Leaving London – No man’s land #3

Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference 

In the wider world, Royston is a place for arrivals, departures and intervening connections. House prices reflect good transport links via international airports (two within 45 minutes), motorways (two within 15 minutes by car on a good day) and 10 minutes by train to Stevenage for rail links to the north and Scotland, and south to London.

royston-to-london-milestoneIronically, Royston is more connected to the rest of the world than the rest of Hertfordshire, and, in fact, the rest of North Hertfordshire. I know at least two 20-somethings in Letchworth who have never travelled the 12 miles to Royston (11 minutes by train). I think Royston and District (that’s the SG8 postcode) should be declared an independent republic. Most or the one million inhabitants of Hertfordshire have never been to Royston. Even work colleagues in the other corner of the county used to ask me whether I actually returned to Royston at the end of each day; for them it was another world (‘there be dragons…’ etc)

Unlike in the trading days of old, many more people have driven past Royston without stopping – it’s on the A10, the old London to Cambridge route before the M11 was built.  Even for us, our first visit from our home in North London to Royston was for house-hunting. I had sworn I’d never commute into London but my wife convinced me that it needn’t be difficult as I was working near Kings Cross station at the time and her family lived in Norfolk – making Royston a much more accessible place to live.

I could say that we finally decided to leave Hackney when we heard someone being shot dead on their doorstep after a late-night party bust-up. But that wouldn’t be true; we heard the fatal shooting but we’d already decided to move out.

In fact the final push for me was returning to London after a weekend in Norfolk. Our two-year-old daughter was fast asleep in the back of the car, my stress levels were rising with every mile we travelled, then crawled, towards the city. I could almost smell the air as we arrived home. Like many before us, we moved out of London for the fresher air, reduced congestion, and affordable property when our toddler needed her own bedroom.

clissold-park-cafe-2I have never regretted the move although I do miss the cakes in the Clissold Park cafe (since tarted up and, no doubt, now selling… tarts).

During 16 years studying, living and working in London, I never made the most of the opportunities on my doorstep. In our first week at university, our tutor warned us we’d put off discovering London until it was too late.         She was right.

It wasn’t even about money; I just kept putting off the sightseeing to a later date that never arrived. I got to know only very small parts of the city (Willesden Green, Finchley, Islington, and then Stoke Newington) feeling most connected in the final two years there when our daughter was born and we got to know other new parents.

While working in London, my professional and personal lives were kept quite separate; a practice that has helped me, apart from some notable lapses, to sustain a sort of work/life balance throughout my career. I say ‘sort of’ because my work has been less a career path more a lifelong cause – something I’d probably do whether or not I was paid. This was illustrated by my young daughter, at a time when I often worked from home. She asked me one Saturday morning “Are you working today Dad?“No” I said, trying to be helpful, “I’m doing what I did yesterday, but today I’m not getting paid to do it”. I think that confused rather than clarified the situation for her.

In London I lived at various addresses north of the river. For a couple of years my MP was Margaret Thatcher and her signed response to my complaint about the state of the roads for cyclists (I was one then) was a treasured possession for at least a week. I spent two years in Islington living with a journalist who, I later learned, was charging me 90% of the ‘shared’ rent to pay for her drug habit. I also learned she’d chosen me as a flatmate because she’d heard I’d travelled in South America and (wrongly) assumed I’d returned with, at the very least, a handful of coca leaves.

The move to Hackney was to move in with a Bart’s nurse who was to become my wife. We lived in a terraced road off Stoke Newington High Street for several years. It was wonderfully quiet but this didn’t stop thieves stealing the bonnet from a neighbour’s car across the street on a hot summer night when everyone had their windows open – that takes skill. All we had stolen were headlight surrounds, a car radio, and a Vauxhall bonnet badge from my wife’s Chevette (much sought after for spares…)

prince-of-wales-n16The pub around the corner was good for the odd drink after a busy week; a semi-regular two pints on Friday evenings almost made it our local. The real regulars would prop up the bar night after night. I assumed they were loneIy old men (one looked just like Lord Snooty from The Dandy kid’s comic) seeking solace in a pint at the Prince of Wales, or the POW as it was known. Then one evening, after a couple of years, I heard one of the regulars saying he was off home because his missus would have his tea on the table. Maybe I was right after all – lonely old men in loveless long-term marriages, more at home in the pub than at home. (The POW has since been tarted up and re-named ‘The Prince’ – Lord Snooty must be spinning in his grave.)

