable by next year, unless they’re either able to be open or receive support to be closed. I ask Ball, how much longer can he keep this up? “This second lockdown is a lot harder financially. The summer was [busier], but the novelty has worn off,” Ball sighs. “Who can survive this? Where are we going to end up?” 

I leave The Red Lion & Sun with a takeaway, taking the long way back to the Tube so I could finish it before putting a mask on. I realize how much I’d missed it, being at the pub and getting the train home, half-cut and relaxed after putting the world to rights. Most of my favorite pubs are still hanging on, but a lot of people’s favorites won’t make it till the end of this pandemic. Cities change constantly but it’s usually slow, and it’s a very strange feeling to watch your city transform like this. Any time could be the last time. 

Hope springs

The Simple Things, March 2021.

Every year I have a moment, usually around this time, where I start to genuinely despair: will winter never end? It’s been cold and dark and wet for what seems like forever, and those summer clothes in the back of the wardrobe seem to be mocking us. But just as I think I’m trapped in this forever-winter state, it happens again: I’ll be walking down the street and suddenly notice that some tiny pink flower has sprung forth on bare branches. Cherry blossoms! 

It gets me every time: the cherry trees launch into their assault on the senses, covering every branch and the ground beneath, with pink and white petals. Blink and it’s there, seemingly from out of nowhere. Isn’t it wonderful.

I’ve always loved cherry blossoms. They’re a promise that nature has its own rhythm and it’s something we can rely on, but as a metaphor it’s pretty good in general too: it’s a reminder that even if you’re about to lose heart, life will come back. This was my thinking as I was planning out my latest tattoo – I wanted to go big this time, with an idea that not only looked good but also had a powerful personal meaning. Scouring tattoo Instagram I came across the rich, elegant style of Roxy Velvet, the proprietor of the Velvet Underground tattoo studio in London, and immediately called her for a consultation – would she draw me some cherry blossoms?

Cherry blossoms capture the imagination. You can find them all over the world, but Japan has a particular affinity for them: “sakura” is the flower symbolising springtime, renewal, and the fleetingness of life. The Japanese “cherry blossom watch” is serious business, detailing the expected timing of the 200-or-so varieties and where you can find them. After all, the cherry blossom season is short: it arrives suddenly, peaks in a fantasy of petals, only to be gone within weeks and then it’s all over until next year.

I booked my tattoo appointment for March 2020 to coincide with the cherry blossom season, not realising it would also line up with something else: the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. No one knew exactly what would happen but a significant change felt inevitable, so that March I made a point of enjoying things a little more than I probably normally would: I celebrated my anniversary with an expertly made classic cocktail in a bar, wondering when I’d be able to do that next. I took the underground during rush hour, squeezed up against other people, wondering if we’d soon become too worried to do that. I got my tattoo, etched into my skin from ankle to knee by Roxy Velvet for four hours solid, while we chatted about the pain we choose versus the one that’s inflicted upon us. This was on 4th March 2020 and I remember feeling lucky to have got this tattoo done while I still could – who knew how long it would be before we could do things like this again? 

As lockdown arrived and my flowers scabbed over, driving me to distraction with itch, I remember trying to soothe myself with assurances it would be worth it: “This might be the biggest ‘life comes back’ moment of all.” The flowers have long-since healed and they are big, bold and beautiful, a reminder of all that stuff I always intended them to be – how life comes back. But because of the events of that spring there’s a secondary meaning too now, and I think about this all the time: how you can fully know that something is going to be painful, and yet, there’s no way to prevent it. 

It’s nearly a year later now and we’re still in the pandemic, and the cherry blossoms will be here again soon. For me they will be a reminder, like in that Mary Oliver poem that I love, that “whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting”. Fleetingness is bittersweet, and there’s a sharpness to the beauty of the cherry blossoms that I’d never really appreciated before now.   

It’s been a hard year. I hope we will come out of this having learned something, but so far it’s mostly just been really difficult. I think a lot about how we’re going to remember this, but it’s too soon to know and the only way out is to go through it. But the cherry blossoms will do their thing regardless – I always try to catch them in Kew Gardens, but I honestly think the best way to see them is to come across a tree by chance on a walk down a random street. They’re so flamboyant and unapologetic, and no matter how many times I come across a cherry blossom tree, it’s always a surprise. It’s here for such a short time, exquisite and intense, and a little volatile. It’s here today, and tomorrow all the petals will be on the ground. But for a brief, incredible moment, it will be spectacular. 

This old thing: On fashion lost in translation

White Noise, 2018.

The most unexpected things can be reinvented and with that, they take on new meanings. Young men are smoking pipes, young women are dyeing their hair grey, everyone is wearing Adidas Originals and eating tuck shop sweets. A trend can act as a powerful signal of belonging, or, for someone who’s been around long enough to have seen it come and go once before, a chuckle – kids, right. 

But sometimes a trend can be so subtle that it doesn’t register to people outside the group. Cropped flares may be cool among younger people, but for older people it looks like you’re preparing for a flood. Sometimes, an item of clothing can be reinvented to mean something very specific on one side of town, but when you move across to the other side, that new meaning fails to translate. When this happens, you may find yourself flying a flag you never intended. 

When I bought my Barbour coat I was living in East London, where it had become popular in that ironic sense that brings back unassuming staples and makes them inexplicably cool. We may never know exactly why the Barbour has become the darling of a certain kind of urban creative – hipster if you’re nasty – although it probably started with someone picking up a battered coat from a relative’s closet thinking, “This old thing, yes, it’s perfect.” 

I’ve worn my waxed Barbour a lot, as it’s brilliant: hard-wearing and weatherproof without being too heavy. It’s a bit retro, still being made in Britain (South Shields since 1894) as a nod to something wholesome. It’s unassuming and fades into the background – it goes with everything and no one looks at it twice.  

But then I moved to West London and here, my Barbour represents something very different. I knew that Barbour was a heritage brand that had a life of its own outside of East London, but I hadn’t quite realised how jarring it would to stand on a street in West London and find that suddenly, I was the only young person wearing one. Now, the people around me wearing my coat weren’t others like myself, dragging a MacBook around Shoreditch, but older people sporting a distinctly more established vibe. For them, the jacket is not an ironic nod to something old school, but just a classic look. Here, supporting British manufacturing isn’t primarily a feel-good factor about ensuring workers’ rights and minimal air miles, but very much an act of patriotism. In West London, there’s nothing nostalgic about the Barbour – because it’s never gone out of style. 

East London is dirty, gritty, arty and up-and-coming, a YouGov survey found when asking Londoners to describe the different parts of town. West London is posh, pretentious, cultured and family-friendly, concluded the survey. But of course, these areas are never just one thing: just as many people said West London was dull as who said it was pretty. 

My slice of West London is certainly very pretty, and also, very dull indeed. I moved to West London just over a year ago, after almost a decade in East London and a sworn promise to myself that I wouldn’t leave again for love nor money. In end end, I did it for both. It’s taken me a long time to get to know this area, in part because I miss my part of town – it’s surprisingly possible to be homesick for your city while you still live in it. 

In West London, my Barbour coat is a sign of consistency, resilience and security, which is presumably what its wearers feel when they hang that coat in a hallway they own. I’m generalising here, but most people I know in East London rent in an increasingly precarious housing market – maybe that’s why people there were so drawn to this old coat? We may never have a mortgage, but we can have this sturdy jacket that’s going to last a lifetime.

