Cafes of Trondheim, Norway

Suitcase, September 2014. Original article

Cafes of Trondheim

It feels more like a town, Trondheim, with its colourful wooden buildings lining the cosy downtown area between the river and the fjord. But Trondheim is the third biggest city in Norway, bringing plenty of charm to the task of being the key metropolis for the country’s central region. Far enough north to get the aurora borealis, and almost far enough to get the midnight sun, Trondheim makes a the perfect city to go for a wander. Here are some great places to stop for coffee.

Dromedar Kaffebar, Nordre gate 2. 

This is the pride and joy of the Trondheim coffee scene. The café on Nordre is the second site for this small local chain, established in 1997 when two young men decided to open “a proper coffee house” in Trondheim. The success of this pledge has been verified time and again, as Dromedar keeps excelling in national competitions for barista arts. The intention for this branch, as well as the ones that followed, was to be a place for locals to meet, and this remains the case today. So whether you’re after a an unpretentious space to have a chat, or you just really want a decent brew, Dromedar will sort you out.

Baklandet Skydsstasjon, Øvre Bakklandet 33. 

Don’t miss Skydsstasjonen – this place is really something to write home about. The coffee and food is good, sure, but the Bakklandet neighbourhood is the true gem of the city. But Skydsstasjonen is worth a stop for the interior alone, whether you go for the fish soup or the herring platter. Or maybe just a coffee and a piece of that Daim bar ice cream cake? In any case, it looks like it’s been decorated by a Norwegian grandma, full of amazing Scandie retro artefacts and some pretty amazing embroidered cushions. The building itself stems from the 1700s, with a long history for selling all sorts of goods including hats and milk, and of course being a travel stop, as the name now illustrates.

Kaffebrenneriet, Dronningens gate 9. 

With 20 kinds of coffee beans, Kaffebrenneriet is a welcome addition to the Trondheim coffee scene. The Oslo-based roastery opened its first Trondheim branch in a beautiful art nouveau building on the main shopping stretch, lovingly restored with furniture and photographs in the original style. Downstairs you can get food too, or have a scoop or two of ice cream that’s made on site: flavours include espresso and cappuccino, or course. Because at Kaffebrenneriet, it’s really all on the coffee: the company claims to serve the best brew in the country. Brave souls should try “Tors Hammer” on the espresso menu, named for the Norse god Thor and his hammer-wielding antics.

Choco Boco, Olav Tryggvasons gate 29.

Adding this café to the list represents a bit of a risk. Choco Boco is a longstanding favourite in the Trondheim café scene, but a visit in early September found the doors closed in anticipation of a major overhaul. While the results of this change remains a factor unknown, what is certain is that Choco Boco has always been a really great place: get a coffee and read the paper in the morning, pop in for a quick sandwich or salad at lunch, and get a glass of wine there in the evening. Fingers crossed that these features have been preserved once it re-opens.

Cafe Bare Blåbær, Innherredsveien 16.

Make time for a detour to the Nedre Elvehavn neighbourhood, where this café manages to be both cozy and roomy at the same time. The outdoor seating area has a great view of the beautifully restored harbour, which is now full of bars, restaurants and shops. Locals have taken a shine to Nedre Elvehavn, and if you go there in the summer during the long, sunny evenings you’ll see why. While serving coffee and cakes during the day, Bare Blåbær turns into something more of a bar at night, making it a great place to kick back any time of day. After all, the name, “just blueberries”, is something the Norwegians say when something’s no trouble at all.

Just talking about the weather

Lionheart Magazine, February 2017.

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Just talking about the weather

“It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” (Samuel Johnson)

White sunshine is pouring down from a cold blue sky today, creating a rare moment of picture perfect autumn, the kind you see in postcards. The light hits the trees, covered in yellow and orange leaves – it’s so bright they’re glowing. I’m a summer child and the prospect of winter scares me, but right now the autumn is putting on a show, and it’s spectacular.

I feel bright today too, because the weather affects me far more than is reasonable. In the summer I’m happy, basking in the heat and the sun, grateful every day for the sweetness of it. In the winter it’s the opposite, although it’s not the cold that bothers me – it’s the absence of light. The grey January sun becomes a metaphor for my mood: not quite enough, stretched too thin. It’s always been like that for me, but in 2003 it was the worst: I’d just moved to London after finishing university and the city was too big, the rent was too high, the world was coming in too fast, and it was too damn dark outside. In winter, hibernation instinct takes over, and all you can do is wait.

eliasson2I don’t remember much from that winter, but there’s one thing that stands out. At the Tate Modern, in the central cavern that is the Turbine Hall, was an installation by the artist Olafur Eliasson. It was very simple: a sun-shape mounted on the wall, filling the gigantic space with yellow light and a fine mist. The mono-frequency lights, similar to those used in old-fashioned streetlights, meant you could see only three colours: yellow, black and white. The ceiling was covered in mirrors, which meant that when people walked into the space and looked around, very often they would lie down.

All through that winter I would go down to the Tate several times a week on my lunchbreak, just to sit in the sun. It might be gloomy as hell outside, but for half an hour it felt like the world was a place with light in it, and that I would find a way to make London agree with me. Now it’s 13 years later and my life is no longer something I feel the need to get away from, but I still think about that magical sunscape every single winter.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Olafur Eliasson’s Tate installation has been hailed as one of the most successful uses of the Turbine Hall to date. Eliasson called it ‘The Weather Project’, in recognition of how weather becomes our most immediate experience of nature in an urban landscape. “The weather has been so fundamental to shaping our society that one can argue that every aspect of life – economical, political, technical, cultural, emotional – is linked to or derived from it,” Eliasson wrote in the project catalogue. “Over the centuries, defending ourselves from the weather has proved even more important than protecting ourselves from each other in the form of war and violence. If you cannot withstand the weather, you cannot survive.”

Ahead of the exhibition, Eliasson asked people questions about the weather, including whether they thought the idea of the weather in society is based on nature or culture? 53% said nature – 47% said culture. As they teach you in meditation: there may be clouds in the sky, but the trick is to remember that above them is always a blue sky.

The light always comes back after the dead of winter and we survive it, every time. It can be difficult to remember in the depths of it, but in 2003 it was easy because there was summer on tap at the Tate. How amazing was that sun! How warm and reassuring. How it felt like a promise that things would change.

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Brixton Pound: How fintech boosts the local currency agenda

FusionWire, December 2016. 

