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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Hampi: A sacred patch of India

Qatar Happening, August 2015. Original article (p40-41).

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Hampi: A sacred patch of India
This spot in central India is out of the way, but Hampi’s elaborate landscape of ruins and relaxed village life is nothing short of magical.

It’s only 10 o’clock in the evening, but all of Hampi seems to be asleep. As India demands you adjust to its temperament, I’m trying to sleep too, but I’m distracted by a smell drifting in through my window. There’s only shutters separating me from the world outside, not glass, as Hampi is a small village and this is actually a family house. The smell is pungent but not unpleasant, so my curiosity drives me to peek outside: four cows stare back at me. They’ve gone to bed for the night too, and this is their spot: right in the middle of the street.

Hampi is a place that’s very easy to like. The ruins of this once-grand city stretch out for several kilometres, meaning there’s endless things to explore. It’s truly an amazing place: it’s as if a group of giants once had a play-fight here, throwing the great big boulders around. Today the rocks sit where they landed in the landscape, and the villagers live their lives while the travellers roam about. It feels different here, like another kind of India: while most of the country will overwhelm your senses, Hampi will let you catch your breath.

Make sure to bring good walking shoes to Hampi, as most of the sights are spread out through the landscape. Stretches of road are surrounded by ever-more amazing ruins, and you never quite know if you’ve reached your destination because the maps are vague and directions general. But you’ll know when you’ve reached Vittala Temple, the star attraction in Hampi. Elaborate stone carvings are found on every surface, and one is more incredible than the last, concluding in the ornate stone chariot whose wheels could once spin. The architecture brings frequent of representations of Hanuman the monkey god, people with hands folded in greetings, rows of elephants, gods and goddesses, scenes from epic tales, flowers and patterns, plus the various stages of attraction. Everything is sacred.

The Royal Centre is the other key site in Hampi, and here the highlights come thick and fast: the Underground Shiva Temple, which is partially submerged; the elegant Lotus Mahal, with its onion-shaped arches; and the Elephant Stables, which are massive but playful with the various shapes of domes, each enclave big enough for numerous creatures. But maybe the best part is the random temples strewn around in the landscape? Hampi will constantly distract you from your plans, in the best way possible. One day I stumbled onto a massive statue with four arms, called the Mustard Seed Ganesha, and then some temple whose name I forgot to take down; it’s covered in elaborate carvings and anywhere else it would be a major sight – but in Hampi it’s not even on the map.

There’s always more to explore in Hampi, but you’ll be forgiven if you leave having missed a few sights: some of the best times you’ll have in Hampi will certainly be spent lounging around. Make sure to trim the nails on your eating hand, as most meals won’t come with cutlery: you shape the food into balls with the right hand and push it into your mouth with the thumb. After a vegetarian curry or dhal off a banana leaf, make sure to have some masala chai, or maybe a glass of sweet lime.

Every night, crowds are drawn to the ruins at Hemakuta Hill, where they watch the sunset, surrounded by the monkeys who seem to enjoy the sky spectacle too. The hill is just up behind Virupaksha Temple, Hampi’s working house of worship. People bring flowers and coconuts, the latter broken on a rock before offered to the god in question. As I tip-toe around inside, not quite sure where non-hindus can go, a holy man motions me over; he presses yellow powder against my forehead and tells me I’m welcome. The best part though, is Lakshmi the Elephant, who oversees the temple. She will let you pet her, and if you give her a coin, there’s a blessing for you too.

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Staycations in the London summer

The Billfold, June 2015. Original article

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 12.18.33Staycations in the London summer
I woke up by myself today in my little flat in Hackney. My husband is away for work, so I slept past 10 o’clock which I never do unless I’m alone. As much as I like company, I’m very good at being by myself, especially in London. Last weekend I meant to go to a neighbourhood book festival but ended up roaming around all day until it was dark, even though this is June, the lightest month.

Something like that might have happened again today, but my best friend K text me, wanting to meet for coffee. I said yes despite having to rush, because there’s never too much time to spend with K. I took the Overground to Whitechapel, which all of a sudden has plenty of good coffee, the calling card of an “up and coming” neighbourhood. K and I talked for an hour and I decide to walk home, taking the meandering route through the backstreets.