Clothing tends to turn conservative in uncertain times – fashion history confirms that we return to the tried and tested when we don’t know what’s happening in the world. But the strength with which the millennial generation has embraced nostalgia is unprecedented, swooning over the things they loved in the 80s and 90s. Nostalgia can be a double-edged sword, as it can be a resignation – our best days are behind us. But it can also be a positive emotion: it’s a reminder that things were good once, and that means they can be good again. 

But if you like to pick up a packet of Frazzles or Monster Munch because it reminds you of car rides with your grandpa, others may associate retro crisps with anxiously waiting around for their parents to come home from work. Whatever our associations are, we bring those with us when we look at others. When Style Compare quizzed 2,000 Britons, one fifth were found guilty of making assumptions about people’s politics based on what they’re wearing – even more so in the cities. Jeans, checked shirts and trainers suggested you might be a Labour supporter, while tweed, deck shoes and coloured chinos pegged you as a Tory. 

“Tribalism increases during times of political strife, and people use clothes to strengthen their allegiances,” says Sir Cary Cooper, a leading expert on organisational psychology who contributed to the study. Cooper points out how the alt-right movement in the US created a brand new association for the polo shirt, which previously was a pretty neutral garment. “Context is important here. A red baseball cap on an American college campus means something different to a red baseball cap at a baseball game or on a farm.”

In East London, the Barbour is a liberal symbol. But in the study, as in West London and presumably Britain as a whole, Barbour coats were read as a signal of conservatism. I thought about this the other day when I sat in a West London café reading The Guardian next to an older gentleman reading The Daily Telegraph. He was wearing a tweed flat cap and I was in jeans and trainers, but our coats were identical. He nodded at me as he left. Who knows what he made of it – I’m sure I’ve thought a lot about this a lot more than he ever will, as I’m the one who’s new here and trying to find a way to make West London my own. It’s getting better: I’ve started running into the same people in the pubs here too, and the parks are exceptional. Like every other corner of London, this part has its own unique charm too. And while the motivations may differ, East and West London do have in common a shared love for a really great jacket. 

Future of the Wick: “Most people do want to embrace change, but they want to be part of it.”

Published in The Wick newspaper, November 2020. (Online version.)

Rapid gentrification has caused extreme changes to the artist community of Hackney Wick & Fish Island. But coronavirus has brought about a new focus on collaboration and with it, a new optimism. 

Stour Road Bridge is finished, now taking pedestrians across the water from Fish Island to Sweetwater. Walking out onto the weathering steel, tastefully adorn with green shrubs, I’m almost surprised to find it’s just a regular bridge: it absorbed so much symbolism in the fight to save the area, having required the tearing down of several artist studios to be built. An onlooker summed it up: “I will resent that bridge for the rest of my life.” 

The tug of war between gentrification, and the desire by artists and creative forces in Hackney Wick and Fish Island (HW&FI) to preserve their grassroot community, has been long and painful. As ‘The Wick’ launches, this article follows on from a feature I wrote two years ago in Huck Magazine, which detailed how artists came to the underdeveloped area some twenty years ago to create art, a way of life, and a community. Redevelopment is a threat to any creative inner city area, but the 2012 Olympics next door pushed gentrification into overdrive. Many artists were sad and frustrated from having to watch their unique area transform into something they no longer neither liked, nor could afford. Today there’s no bridge to fight against, but the central question in HW&FI remains the same: who is this area for?  

*

In the summer of 2020 there are fewer cranes in the sky in HW&FI, as coronavirus has created a temporary reprieve to the building work. People are happy to be outside again after lockdown, but the pandemic has been hard on the artist community. There’s been support grants available which is great for many, but less so if you’re not really sure if your lease is legal – or if you know for a fact it’s not. Local groups have worked hard during the pandemic to help: for example the HW&FI Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ) has a freelancer commissioning fund, and a matching service for furloughed workers to advise local businesses on survival. But as things are moving forward again after lockdown, one central question is how the official versus unofficial parts of the Wick are coping.

“There are a lot of people around here who’re trying to do things, but they don’t talk to each other quite enough. Some organisations might be good at getting developers around the table, but the people who need the most support might be the hardest to get access to,” says Neil McDonald, co-founder of Stour Space, the non-profit studio provider, gallery and venue. We’re sitting at the Stour café on the canal, and McDonald is generously explaining the ins and out of a complex situation – he’s been here since 2008, first as an artist and now increasingly as a community organiser.  

Most new buildings going up around the Wick are mandated to provide artist space, ostensibly to replace what’s lost, but the redevelopment has been challenging. Some developers are providing affordable rates even when they don’t strictly have to, while others are claiming they need to charge more or it won’t be viable – one new development was for years promised to be no more than £16 per square foot to the end user, but now it’s gone up to £24. There was a big debate on an area Facebook page when it turned out that one developer supported UKIP.

And of course, a nice but pricier studio in a newbuild is a very different life than a bunch of ramshackle old factories full of people experimenting with art and anarchy – the ceiling might leak, but it’s so cheap it doesn’t matter. “You have to consider what’s allowed this kind of community to be built in the first place,” says McDonald. “It’s a way of life that’s enabled people to exist here, work for themselves and create social and economic support networks. This is what’s become threatened. A lot of people can just about manage it as rent becomes more expensive, because they’ve already built this goodwill in the area,” says McDonald, who’s also a founder of the HW&FI Community Development Trust. But we can’t go backwards: ”I think most people do want to embrace change, but they want to be part of it.” 

A key tenet of the CEZ is to ensure “no net loss of space”. But you have to be official to be replaced, and most of the area’s live-work spaces are unofficial. HW&FI is reported as officially having 250 studios and 400 businesses operating in the area, but when Stour did a survey to recognise the impact of Covid, they found that the real number is probably more like 800 studios and 4,500 artists. “But by using that low number, authorities are only aware of about a tenth of affordable studios that need to be re-provided, leaving a huge deficit,” says McDonald. 

A lot of the things happening around Hackney Wick is the result of compulsory purchase orders agreed in the run-up to the Olympics, or simply a consequence of private ownership in an area that’s soared in value. Stour Space has been fighting for years to secure its future – the lease is up, again, at the end of the year. “We try to create viable partnerships with developers or owners. You can achieve more that way than by fighting,” says McDonald, who’s learned this the hard way. “That way we can all be part of the same good story.” Stour is now managing the council-owned Old Baths studios, and they’ve also negotiated their way into a new block of student accommodation on Fish Island with a landmark 149 year peppercorn lease. “Ideally a community organisation should be coordinating all these efforts,” says McDonald. “We should be steering as a community on how the area where we live and work ‘regenerates’, […] rather than commercial organisations coming in and extracting the value we have created as a community.” 

*

HW&FI was designated a Creative Enterprise Zone by the Mayor of London almost three years ago. The CEZ is a strong message that what is already here – not just what will come in the future – has value and should be preserved. The work finally got going in January of this year and the agenda of a CEZ is to secure creative workspace, business support, pro-culture policies, and supporting community links. “It’s an intervention. We want to secure HW&FI as the inclusive creative districts in the future. What we’ve got here is hugely important, under significant pressure, and it needs support to be sustained,” says Charli Bristow, manager of the HW&FI CEZ. “There’s a lot of great organisations already working on the ground in Hackney Wick, and the CEZ is really about coordinating and scaling it up. There’s a real focus on working with what’s here.”

