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


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


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. 


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. 


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.”


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.” 


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.” 


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.”


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. 


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.

The case for making a digital will

Published in BL Magazine, July 2019 (original article p58-61).

The case for making a digital will

When writing a will that determines who gets the house and who gets the good china, take a moment to also consider what should happen also to your digital assets after the final curtain.

We all know you can’t take it with you – but for a lot of our digital assets, there’s no set procedure for how to pass it on to someone else. While the law has provisions for what to do with money even if there’s no will, chances are that your digital assets will be left to languish if you don’t leave instructions.

When we say “digital assets” we’re not talking about things like online bank accounts, as those funds can be inherited like any other financial assets. We’re talking about things like a library of digital photos that reside behind a computer password, sitting in a data centre owned by Google or Microsoft. It’s a music collection worth thousands of pounds on Apple’s iTunes. It’s a library of books on an Amazon Kindle, a gambling account, a Bitcoin wallet, frequent flier miles, a personal website, an Instagram account which makes money from advertising, or a Facebook account that’s just for friends and family. 

Only 13% of us have made plans for their social media accounts after death, according to the Digital Legacy Association, and only 2.3% have made plans for our purchased digital assets. But the technology companies that often hold our digital assets won’t just pass on the data to a spouse or parent without clear instruction – to them, user privacy is paramount. Earlier this year, Rachel Thompson successfully requested that a UK court compel Apple to give her access to her late husband’s iPhone, so that she could download his 2,000 family photos for the sake of their young daughter Matilda. Tech companies have usually complied with court orders like this, but as a digitally minded population starts to age, this will become an increasingly common problem and we can’t all go to court. 


A tangible asset can be passed down in a will under the law regardless of whether it has value. People assume the same will be true for digital assets, but it’s not. “This is an emerging area of law,” says Gary Rycroft, Partner at Joseph A Jones & Co in Lancaster and Chair of the digital assets working group at the Law Society. Commenting on the Thompson case, Rycroft says: “The point Apple is making is that they’re [holding] data for someone who they have a contractual arrangement with. They don’t want to breach that contract without having either express permission of the person, or a court order.”

Rycroft doesn’t think we’ll all end up in court over this, as long as we catch on to the fact that we need to leave instructions: “Making a will is key. Make it clear what you want, and then Apple or whoever will know that they have your blessing to pass on your digital assets to [your nominated person],” says Rycroft. Several digital services now have procedures to formalise this process: Google’s Inactive Account Manager and Facebook’s Legacy Settings page both let you nominate a trusted contact to handle the account should you pass away.

But the nature of ownership is changing. While one photo storage service will let users rent storage space and retain ownership, others will not – anything you upload to Facebook becomes theirs, for example. And anything that you buy on iTunes isn’t actually yours, but just something you have the right to access – and that right dies with you. 

Donna Withers, Head of Probate and Wills at Bedell Cristin in Jersey, says that the matter of digital assets is so new that clients who come to see her don’t often have a good grasp on it. “It’s something that we bring up with people whenever they’re making their ordinary wills. We will ask them what [online] accounts they have,” says Withers. Like most modern day will and probate lawyers, Withers finds herself having to tell people about what is and isn’t possible to cover in a standard will. The fate of people’s digital assets will come down to the terms and conditions of the service in question, and it can vary widely: air miles or flight status will vanish when the user dies, for example. Instagram will memorialise or close down an account upon receipt of a death certificate, while Twitter only offers the option to delete. With Bitcoin, there’s only one password and if that is lost, the money is too – that’s what happened earlier this year when $190 million in cryptocurrency was permanently lost following the death of the person who held the key. 

A simple solution to all this is to write down all your online accounts and passwords, alongside instructions for what you want to happen to your email account or Facebook. “But that goes against digital advice that you should never write down your password. Not to mention that you could be in breach of the terms of your contract,” says Withers. As a lawyer she cannot recommend this course of action, but she says it’s common for people to leave sealed envelopes alongside their wills to be handed over after death. 


