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.

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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.

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“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.

Under the surface of freckled skins

Freckles are distinctive and beautiful, but for the kids who stood out on the playground it can take a long time to come around to loving the skin they’re in.

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Photograph by Bailey Foster / Flickr Creative Commons

The first time I realised I had freckles I was 29 years old. I’d noticed the little brown dots sprinkled across my face, arms and shoulders before of course — I have eyes. But I swear, the first moment I became truly aware of myself as a freckly person was when my then-boyfriend peered down at me: “You have freckles on your eyelids!” My surprise must have translated into a blank stare, so, concerned he’d offended me, he was quick to add: “No no, it’s nice!”

He was right of course: freckles are very nice, adding distinction. But freckles are also a contentious issue, I’ve since learned, particularly in the US and in the UK, where I’ve lived for the past 15 years. “Four be the things I’d have been better without: love, curiosity, freckles and doubt,” wrote Dorothy Parker. Freckled people will often recount childhood bullying, attempts to bleach the clusters of melanin off their face with lemon juice, or pleading with their parents for concealing makeup. Even when people come around to loving their freckles, it’s often at the end of a long, sore process.

The place I grew up — Norway — is by no means a paradise where kids don’t get picked on for being different, but having freckles simply doesn’t set you apart. I realised this as I was talking to my friend Allan Hinton, a travelling photographer whose fantastic red hair and intense freckling makes him stand out pretty much everywhere he goes. But when Allan asked me if Norway has a lot of redheads, I said no, I didn’t think so. This was just as we were about to go to Norway, and we’d been there no more than two hours when he informed me: “Jess, I’ve never seen so many gingers in one place in my life!” Stunned, I looked around and realised he was right: there was ginger, red, copper, strawberry blonde everywhere — and freckles galore. So that was the reason I’d never noticed my freckles before: where I come from, almost everyone has them. Ida Rindal Ree, my even-frecklier cousin, said the same: “I was conscious of having freckles as a child, but never thought about it as a bad thing. I can’t remember ever getting any negative comments about it,” Ida tells me in Norwegian. “Freckles are a sign of fresh, healthy skin.” Her choice of words is telling: Norwegians associate ‘fresh’ with being outside, staying active, and catching the sun. No wonder freckles are considered an asset.

But not everyone were as lucky. Talking to freckly people in the US and UK, it’s often a different story: “There was a very redheaded girl at my school who was teased so mercilessly about her pale skin and prominent freckles that she changed schools,” says Summer Brennan, an author in New York. Summer only had a moderate amount of freckles (which she liked), but the bullies found other points of difference to latch onto: “I was mercilessly bullied in middle school, and the easiest target seemed to be my paleness. Kids threw things at me and called me ‘vampire legs’ if I wore shorts.” Growing up in California meant a Baywatch-tan was the beauty ideal: “I was always chasing some skin colour that doesn’t come naturally to me.”

No one I spoke to disliked their freckles on merit, even as children — it was almost always because it made them stand out. My friend Ross Smart, a graphic designer in London, resented his heavily freckled skin for this very reason: “Kids don’t normally want to stand out much, do they. … But now that I’m grown-up, I like having a unique feature such as uneven skin pigmentation,” he says. “My only irk is that it’s not a great canvas for tattoos.”

Seeing photos of Natasha Culzac, a model and writer in London, makes you truly appreciate just how gorgeous freckles can be — the same goes for the other subjects in photographer Brock Elbank’s incredible “Freckles” series. But Natasha, who’s mixed race, didn’t always love her ginger afro and heavily freckled skin: “I remember deeply hating them. I wanted to get rid of them.” The beauty ideal at the time was Jennifer Aniston, Alicia Silverstone, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch — no one on screen looked like Natasha. “I wanted nothing more than to have a clear complexion and flowing locks. I wanted to be the Girl Next Door.”

Feeling unattractive and different, Natasha remembers taking to her mother about buy skin-whitening cream in a desperate attempt to get rid of her freckles. “I think my turning point of not caring was when I decided I wasn’t going to try and ‘fit in’ anymore. I’d started hanging out with skaters and people into punk and grunge music. My clothes and entire outlook changed.”