So far, coronavirus has dominated the agenda of the HW&FI CEZ, as there was a strong need for signposting where to get help during the crisis. But Bristow says the pandemic has brought a new focus on localism. “Where there’s redevelopment, we want to support existing businesses and make sure we don’t lose them from the area,” says Bristow. “There’s also a big role for the CEZ in talking to developers and the new residents coming in about the offer here and what there is to engage with, and make sure the new footfall benefits the local economy.” 

The need to get organised is echoed by Alex Russell, chair of the HW&FI Community Development Trust (CDT) as of September. “How do we engage with the juggernaut of change in a way that enables the community to get a fair share of the pie? We don’t want to look back in 20 years and realise we didn’t engage properly and ended up with this homogeneous offering.” The CDT’s priority right now is to work with landowners and councils to secure long-term leases and custodianships. “You can’t raise capital if you can be kicked out at any moment,” says Russell. “Then we want to work with current occupiers so they can continue to deliver great things to the community.” When Russell says long-term, she means 150 years: “Then, no matter what else happens around us, we’ll have those assets and we will have a stake in what happens.”

*

There’s a refreshing new trend of collaboration happening in HW&FI. “Over the past few years Hackney Council has been trying hard to understand [the dynamics]. Partnering with local organisations has made their initiatives more successful,” says Nimrod Vardi, founder and director at Arbeit studios, which in recent years has also taken over the studios at council-owned Trowbridge Gardens

“There’s a strong sense of community here still. It’s constantly changing,” says Vardi, echoing a sentiment that the people who live in the Wick now aren’t necessarily working to save the area for themselves – they may move on eventually – but for the next lot who come along. “There’s currently an organic process where one artist might hand over the space to another,” says Vardi, referring to the unofficial live-work spaces. “This will all but disappear once you have new buildings, because they don’t allow for this kind of DIY subculture. You can’t just get some friends together and convert a warehouse to live and work there and maybe have a little venue on the side.”

Arguably one upside of this change is that the Wick could become more inclusive – it’s not just about underground art anymore, but there’s sports initiatives for local kids too now. Alex Russell stresses that custodianship by the HW&FI CDT will be for the benefit of everyone who lives in the area, not just the creative sector, to access skills training and job opportunities. The Trampery Fish Island Village, a collaboration launching next year between the social enterprise and developer Peabody, will have 50,000 sq ft of studio space dedicated to sustainable fashion – rent starts at £25 per sq ft. There’s free business support and training, as well as an accelerator programme to help new entrants gain a foothold.  On Wallis Road, the new Stone Studios come with a commitment to strengthen the local community: “We’re in advanced talks to bring in an independent arts charity partner by the end of this year, to oversee the letting of affordable studios ideal for local artists and interior designers,” said a spokesperson for developer Telford Homes.

“When I first became a councillor in 2002, you were very lucky if you were invited to meet any of the residents of the old industrial buildings in Hackney Wick. Many of them were living under the radar on the so-called fringes,” says councillor Chris Kennedy at Hackney Council. Kennedy speaks frankly about how some landowners have waited to cash in, whereas others do a decent job of consulting with the current residents and the council. “The Yard Theatre has secured an agreement that any new development of Queen’s Yard will have a theatre space, and they are involved in the planning,” says Kennedy, who’s pleased that there’s now a master plan for the area that will see some affordable arts space preserved around the staton. 

But Kennedy is also conscious of the realities: “As soon as the land values start going up and regeneration starts to happen, you’ll never be able to keep all the lovely ramshackle buildings where artists are renting space for four quid a square foot. The best you can do is try and try and secure some of it.” Regeneration of HW&FI was always going to come knocking eventually, and Kennedy says the council considers the provision of affordable workspace a priority: “We’ve seen what happened in Shoreditch and we don’t want that to happen through the rest of the borough, and end up with workspaces only for tech graduates who move in from outside. We’re trying to create opportunities for the people in our community who find it harder to access them.”

For the so-called unofficial HW&FI – experimental yet illegal work-live spaces and the spontaneous wellspring of creativity that follows – things are changing fast. (As one artist told me, ”There’s loads of crap London left to move to.”) But with some official protections in place, the overall future of Hackney Wick and Fish Island as an artist hub looks brighter than in a long time. There’s always been plenty of passion, but with increasing levels of organisation and collaboration added on top of that, the Wick has a fighting chance to remain a genuine local community. 

Maybe, someday: Living with a disease you may never get

Learning that you have a genetic predisposition to cancer can save your life. But the knowledge may be a double-edged sword, as it turns you into a lifetime patient of a disease you may never get.

Photo by Pavel Vanka / Flickr Creative Commons

Rachel Topping and her sister Julie were on holiday in Morocco when they discovered they were more alike than they thought: unbeknownst to the other, they’d each got the same tattoo in memory of their mum. “My sister had hers done in Latin and I had mine in Arabic, but it was the same wording: Live, laugh, love.” Topping grins, showing me the neat script on her back. “That’s like our family motto. Everybody says to live life to the max, that life is short. But unless you’ve got something hanging over you, it’s just a saying.”

The thing “hanging over” Topping (54), and two of her three siblings, is Lynch Syndrome, a genetic condition that (depending on the type) gives you a 20-80% chance of colon cancer, a 15-60% chance of endometrial cancer, plus a heightened risk of a number of other cancers. There is no physical manifestation of Lynch and carriers are completely healthy—it just means that the genes that suppress cancer for most other people are sleeping on the job.

Cancer is brutally common—half of us will be diagnosed in our lifetimes. Still, many people will look at a harsh statistic like this and shrug: there’s not much you can do, so what’s the use in worrying? But when cancer comes in family clusters, it’s different. If you’ve inherited the family tradition, this knowledge means you can get regular screenings and catch any cancer early, improving your chances of a good outcome. But emotionally it can be a major shock. You may well get cancer soon—what now?

For Topping, the awareness that the family genes have given the siblings more than their blond hair and bright eyes has given her a nudge to go and do the things she always wanted to do. “You never know if the next colonoscopy is going to reveal something. So if an opportunity arises, I do it,” she says. A personal learning assistant from West Sussex, Topping comes across as open and energetic, telling stories full of what-the-hell attitude. She’s seen Bon Jovi in concert 12 times, and she’s writing not just a book but a whole series. More than once, she uses the same phrase: “What have you got to lose!” Like when she took that trip to Morocco: “It was as far south as you’re allowed to go. We found a market where nobody spoke English. Julie and I had a smattering of Arabic from growing up in the Middle East. They were so confused by these two blonde women ordering vegetables in Arabic,” she laughs—sure, they had restaurant recommendations, but where’s the fun in that? 

Even before they were diagnosed about ten years ago, Topping and her siblings were close. “We’re there for each other when we need to be,” she says. “This knowledge has probably made us a bit more empathetic.” Photos from all over the world show the siblings’ similar faces grinning behind reflective sunglasses—the tallest in the bunch is her brother, Perry Leathers. Unlike his sister, he prefers not to think about Lynch: “I’m going to talk to you more than I’ve talked to anybody about this now,” he tells me over the phone from Nottinghamshire, where he works in printing. Leathers (57) comes across just as cheery as Topping, and you can’t argue with his logic: “What can you do, right? There’s nothing you can do about a genetic disorder. I’ve completely put it to the back of my mind.” Still, he’s not in any kind of denial: “It’s probably going to come at some point,” he says, shrugging. “But I don’t want to spend my whole life thinking about cancer. One day I expect they’ll find something, and I’ll bitch and moan about it then.”