Compared to Hackney, Royston was a backwater. We’d landed in what seemed like a quaint and quiet corner of little Britain, not unlike TV’s Royston Vasey made famous by The League of Gentlemen. The crime scene was more The Bill* than The Sweeney – the town’s mayor was being exposed on national TV for wrongdoing associated with his estate agent business, and the Royston Crow newspaper’s crime reports were about parked cars being ‘keyed’ – annoying, but hardly life-threatening. Then there were the quirky couples – two local councillors Deborah Duck and Ted Drake and, sometime after we’d settled in, two married couples swapped partners. This was life in the slow lane – in the unhurried-and-interesting, not traffic-jam-crawling – sense. Life in Royston was to serve us well.

*Some TV trivia – an actor from The Bill bought our house in Hackney, and Sun Hill police station in the TV series was named after Sun Hill in Royston where creator Geoff Mcqueen lived.

To be continued….

For other blogs in the ‘No man’s land’ series click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land

Green and Grey Repurpose – standing desk

img_0006Did you know that standing up at work for an average 3 hours a day for a year is the equivalent calorie burn (approx 30,000 calories) of running ten marathons? I discovered this amazing statistic when I discovered a beautiful standing desk (the Eiger) at the Entrepreneurial Spark ‘Hatchery’ in Milton Keynes (where I also got excited about their reclaimed scaffold board tables).

I couldn’t afford the Eiger, so it got me thinking… could I make one by re-purposing a slatted wooden chair? I put a call-out for such a chair through our local Freegle group. I got offered three!

With a bit of head scratching (I haven’t got hair to pull out) I can up with a low-tech height-adjustable design which also folds flat for easy storage and/or transport. I’m pretty happy with the result – I use it now at my work – and some days I stand up all day.

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I’m a runner, but I don’t do marathons (standing is more my scene)

9 more health benefits from using a standing desk:

  1. When sitting down, your metabolic rate crashes to an absolute minimum. You only burn 1 calories a minute – that’s less than chewing gum!
  2. As soon as you sit, electrical activity in your legs shuts down and enzymes that help break down fat drop 90%
  3. Sitting 6+ hours a day makes you up to 40% likelier to die in 15 years than someone who sits less than 3 hours (even if you exercise)
  4. Worldwide studies have warned that a sedentary lifestyle could be causing as many deaths as smoking
  5. People with sitting jobs have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease as those with standing jobs
  6. Regular exercise regimes do not negate the effects of a sedentary lifestyle – going to the gym two or three times a week isn’t enough
  7. Being sedentary slows down the circulatory system, blood, oxygen and vital nutrients
  8. In the UK, 30 million working days were lost in 2013 from musculoskeletal disorders
  9. Research published in The Lancet in 2016 on more than 1 million office workers found that sitting for at least 8 hours a day could increase the risk of premature death by up to 60%

Source: www.iwantastandingdesk.com  (click to learn more about the Eiger)

Interested in other re-purpose projects?  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/green-grey-repurpose

Green and Grey Repurpose – MeTubes

tab-tube-2Question – what do a pencil, toothbrush, and phone charger have in common?               Answer – calcium tablets.

I’ve been prescribed calcium tablets for osteoporosis (well, against osteoporosis to be more precise). I’m meant to be taking 60 every month for five years. That’s a tube-a-week habit so I’m accumulating a goodly supply of empty plastic tubes with plastic plugs in the end.

Not wanting to waste the NHS’s investment in these tubes (and my health), I’ve set out to devise as many re-purposing ideas for them as I can. Here are the first three (I have some others in development using combinations of tubes – watch this space)

  • img_0020Brushguard – after hearing about potential health hazards on hotel bathroom sinks, I set to work producing a cover for the average toothbush. It works well in a washbag and can be secured upright to a smooth surface in the bathroom using the sucker on the end.
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  • Sharpenhold – big enough to store a couple of short pencils – the kind you find in Ikea, Screwfix and Wickes (see my blog on the value of short pencils – link below) You can also keep your shavings under control and your pencils sharp. Yes – real writing can come in small sustainable containers!
  • img_0016-2The leader – twist the plug to reduce or release the lead between your charging phone and the wall socket. No more tangles, no tripping over a trailing lead, no more people confusing your charger for theirs.