There will be as many as 2 billion dead Facebook accounts by the end of the century, according to the Oxford Internet Institute. Some people like the idea of living on in digital form, whereas others find it distasteful – leaving behind instructions will likely be reassuring both for you and your family. But a will governing the fate of digital assets may not be legally binding, as people are ultimately bound by the individual user contracts with the companies that issued the service. The Digital Legacy Association has templates for a “social media will”, noting that this is a “statement of preferences” and not something that can be enforceable in court. 

Elisabeth Ferrara, a Legal Assistant who specialises in wills and probate at Viberts on Jersey, recommends always printing wills and adding physical signatures and two witnesses, even for assets that exist in digital form – the law has yet to recognise a digital signature. 

Ferrara also points out there’s a difference between digital assets and digital presence, and you can only leave provisions in your will for the former. While you can argue that a social media account has value, the problem is that the user is probably still bound by the provider’s terms and conditions.  “In Jersey we have [two] types of assets: immovable estate is property and land, […] and movable assets which tends to be pretty much everything that isn’t land.” This broad definition is helpful, as a social media account which earns advertising, for example, could count as a movable asset under the law. “The nature of assets is changing with the growth of electronic assets,” says Ferrara, pointing to how we’re actually renting a lot of the things we may think we own. But if the law changes to bring that ownership back into our hands, Ferrara says that the broad definition of movable assets under Jersey law means the jurisdiction should be reasonably well set up to respond to it. “But [currently], it is it is very much up to the company to decide what’s going to happen [to your data] after death.” 

Just like you’re not supposed to log into an online service as someone else, writing down your online passwords and putting them somewhere safe is technically not allowed. But that may not be something that most people consider to be very fair – if you’ve paid for the music, shouldn’t it be yours to do with as you please? And if you give your spouse your computer password, is that really a crime? Gary Rycroft expects the law might change to reflect the fact that people don’t find this fair: “In the States there’s been much more activity in terms of law reform, [arguing] we should be able to pass these [assets] on.” Rycroft thinks the UK will follow suit: “There’s increasing awareness by consumers and there [will be] a backlash eventually.” 

Until then, the service providers will in likelihood become better at dealing with the fact that customers die – and hopefully start prompting us to fill in the legacy information rather than hiding the form deep down in the settings. And while it’s technically not allowed, many of us will ultimately be leaving a list of passwords somewhere safe, with instructions to our loved ones to download our assets or close up accounts, without needing to go through the formalities.

When women aren’t given pain relief for invasive gynae procedures

An extended version of the story published in Broadly by Vice on 16th January 2019.


If your doctor told you to take two paracetamol before coming in for a small medical procedure, what would you expect? As I went in for my first hysteroscopy—a procedure that examines the inside of the uterus with a small camera to explore heavy or unexpected bleeding, pelvic pain, fibroids, polyps, fertility issues, or diagnoses uterine cancer—I figured it might be like a smear test, or maybe an IUD fitting. The hospital leaflet I was given prior to the procedure told me to expect period-like cramping. I took some paracetamol with codeine to be safe, and laid back with my feet in stirrups.

As the doctor inserted the scope through my cervix I felt my uterus fill with cold water. I thought, this feels strange, but ok. But then the pain started and it was no longer ok. I hyperventilated as I clamped down on the nurse’s hand. Soon I was unable to keep quiet, moaning in pain, and as the biopsy was taken I felt a stabbing electric pain spread from my insides and across my entire body. I shouted out, “Fucking hell!” Afterwards, as I was panting and sweating, the nurse asked me pointedly: “Did you forget to take any paracetamol?”

The nurse’s reaction left me thinking maybe I was unusual. Was I being a wimp? It’s hard to feel bold with water running down your legs as they hand you a sanitary towel the size of your shoe. But in the days and months that followed I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. Why wasn’t I given pain relief? But what happened to me is not unusual, and in fact, many women’s experience of hysteroscopy is far worse than mine.