London is full of concrete, but I’ve never seen a major city that’s this green. There are trees and flowers everywhere, drooping over the brick walls and onto the pavements. This city is a very pretty boy right now. It’s been muggy lately but it’s warm, and before long you’re sweating under grey cloud. London is tough in the winter, but for six months over the summer, there’s nothing you can do to get me to leave the city. Right now, London is better than anything I can imagine.

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“I’m an unrepentant Londoner, and the places that have chosen me – because I think it’s that way round: places choose you, rather than vice versa – have already done so. I think you only have room for two or three serious affairs of place in a lifetime, just as you only have emotional space for two or three serious love affairs,” said the writer Will Self.

I first read this a few years ago and I keep coming back to it. Familiarity isn’t enough to love a place, as I was familiar with the village I grew up in but it never felt anything like this. I’ve lived in London for 12 years now – it wasn’t love at first sight because this city is hard on newcomers, but if you stick it out, this place will reward you. I always say it takes two years to get on good terms with London, and it took me even longer to love it, maybe six years. That’s nothing like my experience of ever falling in love with a person, but make no mistake: London is it for me.

Most of the time it’s nice but nothing unusual, and then suddenly it’ll come over me: I’ll be walking along and I’ll look up and I realise that damn, I love this city. If I’m on a bus crossing the Thames, it’s bound to happen. Often though, it happens during the moments when London’s not so shiny, when I’m distracted or thrown off course. London has a knack for keeping you in that in-between space: a little hot, a little cold, leaving you guessing what’s coming.

Like the other night when I was out with my friend G. We just wanted to leave the house for beers, but suddenly we were wrists deep in barbecue sauce because that’s what Hackney is like now: cocktails and ribs. It was too cool to be wearing shorts down by the canal but we walked along anyway, shivering in the early London summer. Because isn’t this the best part? It’s so light, so much summer still to come.

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I have a list in my head of things I want to do this summer, during the annual London staycation when I won’t leave the city. I want to go see Agnes Martin at the Tate Modern, and the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art. I want go out to the Thames Barrier Park – this is the city’s flood barrier and a work of art. I haven’t been there in years as it’s a bit out of the way, but I want to go with my husband and a bottle of prosecco. I want to try this cocktail bar in Soho with my new friend R, and talk about work the whole time because sometimes that’s the best.

I saw a picture on Instagram from the Nunhead Reservoir recently, which apparently has amazing views of the city, a rare find in a shallow dish like London. I’ve never been to Nunhead. A few years ago, I went cycling up past the Hackney Marshes with the then-boyfriend who got me to finally buy a bicycle, and I’ve been wanting to go again ever since. There’s a grotty pub up the River Lea where you can get lunch, and even though the food won’t be great it won’t matter.

Sometimes though, the best way to go see the sights is having guests from out of town. When my mother visited recently we went to the London Transport Museum, which is brilliant: it chronicles the history of the Tube so it’s part trainset playground, but it’s also partially an archive of functional graphic design. Away from the rush hour, the Underground is a treat to explore, even after all these years – each line a different pattern of colours, each station a different style. I passed through Baker Street station the other day, on the platform that was part of the very first Tube line. The light wells are still streaming daylight down onto the platform.

I got out at Paddington, just onto the canal, which in West London is the same water that runs past my house in East London. It’s funny – I always tell people the key to London is to find your neighbourhood, that’s how the city will start making sense to you. I once spent three months not leaving Hackney, which would be easy to do again – like when I get Vietnamese on Kingsland Road with my friend C and we order the same things every time. There’s so much more to London than the patch where I live, but there’s a reason why I live here.