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Brixton Pound: How fintech boosts the local currency agenda

The notes are eye-catching, but South London local currency Brixton Pound is most commonly traded in the form of text messages. We sat down with B£ Communications Manager Marta Owczarek to talk about how technology is furthering the local currency cause.

The Brixton Pound has just turned seven years old, making it one of the most successful local currencies in the world. Maybe you’ve seen the notes – the one with David Bowie is best known – you can get them from the B£ cash machine in Brixton Market, the first ATM of its kind. Or maybe you’ve been to the shop in South London – B£ has just moved to a new location on Atlantic Road, operating a pay-what-you-feel café and community space.  

Walking up to the café through the local market, seemingly every shop or restaurant has a B£ symbol in the window. This is a currency, yes, but more than that it’s a community interest project, says Marta Owczarek, Brixton Pound’s Communications Manager. As we’re sitting down on the hottest day of the summer, Owczarek gives me the breakdown: Brixton Pound is a non-profit organisation employing five people, running a local currency accepted by around 250 businesses. 200 of them also operate the B£ pay-by-text scheme, which has over 2000 registered users. This is what I want to talk to Owczarek about: how technology can help future-proof a local currency that ultimately depends on social goodwill to survive.

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The technology behind the current B£ pay-by-text system is simple, and that may well be the key to its success, says Owczarek: “It’s a pay-by-text system that doesn’t need internet. You just need a phone that operates text messages.” She explains that the B£ notes have become a collector’s item, which is good PR but doesn’t actually help the local economy. Because of this, the electronic payment system has been an important tool for getting people to actually spend Brixton Pounds.

People can top up their B£ pay-by-text account at any time with a transfer from their bank accounts, or with cash at one of the dedicated outlets. “Lambeth Council has a payroll scheme for local employees, who can dedicate how many Brixton Pounds they want to receive as part of their salary every month,” says Owczarek. She takes out her phone to show me how the electronic payments work. It’s easy: just type out a text message with the amount and the name of the recipient (a shop or a person), and send it to the B£ phone number. Then each party gets a text message confirming the transaction – that’s it.

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The case for local currencies
Brixton Pound is tied to Pound Sterling, meaning this isn’t actually a separate currency – there incentive to use it isn’t financial. But there’s a strong community message attached – it’s a symbol of belonging to Brixton, and wanting to support the local community in an area where rapid gentrification is affecting local businesses’ ability to keep up with rising costs. This means B£ is mostly an independent business thing, but not exclusively; Honest Burgers and Franco Manca are both London restaurant chains that started in Brixton, so they accept B£ at their Brixton outlets as a signal of their dedication to the area.  

But while B£ has a strong social element, this is very much a financial enterprise: “Brixton Pound was set up by a group of local activists who wanted to do something in response to the financial crisis,” says Owczarek. “Many [local] currencies are about alternative banking, or alternative value systems.” Take the café we’re sitting in – people can pay however much they feel is appropriate. “When we at Brixton Pound started to ask questions about money, we were also asking what is value, or what is money in a wider sense,” says Owczarek. “Nobody is going to be using Brixton Pounds for profit. … [But] it really does start conversations. It means people are connected to each other, to their local community, and to their local business community.”

There are significant financial advantages to keeping money local. The New Economics Foundation concluded that spending money in local shops means that cash circulates in the local economy up to three times longer than if it had been spent in a national chain. The think tank also reported that £1 spent with a local shop is worth £1.76 to the local economy, while being worth just 36p if it is spent out of the area.

“We’re in touch with lots of other local currency worldwide and in the UK,” says Owczarek. “In the UK, we were the first to launch in an urban area. The ones that were operational before us, like Totnes, Stroud and Lewes – the initial idea was more about local supply chains, to be able to grow your own food and supply it locally.” Bristol Pounds has been a particularly successful addition to the local currency family, allowing individuals to pay council tax in Bristol Pounds. In comparison, Lambeth Council will accept Business Rate payments in Brixton Pounds, but individuals have to stick to Sterling.

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Technology experimentation
Owczarek is eager to point out that local currency is only one aspect of the Brixton Pound. “That’s is how it started, but we’ve now developed other projects.” She tells me about the Brixton Bonus, a lottery with a monthly draw of B£1000 – individuals can’t cash out their B£ so it has to be spent. The surplus of the Brixton Bonus, as well as 1.5% from each pay-by-text transaction, go into the Brixton Fund. This is a micro-grant awarded to organisations whose work fulfils three criteria: it furthers Brixton communities; takes action for social justice; and increases local employment opportunities. “The [second round] was completed in June, and we gave grants to nine local organisations,” says Owczarek, adding she was surprised to get 60 applicants for a grant with such narrow criteria. “We’re trying to have a business focus and community focus at the same time.”

As electronic spending has taken over from cash as the most popular way to pay in Britain, I ask Owczarek if she thinks technology is key to future-proofing the Brixton Pound. The B£ cash machine empties out on a weekly basis, Owczarek points out, suggesting there may be a novelty factor drawing people to the paper money. But there’s no reluctance at Brixton Pound to go high-tech. Just over a year ago, Brixton Pound piloted a contactless payment scheme, but Owczarek says it was unsuccessful: “It was a pioneering scheme, and it didn’t quite … there wasn’t a lot of take-up. People were maybe interested, but not enough to make it work.” Owczarek adds there were some issues around hardware – traders already had one terminal, and weren’t so keen on adding another. “It’s interesting to follow these bigger trends, but what we observe on a smaller scale is often its own thing. Pay-by-text has been incredibly successful, and it really took our currency to another level. It’s the most hassle-free payment option.”

Brixton Pound has also experimented with a payment app, which was closer in function to the current pay-by-text system. This was scuppered by technical problems, preventing the app from working after B£ updated their systems. “We’re looking at developing another version of the app that would work with current system. But I think even with the app, most [electronic] payment was pay-by-text.” One reason for this could be that you don’t need a smartphone to use the old system. I ask Owczarek if she thinks the current pay-by-text system is actually working fine as it is – maybe less is more? But Owczarek won’t go that far – she says it would be very nice to have the money to build a great app that looks professional and runs smoothly. But the B£ motivation is clear: “Our priority isn’t to make Brixton Pound as technologically advanced as possible. Our ambition is to make it work for the local area, and for the local community.”  

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Ada and Abbie: The Difference Engines

Aquila Magazine for children, November 2016. 