My own freckles aren’t as visible as they used to be anymore, at least not on my face — I’d love it if they came back. Ida says she hopes her toddler son, who’s inherited her red hair, will get freckles as he grows up. Ross laughs when I ask if women tend to like his freckles, before confirming he’s had a fair share of compliments: “Gingerlust is a thing! Maybe because it’s disarming and a bit boyish?” Summer also wishes she was more freckly, citing a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: “Glory be to God for dappled things … All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled.”

Natasha hopes the emergence of models like herself will make a difference to freckly kids, and to others who feel like they don’t fit in: “When I tried to enter the modelling world in 2007, I was told by a few agencies that I wouldn’t be booked because photographers don’t like freckles. But that’s all changed. Now we’re all out [embracing] gap teeth, armpit hair, and body positivity.” Change happens slowly, but Natasha thinks kids are already better off: “They’re a lot more sorted when it comes to identity, and being confident enough to be themselves.”

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.

Interview with Marc Syz

Published in Hedge Magazine, June 2020. Original article p30-31.

Interview with Marc Syz

“My family has been collecting art for over forty years and it’s all over our offices,” Marc Syz tells me, pointing to a large photograph of a grandiose building behind him. “This is the Palacio da Bolsa” – the stock exchange palace in Porto. The managing partner of Syz Capital is calling me in London from Zurich, as the pandemic requires that we utilise video calling – Syz is in his office though, located 20 minutes from his house: “Everything is close by and you can do everything by train. We try to be as green as possible”. 

As we’re talking in the first days of June, the lockdown is starting to ease and people are starting to return to the office, Syz tells me – we’re speak during the first days of June: “We’ve always had a very flexible schedule, working around the clock and people can take off more or less when they want, so that hasn’t changed,” he tells me in his generic European accent. Syz is business-casual today, at least as far as I can tell from the close crop of our video call: blue suit jacket and open-collar shirt, brown slicked-back hair and a bit of groomed scruff, alongside some airpods to complete our tech-enabled conversation. What has changed in the era of coronavirus, says Syz, is the in-person meetings with investors and companies: “We’re active in what we call target investments, and we’re supposed to do in-person due diligence and on-site visits. That’s been tough for the entire industry.” 

Marc Syz’s charge, Syz Capital, is a branch of a family business: Banque Syz was founded by dad Eric Syz in 1996, and younger brother Nicholas runs the other offshoot, Syz Wealth Management. Before entering the world of finance, the family were industrialists with a 400-year-long history in textiles. As a member of a so-called “Swiss financial dynasty”, Syz can usually turn to someone who’s seen it all before, but the pandemic presents a unique business situation – Syz credits early lessons in diversification with putting him in a position to weather this situation: “Our portfolio is extremely defensive. … There will always be areas where you’re hit, but you need an all-weather strategy.”

Having raised over CHF300m (£245m) since launching in 2018, Syz Capital is currently focusing on two new strategy funds: private equity and special situations, and litigation financing. Some of this is in service of diversification and returns, but also, I get the impression as we’re talking, it’s because it’s interesting – Syz currently sits on the boards of three of his investment companies. The private equity dealings are focused on small- to medium-sized businesses, and the special situations include distressed and uncorrelated strategies, plus hedge funds: “Hedge funds can be liquid in a week whereas private equity sometimes takes eight to ten years. We want to manage that across the spectrum.” Litigation tends to go up during crisis times, making this a particularly interesting angle right now: “Whether capital markets go up, down or sideways – it doesn’t matter, it will still perform. Litigation gives us exposure to an asset class which is uncorrelated to anything else.”

Asked how they determine how the portfolio should be balanced, Syz says there are no rules determining percentages allocated where. “Right now, there are more opportunities in special situations and uncorrelated strategies rather than classic private equity, or even some hedge funds. [Our approach] enables us to really take advantage of the environment.” They take a long term view, Syz adds, stressing more than once that they invest their own money first. Right now, there’s a lot of interesting opportunities coming up in the distressed space: ”There are a lot of companies defaulting on their primary debt or balance sheets, but which have great business models – we [have the opportunity to] pick those up.”