“I was hit with this indescribable pain, like a nerve pain but twenty times over. It took my breath away. I wasn’t able to talk, I couldn’t shout out. My legs were twitching, I started to feel sick and I felt hot all over,” says Lorraine (66) from Leicester, who prefers not to give her surname as she might pursue legal action. “I told the doctor afterwards that if childbirth was a 10 on the pain scale, but that was a 15 to 20. He did not seem at all concerned or bothered.” Lorraine’s counsellor has since diagnosed her with PTSD from her experience: “I’m having nightmares, and actually seeing things in the day. I keep seeing this man,” she says, referring to the doctor.

Pain, it seems, is a routine part of hysteroscopy. The dentist will give you a shot before starting to drill—pain relief is available and common. So why does the NHS continue to send women to have their wombs poked and prodded on paracetamol? And why, when women are in obvious pain, do doctors ignore them?


NHS guidelines state that the pain levels accompanying hysteroscopies vary: some women feel “no or only mild pain,” but for others it can be “severe”. In a case like Lorraine’s, the guidelines say the procedure should be stopped and options for pain relief discussed, with options including gas and air, stronger pain medication, conscious sedation, or a up to and including a general anaesthetic.

The current guidelines from the British Society for Gynaecological Endoscopy’s (BSGE), the body overseeing hysteroscopy, does acknowledge that it “can be associated with significant pain.” Consultant Gynaecologist Justin Clark, Vice President of the BSGE, told me that hysteroscopies used to be done under general anaesthesia until the early part of this century, when technological advances meant the scope had become small enough to avoid needing to dilate the cervix. “But [the move to outpatient hysteroscopy] has also been driven by patients—by expectations of immediacy of care and getting a timely diagnosis,” says Clark. For women who find the procedure tolerable, this may well be a better choice: “People recognise that admission to hospital can have disadvantages, such as hospital-acquired infections and the risk of anaesthesia.”

Asked about the lack of concern women report about their pain, Clark is not unsympathetic: “A minority will have a very unpleasant experience, and if we could identify those women in advance that would be advantageous [so they can be given general anesthesia right away].” Revised guidelines from the BSGE are due in 2020, but a patient leaflet that addresses pain in a far more realistic way was issued on 19th December. The Campaign Against Painful Hysteroscopy, which has collected a well of women’s stories, has created a community via their Facebook page and it’s in no small part thanks to their work, supported by sympathetic voices within the BSGE and MPs, that more attention now seems to be paid to pain management.

Clark stressed to me that patient comfort is of the utmost concern for the BSGE, and their newest leaflet is certainly an improvement in ensuring women are fully informed. But the problem is that this information around pain management, and advice on how to mitigate it, is often not communicated to patients by their treating physicians, or mentioned in the leaflet that accompanies their appointment letter. While the option of a general anaesthetic is sometimes mentioned, the leaflets are individual to each hospital and often do not reflect the nuanced guidelines of the BSGE. Most women will simply be given a given a leaflet that makes light of any potential pain and go in trusting that two paracetamol and a stiff upper lip is all that’s required. Clark acknowledges this variation may mean not all women get the full picture: “It’s incumbent on hospitals to make sure their information leaflet is valid, and that they speak to the patient in a clear way.” Most women will trust that their doctors are telling them what they need to know, and not go looking for horror stories on the internet.  

Even women who ask directly about the pain ahead of time report that it’s underplayed by doctors, who tell them that most people “tolerate” the procedure well. “When I asked it if would be painful, the doctor and the assistants smiled at each other and told me women get this done all the time,” says Valentina (34) from London, who prefers not to give her last name as she still needs to go back to complete the procedure after it was too painful to endure without sedation. “I wasn’t given the option to make an informed decision.” This attitude from doctors seems typical: “I was told there would be minimal pain like having a smear, and as I’d had children it wouldn’t be a problem. [The doctor said] a local anaesthetic injection into the neck of the womb would be more painful than the procedure, and would prolong the appointment. I decided to grit my teeth and get on with it,” says Liz Vining (65) from Swansea. She describes her experience as barbaric: “I couldn’t believe what had happened to me in the 21st century. 18 months on I still get tearful remembering it.”