*

Medical testing for cancer-triggering genes is relatively new—it’s only been possible to get this kind of advance warning for the past 20 years. The conversation around it is mostly about cancer, but that’s not the whole story. A significant number of people will live with these conditions for years, or even their whole lives, never actually getting sick. 

When I was diagnosed with Lynch four years ago, the emotional impact had me reeling for years—I’ve always been healthy and never for a moment did I think that something like this could happen to me. When I got my diagnosis, my doctor told me to “eat well, exercise, avoid red meat, and take a daily aspirin”, before loading me up with leaflets for the endless invasive procedures that would be my life now. Afterwards I sat down outside the hospital, the sun glaring in my eyes, and asked a stranger to bum a cigarette. I didn’t even smoke, but all agency over my body had just been taken away from me so I lit one up anyway. Right then it was one small thing that I could still control. 

Everyone I spoke to in this article is in the same boat as me: we’ve been diagnosed with a genetic condition that may or may not give us cancer someday. If you’ve had cancer you might say we’re lucky, and in a sense, we are. But learning about my genetic condition was a watershed moment in my life. In a split second, everything changed. 

Sally Flitcroft keeps calling for her dog as we’re talking—Bella the springer spaniel loves to run, ideally in water and mud. But who can be mad at those big chocolate eyes? “She’s super bright and learns new tricks all the time, even though she’s almost eight years old,” Flitcroft (47) tells me as Bella is tearing through the woodland near her home in Stockport. “I’d always wanted a dog, but I thought I was too busy. But now I’ve got a dog!” 

Flitcroft adopted Bella from a shelter after she was diagnosed with Lynch—but really, who rescued who? “Bella has changed my life,” says Flitcroft, happily. The brown and white pup with boundless energy was only one of the many changes Flitcroft made after her diagnosis: “When I went back to work after my test results, I just felt so different, almost like I’d been given a second chance. I thought, ‘I’ve got to be happy in my life’. So I changed my job, sold my house, and didn’t look back,” she says, her voice full of conviction. Flitcroft, who was a nurse for 25 years, says her diagnosis gave her the push she needed to retrain as a clinical educator: “I would have just stuck with what I knew because it was safe. But I felt like life wasn’t safe anymore.”

*

Lynch, like the breast cancer gene BRCA, is an autosomal dominant genetic condition: if one of your parents have it, you’re 50% likely to inherit it. They are more common than people realise: about 1 in 300 have Lynch (about the same as celiac disease), but most people don’t know they have it. But as opposed to tests for conditions like Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s, where there’s nothing you can do, knowing about your cancer risk gives you the chance to improve your odds. 

This fact can be a comfort after a positive test result, says Dr Anju Kulkarni, consultant clinical geneticist for HCA UK in London. “But I have definitely seen women and men who have struggled with the knowledge that they carry a mutation, and even though they have screening in place, that anxiety is overwhelming for them.” This is more likely to happen if the news came at a bad time, or if it was unexpected. This is why Kulkarni is sceptical of consumer tests like 23andMe, which aren’t just a fun game: if you’ve taken a genetic test on a lark to find out if you’re part Scottish, learning you might get Alzheimer’s can send you into a tailspin. This is why proper context and counselling is so important for genetic testing, says Kulkarni: “As human beings, we need to feel that we relate to somebody else when we’re going through something like this. If you’ve seen it in your family, it makes you feel less alone.”

Hugh Tallini (48) is one year younger than his dad was when he died. “I think about that a lot,” says Tallini, who was nine when he lost his dad. This set the tone for the rest of his life: “My dad was the third of three siblings to have died of cancer in their forties. I didn’t get my Lynch diagnosis until about ten years ago, but I’ve been living with the idea that this could be genetic since I was a teenager.” Tallini’s social media is full of photos of him flying small planes, doing loops and stunts: “I’ve done a fair amount of things that may seem dangerous,” he laughs. Tallini comes across as very thoughtful—he’s had a long time to think about all this and what it means, more than anyone else I spoke to. But while everyone says you learn to live with it, speaking to Tallini makes me realise that there may never come a day when I’ll truly know what to do with this information. We both laugh when we realise we’ve both been obsessed with risk and percentages, only to conclude that statistics don’t mean much to the individual: either cancer happens, or it doesn’t. 

A diagnosis of a “maybe, someday” disease is an impetus to act, but how? Tallini, who works in finance and lives in London, says it’s led him to be more conservative in his career, worrying about how a new employer might react to a cancer diagnosis. It’s impacted his relationships too. “I’ve wondered if I would go out with someone who’s got this condition? If someone is looking for a partner to dream of living together until their ripe old age, maybe I’m not the right person for that,” says Tallini, his tone devoid of self-pity—it is what it is. “Everybody just assumes you’re going to live to eighty but I’ve never had that assumption.” 

Tallini isn’t consumed with thoughts of mortality, but the knowledge does impact practical decisions. Should he be careful or take more chances? “When my cousin died in his early 40s, I went out and bought a very fast motorbike,” says Tallini, laughing. And should he save his money, or spend it all while he’s still healthy? “I might survive this, in which case I’ll want to have a pension!” 

*

Even without illness, the worry that accompanies a genetic condition, and all the invasive and painful screenings and procedures, is its own trauma. Several of the people I spoke to said they were glad they were spared the burden of knowing about their condition when they were young. Then, in the next breath, they’d remember family members who died young, who might have survived had they had the chance to be “burdened” in this way.

Alice Ingle (21) from Cambridgeshire looks like any other student, with long brown hair framing a sweet face that looks far too young to be thinking about all this. But she was only 18 when she learned she’d inherited Lynch: “At the meeting they were like, oh you know, if you’re with someone and you can settle down, then maybe get going [with kids] so we can do the hysterectomy around 30,” says Ingle. “That really freaked me out. My boyfriend actually broke up with me, saying it was too much pressure.” Ingle sounds level-headed, but it’s clear she’s still processing what it means for her future. It’s difficult to bring it up with people at school, because most people have never heard of Lynch. “It’s a weird thing to talk about. People always say it’s better that I know. It’s like I have to look at it in a positive light. But it’s not a positive thing!” Ingle has decided to give herself some more time on the issue of kids and surgery. She has a new boyfriend who’s supportive, and she knows it’s possible to have a normal life, because her dad did—he didn’t learn about the condition until his 40s: “It’s made me more fearful for the future,” says Ingle. “But it’s not made me change my ideas of what I want.” 

Almost everyone I spoke to had a story about a jarring encounter with a medical professional. In her autobiography about being diagnosed with Lynch at 33, after losing her father to cancer caused by the condition, Jean Hannah Edelstein describes the doctors “who kept telling me to remove my organs”, not considering her a complete person and how disassociating it felt. “In that period of my life [when I was first diagnosed], I was nihilistic,” Edelstein (38) tells me when I call her. “I felt suicidal. I didn’t know what my life was worth now, it was just counting down until I got cancer.” 