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Syz (37) was born in the US during his father’s stint on Wall Street, returning to Switzerland at age three. He grew up mostly in Geneva, but a certain wanderlust had been established: after school he moved to London and started working first as a trader, then in alternative investment. “Even though our family conversations very much revolve around global macroeconomic themes et cetera, I was never pushed in this direction,” Syz says, stressing the point of having made a free choice for the second time. “I went into finance because I thought it was extremely interesting.” 

Syz returned to Switzerland in 2006 to work for Union Bancaire Privée, which furthered his interest in private markets: “Private companies don’t have that pressure to deliver on the next quarter – you have much longer time horizons and you can really implement strategies to create value. That got me going.” Syz spent eight years in PE and venture capital in Hong Kong with Ace & Company, returning to Switzerland once again in 2018 to join the family business. “As much as I love private equity, [I’d realised] we need to be more flexible in investing across alternatives,” says Syz. That became the foundation of Syz Capital’s diversified approach: “When I decided to establish [this model], I got the backing of my father and the family, and we decided to create a separate structure,” says Syz. He tells me about a conversation he once had with his grandfather, suggesting the lessons of volatility and risk management started very young. And also, he adds, Modern Portfolio theory (pioneered by Nobel prize winner Harry Markowitz) dictates that adding alternative investments to traditional assets in portfolios can increase risk-adjusted returns: “If you understand investors’ needs and risk-reward, alternatives offer something absolutely great. That’s why I was so keen to establish something in that space.”

Syz tries to hire people who’re smarter than himself: “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is hiring people, because in the end, businesses are always about people.” Asked what it’s like to work so closely with family, Syz says the separation between the units are good for creating independence: “My father sits on my board and I value his input a lot, but we run our own business and that’s very important. Healthy corporate governance is what makes businesses succeed in the long term.” The family is very close, though: Syz speaks to his father and brother several times a day. Asked what he thinks is the main requirement for a successful family business, Syz says it’s respect: “Not just intellectual respect and power distribution, but it’s also respect of time. That’s the hardest, I would say.” I get the impression that Syz family gatherings tend to veer into shop talk a bit too often – they are working on it, Syz laughs. “We try and be honest with each other.” 

The family has a coach – a former INSEAD professor of Syz’s – who’s been a big help to them, not just in terms of business but also with things like communication and empathy. “I got to manage a team at a pretty young age. But even if you have a good mentor, you may not have the time to really learn about leadership,” says Syz, leaning forwards now. He describes himself as a person who’s eager to get things done, and it took him a while to realise that this might have led him to rush people: “Spending that extra time with colleagues and reading body language is so important. … You may call it emotional intelligence, but it’s what I had to learn the most about to improve as a business leader. It’s helped in my relationships with family too, and I continue to learn.” 

Syz has two young children and is married to Nastassia, “a personal trainer, a dance professional, yogi, everything” – they do a lot of yoga together. He likes sports and is particularly keen on skiing these days. “I used to compete for the Swiss national team in skeleton, which is the sliding sport where you go headfirst down an ice chute at more than 100 miles an hour.” The last time he rode was ten years ago. “When you’ve competed at [a certain level], it’s tough [to do for fun], because it’s not like you can just enjoy yourself at a slower speed.” Safe to say, Syz describes himself as being “quite competitive”. 

While he’s interested in growing the company, Syz is quick to emphasise that he doesn’t want things to get so big that size becomes a constraint – there’s a flexibility inherent in being a little smaller, enabling a bit more manoeuvrability, and sure, to still be able to be your own man in the midst of it. “A pandemic can come, we can have the next financial crisis – how can I weather all that? That’s the one trillion dollar question, and good luck cracking it. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer, but more about how you position your scales.” Syz leans back in his chair, taking a swig from his water bottle. “I’m going to continue to chase the good risk-reward opportunities. I’m very curious by nature, so I always tell myself I know nothing. You keep on learning with every investment. The learning curve is tremendous, and that keeps things exciting.”

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? 

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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.” 