The number of women who report their hysteroscopy to be very painful varies, but a is around 20-30 percent. A 2014 study, whose findings are in line with similar studies, found that 20 percent of women described the pain as “intolerable”, 46 percent said “moderate” and 34 percent said “mild”. The pain is usually worse for women who’ve not given vaginal birth, or who’ve gone through menopause. Clark at the BSGE told me that a study of 1,600 outpatient hysteroscopy patients, soon to be published in the British Medical Journal, found that most women tolerate the procedure well: “The acceptability rates are high, over 90 percent. The pain scores [out of ten] are in the region of three to four.”

But it is important to note that this study was just for diagnostic hysteroscopy—entering the uterus with a camera and looking around—and did not include any biopsies or polyp removals. While talking to Clark I realised that the “looking around” part of my hysteroscopy was indeed a three or a four out of ten, but spiked to a nine only during the biopsy. This distinction during clinical research may explain why so many doctors tell patients that hysteroscopy is “tolerable”, but when I was in the stirrups I experienced it as a single event. Consequently, I felt like the doctors had not been truthful about the prospect of pain. Clark conceded this point: “I agree the biopsy is far more uncomfortable that a well-conducted hysteroscopy.”

Consultant Gynaecologist Edward Morris, Vice President of Clinical Quality for BSGE’s umbrella organisation Royal College Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), told me that it’s been important to them to listen to women’s experiences ahead of the new guidelines in 2020: “We are aware of some women reporting that they did not feel well informed about the procedure and their options.” Morris told me that women should discuss concerns about pain with their doctors, as an outpatient procedure (without proper pain relief) isn’t right for everyone: “[For example] if she faints during periods because of pain, if she has experienced severe pain during previous vaginal examinations, if she has previous traumatic experience, or if she prefers not to have this examination while awake”. A 2014 study also found that pain may be worse for women who’ve not given vaginal birth or who’ve gone through menopause.

A chilling fact is that hospitals have actually been financially incentivised to perform outpatient hysteroscopies on women. In 2013, the NHS doubled the rates that hospitals would be paid to perform hysteroscopies as an outpatient procedure, and lowered the rates paid for anaesthetised hysteroscopies. The procedure used to be commonly performed under general anaesthetic, until a shift around 2001 in part due to the influence of NHS’s National Clinical Director for Cancer Sean Duffy. In 2001, in response to comments about outpatient hysteroscopy research, Duffy wrote in the British Medical Journal that while a “small proportion of patients do, undeniably, experience considerable pain”, he concluded that for most patients the “minimal discomfort” is worth the convenience of having an outpatient procedure. “Too much emphasis is put on the issue of pain surrounding outpatient hysteroscopy,” wrote Duffy. “A small proportion of patients do, undeniably, experience considerable pain, but most patients do not, and they trade off the minimal discomfort they experience with the convenience and interaction of outpatient hysteroscopy.”

When MP Lyn Brown spoke in Parliament on 11th December she said the NHS’s Best Practice Tariff system encourages quick-and-easy hysteroscopies in a way that prioritises savings over women’s dignity and humanity. Brown said: “The national target is for the risky outpatient hysteroscopies to increase to 70 percent of the total, up from 59 percent. The Department for Health is not working to reduce pain and trauma for women—it is incentivising hysteroscopies without effective pain relief and is taking our choices away.”