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Last weekend I met up with K again, we walked along the canal up past London Fields, taking the long back around to my house. It’s quiet on the roads around here, away from the main stretch where the buses run. Heavy with green and flowers, and all the beautiful yellow-brick victorian terrace houses we can’t afford to live in. Then we came across this odd building made from corrugated iron plates, sticking out like a sore thumb in the row of pretty houses. It’s the Sight of Eternal Life church, said the internet, thought to be the oldest surviving “Tin Tabernacle” in the world. I took a photo and we walked on, but that’s the best part, I think: finding a piece of curiosity in a place I’ve lived for years, but somehow it’s something I’ve never noticed.

I took my mother on a long walk along the canal too when she was here, spending a whole day away from the London she knows from the pictures. Down past the canal locks and up through the market, into the park and down through the quiet back roads – I’ve walked this route so many times, and looked up to think, so many times, how much I love this city. Almost everything big that’s ever happened to me has happened in London. I know I keep saying things are the best, but there’s always something else about London that’s the best. Now how’s that for a love affair.

Sicily: The eyes, the belly, the heart

Qatar Happening, May 2015. Original article p106-107.

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Sicily, Italy:
The eyes, the belly, the heart

Sicily’s overwhelming Baroque architecture will fight hard for your attention, but in the end it’s the food that will win you over. The pasta, yes, and certainly the gelato – but best of all, the cannoli.

You think Sicily is going to be similar to the rest of Italy, but it really isn’t. This island is a different creature, a unique culture found across the water from the boot-shaped mainland. Sicilia may be an Italian island, but its soul is its very own.

There’s a lived-in feel to Sicily, creating an atmosphere far more homely than the polished squares of Northern Italy. Sicilian village squares fill with ladies in black at lunchtime, and coppola-clad men at dusk, as the locals claim these spaces as their own. Though the backdrop to this neighbourly charm is gorgeous, elaborate baroque architecture, which is found all across the island. Curvy, deep façades host dozens upon dozens of stone sculptures, showing us the detailed faces of the saints, the cuddly cherubs, the swooning angels.

3000-year-old Palermo remains a city the making, proud and ready for its next heyday. Sicily’s biggest city is a little worn around the edges, sure, but it’s got better things to do than to stay on top of all this upkeep. So many little churches, all those charmingly narrow streets, not to mention the massive cathedral and the Norman palace, the latter not just a historical attraction but also the seat of the Sicilian Assembly. Don’t miss the Fontana Pretoria, a Renaissance concoction of nymphs rummaging around in the water. When it was built in 1573, the spectacle shocked the church-going locals to the extent they named it the Fountain of Shame.

The pride of the newer part of Palermo is the Teatro Massimo, the third-largest 19th century opera house in Europe and a symbol of Sicily’s key heritages: cultural creativity, old world bureaucracy, and Mafia influences. All the travel books are clear on this: Don’t mention the Mafia! But sometimes a friendly local, eager to set things right, will bring it up: “You do what you can and try to make an honest living,” one man said. “Sicily is so much more than just the Mafia.”

Like the food. The food! The Sicilians may have invented the Mafia but they also created the wonder that is gelato ice cream. This island has gelato shops the way the rest of the world has tobacco shops, always there to provide a hit of creamy, sweet goodness in a whole alphabet of flavours. Ask for black chocolate, Sicilian almond, or maybe best of all, the local pistachio. The best gelato is found on Sicily’s east coast, which is two hours from Palermo by car. Noto is a little town boasting a stunning little historical centre, but the star attraction is possibly Corrado Costanzo, supposedly one of the best ice cream shops in the entire world. Try the almond and cinnamon and eat it while swooning up the street, taking in the stone buildings which glow red as the sun is setting.

Another medieval hillside town worth a visit is Modica, where you’ll exhaust yourself climbing the steep streets, passing a cattedrale here, a chiesa there. While Noto is the place for ice cream, Modica’s claim to fame is its chocolate, specifically that of Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. Everything is made from traditional recipes in the kitchen behind the counter, creating bold chunks of chocolate flavoured with vanilla or lavender, or maybe have some with chilli pepper that goes straight to your head.