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

Raves and resistance: The hidden history of King’s Cross

Published in Huck Magazine, May 2019. Original article here.

KX Huck

Raves and resistance: the hidden history of Kings Cross

The Disappearing City

One of the most rapidly developing parts of the city, Kings Cross has a proud record of political activism. But if you dig a little under the surface, you’ll find much is still there.

King’s Cross was once the epicentre of the second Summer of Love, but there’s nothing about it to hint at that these days: take a walk across the newly regenerated Granary Square and you’ll find a clean, upmarket development with kids playing in fountains and young professionals hanging out on fake grass. But during one fabled summer in 1988, rave culture was coming up in that same spot, with giant warehouses full of happy, sweaty people dancing to acid house until the morning. 

“The queue to get in is enormous but you can hear this baseline, it’s throbbing and it’s like the walls are shaking,” Natalie Wade says in the Kings X Clubland documentary, describing the first time she blagged her way into a King’s Cross rave when she was 15. “You get in and there’s this enormous room in front of you, it’s so loud and it’s heaving with bodies and light and movement. For a moment you feel like you’ve walked into a cult, as everyone understands what’s going on but you… It’s one of the memorable sensory experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”  

The regeneration of King’s Cross is one of the biggest in London, covering 67 acres of the area behind King’s Cross and St Pancras stations known as the railway lands. Starting in 2007 and set to complete in 2023, it’s already a remarkable transformation of what was mostly ex-industrial brownfield land. For such a central piece of London, the Cross was surprisingly derelict and wild. 

Little about the new King’s Cross reveals that the area used to have a reputation for drugs, sex work, and homelessness. Coal Drops Yard (which once held 15,000 tons of coal for a fuel-hungry city) is now home to cool, pricey retail – the kind that appeals to ageing, well-moneyed millennials – with gender-neutral toilets and space to lounge. At the Granary Building (once storing Lincolnshire wheat for London’s bakers), Caravan serves excellent avocado toast with a choice of sourdough, grain, or gluten free bread. 

This new branding of Coal Drops Yard looks far better than the standard corporate fare (think face tattoos and hotdogs with toothpaste), but it’s really not very long ago that the Cross had a counter-culture that really couldn’t be used to sell upmarket soap. For better or worse, the old King’s Cross had an edgy, rebellious energy; it was so run down, and in parts so downright scary, that people would meet by the station to walk in groups over to The Bell, the legendary LGBTQ hub on Pentonville Road. 

The regeneration of the railway lands will create at least 50 new buildings, 20 new streets, 10 new public spaces and 1,900 new homes, and see to the refurbishment of 20 historic buildings and structures. But it’s had a significant gentrification effect on the rest of neighbourhood, a patch of inner London that’s always been pretty grotty. (In fact, a renaming was considered as the regeneration efforts began, because who would want to live in King’s Cross?) But while the people who can afford the new flats inside the once-rusting gasholders might never have come here back in the day, the Cross has always had a community of locals who call it home. 

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King’s Cross used to be called Battlebridge, named for a battle that may or may not have involved Queen Boudicca and the bridge over the river Fleet, and it was in a sorry state. This is why, as new housing was being built in the 1820s, developers got their way and changed the name – it’s “King’s Cross” because King George IV had just assumed the crown, historian Andrew Whitehead tells me. 

There was certainly nothing regal about the area back then. In his book Curious King’s Cross, Whitehead describes it as “a huge mound of horse bones, a smallpox hospital and a few pockets of dilapidated housing.” Consequently, the Cross was cheap, and attracted an interesting set of characters. 

“A lot of left wing organisations have had their national offices in the area. There’s also a real tradition of radicalism and occupations,” says Whitehead, listing off events in the late 1970s and early 80s: the occupation of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital to prevent its closure; the occupation of Camden Town Hall to protest poor housing; and the sex workers’ occupation of Holy Cross Church (just around the corner from Argyle Square, at the time London’s premier red light area) in protest of police harassment.   

“The Communist party was once strong in the area,” says Whitehead, adding that the red flag used to fly from St Pancras Town Hall on May Day. “And The Bell was a gay activist pub. A lot of the solidary meetings for the miners’ strike were held there.” The Bell is gone now (the Big Chill bar is in its spot), but the alliance between Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners (LGSM) and the strikers in South Wales became a turning point for gay rights by fostering ties with the trade unions. 