Historically, women’s pain is taken less seriously by doctors. One 2001 study found that some doctors believe women have a “natural capacity to endure pain” due to the stresses of childbirth. Deb Drinkwater (56) from Salford says her hysteroscopy took away her dignity, as it left her screaming, crying, and losing consciousness. Drinkwater had previously had a bowel screening, a similar exploration of the back passage where patients are routinely offered sedation (Clark at the BSGE said that colonoscopies and gastrointestinal endoscopies, where the scope goes down the throat, are sedated because the tube goes further into the body and “around bends”). Based on her experiences with both procedures, Drinkwater says she can’t help but wonder if there’s a gender bias: “Colonoscopy is something that both men and women do.”

Drinkwater says she’s really not a wuss: “I know what pain is. I’m not an anxious patient.” But after her hysteroscopy, as she was struggling to stand, she made a nervous joke to the student nurse: “I said, I hope I hadn’t put her off nursing by being in such a state. She said to me, no lie: ‘Don’t worry about it, the woman before you screamed the whole way through it.’”

NHS England performed almost 39,000 “unspecified diagnostic” hysteroscopies last year, and the number is set to rise. 75 percent of women do find having a hysteroscopy bearable, but for the remaining 25 percent who don’t, their experience would be vastly improved if everyone knew in advance they could ask for sedation. If nothing else, being met with understanding when they experience painand an awareness that they’re not weak nor even unusual if they require pain medicationwould go a long way. Katy Wheatley (46) from Leicester initially felt shame and blamed herself for not being able to get through her hysteroscopy, even when the pain sent her into clinical shock. “But when I look back at it—they must have seen it so many times. No one in the room reacted when I went into shock. You could tell it was routine for them—that in this room, this is what happens to women.”

Everything and its opposite // Interview with Kathryn Joseph

Published in Oh Comely magazine, February 2019. 

Everything and its opposite

There’s so much want in Kathryn Joseph’s music. It’s right there in the title of her new album, “From when I wake the want is” – that feeling that sits there, under the eyes, under the tongue, and there’s nothing you can do except watch as the ache turns into a pleasure. At least that’s how sensations float together in Joseph’s music: “I think you need that sore part to make anything that’s beautiful.”

This is a heartbreak album, but unless I knew that Joseph wrote it in response to lost love I don’t think I would have been able to tell. Joseph leaves such a wide open space in her soundscapes that it could be about anything, as long as you’re willing to meet here there. The title reminds me of that quote by Poe: “Sometimes, I’m terrified of my heart, of its constant hunger for whatever it is it wants; the way it stops and starts.” I’m fascinated by the idea that there’s you and then there’s your heart, or your want – and that your want isn’t necessarily looking out for your best interests.

Joseph’s music seems to come from a place outside of her control: “Songs start off as noises, then I fit the words into it. I don’t really understand it.” The music swells behind the sparse yet sharp lyrics, delivered in Joseph’s sometimes brittle, sometimes cottony, voice. But there’s no self-pity there, as she sings it almost matter-of-factly: “How do I get rid of all this fucking love?” The song soars, creating a sense of floating as the soreness transcends into something almost comforting. You know when you’re experiencing something so intense that it flips over into its opposite? Like when you eat something so extremely sweet that it starts to taste acidic?

I’d been thinking about this for a while, long before I heard Joseph’s song – “From when I wake the want is” was released in August 2018. When I call Joseph at home in Glasgow, a few days after she opened for Neko Case in London, I don’t expect her to necessarily understand what I’m on about, but of course she does: “I am obsessed with the feeling that I am everything and its opposite at all times. It’s what I find almost disturbing about myself. I think my songs are that too.”