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Ada and Abbie: The Difference Engines

Engineer Abbie Hutty’s job is to build a vehicle that will be sent into space to look for life on Mars. Things have changed a lot since Ada Lovelace became the first computer programmer 200 years ago, in a time when women weren’t supposed to study science.

Science can’t get very far without imagination – before we can create new things, we need to dream them up. But once we have the idea, we need scientists to actually create the fantastical devices from our imaginations. You can’t have one without the other.

Right now, a team of engineers is hard at work preparing to send a rocket to Mars – they have four years to get everything ready. Curiosity is what’s driving us: is there life on Mars? But what’s making it possible to actually go and find out is the work of scientists like Abbie Hutty. She’s a Senior Spacecraft Structures Engineer at Airbus, where she’s in charge of designing the body of the ExoMars rover. That’s the little car that will be sent on a nine month journey through space, before setting down on Mars to explore and look for life.

“I lead a team of specialist engineers, and together we design the structure, choose materials, do lots of testing, and make sure everything about the rover’s body will work perfectly on Mars,” says Abbie. When the rover gets to Mars there won’t be anyone to fix it if anything goes wrong, so it’s a very important job: “I have about 20 people working for me, and some of them are much older than me,” says Abbie, who’s just 29 years old – it’s unusual to be in charge of a team like this at her age.

Abbie’s position is even more unusual when you consider that most engineers are men. Out of all the people working in the STEM professions – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – only 14 out of every 100 are women, according to the Office of National Statistics. But anyone can work in STEM: “I always liked making things,” says Abbie, when asked what kind of interests she had as a kid. “It didn’t really matter what it was, from biscuits to marble runs to knitting with my gran – I enjoyed the thrill of seeing an idea made into reality. I always liked science too: learning about nature, the world and the universe, and how it all works.”

Ada Lovelace, prophet of the computer age

ada-abbie-1Abbie got to where she is today by going to university: she has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. But things weren’t always so easy for women who were interested in the sciences. When Ada Lovelace was born in 1815, her mother decided she should learn about mathematics, which was an unusual thing to teach a girl at the time. Ada went on to become the world’s first computer programmer – that’s incredible when considering there weren’t actually any computers around. That meant Ada didn’t just have to come up with computer programmes, but she pretty much had to dream up the idea of a computer too.

When Abbie first became interested in engineering, some of her friends, and even some teachers, were confused. Why would a young girl want to become an engineer? Many people don’t actually know what engineers do, says Abbie: “A lot of them thought engineers were the same as mechanics, and thought I’d be fixing people’s cars! But I explained what I’d found out: engineering is all about designing new technology, and using creative and technical skills to make new things and solve global problems.”

That sounded great to Abbie, whose favourite subjects were art and design technology, plus she was good at maths and science.” She still remembers the moment when she saw on the news that British engineers were working on a mission to Mars, called Beagle 2: “I thought: ‘Wow! If engineers make cool things like missions to Mars, then I want to be an engineer!’”

200 years ago, girls would be told they were better off staying away from intellectual matters, but Ada didn’t listen. When she was 17, Ada met Charles Babbage, a professor of mathematics who’d invented a complex calculating machine called the Difference Engine. Fascinated, Ada wrote to Charles and asked him to be her mentor. This marked the beginning of a lifelong professional collaboration and friendship.

When Charles was working on a new calculating machine he called an Analytical Engine, he asked if Ada could translate a mathematical paper about it, from the original French. Ada took to the task with gusto, adding so many notes that the translation was four times as long as the original text. Ada’s proposed that the Analytical Engine could be used to read symbols, not just numbers, and that it could be programmed with code. Ada’s translation is now considered the world’s first algorithm for a machine, making her the world’s first computer programmer. Ada’s ideas were visionary: she understood that the machine could be more than just a fancy calculator – it could be an all-purpose computing device that could be used to solve all sorts of problems.

The poetry of science

ada-abbie-2Being good at maths isn’t enough to make a breakthrough like this – it requires a good dollop of creativity. Ada’s mother had been the one to insist she learn maths, but Ada had inherited an artistic temperament from the father she never met: Lord Byron, the famous, passionate poet. Ada herself called this powerful combination a “poetical science”.  

Working on the ExoMars rover, Abbie has also found she needs to be creative: she collaborates with people from all over the world as they work out exactly how to push humanity further out into space. “I love seeing something that was once just an idea in my head becoming real and taking shape. Then, knowing that one day it will land on a planet that no human has ever set foot on, is just incredible!,” says Abbie. There’s a shortage of engineers in the UK so we need to get more kids interested – both girls and boys: “We have lots of big challenges to solve, like climate change, green energy, getting clean water to the developing world, reaching new planets. We want people who have had lots of different experiences and learnt different things to come together to solve these problems,” says Abbie.

Abbie admires Ada Lovelace for being very smart, and she also has a lot of respect for Donna Shirley, the engineer who led the team that built the Sojourner Mars rover. That was the very first robotic rover to explore another planet 19 years ago. “It’s a real shame that a lot of women scientists and engineers historically have not been recognised or remembered in the same way as men,” says Abbie. Everyone who works in computer technology now knows that Ava was a true visionary, but she was largely ignored during her lifetime. Many women never get re-discovered like Ava was, and this is a shame, says Abbie: “Inspirational women are an inspiration to everyone – not just girls. All of us are missing out on knowing about half of the inspirational people from history.”

Asked what she wants to do after the ExoMars rover is finished, Abbie says she wants to keep working on groundbreaking projects: “Now that I’ve had a taste of working on a mission to another planet, I don’t want to give it up!” Maybe that means working on other Mars missions: “But there are also missions planned to go to other interesting planets and moons in our solar system. Like the icy moons of Jupiter – we think they might have life in the oceans.” That’s the imagination part done – now we need more engineers like Abbie to figure out how to get us there.

How to have better meetings: The case against brainstorming

BL Magazine, November 2016. Original article p76-78.

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How to have better meetings: The case against brainstorming

Everyone is prone to groupthink – even the boss. There are better ways for truly getting the best ideas out of people, because true innovation is often borne out of moments of quiet.

If you want your team to solve a problem, lock them in a room with a whiteboard and a pizza and don’t let them out until they have something – that’s the conventional wisdom. Brainstorming remains a go-to method for inspiring new thinking, and it sounds great: by creating a relaxed environment, people can throw ideas around and see what sticks. Except there’s a problem: brainstorming isn’t actually all that effective.