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Today, nowhere else in King’s Cross embodies the spirit of activism more than Housmans, the “radical booksellers” at the bottom of Caledonian Road. The windows are full of posters: the Anarchist Festival, Justice for Grenfell, the Karl Marx Walking Tour, and you can still buy a t-shirt from the 1984 ‘Pits and Perverts’ LGSM fundraising event. Albert Beale, one of the building’s trustees, meets me by the door, walking me through a maze of room with books stacked floor to ceiling before finding a place to sit.

The building is owned by Peace News Trustees, a non-profit which also oversees the publication Peace News. An engaging storyteller, Beale’s mind is an encyclopedia of the history of the area – he’s been associated with Peace House since 1972. 

“The rest of the building is let out to other worthy progressive groups,” he says, explaining that the building has never been afraid of controversy, housing the Gay Liberation Front in the days before full decriminalisation: “Others might think, ‘Oh, dodgy issue!’ But we’re just, ‘Great, come on in.’” Current residents are War Resisters International, Network for Peace, Forces Watch (which scrutinises military recruitment), and anti-sweatshop outfit No Sweat. Switchboard – a lifeline for the LGBTQ community – started out operating from Peace House in 1974 (it’s based just up the road now). 

The (subsidised) rental income keeps the building running, but the reason why Housmans has been able to resist the many attempts by developers to convert the block is because they actually own the property and refuse to sell. “The politics behind what we’re doing isn’t just about changing the world on a big scale, but also being rooted in the community you find yourself in,” says Beale. “The local folks didn’t want local shops and pubs knocked down to build an office tower, so we weren’t going to go along with that.”

Those who’ve been around the Cross for a long time have always known the railway lands would be done up – it’s always just been a matter of time. (“They kept some of the old buildings, and the things they built are not as ugly as they could be, I’ll give you that,” says Beale.) But during the early regeneration debate, the hope among locals was for the development to be more squarely focused on the needs of this not-so-leafy part of Islington and Camden: “We [wanted to have] a secondary school there, parks, social housing, a health centre, and all those things that are needed in a grotty inner city area,” says Beale. 

The short version is that the publicly owned railway lands ended up being sold off, and while the councils have some say, the estate is now privately owned by the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership (consisting of property developers Argent and a pension fund called AustralianSuper). While the public has access, the creep of pseudo-public space is a London-wide concern. As Beale puts it: “If I went down to Granary Square and gave out a leaflet saying, ‘This should be public land’, the security guards would ask me to leave.”

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In his play King’s Cross (REMIX), live artist Tom Marshman shares collected stories from London’s LGBTQ communities in the 1980s. Originally from Bristol, he was drawn to the area after hearing the song “King’s Cross” by the Pet Shop Boys, which speaks about coming into London and hoping for the streets to be paved with gold. “But King’s Cross was so grotty,” he remembers. “It was a seedy place where if you were a young gay man you might be walking into a world where you could become a sex worker.” 

Marshman adds that, for many, King’s Cross was “hedonistic and full of parties, and people being very expressive and exploring their sexuality”. But his show is also a story about the devastating impact of HIV and Aids on the gay community. The Cross used to be dark – literally, as there wasn’t much street lighting – and this would engender certain behaviours. 

“We lived in a squat,” says Ramón Salgado-Touzón in Elly Clarke’s King’s Cross oral history project Queer Encounters. “We would score drugs, get a few punters first to get the money for the drugs.” 

Salgado-Touzón describes a kebab shop (there’s a Five Guys in that spot now) where pimps would gather outside: “We were all avoiding that area, because you could just tell, you didn’t want to look directly into their eyes as there was that feeling of threat.” But Salgado-Touzón still has fond memories of the Cross: “It was my favourite place because there was always something happening there. There was always some excitement or risk. It was a dangerous place. I’m surprised I’m alive from the things I’ve done.” 