The new album follows on from Joseph’s 2015 debut, which won the prestigious Scottish SAY Award. But nothing about her story suggests she was expecting this success, or even really courting it. At 43, you could call Joseph a late bloomer, except that she’s always been making music – just, you know, for herself. “I’d been a waitress since my twenties,” Joseph tells me, describing her new life of making a living from music as something she just didn’t think she’d ever reach. She hated doing the things you need to do in order to get your music out, as it made her feel out of control. And her life before was good: “I loved my job, and I loved that it gave me a safe routine that was good for me. Then I could write however I was feeling it, and it didn’t matter how often I was doing it.” So going pro, if you will, was not ever something she actually planned to do, but then she moved to Glasgow and her neighbour happened to be Marcus Mackay, now her producer. Still, everything about Joseph’s journey has been a hide and seek experience – she recorded the first album without any expectations, and had it not been for the initiative of Claire Mackay, who runs the Hits the Fan label with Marcus, it never would have seen the light of day: “I was so paranoid about it, thinking it wasn’t anything that anyone would be interested in hearing,” she says. “I would never have done anything with it.”

I pause for a moment. I can see the appeal of keeping the thing you’re passionate about “untainted” by keeping it separate from any money-making ventures. But still, most people would be tempted to at least try? Joseph thinks about it. She loved her previous job and the people she was working with – she really liked her life, you know? She tries to explain: “I’ve lived in really beautiful places in Scotland … it made sense to me. It made me feel…” She stops, starts again. “I went to university when I was much younger, and my sister got really ill so I didn’t last long. I remember feeling, ‘I need to feel okay every day.’” This shift in thinking made it hard for Joseph to do things she didn’t like in the hopes of future rewards: “I still don’t feel like I’ve got that ability. Everything I feel is very immediate, and what I react to is very immediate. I’m not into long-term planning.”

Releasing the albums has been a far better experience than she expected, though. “The world has turned out to be a lot nicer than I thought it was going to be!” She laughs. “I love that this is my job now. I love getting to do it.” And it came at the right moment too – Joseph was actually offered a record deal when she was in her 20s, but felt very much out of her depth at the time: “I’m just so glad I waited until I was absolutely sure how the songs should sound and be.”

One of the most delightful things about Joseph’s lyrics is how frank they are – the words are sparse, but all the more effective for it. It’s a surprise at first, to hear these gorgeous, swoony songs liberally sprinkled with the word “fuck”. And not just as a swear word either – these lyrics are pretty sexual at times, describing one of the most fundamental wants. The tenderness of Joseph’s delivery means the songs can carry it, and of course, the weight of age and experience behind these lyrics makes them beautiful, whereas singing about fucking might have just been crude at 22. “I love that word. I use it a lot in real life as well. But I’m aware that I don’t want to use it in front of my child.” Joseph laughs – her daughter is seven years old. “But that’s the thing about being human I love best – I think sex is one of the most beautiful things we get to do as humans. Playing live and fucking are the only times when I don’t think about myself.”

Kathryn Joseph’s album “From when I wake the want is” is out now on Rock Action.


The case for the four-day workweek

BL Magazine, January 2019. Original article p54-57.

Sharing the spoils: The case for the four-day workweek

Automation leads to improved efficiency – but who benefits? Until now, the spoils of technological advancement has gone straight to the business bottom line, as staff keep working the same hours no matter how much time is “saved” by technology.

We were supposed to be working 15 hours a week by now, predicted the economist John Maynard Keynes – in 1930 he anticipated that technological advancements in “progressive countries” would mean we’d be enjoying more leisure. But it hasn’t happen, even as data is now automatically input, documents effortlessly shared across devices, reports instantly assembled, and hardware spontaneously alerts us when it needs attention. In spite of warnings that automation will put people out work, Britons put in some of the longest hours in Europe – we rack up £32 billion worth of unpaid overtime, according to a Trades Union Congress (TUC) survey from September.

And people resent working so much. 81% want to work less, the TUC found, and out of those, about half would love to have a four-day workweek. The TUC has thrown its weight behind this idea, calling it a way to ensure productivity gains are distributed fairly. “Bosses and shareholders must not be allowed to hoover up all the gains from new tech for themselves. Working people deserve their fair share,” TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said in a statement. “If productivity gains from new technology are even half as good as promised, then the country can afford to make working lives better.”

But working four days per week – while being paid the same as before – would it actually work?