All tubes can be painted for identification, so you don’t try to brush your teeth with a pencil, for personalisation, and to coordinate with your bathroom, office, and phone-cover colour schemes.

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Your turn…

Share your own re-purposing ideas and let’s see if we can come up with “101 uses for an empty tablet tube” I’ll send you (within the UK) three tubes with plugs if you submit an idea with a brief explanation (and preferably a drawing or photo).

Also of interest?

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/green-grey-repurpose/

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/pencils-and-personalisation

On the line – No man’s land # 2

Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference 

img_0039For 25 years, I’ve lived in a kind of no man’s land, on the boundary between Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. Home is Royston, which also happens to sit on the Meridian Line alongside a wealth of other intriguing geographical and historical features including, some say, ley lines.

Royston hasn’t always been wholly in Hertfordshire. The county moved north in 1890s.  The northern boundary is now the A505 – a major east-west artery linking the M11 and M1 – which was upgraded north of Royston by, among others, a civil engineer friend from my school days in York.

When we moved to Royston from Hackney (the second highest home insurance bracket in the country) the estate agent told us we were moving to the second lowest insurance bracket. He unhelpfully said we’d have paid even less house insurance had it not been for our SG8 postcode connection with Stevenage 15 miles to the south.

The estate agent’s local knowledge might not be 100% trustworthy; he failed to mention a town asset that I regard as one of its greatest – the jewel in the crown – which is not as clichéd as it may sound given Royston’s royal connections.

We had bought our house by the time we discovered Therfield Heath – 143 hectares of open grassland, woodland, and managed landscape which entertains golfers, teams of young and not-so-young sport enthusiasts, walkers, revellers, and runners of all ages and abilities. The area was designated as ‘common land’ in 1888 – which some regard as a historical first in environmental legislation.

On reflection, my love of off-road running and the places it’s taken me physically and emotionally probably explains my affection for Therfield Heath.

If the 353 acres of Therfield Heath isn’t enough, it’s also an area of Special Scientific Interest, a Local Nature Reserve, and it boasts a scattering of barrows (ancient burial mounds) burrows (the rabbits breed like… rabbits) and rare purple Pasqueflowers. In olden days, the Heath was the hunting ground for King James 1 – whose former palace is an understated building in the town centre (with the Royal Buttery a listed fish and chip shop alongside).  The Royal connection extends to the local community cinema – the Royston Picture Palace – the winning name in a competition three years ago.img_0029

Travelling the 43 miles south to London non-stop by train is just 35 minutes, making Royston a predominantly commuter town. When the line out of Kings Cross was first electrified in 1850, Royston was the furthest commuters could escape from London without needing to change trains (this was extended to Cambridge in 1866) so the transient element of the town’s population is easily explained. I was one of those commuters for six years, spending much of that time in yet another kind of no man’s land – suspended between home and work.

Some literary trivia for trainspotters – Royston Station is mentioned in the novel ‘About a Boy’ by Nick Hornby, and another bestselling author, Bill Bryson, writes about “a [rail] depot at Royston or some place equally desperate and unwelcome”. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt – that he was referring to the depot, not the town – because I love his books.

In fact, we don’t have a rail depot in Royston, but we do have Johnson Matthey (JM) one of only two significant employers in the town. I was once told there was more gold in Royston than the Bank of England thanks to JM – a company that deals in precious metals. This was not quite true, but Royston did have the world’s second biggest gold refinery until a decade ago when it closed after 200 years.

If Royston’s very own yellow brick road has attracted commuters to start and end journeys there for decades, then its location has made it a place for stopping, resting, refreshing and moving on for traders and travellers for centuries. Being at the crossing of two ancient thoroughfares – Icknield Way east-west (now the A505) and Ermine Street south-north (A10 from London and A1198 to Huntingdon) – gives the market town its reason for being. It also explains the 48 inns and pubs that flourished until as recently as 1900. Sadly, there are now 40 fewer pubs in the town.

img_0042The ancient crossroad location may also explain Royston’s bell-shaped underground cave, in the centre of the town – adorned with mysterious carvings and possibly used as a secret meeting place for Knights Templars (members of a medieval Catholic military order).