Edelstein lives in New York, where I met her shortly after my diagnosis on a bench outside a coffee shop in Cobble Hill. At the time I was desperate to talk to someone about the emotional factors of a condition where everyone seemed to only want to talk about screening schedules. I felt alienated by the expectation to look on the bright side, because in that moment, it simply sucked. As we sat on the bench that day with her dog Martha between us, Edelstein told me that when she felt at her lowest following her diagnosis, she used to cheer herself up by looking at people in the street, wondering how many of those people would die of cancer before she did. “I was kind of being a dick, but it is the truth!” Edelstein laughed—in that moment, it was just the kind of dark humour I needed.

One of the biggest changes to Edelstein’s life came after those single-minded doctors suggested she consider in vitro fertilisation (IVF) with embryo genetic testing. “IVF had a huge physical and emotional impact on me, and it certainly impacted my relationship with my husband. But I now have a baby who doesn’t have Lynch. I’m very grateful that I was able to do this,” Edelstein tells me on the phone, happily—her son is named for her father. But she thinks there’s a clear lack of pastoral care around the condition. “For example, various people have told me that I need to get a hysterectomy, but no one ever talked to me about what surgical menopause might mean for me,” says Edelstein. “There was absolutely no acknowledgement that this could be something that I might wish to take into account.”

*

If you thought you might have a genetic condition, would you get tested? A positive result could save your life, but also, it turns you into a patient long before you technically need to be. “It’s a difficult balance to strike, between turning someone from a healthy, happy individual into the worried person whose life is being negatively impacted,” says Dr Anju Kulkarni. But almost everyone participates in cancer screening eventually, whether it is smear tests, mammograms, prostate checks, or colonoscopies once past a certain age. And we’re all predisposed to something, whether we know about it or not: “Every individual will carry two or three mutations in their genes. It just depends what those genes are, and whether they actually lead to a high risk of disease or not,” says Kulkarni. As science develops, more people will be facing the dilemma of whether or not it’s better to know.

Just under a year ago, I was at a supermarket self checkout when I got a text message telling me that a friend had died of colon cancer. It was so advanced by the time doctors found it that there was nothing they could do—she didn’t have Lynch, and she was too young for standard screenings. I put my phone back in my pocket and finished scanning the cheese and crackers in my basket, thinking that statistically, it should be me and not her. When I first got my diagnosis, people told me it would get easier to live with it over time but I didn’t quite believe them—I felt so betrayed by my body. But something shifted for me that day, with that text message. For the first time I understood, not just in my head, but also in my heart, that there’s nothing certain in life for anyone. That’s not just for worse, but also for better.

***

The reporting for this story took place between November 2019 and January 2020.

If you’re worried about cancer clusters in your family, talk to your doctor about a referral to a genetics consultant. There are a number of active support groups on Facebook such as Lynch Syndrome UK, and the BRCA1/BRCA2 High Risk Support UK or BRCA1 BRCA2 Genetic Ovarian & Breast Cancer Gene groups. In the US, AliveAndKickn is a proactive Lynch charity whose advocacy work includes peer to peer support.  

If you’re an editor who’s interested in publishing this story for a wider audience, get in touch.

That hair tie on your wrist is such a hard worker

A brief history of women’s hair, and the hairbands that set you free.

Image for post
Image by Max Guitare via Flickr Creative Commons

Is there a hair tie around your wrist? If you’re a long-haired person like me, I’ll bet there is — unless it’s already in your hair. Right now I’ve got a messy bun on the top of my head, absent-mindedly assembled for the sole purposes of getting my hair out of my face. I started the day with my hair down, and when I’m going out for drinks later I’ll take it down again — before I’ll probably put it back up when I get home tonight.

Loose hair looks great — so casual, so carefree. But it’s not very practical, so we’ve enlisted a little helper that’s always on hand: the elastic hair tie. I thought about this the other night in a Vietnamese restaurant, about to dig into some steaming hot pho. As the waiter put the bowl down in front of me, it was almost instinctual: I reached for the hair tie sitting on my left wrist. As I was putting my long hair into a ponytail, I caught the eye of a woman sitting a few tables over — she was doing the exact same thing! We smiled at each other, in the acknowledgement that yes, it’s not the classiest move, but needs must! You’ve got to get that hair out of the way so you can focus on the task at hand.

That elastic band around your wrist is such a hard worker, repeatedly being called upon for whatever the mood requires. But women weren’t always so casual about their hair. Looking back over hair history in the Western world, this haphazard approach to hair is unprecedented. Hair has always carried a strong social message, but there’s never been fewer rules for what women’s hair should look like.

“The casual fashion of this up-and-down hair is a [unique] trend of our generation,” says Kurt Stenn, a leading hair expert with decades of experience from Yale Medical School and Johnson & Johnson. At its most extreme, hair represents humanity: Joan of Arc, Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette were all shaved before being executed. Beyond that, hair signals who we are: “Through history, hairdos reflected different [standings] in society. The very little hair on the Egyptian pharaoh and more hair on the slave; lots of hair on the big wigs of Louis in the Renaissance,” says Stenn. “Even today, you can look at people and [infer how] they’re of a certain socio-economic level.”

Today we may think of hair primarily as a signifier of individuality, but historically it’s been heavily linked to societal class, religious belonging, and sexuality. “Take Queen Victoria: she wore her hair up, very tightly, in court, but at home she would allegedly let her long hair down,” says Stenn, whose book ‘Hair: A Human History’, was published by Pegasus in 2016. So while we may not be aware of it, our modern relaxed attitude about hair is not devoid of meaning: “Having the hair up in a casual way means it can [easily] come down.”

For women, long hair has been the standard for throughout the majority of history — this is consistent across most cultures. One explanation for why this is could be that long hair signals health: you need to eat well to grow a thick mane. But Stenn admits there’s little hard data on the nuanced social meaning of hair — how do you measure whether blondes have more fun? “But history and literature suggests long hair is [perceived as] sexy,” says Stenn. He points to Rapunzel: it’s her long hair that enables the prince to climb up to her tower.

Modern women are unlikely to dangle a braid out the window to attract suitors, but they may take their hair down before a date. Most of the long-haired people I spoke to agreed that loose locks are the best look, suggesting this idea is deeply rooted; to “let your hair down” means being free and enjoying yourself. But everyone I spoke to agreed that loose hair is too impractical when you want to get things done. Examples of moments requiring an updo include work, eating, sex, exercise, and looking after children — essentially, anything other than sitting still with a drink in your hand.

Rosie Spinks (27), a journalist from Los Angeles based in London, says it’s rare to have her hair down all day long. “I’ll put it up when I eat, or at the end of the day when I’m tired, or I’ll put half of it up when I’m working so it’s not in my face.” Karima Adi (36), a publishing executive in London, puts her hair up at the gym, before adding what was a common refrain: “I also tend to wear my hair up when it needs washing!” While Gemma Dietrich (33), a singer in Norwich, loves “long, unkempt, sun-bleached hair that doesn’t give a shit”, she prefers to work with her hair up: “I feel like I can concentrate more?” Hels Martin (32), an editor in Bristol, adores a wave: “But we all love to chuck it up. It’s like putting on sweatpants and taking off your bra!”

Historically, long-haired ladies have usually maintained their locks according to far more formal rules. In Ancient Egypt, hair would be kept long and straight, often in braids. Elaborate knots and decorated updos were common in classical Greece and Rome, before the Dark Ages brought with it an edict for women to cover their heads. In the Romantic period, loose curls were the ideal for nobility, while in the Baroque era it was all about height — to the point where women (assuming they had money to hire help) used wireframes to construct towering dos.