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 15.43.41Initial reports suggest a four-day week may lead to improved productivity, even with fewer hours in the office. When researchers at Auckland University of Technology tracked a four-day workweek initiative at a 240-people-strong trust and estates company, they found that staff were less stressed and reported more motivation and commitment to their work, which in turn resulted in better performance. This makes sense: 12.5 million UK work days were lost last year because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, according to the Health and Safety Executive, and the single biggest cause was workload.

The four-day workweek isn’t just some futuristic pipe dream. The fact that this idea has been floated at this point in time is no coincidence: we are finally at a point in technological advancement where it might actually be possible. There are already several businesses in the UK who’ve implemented a four-day workweek. The companies BL spoke did have the altruistic goal of sharing the spoils of technological advancement, but they also genuinely believed it serves the business financially.  

For NautoGuide, a digital mapping company in Swindon with five employees, the decision to move to a four-day week in September was motivated out of a desire to have more time to work on strategic goals. “We had a project that we really wanted to deliver long term as an investment, but we never got round to it because we were always firefighting,” says Dave Barter, CEO and Founder of NautoGuide. The company realised the answer wasn’t to have more resources or to be more efficient, but to have more time to think. “When you’re all in the office you never [take that thinking time], because the phone rings, email comes in, and people want things. The only way we could see to achieve that was by taking ourselves out the office.”

The staff at NautoGuide now work regular hours Monday to Thursday, and Barter thinks it’s fostered an appreciation that this is a place where you get rewarded for your good work right now, rather than maybe someday. “I think there’s also a benefit to being seen as having an open and forward-thinking culture, as [clients] see that and understand it will translate to our work too,” says Barter.

Rich Leigh is the Director and Founder of Radioactive PR, a dozen-people-strong public relations company in Gloucester. “I’ve got incredibly happy staff,” says Leigh, who started the four-day workweek initiative six months ago. The company is making more money than ever before, although the initiative has made a difference to the margins as Leigh has had to hire sooner than he probably would have otherwise needed as he doesn’t want to “squeeze five days into four”. The initiative has made the company an attractive place to work, Leigh says: “We get so many CVs. Inevitably we’ll be finding the very best people.”

Becky Simms, CEO and Founder of Reflect Digital, a marketing agency in Kent with a staff of 55, has also found that business has been good since moving to a four-day workweek in October: “We’ve closed the most business and had the most revenue.” The initiative was inspired by a desire for staff to be their best in the office, says Simms – agency work is high pressure: “You’re really worn out by the time you reach the weekend. [The four-day week] was inspired by that buzz you get after three day weekend. Now we can have that time to relax, but still really work hard while we’re in the office.”


While these early day experimentations with the four-day workweek are promising, it is very early days – it is hard to say for sure just how this change will affect companies’ bottom line. But while people on the Channel Islands put in just as many long hours, corporations in finance, professional services, and tourism industries may be less inclined to opt for less time in the office as a means of passing on the benefits of automation, at least for now.

The Channel Islands are “not as advanced as the UK in terms of digital transformation, says Pierre Jehan, Client Services Director of Resolution IT, an IT outsourcing specialist in Guernsey. Pointing to the 2,000 vacancies in the Guernsey finance sector alone, Jehan says it’s clear that automation has a role to play in closing this gap: “But with the shortages that they have, employers may be reluctant to offer a day per week off.”

But employees on the Channel Islands are still seeing other benefits of automation and digital transformation passed on to them, with opportunities for remote working and flexible hours: “Automation can also make workers’ lives more enjoyable by taking mundane tasks away and making them more efficient, and letting them concentrate on the nicer things in their jobs.” Jehan strongly believes in rewarding the people who create the savings – if a department comes up with new methods for saving hours, they should directly benefit from it. “Companies, in whatever sector, should empower staff to use these technologies in order to become more efficient and innovative through digital transformation. And in the same breath, they should reward their staff for doing so.”