Officially, the real origins of the Royston Cave are a mystery which, of course, makes a good story to entice visitors. This is handy as Royston residents seem to know very little about it; many have walked over the cave for decades on their way to the shops without ever venturing underground. The exception is the local cave expert who lived at the bottom of our garden (in a house, not a cave) for many years.  I suspect she knows the real origins of the Royston Cave but, despite my considering her a friend, she’s not letting on like she’s signed the Official Secrets Act.

Another theory is that the Cave is located at the intersection of two ley lines. I was at a meeting recently when someone suggested the lines could explain the loss of radio signals at that point in town. I countered that it was probably the broadcasts from race courses around the country feeding results into the two betting shops also at the crossroads. Not so romantic an explanation perhaps, but nobody knows – it remains a mystery.

To be continued….

For other blogs in the ‘No man’s land’ series click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land

Green and Grey Repurpose – Soap Sock

My mum used to complain “nothing gets better, it only gets worse”. That may make her sound like a pessimist but she wasn’t; she was a lifelong Liberal (and reluctantly a Lib Dem) so she knew all about living hopefully.

I was thinking that paid-for car-washing was going the same way – paying more for an automated and inferior job. Then Eastern European migrant workers came over to wash and polish our cars within an inch of their lives – reviving the fashion for hand-washes.

To encourage this trend for hand-car-washing, I’m kicking off this new series of blogs on re-purposing and hacking, with a new use for an unwanted item of clothing.

img_0012What do you do with a single holey sock that’s beyond darning but too good to throw out? You can turn it into a Soap Sock for cleaning and polishing – cars, cutlery, candlesticks, and other things beginning with ‘c’.

The woolier the sock the better – old bed socks and slipper socks are ideal, woollen walking socks come close, but any holey, wooly sock will do. Ankle socks work better img_0014than stockings but the longer sock can be doubled over if necessary making your soap sock even more absorbent.

Try the sock for size – it should  fit over your hand … like a glove. If it’s a bit loose around your wrist you can keep it in place with one of the rubber bands that posties drop around your front door.                                                                                       img_0020Using your soap sock is easy. For a car wash, you slip the sock over your hand, plunge both into a bucket of hot ‘wash and wax’ water, then caress the body (of the car) as if exfoliating your own contours. Be sure not to miss those awkward little nooks and crannies – particularly around the wheel hubs.

img_0022If washing other surfaces, you can tuck some of those annoying left over slivers of hand soap inside your sock ,so it lathers from within when you dip your hand into the clean water. For polishing jobs, slipper socks work well inside out.

A final tip, if you’re cleaning a tiled/vinyl floor, you can wear two soap socks and shuffle around the room without needing to bend down – my kind of housework.

An afterthought – washing your car is a good opportunity to say ‘hello’ to passers-by and for getting to know your neighbours – even better if you offer to wash their car as well…

Further reading:  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2016/12/31/whats-the-purpose  

 

What’s the purpose?

finger-fun-with-forks

Finger fun with forks

A repairer at our local Repair Café recently told me that the back brace of a windscreen wiper is good for making lock picks. He’s a juggler with a circus school, so he may have a legitimate need to pick locks (when the escapologist can’t?)

When it comes to being environmentally aware and saving resources, we have to learn a list of words beginning with ‘r’ to add’ to the existing green lexicon – recycling, re-using, refusing, reducing.

Two relatively new kids on the block are ‘re-purposing’ and ‘upcycling’. Like the mis-use of ‘recycling’, the two are often used interchangeably. For pedants like me, try this from Mike – co-founder of reCreate Design Co in Sweden; she writes…

“Upcycle, in very simple terms, is taking something and making it better. It’s the reuse of an item that will still be used in the same way – but it looks new and improved. Upcycling can be achieved through paint, add-ons, new upholstery, etc. Repurpose, quite simply, is taking one thing and reusing [or re-creating?] it as something else. “

document-holder-hackThen there’s ‘hack’ by which I don’t mean listening in to  phone messages and e-mails. In this context, a ‘hack’ is a clever solution to a potentially tricky problem. To hack is to modify, or apply an unintended use for, something in a creative way. For me the key element of a hack is the ingenuity brought to practical problem-solving (even if that’s making something you need when you can’t afford to buy). My current favourite hack is to use a retailer’s plastic trouser hanger as a document holder.