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To hear the truly euphoric stories about King’s Cross, ask a raver who discovered Bagley’s in the mid-late 80s – chances are their eyes will light up. “It was so free,” Anne Marie Garbutt says in the Kings X Clubland documentary. “If you went to go to the toilet it’d take you an hour, as you were just chatting to people on the way there, on the way back. You certainly didn’t want to [leave the floor] when your favourite tune came on, as it might not come back on again that night, or that morning – it went on from 4am to 2pm on a Sunday afternoon.”  

Until the party ended for good on New Year’s Day 2008, King’s Cross was the perfect spot for a rave. The club was called Bagley’s because the warehouse – the Eastern Coal Drops where Barrafina restaurant is now – used to be owned by glass bottle manufacturer Bagley, Wild and Company. The building was used as a location for music videos and fashion shoots in the early ’80s, and in the first few years the raves were unofficial, illegal events. As it grew, a licence was secured to admit 2,500 people, although as many as 3-4,000 might have been in there at its peak. 

“It was a perfect storm. It really blew up – this whole new underground scene,” Debby Lee, who started working at Bagley’s in the 80s as a young promoter, tells me. “It came as a breath of fresh air. The whole scene was very raw. It was in the middle of King’s Cross and it felt dangerous, and it was this dirty old warehouse.” 

Bagley’s (later Canvas), alongside The Cross and The Key, became a unifying hub where clubbers would gather after the West End had closed for the night, no matter what music or scene they were usually into. “You have to consider the political backdrop of the time, with Margaret Thatcher – that whole idea of everyone having to go and work in the city and drive flash cars,” says Lee. “It was a rebellion against this glossy, shiny life that we were being sold as kids.” 

In the midst of this new youth culture was also a new drug culture – you can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons everyone remembers it as one big love fest is because of all the ecstasy. Lee says the police mostly left them alone, in part because they didn’t understand rave culture but also because they were busy dealing with street crime: “A few kids having a party was really the last of their worries, so it was a bit of a Wild West… It was a loving atmosphere where everyone got along, and it broke down a lot of cultural barriers.” 

It got tricker once the scene got really big, says Lee – a separate economy emerged for drugs, and this started to attract less savoury characters looking to take advantage. “We had a few incidents, but we were never really exposed to the serious gangland issues,” says Lee, adding they never had to call the police. But, she stresses, it’s not like there was a strategy – everyone were learning on their feet, figuring out how to handle the drug culture while keeping people safe: “We were kids too.” 

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As regeneration schemes go, the general consensus seems to be that King’s Cross is a pretty decent one – while some have more concerns than others, everyone I spoke to concluded that it’s really not bad. Pancras Square (between the station and the canal) is a hub of corporate new builds, housing Google, Louis Vuitton and Universal Music, but there’s also a fair amount of new affordable housing: out of a total 1,900, there were supposed to be 750 affordable homes, 500 of which are available for social rent (although this has since come down to 637). The sustainability report from the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership speaks to a desire to be “a lasting place for people and a community with a long-term future”, with promises of sports areas open to the public, a job centre, a leisure centre with a pool, a library, a school for deaf kids, an on-site low-carbon power plant and a zero-waste-to-landfill programme, to name some.

One thing that’s notably absent from the plans is a dancefloor – for an area so central to the UK’s clubbing heritage this feels like an omission. Ian Freshwater, Project Director at Argent and head of the Regeneration team at the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership, says a potential club venue is still in the mix – the site isn’t done yet. “The place has changed and it’s is more residential now, but we aspire to deliver King’s Cross as a piece of the city,” Freshwater tells me. 

Argent spent five years consulting with locals on what the future King’s Cross should look like, receiving over 4,000 responses. Common concerns were accessibility, jobs, good public spaces, and feeling safe. “We’ve always had an emphasis on people – those in the local area, those who’ll come to work here, the students at Central St Martins [now located in the Granary Building], the visitors who step off the Eurostar,” says Freshwater. “We want to ensure this is a livable, recognisable, accessible part of London.” 