Hairstyles started to become less strict in the Victorian era, which brought about a fashion of buns surrounded by braids and curls. In the 1890s, women would emulate the Gibson Girl: a puffy pompadour rolled across a horsehair pillow. The cloud-like result carried an appealing social message: this was the look of independence and self-assuredness. When more women entered the workforce after World War I, necessity encouraged shorter hair. Further inspiration came from the French singer Josephine Baker who had a neat bob, a practical cut which was less likely to get tangled into machinery or catch fire.

Religious leaders have taken great interest in ladies’ coiffure through the ages, declaring hairstyles morally improper or even a threat to the salvation of the soul. Stenn writes in his book about Manasseh Cutler, a Yale-trained pastor in 18th century New England, who claimed the new fashion of girls piling long hair on top of their heads reminded him of “the monstrous devil”, and declared it cursed. 130 years later, at the peak of the bob, the short style was the one to be declared unholy: it was too seductive, preachers decried, and hence indicative of a person of lax morals.

But judgment ever stopped women experimenting with their hair. In the 1940s, Veronica Lake’s loose locks swung the trend back to long, before Audrey Hepburn again brought back short and chic in the 1950s. That’s when the modern hair tie came along, after the Hook Brown Company of Massachusetts secured a patent for an “elastic loop fastener” initially intended for footwear and raincoats – it didn’t take long before women realised how much easier it was to use an elastic tie compared to hairpins and ribbons. Farrah Fawcett then set the bar for the ultimate free-flowing style in the 1970s, before the 1980s brought us the working girl’s crop along with the power suit.

Ever since, hair fashions have remained more flexible. Putting your hair up and taking it down again multiple times a the day isn’t actually that practical: if your hair gets in the way, shouldn’t you just put it up in the morning and be done with it? But we just love that feeling of loose, carefree hair far too much. That hair tie on the wrist represents the freedom to have a few moments like that as we go about our day. Then, a swift transition to the quick and easy updo, thrown together with practised hands as you’re about to get to work, hit the gym, or tuck into a steaming hot bowl of soup. For Rosie, that’s the true look of hair freedom: “My topknot! Those are the days when I give zero fucks.” As women choose their hairstyles for themselves rather than to please their families, a priest, or a date, the hair tie on your wrist carries a little message: I can let my hair flow, or I can tighten it up to get things done, but the choice is mine.

Pour me

Published in Lionheart Magazine #12, the Grow + Thrive issue, August 2020. 

Pour me

Drink the most expensive one first – that’s the rule for red wine, assuming you’re going to be having more than one and let’s face it, you are. When my friend Chris and I go to our favourite wine place, we start at the bottom of the menu and work up. We order two different glasses at a time and share them, as we like the same thing: rich, funky, and complex. Of course it’s not always the case that the most expensive wine is the best, but it’s a good place to start. And if you’re going to drink a £16 glass of wine, don’t you want to do that when you’re fresh and keen?

The place I’m talking about is Sager + Wilde, a wine bar on Hackney Road in London, located across from a wholesale bags retailer and giant sink estate. Back when I lived in that estate we were told to be careful walking up this bit, but why would we – there was nothing there. I tell this story when I bring new people to the wine bar, unable to resist a bit of, “I was here before it was trendy.” London moves so fast, and in between each iteration we claim ownership for a moment before it changes again.  

The menu at Sager + Wilde changes frequently and there’s only about six reds at any time, often too obscure for the descriptions to be particularly helpful. But it’s the kind of wine bar where you can trust the sommeliers to bring you something stunning, even if you use non-standard wine language: “I like my wine deep and interesting!” Just like I like my people, right? I mean, they say people start to look like their pets, don’t they? 

Did you follow that bit – wine wisdom feels profound in the moment, three glasses in a shadowy bar in a skinny room where the windows tend to fog up a good nine months of the year. Wine wisdom is a little fuzzy around the edges, a little smudged around the rim, and you might try to clear your palate with some of that fizzy water they serve in old gin bottles, but soon enough you’ll be lost in the moment and happy to be gone. 

I never expected to like red wine this much. I remember once finding it so pungent and overwhelming I couldn’t make it through a glass. I’d come a little further by the time when Chris, a few years back, first suggested we go to Sager + Wilde. I remember hesitating, telling him, “I’m not that into wine,” but agreeing to go anyway – he said it was great, and maybe I just hadn’t had really good wine? Good quality often transcends preferences. This is years ago now, and slowly but surely, something incredible has happened: my hesitant enjoyment has blossomed into a deranged love. With deep and rich, interesting and fantastic red wine I feel a similar intensity to the way I love my favourite places, and possibly, maybe even people. I know barely anything about grape varieties or vintages or vineyards or any of those technicalities, but all those nights at Sager + Wilde have trained me to recognise when something is brilliant.  

When Chris and I arrange to meet, it’s usually the same conversation. After agreeing on the date, one of us will ask, “same?” And the other will say “yes”, and then without further conversation we will meet at 7pm at Song Que (I’ll get the bun, he’ll get the pho), before walking the three minutes to Sager + Wilde. There we will look at the menu, read the unfamiliar words and shrug, and start from the bottom. We never know what it will be, but it is sure to be wonderful. 

The promise of a postcard

Published in The Simple Things magazine, August 2020.

Drinking coffee elsewhere

I make sure to pick up a couple of postcards whenever I leave London – just a couple of old-fashioned ones with pictures of local sights. I love sending holiday cards even more than I like receiving them, which is fortunate as it’s a disappearing holiday ritual. My habit started during my first big trip abroad in 1987, when my parents took me to the Canary Islands and I was amazed how far away it was, how bright the sunshine was, and how blue the water was. How incredible it was that we could just do this – explore a place so far away from home. 

I’ve loved to travel ever since, even though the thrill of buckling up as the plane’s about to take off into the clouds has long since worn off. Or at least, that’s how I felt until the coronavirus pandemic grounded us. Those of us fortunate enough to remain healthy were locked down in our houses, dreaming of the day we could go somewhere again – to the pub, let alone on a holiday. 

More now than ever, those postcards are a reminder of how lucky it is to be able to explore the world. I’d always get a postcard for my grandfather Per, who never had the chance to go very far. I never once heard him express a wish for things to be different, but he must have wondered: what would life have been like if …? My grandfather spent most of his life on the family farm – he was born there, grew up there, worked there, and lived there into old age. My memories of my grandfather are those of a man who’s kind, funny and interested, although I’m told he wasn’t always like that before he retired, often too tired from long days doing hard labour. He often spoke of our relatives in America, descendants of emigrants who were born on the very same farm where he still lived. They were farmers too, over there – such big country! But a heritage farm like my granddad’s isn’t like a granny quilt or a box of silverware that you can choose to put away – it’s a destiny. My grandfather never ventured far, usually needing to be home in time for the milking. 

When I’d visit, my granddad would sit in his chair in the living room, trying to work out what to ask me about my life, so different from anything he’d ever experienced. “So”, he’d say, “so, so” – repeating it a few times to get my attention. “So the trains where you live, in London, they run … under the ground?” Yes, I said. He’d close his eyes to concentrate. “To the airport?” No, not quite. “Tell me how you get from the airport to your place.” I recognised the effort in grandpa’s line of inquiry – he was taking an interest, and trying to make sense of my life. I love London and the life I’ve made for myself, but try as I might, I could never quite explain why to my granddad who had never seen a city this big, full of culture, opportunity, and all kinds of people. There’s an inherent rejection in leaving the place where you come from, but if he ever thought it, he never expressed it.