But the star of Sicily’s east coast is probably the Ortygia peninsula in Syracuse. Ortygia looks like it’s been dug out of yellow stone, stacked within the walls like a perfect timepiece. Myriads of alleys open onto little piazzas, where espresso is served to patrons stood at the counter, one foot resting on the low-slung rail. The Siracusa cathedral incorporates columns from the Greek temple which once stood in its place, renowned throughout the ancient world for its large golden statue of Athena. Mary stands in her place today. Make sure to stick around in Syracuse until dinner, maybe for a plate of tomato-salty linguini topped with piles of claims, or go for the gnocchi – it’s made not from potato but from clouds. Then, round off the evening with a trademark cannoli: the crispy pastry, ricotta cream, and a sprinkle of pistachio will be the highlight of your day. You may not speak Italian, but this is a language you’ll instantly recognise.

A Swedish treat

Qatar Happening, March 2015. Original article p110-111

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A Swedish treat
The cobblestoned old town, the royal castles, the Södermalm cafes, and the archipelago wilderness just at the doorstep – Stockholm is the picture of Scandinavian cool.

Is Stockholm the best little city in Scandinavia? The capital of Sweden is certainly a hot contender: a picturesque town with yellow-toned buildings and cobblestoned streets, surrounded by water as the city spreads out across the neighbouring islands. Stockholm feels like a metropolis, but any local will tell you that the skärgård is possibly the best part: over 30,000 rocky islands make up an archipelago ripe for discovery.

Landscapes vary widely across the archipelago, from ancient villages where many Stockholmers have summer houses, to coves, beaches, lush greenery, and big flat rocks. Waxholmsbolaget runs a comprehensive ferry service around the archipelago, with the five-day ticket as the top choice to really get a chance to explore the historic community at Dalarö, the nature reserve at Grinda, and the cradle of Swedish porcelain at Gustavsberg.

But there’s plenty to charm you in downtown Stockholm too, starting with the Gamla Stan neighbourhood. The city was founded here in 1252, and today it’s a popular place to eat, drink, shop and wander. The winding cobblestoned streets require sturdy shoes, but it’s worth it for the scenery of sagging buildings in shades of yellow, red and orange. A walk around Gamla Stan will take you to the Nobel Museum, which has the story of the prize and its founder, Alfred Nobel. The Swedish chemist and engineer held 355 patents, and his legacy continues to honour men and women around the world for their achievements in science, literature and peace.

Stockholm’s Royal Palace is located downtown, but the most impressive royal experience is the Drottningholm Palace, a quick boat ride away. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed castle is the home of Sweden’s King and Queen, but in true Scandinavian spirit, part of the building and the grounds are open to the public. The beautifully manicured gardens are worth the trip alone. ABBA fans can get their fill at the ABBA Museum, which has everything and then some: all that elaborate clothing, lots of gold records, Benny’s piano, and the helicopter from the ‘Arrival’ cover. You’ll walk in, promises the museum, but you’ll dance your way out.

Sweden’s world class art museum is the Moderna Museet, with its excellent collection of art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Visitors will find works from big names such as Picasso, Dalí, and Irving Penn, and benefit from the museum’s tradition of keeping close relationships with artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. This mix of worldly connections and Scandinavian cool is typical of Stockholm, whose cutting edge style still manages to remain true to its traditions. Look for the Dalahorse to take home as a souvenir – this distinct shape has become a symbol of Sweden. Visit around midsummer and you’ll experience something uniquely Swedish: tall maypoles are raised as the country pretty much shuts down, as everyone gathers to sing, dance and eat on the lightest night of the year.

While it’s not the cheapest place to travel, Stockholmers will go a long way to compensate with their friendly, polite manner. A good place to meet them is the thriving Södermalm district, which has some of the best coffee houses and watering holes in the city. Try a jam tart at Gildas Rum, browse a haven of vinyl records at Pet Sounds Bar, or a burger and fancy beer at Akkurat. Local treats such as lingonberry jam, crayfish, crispbread, and pickled herring are ones to look out for, plus the classic Princess cake topped with green marzipan.

Most Swedes speak great English, but you may want to learn a few words: hej (hi), tack (thank you), and fika – the latter is untranslatable but provides a vital clue into the Swedish way of life. Practically speaking, fika is a coffee and a sticky cinnamon bun, but it’s all about the spirit of sitting down and taking a moment to enjoy life.