While agreeing that Channel Island companies should be looking to robotic process automation or AI to help fill the worker shortages, Justin Bellinger, Chief Digital Officer of Channel Islands telecommunications supplier Sure thinks there are fundamental issues that needs addressing before the four-day workweek will make it onto the agenda. This will include tutoring and retraining: “We need to work out what machines can do that will benefit our businesses. What do I want my people doing it instead of manual input? The answer will be more interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence – things that will add value beyond the basic grind.”

This has already started happening on the Channel Islands, says Bellinger, pointing to the fund insurance and trust sectors: “As we come under ever-increasing regulatory scrutiny in the financial services sector, I firmly believe that regulators will start to automate compliance. … We’ve already started to see that in the gaming industry.”

The proponents of the four day workweek have an uphill battle ahead to convince business leaders that more time away from the desk could actually mean better overall job performance. “But how long that person has spent at their desk is a false way of looking at productivity. We’re not working at cotton mills anymore,” says Bellinger. Most people can only focus for five or six hours per day before fatigue sets in and quality starts to decline; when a Swedish retirement home ran a six-hour workday experiment in 2016, they found that nurses were less stressed, got sick less often, and had more energy to spend on quality interactions with their patients. It’s a fallacy to think that keeping people at work automatically means getting more out of them.” Research backs this up – most people can only focus for five or six hours per day before fatigue sets in, so it’s a fallacy to think that keeping people in the office automatically means getting more out of them.

For Rich Leigh, the change to a four-day workweek has had the benefit of positioning his company as forward-looking and innovative. “We’ve had clients come to us as a direct result of this, saying they we like the fact that we don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk too.” Ultimately, Leigh cares about ensuring his staff are happy: “These are people you spend the majority of your life with. Why wouldn’t you want to give them the best time that you can?”


Published in Lionheart Magazine, the ‘Bright’ issue, in November 2018. 


“Stay as long as you like,” he said as he headed out the door. “Take anything you want from the minibar.” That’s quite the offer, isn’t it. It was already late in the morning, but the moment was irresistible: I was in a hotel robe, the sun was filtering into the perfectly air conditioned room, and the sounds of the world were muffled by thick glass and even thicker carpet. It was a moment that seemed to exist outside of time.

Staying in a hotel in the city where you live may well be the ultimate indulgence. I didn’t need to be in that room – I live in London and my house was just a couple of miles away. But from the top floor of a hotel you can actually see across this flat city, as it sprawls on and on. Try as you might, but you’ll never be able to get a proper view of London – the place defies clarity. But we keep trying: Faced with an open view from a hill, or a floor-to-ceiling window in a tall building, we can’t help but stop for a long, slow while and look.

Dwarfed by thick white cotton, I crouched down by the minibar and contemplated a Coca Cola and some salted almonds. This is the breakfast of Joan Didion, a heroine of the in-between moment if there ever was one. Didion would get up in the morning, have her Coke, and get to work. Drinking soda for breakfast is not classy – for that you want black coffee and probably some kind of French pastry. But Joan Didion is one of those people who’s so razor sharp in her elegance that anything she does becomes classy by association. Didion would spend a lot of time in hotel rooms too, bringing with her a typewriter and a mohair shawl along with cigarettes and bourbon.  

I’m not usually one for morning soda, but the moment seemed to call for it. I mean, the minibar Coke came in a glass bottle. Apparently it really does taste better from glass than from plastic, and it’s not something I’m imagining. The sharp sweetness is enhanced further by the heaviness of the bottle in the hand, and the way the fat glass lip feels against your mouth. It’s such a treat: Haven’t we all been trained from childhood to never, ever touch the minibar? It’s wildly expensive compared to the shop just a block away. But if you think about the experience, it’s actually a bargain. For a mere £4, you get to drink a mini bar Coke in a oversized robe in blissful quiet, luxuriating over the view of your own city as the day is just starting.