It’s a blow to companies that see themselves as dynamic operations where everyone’s always available, but there’s a myriad of research on this topic that argues for the opposite approach: give people some quiet! And only then, after some alone time, put them together to share their ideas. The problem with brainstorming is groupthink: people tend to fall into behavioural patterns in groups that have more to do with social dynamics than with innovation. It also doesn’t help that we’re drawn to people who sound confident, and there’s no evidence that the loudest person in the room is also the smartest.

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The groupthink phenomenon can happen at any level of an organisation, including at the top where you may think people would know better than to fall in line without merit. “In terms of a company board, groupthink means the way disparate ideas are less forthcoming because people start to think of things in the same way,” says Richard Sheath, partner at Independent Audit, the specialist corporate governance consultancy focusing on the effectiveness of boards. “They see things through the same lens, and over time they start thinking in the same way – rather than what they should be doing, which is bringing their different experience and skills to the table.”

This conundrum holds a clue as to why brainstorming, or group decision-making, remains so popular: it makes people feel connected. In her excellent book ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’, Susan Cain cites research studies where participants in brainstorming sessions often believe their group performed much better than it actually did. Writes Cain: “Group brainstorming makes people feel attached – a worthy goal as long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity, is the principal benefit.”

Add to this the tendency of some people to do or most of the talking, while others sit quietly, and the appeal of brainstorming meetings to drive innovation starts to lose its lustre. Cain references studies that show how we perceive talkers as smarter than quiet types: “We see talkers as leaders. The more a person talks, the more other group members direct their attention to him, which means that he becomes increasingly powerful as the meeting goes on.”

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screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-13-26-59In order to ensure no one railroads a meeting, you have to understand the dynamic of the group and be well prepared, says Ian Churchill, CEO of digital workflow software specialist BigHand. “When you get to know a group of people, you recognise their strengths and weaknesses. You have to make sure you engage the people who have a depth of knowledge, over those who just have a strong view.”

Churchill, who’s in charge of about 150 people, thinks large groups aren’t actually very efficient when it comes to solving problems: “I don’t particularly like big meetings. I think you get more done with four people than with eight.” Gathering a few people means they’ll be strongly motivated to solve a problem, says Churchill – that probably won’t be the case once the numbers grow. “Plus the bigger the group, the more challenges you have with strong personalities.”

Having good ideas is not solely reserved for those with the gift of the gab, so a key task for the person leading a meeting is to encourage participation from people who’re naturally more quiet. “There are some really smart people out there who’re quite shy, or who get intimidated by loud people,” says Mike Thorpe, now a director of the Janders Dean consultancy in Jersey after eight years with Ogier Fiduciary Services.

The most important person in the meeting is the one who’s leading it, says Thorpe, as he recalls how he recently saw ITV newscaster Alastair Stewart moderate an event at the Institute of Directors: “You could tell he has years of experience. He was very authoritative, knowing when to let people talk, and when to shut them up.” The smartest employees are sometimes the quietest ones, says Thorpe – they’re the people who just get on with their work: “Where companies have good moderators, or good leaders who allow them to speak, that’s when you get the most out of them.”

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Richard Sheath concurs that effective chairing is key to getting the most out of a meeting. “You need an awareness of what each individual is able to contribute to the discussion, and give them space to do so. This can particularly apply in situations with different nationalities around the table,” says Sheath. He points out how some cultures value assertiveness more than others – the same can also be true for gender. But it’s important not to be dogmatic about how meetings are run, says Sheath: “With time constraints, and a sense of needing to give everyone an opportunity to comment, it can become a bit of a go-around-the-table. … It can become a collection of disconnected comments, rather than a discussion of a particular theme.”

As different personality types have varying approaches to discussions, leaders need to be aware in order to get the best out of people. “Extroverts think out loud and on their feet, they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say,” writes Susan Cain. “Introverts, in contrast, … listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.” Each type bring different strengths: perhaps the best example of how powerful this combination can be is how it took extroverted Steve Jobs working with introverted Steve Wozniak to create Apple.

To maximise the chances of hearing also from the quieter members of staff, it helps to prepare them, says Mike Thorpe: “If you want to get something specific out of a meeting, and you know the person you need to [speak] is a quiet person, you give them a heads up. … Tell them, ‘I’m going to lead you into it.’” Thorpe emphasises the importance of setting an agenda for meetings: why are we doing this? That includes taking a moment to wrap up at the end, and make sure you got what you wanted out the meeting. This is the opposite of brainstorming sessions that end up with pizza-smeared post-its all over the walls, but the research backs it up: the best ideas come when everyone has a chance to contribute, not just the loudmouths.

Leading by example
What happens if the leader is a quiet type too? Ian Churchill is reluctant to describe himself as an introvert – the term is often misunderstood to mean shy, and that isn’t a positive trait for a CEO. But Churchill is more than happy to describe himself as someone who listens: “I recognise I have a set of skills that are different from the other members of the team. … To lead and make decisions you have to assimilate a selection of opinions, and then distill down what is the right way.” This is true for any leader regardless of their personality type, and Churchill thinks the stereotypical ideal of a larger-than-life CEO has started to disappear. “You have to engender respect to become a leader; you have to earn respect rather than demand it. But I don’t think you necessarily have to be charismatic to do so.”

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Secret tales of the cities

Qatar Happening, October 2016. Original article.

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Secret tales of the cities

If you look closely, cities are full of poetry. We went on a search for random and obscure poetic attractions and found plenty to love in New York, London, San Francisco – and also in Seattle, but only in the rain.

For a visitor, sights that only show up when they feel like it can be frustrating when you’re on a schedule. In New York, anyone can go look at the Statue of Liberty, but if you wanted to see the larger-than-life art of Jenny Holzer at the Guggenheim, you had to be there at the right moment in 2008. That’s when it was projected across the entire front of the museum: “More people and new offenses have sprung up beside the old ones – real, make-believe, short-lived.” For a moment, Holzer’s bold poetry prompted New Yorkers to stop in their tracks.

Temporary sights are often all the more magical: you’ve seen something that was only there for a brief moment. The permanent attractions are there for anyone, but these subtle, poetic installations are often the purview of locals. Created by artists, they’re placed not in galleries but where people might not expect to come across them, rendering them all the more powerful. Like four years ago, when visitors to London’s Shoreditch area could briefly spot the poetic art of Robert Montgomery out in the wild. You could be walking along the street, and suddenly be faced with giant posters with the artist’s poetic musings: “This city is wilder than you think, and kinder than you think. It is a valley and you are a horse in it. It is a house and you are a child in it. Safe and warm here, in the fire of each other.” Read on a giant billboard, it stayed with you all day.