Michael Whitfield, CEO and co-founder of Thomsons Online Benefits

Megabuyte, February 2015. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 15.13.06The Megabuyte Interview: Michael Whitfield
Michael Whitfield talks about all sorts during our meeting, but everything he says is really about one thing: how culture is everything at Thomsons Online Benefits. Even the cheery pink decor in the headquarters in London’s Victoria is a symbol of the company’s values: “We are quite pink here. We talk about passion and fun, people are brave here, they can do stuff – that’s the essence of what we’re trying to achieve.” Recently Whitfield felt the company was becoming too process-y, with too many people changing the proverbial lightbulb, and issued a call for more pink: “Don’t tell me you can’t get it done for six months. Find a way! I feel the culture of this business, so if something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. I think that’s a great way to run a company.”

We’re sitting in Whitfield’s office, shared with co-founder Chris Bruce, surrounded by photographs of Whitfield with his colleagues. The CEO’s lanyard, worn over a grey jumper on this cold winter day, carries the same sort of badges as seen around the office: “Vitality”, reads one; another: “I’m tidy”. Whitfield could also be labelled as engaged and enthusiastic, with a knack for delivering even critical opinions in a respectful manner. “I don’t believe in cutthroat and ruthless, I think business is about relationships. That’s what keeps the world going around, and it keeps us honest as a business.”

The changing world of work
Thomsons Online Benefits turns 15 this year, having built a name for itself as a specialist software provider for employee benefits. “Most employers around the world provide some sort of benefits for their staff, but up until the last ten years they’ve not put much thought into how they provide those benefits, or whether employees actually want, need, or like them!”

Increasingly, employers are coming around to the fact that flexibility and choice are key to providing the benefits that attract the best staff. That can mean working remotely, job sharing, bring-your-own-device, health plans, or canteen vouchers: “I’ve always said to companies: you have to give people choice, you have to give people what they want. The millennial generation want something completely different to the baby boomers. People don’t have set retirement ages anymore, so that’s a choice they’re going to have to make.”

The Thomsons technology enables this flexibility, says Whitfield, but the changing world of work ultimately means the boundaries of employer and employee trust has to change. “And this is probably necessary if we want people to have better work-life balance, time to bring their kids up, more time to work, less barriers to working.” Most companies place major barriers to mothers coming back to work by demanding they work full time, says Whitfield: “You have to allow some flexibility. If not, your talent will go work somewhere else, or become a disgruntled employee.”

At Thomsons they practice what they preach, Whitfield assures me, explaining how most of the software engineers won’t show up until 10am, maybe even noon, but will happily work into the evenings: “I just want them to be in their optimal state to write code. […] This is about allowing people to do what they want in their lives, while also delivering the work we want at the appropriate time. I’m after getting the best quality, and having happy brilliant people working.”

International appetite
After undergoing a series of changes in recent years, from the Retail Distribution Review to a partnership with private equity group ABRY Partners in Boston, Thomsons now has its ducks in a neat row: “Our core product is delivering benefits to clients online, and we feel very comfortable doing that,” says Whitfield, who is wary of losing focus through too much diversification. ”We decided to go with ABRY because we wanted a partner who understood the world. It was time to find a global player.” The company is contracted to clients in 120 countries over the next five years, with a determined focus on increasing its global presence. When facing off with the likes of Workday, Thomsons competes on the fact that benefits software is its core focus: “Lots of companies try to offer benefits software, but they are less successful because it’s part of a suite, or it’s an afterthought. For us, it’s all that we do.”

Asked if he feels Thomsons’ global plans are ambitious, the CEO rather thinks this has been a long time coming: “We have eight of the world’s top ten companies as clients, and you don’t get those easily.” He remembers when Google was scouting out the company before becoming a client, and someone commented how the Thomsons culture felt a bit like Google. Not that Whitfield wants to be Google – he wants to be Thomsons – but it’s a nice compliment. “No, I don’t think we’re at all ambitious. I think we are being realistic and our growth plans are very achievable. We achieve our numbers.”