All this is a long-winded way of announcing my plan to share my passion for re-purposing through highlighting some examples (some my own, some from others) from time to time on this blogsite.

The first in the series – coming soon – will be a Soap Sock. Feel free to share your own favourite re-purposing and hacking by replying to this blog.

Further reading: 

Recreate Design Co  http://recreatedesigncompany.com

Words to cut waste https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/words-to-cut-waste

The forgotten ‘r’  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/the-forgotten-r-reduce-reuse-recycle-and-repair

Soap Sock https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/01/02/green-and-grey-repurpose-soap-sock 

The story so far

latitude-books-2I was thinking about the power of storytelling the other day when advising young entrepreneurs about how to present their business ideas without using jargon, exaggeration or clichés. In other words, without bullshit. How do you grab attention in a matter of seconds; leading to the much-talked about ‘elevator pitch’?

One way is to say something that surprises your audience. I recently saw a beautifully designed standing desk. It was being promoted with a question – ‘did you know that standing for an average three hours a day at your desk for a year burns more calories than running ten marathons?’

Yes – it surprised me as well. I regret I couldn’t afford to buy that particular standing desk, but the appeal of such calorie loss (even if it’s not true!) while using my laptop was enough to inspire me to design and make my own not-so-beautiful standing desk from an abandoned wooden garden chair.

Another way to connect powerfully with an audience is through storytelling. Antony ‘Tas’ Tasgal, author of ‘The Storytelling Book’, believes stories are under-rated and under-used in business. After being exposed to around 6,000 business presentations, Tas is leading the fight against the debilitating effects of Powerpoint (which he describes as “people in power who can’t make their point”).

But the battle is not yet won; we continue to be bombarded by bullet points and deluged with data. Too often we still experience the mind-numbing effect of the presenter reading each slide as if s/he is seeing it for the first time, which may be the case. And often all this follows a delay to get the computer to talk to the projector. Never perform with children, animals … and technology.

Tas believes we need to develop and polish our story-telling skills, to bring the human element back into business transactions. “We often forget that all of us in sales, marketing and communications are – at least partly – in the business of storytelling” he says “We seem to have fallen headlong into a culture in which business thinking, business talking and business doing have been overtaken by a system that is contrary to our hard-wired storytelling instincts…”

Which is not to say that words alone can always tell the full story. Despite widespread condemnation of the misuse and abuse of statistics, figures do, of course, have a role to play. A fellow business adviser once suggested ‘never present figures without a story, and never tell a story without figures’. Accountants would, of course, argue that a set of figures tell a story without need for further embellishment…

latitude-books-1In the non-for-private-profit world, the art of storytelling can also be used to communicate a charity’s mission effectively, particularly when the stories feature real life experiences. A useful communication tool for trustees and directors is a small set of postcard-sized profiles of individuals who have benefited from the charity’s support. Each one describes the individual’s situation when they first contacted the charity, how the charity worked with them, and their new situation after the charity’s intervention. It has everything – a focus on real people and real benefits, bringing authenticity to the illustration.

A final word from marketing man Andy Bounds “Facts tell, stories sell. Tell stories about what you’ve done for others; don’t just list facts about what you do.” Andy Bounds has made a name for himself writing about ways to make ideas sticky. But that’s another story…

Further insights into the use of stories:

The Storytelling Book http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Anthony-Tasgal/The-Storytelling-Book–Finding-the-Golden-Thread-in-Your-Communications/17487848

A great infographic on capturing and using stories  http://www.imaginepub.com/Image/zTSY2BGi00imRglC0cmfgw/0/0

A word of warning from Seth Godin http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2016/01/3-d-printers-the-blockchain-and-drones.html

Why stories are good for our brains http://lifehacker.com/5965703/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains

Storytelling and presentations http://blog.strategicedge.co.uk/2015/03/better-storytelling-in-your-presentations.html