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Image courtesy of Rainworks

In part because we don’t expect to find it, street poetry will often feel hard-hitting. Last year, locals and visitors in Seattle were treated to what was literally a rainy day project: local magician Peregrine Church adorned the city’s pavements with words that can only be seen when it rains. “Rainworks” used biodegradable, water-repellent spray to stencil poems onto the concrete pavement, rendering the letters dry when it rained and hence readable. “Worry is a misuse of the imagination,” declared the wet pavement, cheerily. Each poem wears off after about six weeks, but “Rainworks” sells kits to anyone who wants to create their own rain poetry – meaning they could pop up everywhere.

The New York City subway has been treating its passengers with random moments of poetry since 1992, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched “Poetry In Motion”. First off was an excerpt from the Walt Whitman poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt / Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.” London’s “Poetry on the Underground” scheme is 30 years old this year, initially launched to bring poetry to a wider audience. Shakespeare features frequently among London’s Tube poems, which may well be the perfect place to contemplate the meaning of sonnets written in Early Modern English: “Where the bee sucks, there suck I / In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”

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The marquee at the corner of Turk and Larkin streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin has been called the world’s largest fortune cookie, because there’s always something new to see there. The sign, with its rotating selection of quotes, is managed by Bill Brinnon, who works at the tire shop next to the sign. It’s been going since the 1958, and it’s still changing every three to six weeks, depending on the feedback and current events. This winter, a David Bowie quote appeared a few days after his death: “The truth is of course that there is no journey. We are all arriving and departing all at the same time.”

In New York, there’s a fantastic piece of city poetry that you can still catch, if you’re quick. It’s painted across the entirety of a Brooklyn parking garage, courtesy of Steve Powers. “EUPHORIA IS YOU FOR ME,” the garage boldly declares, in what has become known as a love letter to the borough. Earlier this year, the garage’s owner announced it will be torn down, causing an outcry among people who’ve come to love the upbeat poetry that you can’t help but read every time you pass it. The black and white text wraps around the entire building, creating what the artist calls a “block-long poem”. The garage is still standing, but don’t wait too long: by the spring the building, and the poem too, will be rubble.

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Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern

Litro Magazine, July 2016. Original article.

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s sense of home

The Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective is at the Tate Modern, London, until 30th October 2016.

“I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me,” Georgia O’Keeffe once said. Right now, the Tate Modern’s retrospective of the pioneering modernist may well present you with art unlike what anyone has shown you. Because after spending an afternoon in O’Keeffe’s company at the Tate, I can’t help but think that for a reasonably well-known name, O’Keeffe is vastly underrated. She’s been unfairly pigeon-holed as that desert lady with the flowers, but her work is so much broader than that. You may expect this show to be great – but it is in fact wonderful. Like O’Keeffe said after seeing New Mexico for the first time: “Well! Well! Well! … This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!”

Those famous flowers kick things off – there’s one in the Tate’s poster and that’s what will get you through the door. And by all means: the flowers have earned their fame because they’re stunning, no doubt about it – they’re so much more beautiful on canvas than they appear in reproductions. The colour play is exquisite and the curves are masterful – everything O’Keeffe does has these incredible subtle colours and curves – and it’s delicious. Sweetly pink, white and turquoise in ‘Music – Pink and Blue No 1’. More white and mint green in ‘Abstraction White Rose’. But in ‘Grey Lines with Black Blue and Yellow’ it’s not subtle anymore: the soft pink is contrasted with bold yellow, blue, pink.

This is also where it gets a little tricky, as O’Keeffe steadfastly maintained throughout her life that if we’re seeing anything sexual in her flower paintings, that’s on us, not her: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.” Fair enough. But once it’s been suggested that those petals could also be vaginas, it’s very difficult to stop seeing it. Did she deny this interpretation because of the times? ‘Grey Lines with Black Blue and Yellow’ was painted in 1923. But part of the Tate’s intention with this exhibition is to “dispel the clichés that persist” around O’Keeffe’s work, so we should probably give her the benefit of the doubt. If the artist claims a flower is just a flower, who am I to say otherwise?

The flowers are very beautiful though, regardless of interpretation. They feel overwhelming, maybe because they’re so big and up close.There’s something unapologetic about them, but at the same time, they’re simply pretty. Maybe that’s why they feel so radical: the notion that you can take something so delicate and lovely, something as passive as a flower, and make it look so powerful. If passivity – let’s go ahead and call it femininity – is considered a lesser state now, it certainly was a hundred years ago, around the time these paintings were created. But it was lazy to read O’Keeffe’s art based on her gender back then, and it’s even lazier now. O’Keeffe put it this way: “I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me. … You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower, and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.” O’Keeffe creates a world inside each flower, and invite us to get lost in there – but she never quite tells us what the flower means to her. We may be having our own experiences with her work, but she’s completely in control.

This feeling continues into the next section of the Tate show, which has photographs of O’Keeffe by her husband, Arthur Stieglitz. There’s O’Keeffe’s face, her torso, her breasts, hands, arms. There’s O’Keeffe staring into the camera, the photo cropped defiantly low across her naked chest. But in the photos, O’Keeffe doesn’t look defiant at all – she just comes across as someone who knows exactly what she wants. Looking at ‘White Iris”, the flower is so soft in white, pink and just a little green; if we see something in there – passivity, defiance, whatever – that’s on us. O’Keeffe simply meets your eye and makes you really, really look.

O’Keeffe moves on from flowers after she came to New Mexico – they’re rare in the desert – but she still examines the details of her surrounding with the same close, loving gaze. Her knack for curves is applied to the mountains and the mesas, except now the colours are saturated: the red clay and the blue stone, and then, the adobe buildings in soft brown, pale grey. Just like with the petals, O’Keeffe creates layers, and the same happens with the skeletons. O’Keeffe paints the bones so lovingly against the pale blue sky or the pink sands that they appear far more romantic than any of those flowers ever did. It takes a moment to realise just how artfully she’s recreated the shades of white of the bone – her technical mastery has become secondary to the sheer interestingness of her work.