Pushing for change
Whitfield describes founding Thomsons at 40 his “good midlife crisis”, although he’d been working with benefits and financial services a while time before this. “My original plan was to go to university and become a barrister. But my parents divorced and I had little guidance, so I ended up going to work at 18.” This was at Bentalls department store in Kingston, “the best retail training I ever had”, teaching Whitfield how to treat customers. Deciding there wasn’t any money in retail, Whitfield made the switch to financial services, moving through Bishop Cavanagh, Swire Fraser, Alexander Forbes: “I got thrust into a world where I dealt with individual clients, and those clients went on to become managing directors who then asked me to look after their companies. Those companies had benefit requirements, so that was my evolution.”

The spark that later became Thomsons Online Benefits came one Saturday when Whitfield was ordering groceries online: “I was on a big dial-up PC, it took hours and all the wrong stuff turned up, but it was fun because it was online!” This was around 1997. “And I thought, I must apply this to what I’m doing, there must be a way. That was the trigger.” Whitfield knew nothing about technology at the time, but there was so much paper-based admin around benefits, and this could be a chance to change it.

Whitfield’s ambitions for the company has certainly changed since the early days: “I had no idea how big it would get. I remember thinking at the time: wouldn’t it be good to get a million in recurring revenues?” He laughs; now over 80% of Thomsons’ £36.7m revenues are recurring. “I never thought we’d grow this big, but now I don’t think there’s any limit to how big we could grow. We have some fantastic clients and we love what we do. The world is a very small place, and it’s up to companies like to us to go and say…” Whitfield pauses. “When Chris and I first started, people told us we could never put all this online, getting rid of the paper.” Never? “No. You needed a wet signature.”

Well, you don’t need a wet signature anymore. Whitfield never finishes his point about what “companies like us” should go out in the world and do, but his next anecdote provides a hint: Thomsons also pioneered online pension enrollment in the UK by confronting the tax authorities about the red tape, illustrating how plucky little companies, which do just one thing really well, may just have the attitude and motivation to create change.

Cultural lessons
A bold move with more risk attached came four years into the life of the company, when a decision was made to scrap the home-made software and go with Microsoft’s .NET framework. “It was the best thing we ever did, because it allowed us the flexibility we have today. It was a brave thing to do and it went well – it didn’t have to go well! But it did.”

But the period that taught Whitfield the most came around 2010, when Thomsons “went off on a tangent”. The co-founders were advised to step back from the day-to-day runnings, and the company went from 125 to 250 people in the space of a year. “We had all these new people come in without Chris and I living and breathing the culture on a daily basis. The old people lived the values and the behaviours, and the new people didn’t care. After about six months I said: ‘Enough, this isn’t going to work. We are losing the culture which makes us special.’”

It took the co-founders six months to get the company back on track, but it became a lesson in sticking to your guns when you have a passionate conviction about where you want to go. “Of course you listen to advice, but if you know what you’re doing is right, it probably is. […] I learned a huge amount about the business, and about myself. We became a much better business and I became a much better leader.”

Running with your head up
Whitfield (56) is a Londoner, “born and bred all my life”, now living in Barnes where he’s chairman of the local rugby club. He has two children in London and three in Canada following “a couple of iterations” of marriage: “They are very diverse: my youngest in London are students. In Canada, one is running a university treasury department, he’s about to finish uni. One runs a business, one sells advertising.” Whitfield likes to get up at 5.30 every morning and “keep this old body in shape”, and he’s passionate about sports: “I still play the occasional game of rugby. I’m also into travel, reading, holidays, so yes, passionate in and out of work! But as I get older I feel I have sacrificed a lot in terms of time with the kids. I try and make up for that now. We spend time together, all the kids, they get on well.”

Proper work-life balance isn’t just something the CEO facilitates for his staff and customers, readily recognising he’s at his most creative after he’s been on holiday for a few weeks, “when my mind is rested and free from the clutter of the day-to-day work”. Getting some distance from the daily grind also ensures Whitfield can keep an eye on what’s on the horizon for the business: “You have to run a business with your head up, not down. That’s how you play sports as well.”