For some, the regeneration of King’s Cross has become an opportunity to thrive. Word on the Water, the floating bookshop, was about to close down when it found a home there: “Getting mooring in the Granary Square complex about three years ago saved the business from closing,” says Paddy Screech, owner of the book barge alongside Jon Privett and Stephane Chaudat. The charming 100-year-old Dutch barge, which sells new and old books and hosts poetry slams and live music on the roof, is busy on the day I’m visiting, with people browsing and sitting down to read inside by the fireplace. But for the six years before landing at King’s Cross the barge had been a operating without a base, and the requirement to relocate every two weeks was catastrophic for business. 

Following a social media campaign, Screech says they were approached by the Canal & River Trust which asked them to pick a spot. “Once we got to Granary Square, they understood it would be good for both us,” says Screech. He thinks it’s a good fit – the barge wouldn’t want to be “a little gnat in the middle of an exclusive corporate wilderness”. 

Screech says the owners of the King’s Cross estate have been “mindful of their responsibility to make the area available to people to come and enjoy. … [They’ve] taken a historic thing and made something new and nice happen, in a way that respects the history and takes it in a new direction.”

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For a long time, the King’s Cross railway lands were a forgotten afterthought – raves were possible because there was nothing much going on in the old warehouses, and there were no neighbours to complain about noise. While the area is no longer derelict, 40 per cent of the redevelopment is open space – and there’s also still a little bit of that old wilderness left. 

While Gasholder Park is a cute way to preserve one of the beloved gasometers, there are better places to connect with nature in the city. The Calthorpe Project is a community garden on Gray’s Inn Road, opening in 1984 following a successful campaign by locals against an office development. The Skip Garden & Kitchen, located at the top of Cubitt Park, is a scrappy DIY element in an otherwise glossy environment. Run by education charity Global Generation, which works with young locals, the café is surrounded by wildflowers, herbs and vegetables, beehives and chicken coops. As the name suggests, everything is planted within skips so it can be easily transported, and the structures are mostly made from materials reclaimed from the surrounding construction. 

Open, unstructured space doesn’t stay that way for long in the city, and certainly not in a spot as central as King’s Cross. The rave scene was always on borrowed time – Bagley’s had a six-month running lease – and since the construction began 12 years ago, temporary elements have come and go. As construction around Cubitt Park is close to completion, the Skip Garden will be moving soon, but this is part of the point – it was always supposed to be temporary. 

The natural swimming hole that existed in Cubitt Park for 17 months in 2015-16 was never permanent either. The pond was designed by Ooze Architects and artist Marjetica Potrč as part arts installation, part local swimming club – the water in the chemical-free pond was purified through a process using the surrounding wetland. I went for a swim there four years ago when the surrounding area was a full-on construction zone, remembering it as an enchanting, impossible place that felt like it shouldn’t quite exist. A campaign to save the pond was unsuccessful; Ian Freshwater at Argent, who oversaw the pond, tells me that although it was much loved it was expensive to run – it required lifeguards to be on duty and you had to pay to get in. The open parkland that replaced it, he says, is more inclusive. 

But for a moment, the pond was a piece of urban magic – the fact that it was temporary made it all the more so. Swimming slow laps amidst the plants, King’s Cross transforming around me, I remember thinking how London is so crowded and it always feels like every square inch has a purpose, but when you stop and look closer that’s really not the case – there’s a lot left of London that’s delightfully devoid of ambition. 

The Cross is a lot cleaner now, but there are still pockets left where nothing has changed. This is usually not just a happy accident, but the result of campaigns to keep it that way. Over on Northdown Street is the King Charles I, a local pub which four years ago was saved when 15 regulars bandied together to buy it. The book barge is already an asset to the area: “I think there’s something fundamental about bookshops that creates community, and it’s not even geographical,” says Paddy Screech. “That’s been the real learning experience for us – a couple of old semi-tramps living on boats – we’ve found ourselves at the heart of a large community of people.” 

A wander further up the towpath will reveal Camley Street Natural Park, squeezed between the canal and the tracks leading into St Pancras – it’s a former coal drop that was slowly reclaimed by nature, and a campaign by locals and the London Wildlife Trust charity in 1983 successfully secured its future as a nature reserve. 