O’Keeffe’s paintings of the desert landscape around Ghost Ranch, her first New Mexico home, are less flashy than the flowers and the skulls, but every bit as remarkable. Those curves are now perfected: the sides of the mesas, the rise of the mountains, the cutaway rock-sides. The shades of pink in ‘Red and Yellow Cliffs’ – dusty rose, pale salmon, buttery peach, gold, muddy greens – you could drown in those colours. O’Keeffe discovered a sense of home when she came to New Mexico: ‘As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. It’s something that’s in the air – it’s different.’ She loved New Mexico, and the feeling pours off the paintings.

This is where O’Keeffe really dives into exploring layers. In the Black Place and the White Place series she paints the exact same things over and over, varying the colours or the style. That’s what it’s like to look at something over and over: there’s always something else there, because you’re a little different every time. The experience of standing still is very much an exercise in change. The paintings of the door of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home are the highlight of this joy of repetition – she’s really making us look closely now, just like the flowers, except now she’s giving us even less to work with: just a plain brown wall and a black door, barely any sky at all.

But this time she provides a hint about the world she’s hidden inside all those layers. ‘My Last Door’ is a black square on white, that’s pretty much it, but it took her two years to complete. She loved that house – you can feel her reaching for that feeling, striving to articulate it on canvas in its glorious, plain, untamable state. All the way through O’Keeffe’s work there’s a sense of her chasing down experience, hidden in the curves of the petals and the bones and the mountains – there are worlds to be discovered everywhere, if only you look close enough. But never is it clearer than with O’Keeffe’s repetition of that plain door, over and over: home is a feeling, and love is a place.

Un-precious skins

Published July 2016 in The Debrief (now part of Grazia).

Meet the people who turn the tattoo needle on themselves

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When Piper Chapman, anti-heroine of ‘Orange is the New Black’, tattooed herself at the end of last season, she’d learned it the hard way: if you want it done right, do it yourself. “Cliché my ass,” she muttered, grinning through the pain of etching onto herself the infinity symbol she’d previously been mocked for wanting.

There are lots of reasons why someone might choose to turn the tattoo needle on themselves, but regardless of their motivations, it’s always a very personal experience. If you’re the one pushing the ink, you can’t look away and wait for it to be over. You have to sit there, repeating the action maybe for several hours – you are in full control of creating the mark that will stay on your skin for life.

katherineKatherine Coffey, 36, first tattooed herself when she was 22, while at university in London. The two banners on her feet read ‘Heroes’ and ‘Villains’, a play on the old-school standard of having opposite phrases on your knuckles. “Plus I’m a big Beach Boys fan!” Katherine, a graphic designer, still loves her foot tattoos: “I find them just as valid as so-called ‘real’ tattoos. I’m someone who spends a lot of money on tattoos, and travels a long way to get them done by specific artists – I take it seriously. But at the same time, I don’t actually take it that seriously!”

Katherine, who describes herself as “fairly covered” in ink, says going to a tattoo parlour is more about getting someone else’s art on your skin. Doing it yourself, however, is how you get exactly what you want. “With many of the professional tattoos I’ve got, I’ve often thought I’d have done it a little differently. I’m a fussy customer!” She laughs. “So [doing it yourself] is also about being in control of your own body, and having the final say in what you look like. … The experience of marking yourself is definitely more empowering than going to someone else and asking them to do it for you.”

Before embarking on her DIY tattoo project, Katherine sought advice from someone who’d done it already. But it was still a bit of trial and error: “I got some fine sewing needles and wrapped them tightly with thread, and used graphic pen ink. That worked really well. … I went over the tattoos maybe three times.” The tattoos look pretty good for home-made ones, but Katherine says she never intended them to look perfect. “I’ve always thought, I don’t care if anyone ever sees this tattoo, I’m not doing it for anyone else’s benefit. It’s a personal thing, and I want this on me.”

theaFor Thea Dery, 20, the process of inking her own skin became something of a meditation. “It was satisfying to do it, like how people knit or draw as a relaxing experience. Once you get past the pain it’s a repetitive, satisfying process.” Thea, who’s currently living in Chile as part of her Spanish university studies, was 18 when she put an eye on her finger – it’s currently her only tattoo. She’s interested in getting more formal work done in the future, but that would need careful consideration.

Thea made sure she knew how to tattoo herself safely: she used calligraphy ink, sterilised needles, antiseptic wipes, and gloves. But the actual design of her DIY ink was impulsive: “It was a spur of the moment decision to do it. My friends had gone away that weekend and I was alone, watching a movie. I figured that since I had the materials I should try it out, just a little one on my finger.”

Thea says it did hurt, at least in the beginning: “But it quickly became numb, as you have to keep poking at the same spot. … I poked for almost two hours straight, just to get this tiny thing.” The tattoo is rough, says Thea, and she wouldn’t consider it well done. “But it still makes me happy to look at it. The process of pushing the ink into my skin was an important experience about making a permanent decision about my body.”

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19% of Britons and 24% of Americans have tattoos, according to a 2015 YouGov survey – permanent ink is no longer all that controversial. But historically, this is a very recent development. In her book, ‘Bodies of Subversion’, researcher Margot Mifflin explains how tattoos have swung back and forth from favour:

“No form of skin modification is as layered with meaning as tattooing, especially for women. Tattooed women of the 19th- and early 20th centuries flouted Victorian ideals of feminine purity and decorum,” writes Mifflin in the 2013 edition of her book. “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains, and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies – and why.”

The current tattoo revival stems back to the 1970s, when Janis Joplin became one of the first women to openly display ink. Mifflin describes this as the start of overturning the unsavoury image of tattoos, which was previously considered the purview of aggressive men and sexually available women. These stigmas are now thankfully outdated, as today’s tattoos are associated more with self-expression, as well as an act for claiming your body as your own to do with as you please. The latter is especially true when it comes to the rough stick-n-poke tattoos people give themselves in their bedrooms.

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cassandra1For Cassandra Sherlock, 24, one of the key points to doing her own ink is that skin doesn’t have to be that precious – she’s even let other people practice on her. “I’ve rejected this idea that it has to be a big deal about what your tattoos mean. Just because it’s permanent doesn’t mean it can’t be something goofy or fun, or something you saw and thought, ‘That looks cool, I want it.’”

Cassandra, a video editor and animator who lives in Indiana, has six home-made tattoos out of about 19 total. “I started off doing these small geometric shapes. The first one was an X. I have these small circles, little moons, some dots … I have two cats that I’m proud that I did myself. The two beets are more intricate. Those are the only ones with colour.” Asked why she chose to do it herself, Cassandra laughs: “I was broke!” And also: “I was a little bored, and I wanted more tattoos.”