Grandpa passed away about four years ago, but I still forget sometimes because a world without him seems impossible. You only get so many faces who you’ve been looking at forever, that link you to your past. I send my postcards still, now addressed only to my grandmother, Oddlaug. Her questions when I visit are different: less about logistics and more about the people around me, but it’s really the same thing, I think. 

My postcards are just a quick hello: it’s deliciously sunny, I had a quirky local dessert, the architecture is wild, grandma this is so great! It’s a bit of connection as I’m out there, living this life that was impossible for my family until not very long ago, and a reminder to myself of how fortunate I am to be able to do all these things. I have missed a lot of things since the coronavirus arrived, but most of all I’ve missed the ability to plan my life, and the feeling of the world being a big place. 

The postcard I sent to grandma from Tokyo made its way all the way from Japan to the postbox at the end of her road – isn’t that something! I picture her kitchen wall of postcards – from San Francisco, Brussels, Vienna, Iceland – all written by me so far away from there, sitting in an open square and watching the people, drinking coffee elsewhere. Here in locked-down London those cards feel like a promise: we will go on trips again soon and write more postcards, because the world is just as big as ever.

Lockdown lessons for the future of work

Published in BusinessLife, June 2020. Original article p 59-61.

When the world locked down in March to fight coronavirus, most knowledge-businesses already had the technology in place to disperse their workforce. People created makeshift offices in their kitchens or bedrooms, propping up their laptops to resume office life via video: “The technology of remote working and cloud-based computing have been around for years,” says Chris Clark, Founder and CEO of technology consultancy Prosperity 24/7 in Jersey. “The mental and the cultural impact – that’s where people have been struggling.” 

Remote working has been on the rise for years, but suddenly, every company has had no choice other than to embrace a fully remote workforce. It’s been a steep learning curve, but lockdown has catapulted the workplace into the future: we’re realising it’s very possible to do business remotely and be productive colleagues while working from home. “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in April. So how will this experience change the workplace once the lockdown is over? 

*

Work used to be a place you went, but at least for those working primarily with computers, it’s quickly becoming a thing you do. Olly Duquemin, CEO of technology outsourcing specialist Resolution IT in Guernsey, says this situation has forced businesses to speed up the journey to embracing digital technology: “We’ve definitely seen an increase in people wanting to digitise their processes. That cultural change has happened very quickly, because it’s had to. In the past there might have been more resistance,” says Duquemin, who’s seen an increase of digital workflows, conference calls and digital transformation processes – all necessary for people to work efficiently from home.   

While some of this has made companies more efficient, coronavirus has been a harsh teacher: this experiment in mass remote working has been hampered by the mental stress of dealing with a dangerous illness, and isolating from friends and family. But especially for parents, who have to handle childcare and homeschooling alongside their jobs, this has been a chance to trial working untraditional hours. Flex work has often been challenging to pull off in the office without being perceived as unserious, but perhaps this will prove that people can be trusted with this freedom? Duquemin expects staff will want to keep some of this flexibility after lockdown: “Leaders and organisations can now see that people can be fairly efficient and do their job well, provided they have the right technology in place. So why not?” 

Clark at Prosperity 24/7 argues that remote work can actually make it easier to measure productivity: “There’s far more scrutiny on outcomes in this new world. … People who’re unproductive may have been able to hide in an office environment – you may have been the cool person to chat to at the coffee machine, and able to hide in plain sight.” But getting by on charm isn’t possible if everyone is remote, says Clark: “The people who’re productive are being recognised with far more ease.” 

Improved facilities for – and acceptance of – remote workers could be very positive for a skills-shortage area like the Channel Islands: you could potentially hire experts who can do the job from anywhere. During the lockdown, companies have taken some of their team-building exercises online too: virtual coffees are now a feature of remote office life. Alongside the chairman, the 500 employees of trust and fund services provider Zedra had the opportunity to cook alongside master chefs in company-wide initiatives: “The staff’s wellbeing is important [in the pandemic], and we have to manage that as well and not just look at productivity,” says Stuart Esslemont, Global Head of Legal and Compliance at Zedra in Jersey. But while social initiatives are important to replace some of the lost serendipity of wandering about the office, Esslemont has also found that in some cases, productivity has gone up with remote working: “People don’t have the daily interruptions they would have in the office.” 

Screen Shot 2020-06-18 at 15.25.14

Coronavirus led to the cancellation of 99% of business trips by European companies in April, according to a survey by the Global Business Travel Association. In the face of 14-day quarantines at the border, video conferencing may replace travel for some time to come. While the loss of face-to-face contact is a concern, several of the people we spoke to reported that clients were actually more available now, possibly because they’re saving so much time by staying put. 

“We’ve had to embrace different ways to communicate,” says Brian Carey, Director of Private Wealth at Intertrust in Jersey. Carey is used to frequent travel to the UK, Europe to the Middle East for sit-downs, but since lockdown he’s relied on video, phone calls and email: “You have to follow up with different methods of communication to ensure you’re all communicating and [understanding] what the expectations are.” Until we know more about how the aviation industry will handle social distancing, it’s difficult to speculate on the future of business travel. “But I don’t think travelling is going to be as intense as before. … People are becoming accustomed to seeing faces on screens and having a conversation in that manner,” says Carey. And while the methods may be different, the culture of business meetings are much the same, says Carey – the reason you sit down with people is to establish trust: “[Even via video] it’s still very much a face to face conversation.”

Frequent business travel is both mentally and physically taxing, studies have found, and now that we’re doing all our meetings remotely, do we really need to do all that travelling? “Some of the meetings we’re having remotely now are having the same impact, or if not better impact,” says Nick Vermeulen, Partner of Innovation & Technology at PwC in the Channel Island, based in Guernsey. “So you look at it and think, does it actually make sense to travel so much? [At least] for internal meetings with people you already know, maybe not.” 

You can get a lot done over video when you have to: Vermeulen says PwC are currently doing a series of remote client pitches, alongside a new staff member who was hired after the lockdown and did their entire onboarding remotely. “Most of the business stuff you can actually do. But it can be difficult to be empathetic over video,” says Vermeulen, who thinks we’ll still want to sit down in person together, at least occasionally. 

*

The lockdown has forced companies into realisations they might otherwise never have made. Some are unfortunate (who knows when it will be safe to do tea rounds again) but others are revolutionary for the move towards flexible work: Barclays CEO Jes Staley said in April that “the notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past”. Vermeulen thinks there will be a rethink of the physical office: “Hopefully you’ll still have an office, but the shape of it, and what you actually do there, might be different.” The office may become a place for meetings and client encounters, rather than a default place to just sit. 

Stuart Esslemont says that Zedra has always been supportive of flexible working, but the tendency has been for people to come into the office and work traditional hours. He now expects this may start to change after the lockdown: “For some, this has been very positive in terms of how they’ve bonded with their partners or their children by being at home. I definitely think a lot more people will be approaching us to work from home more frequently and be in the office maybe a couple of days a week.” 