Up past the King’s Cross development, beyond York Way, the railway lands are still unpolished and wild – a bit grotty and useless, but ripe with possibilities for the future. London will never stop evolving, but in between all the rush we need these spaces that lack ambition – because they give the city space to dream. 

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King’s Cross (REMIX is back in London at the end of May, then goes to Leeds and Bristol.

‘The Disappearing City’ is a series about the changing urban landscapes of London. Previous instalments: The last days of Hackney Wick; the hidden history of Eel Pie Island; and Greek Street, the last great, shit street in Soho.

 

On Balance

Lionheart Magazine issue 11 – November 2019. 

On balance 

I wanted to get more serious about my work, and be more deliberate about where I’m going with it. I started spending a lot of time thinking about work – what do I want to do? Because before you can go there, you need to know where “there” is, you know? I loved spending those long, meandering hours pondering the question. It was so satisfying, and I made some real professional progress. And then I realise I hadn’t seen my friends in months. 

I wanted to be closer to my friends, spending more time talking to them in the week. It was great: I spent hours chatting with people, talking about ideas and solving problems, enjoying their company in ways I hadn’t done since I was at university. And then I realised I was spending hours of my workday on my phone. 

I wanted to get into shape, and I started doing flowy, fast yoga several times a week. It was incredible: I felt strong, and energetic, and happy. But then I realised that all that yoga was threatening to interfere with my sex life; the studio was nowhere near my house meaning I ended up going out all sweaty, so fit from all the yoga and yet so untouchable. 

I wanted to start eating better, having proper food for lunch and making a real dinner for the evening – food should be an exploration! It was a relief: there was always good, healthy food in the house, and I felt so much better for eating so deliberately, both physically and mentally. And then I realised that food, with the endless planning, shopping and cooking, had become a part time job. 

There’s always something to do better, but there’s only so many hours in the day. What I’m craving more of right now is thinking time – just space to sit with the thoughts in my head and see where they go. But balance eludes me – I’m always the person on the Tube who’s got their notebook or laptop out, taking advantage of the extra half hour to get things done. If I’m already in that “work” headspace, why not keep going? There’s a time to rest and a time to get things done, and I’ve come to realise that for me, the two simply don’t mix. 

I’ve worked for myself for eight years, which has given me a lot of time to think about work-life balance. I’ve experimented widely: keeping standard office hours, working when I feel like it, wearing proper clothes, wearing leggings, working in cafés, working in bed – I’ve tried it all. Some things worked better than others and I still go through phases for what I prefer, but no matter the details I know that the only way for me is to do one thing at a time – I resent changing my focus. This is the opposite of balance, but I’ve realised that anything that’s worth doing will fuck up your life. Fall in love, invest in work, travel somewhere great, help someone who’s in crisis – it will dominate you. The best moments in life are the ones that overwhelm you.

Right now I’m focusing squarely on work. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve focused on travel, mental health, relationships – it took me such a long time to get here, where I’m able to put my full force behind work. But all that faffing about means I’ve had plenty of time to sort out the details: I know what I like, and what it takes for me to be able to do good work. Now I wake up and read in bed for 90 minutes with coffee before I do anything else. I make sure to have food in the house and eat the same thing for lunch every day – something nice but simple, so I don’t have to think about it. I schedule time with people I want to see. I wash my hair every other day, after doing yoga at home, before I go out. I make sure I get some. And in the middle of all that there’s a block of time – about six hours – when I put my headphones on and play house music, and I do the work. No breaks, just pure focus. 

Except sometimes. I met my friend Matt for lunch the other day, after a meeting in the city. We had some Thai food – do you have somewhere to be, he asked me, and to my surprise I found that I didn’t. When our coffee cups were empty we sat there for at least another hour. I’d been so busy lately I’ve barely had time to make it to the post office, let alone take a long lunch. But that day I did, and afterwards I walked in the sun from Shoreditch to the Thames, which was muddy and vast and open and lets you breathe in the middle of this mad rush of a city. I did no work at all that afternoon. I just stood on the bridge, looking out at the water, thinking how wonderful it is to get to live like this – to have this charmed life that has no balance at all.