Some of Cassandra’s DIY tattoos are stick-n-poke, but she’s also used a tattoo gun she bought on the internet. She doesn’t necessarily think it’s any more risky to do tattoos at home: “I’ve seen people go to shops and get nasty infections.” Cassandra recommends buying professional tattoo needles and ink from a reputable shop – it’s not that expensive. Her homemade tattoos are important to her, says Cassandra – precisely because she did them herself: “My [self-tattooing phase] wasn’t necessarily a great time in my life, but I was proud of these things i made. They’re always going to be a reminder of that.”

mike1For Mike Marcus, 43, the stick-n-poke tattoos on his wrist have also become reminders of a unique moment. “They’re the molecular structures of tryptamine and phenethylamine,” says Mike. He did them four years ago, using sterile tattoo needles and Indian ink: “I’d finished a big relationship, and some business entanglements. I was in between chapters in my life.”

When people ask what the molecules represent, Mike’s answer depends on the situation: “One thing you can say is that those molecules are like the operating system of consciousness.” In more relaxed company, Mike will fill the rest of the story: “I used to be into psychedelics.” As Mike now runs a microbrewery in Manchester, he doesn’t have time for that anymore. “But I like the tattoos. They’re individual. [What they represent] isn’t really a part of my life now, but they’re a landmark.”

By this logic, tattoos become a map of your life, says Mike: “They make an indelible mark, so you can’t just move on from that part of your life and pretend you didn’t experience it.” If he were to get any more ink, Mike says he’d definitely be the one to do it: “Tattoos are a really personal thing. … Apart from exceptional circumstances like the Holocaust, anyone who’s got a tattoo has imposed it upon themselves. If you’re going to do that, you might as well do it yourself.”

Meet Moven, the non-disruptive challenger bank

FusionWire, June 2016.

 

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Meet Moven, the non-disruptive challenger bank

Is it actually necessary for challenger banks to re-invent the wheel? No, says Alex Sion, co-founder of Moven. We went to New York to learn how Moven is making waves in the US as a next generation bank that doesn’t actually hold money.

What if, instead of building an app-focused bank, you built a great banking app that could be used by anyone, regardless of where their accounts are?

That’s what Moven has done. Alex Sion, co-founder and Managing Director, is the first to admit that Moven is technically more of a customer experience startup than a bank – but even so, the Moven experience is an impressive imitation of a bank. After linking up their existing accounts, US customers use the Moven app to manage all their money, and even spend it with a Moven-branded bank card. “Moven is structured as a programme manager that sits on top of a bank,” says Sion. “Basically, we orchestrate the banking experience.”

I’ve met the Moven co-founder in New York, in a non-descript Midtown office building across the street from Madison Square Garden. Inside, the office very much looks the part of a startup, down to Sion’s company hoodie with “Spend, Save & Live” written across the chest. 47 people work for Moven right now, says Sion, who co-founded the company alongside Brett King in 2012.

“We always had a vision that the future of banking was going to be an app. But that’s different from saying that banks need apps,” says Sion. To explain what he means by this, Sion points out how banking apps are different from other apps because you need to have the product before the app is any good to you. You wouldn’t download the HSBC banking app unless you already bank with them – what would be the point? This, the Moven founders thought, needed to change:

“If banking is to become an app, the app needs to have a value proposition just like every other app.” He lists them off: “This is the app that helps me find restaurants. This is the app that helps me buy clothes. This is the app that helps me play music. So we thought, the value proposition of banking in the future is: this is the app that helps me build better spending habits. This is the app that guides me to save, and helps me to buy the stuff I want in smart ways.”

The commerce link
This is the reason why Moven is more about the experience of banking, rather than the nuts and bolts of holding money. The fact that customers don’t have to leave their old banks to join Moven means the company is less of a disruptor to the established financial providers. But this also means Moven has sidestepped what’s arguably a fundamental tenant of banking. To date, Moven has raised over $24 million in funding, most recently in a $12 million round led by Route 66 Ventures in October. Does Sion think the fact that Moven doesn’t hold the money could become a drawback as the company grows?

Sion admits this issue is something they think about, especially now that the fintech startup landscape is maturing. Four years ago, any kind of new bank was a bold move, but that’s a long time ago in the startup world: “People are pursuing the same ideas now, but in more aggressive ways.” But Sion is quick to add that the fundamental idea behind Moven is sound: “[When we launched,] we believed the important part was the experience layer – banking itself would remain largely the same.”

If you ask people what banking is, says Sion, they’ll say it’s a place that holds money securely, moves it about, and gives yield and credit. “We believed banking products weren’t going to transform that much. What was dramatically going to change, was how people experience money. … What you needed to do, was build an experience layer that would tightly connect to the infrastructure of money. That would be the redefinition of banking. You don’t require a charter to do that.”

This is an interesting approach to the task of building a challenger bank: the idea that you don’t need to build from scratch, as the new banking experience can sit on top of the existing system. It also negotiates a fundamental problem faced by challenger banks: that people are notoriously reluctant (or too lazy) to move current accounts. “The challenge with fintech, and neobanking in general, is that it’s hard to underestimate centuries of history when it comes to the sensitive of money. Habits aren’t going to change overnight. But what is changing rapidly, is behaviors toward commerce,” says Sion. “For us, that had nothing to do with banking.”

The fact that people are experiencing commerce in new ways, via the likes of Amazon and eBay on mobile phones, means we’re expecting the same levels of ease from banking, says Sion – but banks haven’t stepped up to fill that gap: “To me, that gap is the threat and the opportunity that we can solve. There’s the massive behavioral shift that’s central to how consumers engage with their money.”

A visual approach
So what does this solution look like? Sion opens the Moven app on his phone, and swipes around while explaining how it works. The app is surprisingly simple-looking, using visuals to monitor spending (green means on budget, red means having gone over), and to motivate to reach savings goals (tap three times to “break the glass” and access the cash). “We simplified it as wants versus needs. Wants are discretionary items. Needs are non-discretionary. It’s colour-coded.” Sion taps into the restaurant category. “Here’s my dining out: I’m $404 above typical. If I want to see why, I can see that was because of Mother’s Day. I could dive in deep.”

The app also lets Sion see what he’s spent on his American Express card, as Moven becomes a hub for everything to do with spending money. But the home screen on the app isn’t your usual current and savings account balances, because Moven doesn’t focus on accounts – it focuses on behaviour: “This is organised around a vision: this is the app that helps me build better spending habits, and guides me to save and buy something I want.”