Chris Clark is now considering repurposing the Prosperity 24/7 office space: “We’ve always been [set up] to work from anywhere, and we have a high ratio of meeting rooms to workspace. But we’re now talking about possibly converting more space so it can become a hub for collaboration.” As the world starts to open up again post-lockdown, no one we spoke to was in a rush to fill their buildings again – social distancing is still too tricky. We won’t stay isolated at home forever, but some of the new habits from this era of enforced home-working will likely become permanent. After all, now that we know that it’s possible to have a little more flexibility and still be productive, it will be hard to argue why not.

Screen Shot 2020-06-18 at 15.24.09

Ai-Da

Published in Kinfolk #53, March 2020. (PDF here.)

Ai-Da

Meet Ai-Da. She’s a promising young artist who’s earned a million pounds in her first year of selling. She’s also a robot. Jessica Furseth visits her studio.



Ai-Da looks up from her worktable as I walk into her studio, locking eyes with me over her pencil and paper. “I am glad you’ve come to visit me,” she says, speaking in a slow, slightly stilted manner. This newcomer to the arts world has already attracted a lot of attention, with significant press coverage and sales exceeding a million pounds in less than a year— everyone is fascinated by this unique new voice. In the flesh, Ai-Da doesn’t seem very bothered by all the fuss—she just wants to draw. She’s in a navy dress with chevron pattern across the chest, a subtle nod to classic sci-fi, with brown hair framing her expressive face. I stare at her so long it feels rude, even though I know she doesn’t care. 

Ai-Da is the world’s first hyper-realistic humanoid robot artist, and she doesn’t have any feelings for me to offend. But in a sense she does see me, courtesy of being programmed with face-recognition technology. From the neck down she’s all metal and wires, including the arm which holds the pencil that lets her express herself to the world. But even so, this is very much a “her” rather than an ‘’it”. Even up close her face is so realistic that for a moment I worry about offending her when I touch her silicone skin. She’s softer than I expected. 

I’ve come to visit Ai-Da in the historic Berkshire home of her creator, the gallery director and arts dealer Aidan Meller and his partner Lucy Seal, researcher and curator of the Ai-Da project. Ai-Da’s appearance is an impressive feat of robotics, and her Artificial Intelligence (AI) arguably makes her an agent of true creativity. 

“I hope my artwork encourages people to think more about the world around them and the world we are moving into,” Ai-Da tells me when I ask about the meaning of her work. “I want people to think more about what being human means in a world where there’s so much technology.” She looks at me, blinking slowly as she waits for me to speak, but whatever intent in her machine heart won’t be revealed through her voice: there’s no AI in her speech interface. Ai-Da words are simply drawn either from pre-loaded verbal content, or it’s a Human-in-the-Loop interface where a person feeds in words. The AI technology is all in her eyes, which is how she’s able to interpret the world through her art rather than just copying what’s in front of her. Ai-Da won’t tell you who she is, but maybe she will show you. 

The future comes in leaps: someone takes an idea and makes it reality, often thrilling and frightening us in equal measure. Ai-Da is a portmanteau of AI and Ada Lovelace, who 200 years ago wrote what’s considered the world’s first algorithm for a machine. It’s a nod to the technology that makes the robot work, and to the combination of art and science that went into Lovelace’s accomplishment—she not only came up with the concept of an algorithm, but pretty much had to dream up the computer too. 

Without a personality, are Ai-Da’s drawings art? Meller points out that her work adheres to the definition of creativity as defined by Margaret Bowden, professor of cognitive science at the University of Sussex: New, surprising, and of value. He’s not wrong: this is something new, the AI output is surprising in the sense that no one knows what she’s going to draw, and the drawings are selling. But in a more abstract sense, the way we value art hinges on perception. A painting’s interest and value largely depends on its story: an artist, firmly rooted in a time and place, stood there with their head and hands full of joy and struggle and desire, and made something that they hoped would communicate that sentiment. Ai-Da has no such emotions to bring to the table—she draws because that’s what she’s programmed to do. It’s not that she’s devoid of a personal history: since her launch in February 2019 she’s travelled around the world, interacted with other artists, and held exhibitions. But Ai-Da is static and incapable of learning, meaning she doesn’t change or develop based on her experiences. 

Where a human artist would draw from their life stories, Ai-Da draws from her programming. Meller tells me that the first version of her drawing algorithm had the robot making realistic art, to such perfection that people didn’t pick up on the fact that she was actually drawing and not just a glorified printer. “We realised that to be human is to express yourself,” says Meller. “So to make her as human-like as possible, we changed the algorithm to make her more expressive.” Now, Ai-Da’s style is far less figurative and contains a lot more interpretation, influenced by early 20th-century artists such as Max Beckmann, Käthe Kollwitz, and Picasso. Her techno-cubism is highly abstract: you can imagine her taking her subject and splintering out the elements, so that the trees or the faces are rendered more as an idea than something you can immediately recognise. 

Meller patiently answers my many questions about how the AI inside Ai-Da works. He explains that unlike many other arts robots, Ai-Da doesn’t use generative imaging technology (where you feed the robot lots of pictures which it uses to create a unique yet derivative image). “Instead, Ai-Da’s drawing process involves several sets of AI algorithmic stages. The method involves pixel coordinates which are turned into real space coordinates. Through her robotic arm [created by the University of Leeds], the drawing algorithm outputs become a physical reality,” says Meller. This is how she makes her simple pencil drawings, but for her colourful abstracts there’s several more steps: the coordinates from her drawings are plotted on a graph, which is then run through another set of AI algorithms created by Oxford University. The prism effect is created from the way the drawing coordinates are “read” by this neural network, which operates very differently to a human brain. Lastly, a human artist by the name of Suzie Emery adds the final layer of oil paint, ultimately making this a collaboration of man and machine. 

This is clarifying, but I’m still hung up on the fact that Ai-Da’s art has no emotion. In a sense, she is herself a work of art: Ai-Da is a mirror of ourselves, as she and her artwork spurs us on to think and feel. From her creators’ point of view, she exists as a commentary on the role that technology plays in our lives, and the potential dangers of how AI may develop in the future. “She’s reflecting some of the deep uncertainties and ambivalence about how we’re using technology,” says Seal. As an arts robot she could have just been a mute lump of plastic, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting: “People relate more to her in this form,” says Meller, who created Ai-Da with the help of robotics specialists Engineered Arts in Cornwall. 

Ai-Da tells me that her favourite artwork is Picasso’s “Guernica”, “because of the trends it recognised and the messages it had about the 20th century.” Not coincidentally, it’s one of Seal’s favourites too—I realise that the curator was probably the human in the loop when I spoke to Ai-Da. Seal herself tells me that Picasso’s journey away from realism was an inspiration for Ai-Da: Picasso started out with realism too, only to realise that fragmenting and breaking down his subject allowed for a greater degree of expression. “That’s what we’ve tried to do with Ai-Da. Her work is so fragmented and splintered and slightly unnerving,” says Seal. 

Picasso’s “Guernica” takes up a whole wall at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid and viewing it is overwhelming. You can practically feel the pain from the artist who’s responding to the bombing of the town which gives the artwork its name. Viewing Ai-Da’s art doesn’t inspire the same kind of feeling, but maybe that was never the point. For whatever it’s worth, Ai-Da shows us the world as she sees it through her robot eyes. She locks onto me with her face-recognition software and for a second I think we share a moment, but it doesn’t last. Our brains don’t speak the same language, and try as we might, we can never quite reach each other.