At Thomsons, this means talking to everyone in the company, and Whitfield makes sure to check in with every new face. “Your people keep you honest,” he says, not for the first time during our chat. “Nothing excites me more than a challenging period of growth, as I know I have to be really alert. You have to get up and work a bit faster and harder, and walk around the business more.”

Keeping in touch with the people of Thomsons, making sure the culture and the “pink mist” is strong, is without a doubt what motivates Whitfield: “When you are young you want to do it yourself, proving you are the best at what you do. Now I want to see my talent be the best. I look at my talent growing with the business, and it’s great to see them feeling empowered to do brilliant things. It’s that, not me, which will make this business great in the future.”

The little daylight

This Recording, February 2015. Original article.

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The little daylight

I got on the plane – you always get on the plane in the end. I went to Norway thinking I could always go back to the city early if it got to be too much: the cold, the dark, the silence. I do that now, whenever I leave London: I tell myself I can go back early. Twelve years of living in the Big Smoke and it keeps getting better, or maybe I’m just getting greedier for it? For years my habit has been to always have a plane ticket waiting to take me somewhere, but lately the date of departure approaches and I don’t really want to go. London is gritty, demanding and thrilling, and the constant noise has been a backdrop to every significant thing in my life.

It’s been several days since I came to Norway now, I couldn’t really say; Scandinavian days are so short in winter. Sunset came at 3.45pm today, six and a half hours after the sunrise. Then, once the sun has disappeared, the sky seems to stay blue forever. It’s partially because it’s cold, minus 12°C today, rendering each intake of breath sharp and the air sparkling clear. I lived here for 18 years, but I don’t really remember much about winter. Until I got here a few days ago I’d forgot how the long, slow dark feels so dense once you’re in it, like being in a submarine at the bottom of the sea. The daylight is small, in length and in intensity, like there’s a light somewhere just around the bend but it doesn’t quite stretch far enough to fill up the sky.

As cold as Norway may get in the winter, I was never cold when I lived here. I’m not cold this time either, even after a week of relatively mild frost in London that nevertheless felt like a severe and personal form of punishment. The difference is that Norway expects the cold, so people accept it and prepare for it, not like the English style of remaining in denial while shivering in thin coats in drafty rooms, wondering what’s happened to the air. In Norway, you dress like a polar explorer, with double wool down the arms and legs and insulated shoes. The tricks for managing cold weather is slowly resurfacing from my subconscious, where it’s been buried all these years I’ve been away.

I don’t usually go to Norway in the winter anymore but I this year I’m between houses, so I figured my mother’s place in this small Norwegian town would be a nice place to be technically homeless. I was right: it’s peaceful and plentiful here, even in the cold. Everywhere you go is a warm room with ice on the windows. There are no distractions here, but somehow I’m still finding the hours slipping away, and suddenly the front door clicks open as my mother comes home from work. The town is sleepy under the snow covering the streets, the gardens and the porches. The roads are empty as people retreat to their wood-heated houses at night, red-cheeked from frost with hair static from wooly hats.

The night comes so early and I never quite get a grasp on the day before it slips away. The novelty of the dim light distracts me from the things I need to do, as I work in the warmth looking out at the cold, where the disappearing blue light is reflected by the snow. The whole world feels quiet here. I love London more than any place I’ve ever been, I adore the rush and the noise, and I keep thinking this silence will start to bore me soon. But for now I’m just wandering around, from the table to the tea kettle to the bed and back, revelling in the little daylight. Life feels simple here, in the way it always does when you spend time in a place that’s not your home. I was born here but it never felt quite right, in ways that had nothing to do with the light or the temperature.

Now that I’m a visitor it’s okay, it’s even a treat to spend a few days being someone I’m not. There’s a luxury in allowing myself to enjoy the dark and the cold, just for a little while. So I’m just going to sit here, watching the constant changes of the light, drinking in the silence with a thirst that won’t last for long, but right now it feels endless.