The lifestyle element of Moven starts from the moment Sion enters the app: he doesn’t actually have to log in. “I’ve enabled it to recognise the ID on my phone. We did that because there are very few lifestyle apps on your phone that require you to log in every time.” Banks take a black and white approach, says Sion: either you’re logged in and can access everything, or you’re outside and can see nothing. With Moven, you can look at basic information without a password, only requiring one when it comes to doing things like transferring funds.

Global ambition
Moven has started moving beyond the US, currently operating in New Zealand in partnership with Westpac, and in Canada in collaboration with TD Bank. Moven in Canada operates as TD My Spend, a companion app to TD Bank’s regular app. “It’s like Facebook and Facebook Messenger: they are separate apps, but they’re completely integrated.” Yes, they’re considering the UK, says Sion: “Commerce and its behaviors do not discriminate by geography. We have very ambitious plans to drive growth. … We’re poised, in this calendar year, to break a million people using the Moven experience.”

Over the coming year, Moven’s plans are to continue to expand its partnerships with banks: “We’ve got a healthy pipeline of opportunities to do that, and to expand by geography.” On the consumer side, it’s all about broadening the product line: “We started out with a basic focus on what consumers would consider spending, and we now monitor savings habits too. Further out – I don’t like to use the word credit, because credit is just spending. Spending money I don’t have, basically! But we’re going to continue down the expansion pipeline, to the point where we’re full-service. You’ll soon be able to get every experience from us that you currently get from a full-service retail banking operation.”

Over and over

This Recording, June 2016. 

In which we try not to be suspicious

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 16.01.12Over and over

A while back, for about a year, I lived in a flat with a classic roll-top bathtub. It’s one of those features that looks classy when you see the place for the first time: claw-shaped feet, separate chrome taps for hot and cold. Then, after moving day, you go to take the first shower in your new place and you realise you’ve made a terrible mistake: you can’t stand up to wash, but must lie down, like a child, as the shower head doesn’t attach to the wall. It’s simply sitting there, draped across the taps, and you’ll have to hold it over your head yourself. So for the next year that was what I did: I held the shower head in one hand while attempting to get the soap out of my hair with the other, as the frustration built.

It’s been ten years since I lived in that flat, in London’s Camberwell. I’ve had fully functioning stand-up showers in every place I’ve lived in since – I made sure of that because I know now: a good shower is a small but powerful pleasure. I probably haven’t thought about the Camberwell bath humiliation every time I’ve had a shower in the past decade, but it’s close. I can confidently say that I think of it at least a couple times a week. If I’m in a hotel, or somewhere else with a particularly good shower, I will wax lyrical about it afterwards, to anyone who will listen and even if they won’t. Because I once had a bad shower year, I’ll tell them, back when I lived in Camberwell. It was around 2006. It was rough! I had very long hair, you see. I remember it well.

Ten years is a long time to think about a bad shower. But I’ve appreciated the hell out of a good wash ever since, so maybe it was worth it? My partner has dubbed this the Camberwell Effect: when a negative experience boosts future appreciation. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, after having been sick for three weeks. In the grand scheme of illness it wasn’t that bad, granted, but in the depth of it I was still your garden variety miserable: too sick to leave the house or do any work, and unable to wrap my foggy brain around complex thought. All I knew was that I was profoundly uncomfortable. Until one day, after three weeks in bed, I felt up to going outside again. It felt like a miracle. I walked along the canal for a bit before sitting down to watch the ducks, in complete and utter wonder at being able to this without feeling exhausted and dizzy and seconds from falling over. How long would this feeling last?

It’s been about a month since this charmed trip down to the canal, and I can report that the post-illness Camberwell Effect lasted about three weeks. Or maybe it’s still going? It’s more subtle now, but I think it’s still here. I text my mother some photos last week, with the caption: “Greetings from sunny New York City! When you’re feeling well, all is well.” And then: “Is this the sort of thing you say when you’re getting old?!” I thought about this for the rest of the evening – it was the middle of the night in Europe so my question went unanswered for a while. Getting older is a rude awakening when it comes to health – laptop shoulders are real. So maybe the absence of illness, or a really good shower, will become an increasingly reliable trigger for happiness?

My mother, responding in the morning, concurred with my analysis, although I would tell she took the whole thing with a pinch of salt – she does that when I get overly philosophical. And in fairness, New York will certainly thrill even the most jaded of visitors: you don’t need to be freshly bedridden to find a million things to love. But the Camberwell Effect would probably have flourished even if I’d stayed in London, wandering up and down the same old streets. Anything is better than being stuck in my house, bored by Netflix and frustrated by my body’s failure to snap to, in a way only a person historically blessed with good health can be.

These are a few of my favourite things: The first coffee of the morning. Reading great non-fiction in bed. My best friend of 16 years; how our lives are in a striking moment of synchronicity right now. Walking along the canal by my flat. Pho on Kingsland Road. Texting with my best mate; he’s back after we almost ruined it by hooking up but now it’s the way it was always supposed to be. Cocktails with rum. Soda water that fizzes against the roof of the mouth. Working on something I really enjoy; that feeling like it’s going right. Sunshine in the city. The lush, humid feeling of London in the summer. A man who knows exactly what to do. A really great shower. To be well enough to be in the world.

They say that if you start listing nice things every day, soon you’ll find yourself looking for those things and it will change how you see the world. It’s certainly possible to train yourself to be appreciative of a full decade of good showers. Not that I remember most of them – with a few exceptions, they’ve blurred into sameness. The same goes for that first cup of coffee in the morning, sipped in silence as it wakes me up, bringing with it the promise of the day. It is a perfect pleasure, in part because it’s so very simple. I didn’t even have to do anything to feel like this – there’s no Camberwell Effect at work here. There are certainly things I love just as much as this early morning caffeine jolt to the system, but nothing that’s quite so lovely in its uncomplicated nature. Maybe that’s just caffeine addiction for you, but it’s good nonetheless and I try not to be suspicious of good things.

Back in London, I was walking along the road the other night, the weekend was just starting and my hair has been on excellent run lately. It was still wet, fresh from yet another hands-free shower, but it wouldn’t take long in the warm evening. Then “The Jean Genie” came on in my earbuds, and I emptied my coffee as I felt my pace quicken. It was a perfect moment: I was alone, about to see someone I love. It wouldn’t last long, but it happens all the time, over and over.