six days in geneva and val d’isere with clarence and leigh anne. visiting the geneva motor show, protests on the streets, ever-shifting light and colour on the snowy peaks.
[ 20:28 tuesday 20 march – tignes le lavachet, france ]
here i am in the alps with leigh anne and clarence. we drove up from their home in geneva on monday morning coinciding with the first snow for several weeks. the boarding has been fantastic.
it’s more than six months since i published anything to “wanderer”, the longest gap since i started this open journal thirteen years ago in february 1999 (the word “blog” was coined later that year). it’s not that i’ve lacked interesting things to write about in the last six months. actually there have been so many interesting things i’ve barely had a moment to gather my thoughts.
forgive me if this despatch is rather long. there’s a lot to catch up on.
last autumn two projects simultaneously went big whilst an opportunity popped up for a third project that i couldn’t resist. as a result i spent the latter part of the year in a frenzy, working every hour of the day, spending weekends at my computer, switching manically back and forth between projects and trying desperately to hold everything together. one panicky night at the start of october i decided to sit down and list all the different things i was responsible for delivering before the end of the year. it took about an hour to write it all down.
the first project was the trampery, the shared workspace i founded in 2009. i’d been thinking about ways of organising multi-tenancy offices to speed up network development and trampoline had more office space than it needed. it seemed like an obvious step to open it up as a home for the interesting start-ups that were popping up in shoreditch at that time.
as a teenager i’d been fascinated with architecture and might have pursued it professionally had a friend’s father not told me “you start off wanting to change society then spend your days designing petrol stations and supermarkets .” notwithstanding this warning i retained a fascination with the way space shapes collaboration and culture. with successive offices i paid obsessive attention to layout, furnishing and decoration. unfortunately this drove my office managers mad since they couldn’t buy a mug or waste-paper basker without my approval. opening a shared workspace finally gave my obsession a practical outlet. as for the the name, the trampoline team chose “the trampery” by vote after it was suggested by craig mcmillan, my friend and co-founder in the company.
the trampery wasn’t an instant success by any means. for the first six months a succession of people drifted in and out without anyone staying more than a month or two. the space was often intimidatingly quiet, with every rustle and belch echoing around the room. i began to think i’d miscalculated and there was no demand for what we were offering. but just as i was about to give up some mysterious balance shifted and people started coming and staying. the community grew to ten people, fifteen, then twenty. in place of silence there was now a constant hum of energy and activity. we soon hit the maximum capacity of twenty-five with a vibrant community of people from technology start-ups, arts organisations and non-profits. meanwhile the trampery was gaining a reputation among east london’s cognoscenti as the coolest place to work
in the area.
by the end of 2010 the building was bursting and lots more companies wanted to join so i decided to spin off the trampery as a separate social enterprise and move it to a larger site. the very first place i looked at was a new building on bevenden street, just to the north of old street roundabout. it had been on the market for two days and i was the first person to look around. it was perfect and i quickly agreed terms with the owner. the whole thing seemed destined.
planning and fitting out the new building was one of the most enjoyable tasks i’ve ever performed. the site was just a concrete shell so i had a completely blank canvas. everything i’d ever observed about people’s habits for collaborating and socialising were distilled into the plans. the key to the final layout was pushing the kitchen to the front of the building creating a junction where residents could chat with each other over lunch, hold a quick meeting or bump into visitors. i wanted to avoid the sterile holding pen of a separate reception area and immediately drop guests into the thick of the action. having finalised the layout i spent dozens of hours scouring ebay and street markets for interesting antique furniture at knock-down prices. i bought a huge edwardian oval mahogany dining table from manchester, a job lot of 20 victorian dining chairs from somerset, a gilded louis xvi settee from shropshire, an art deco kitchen dresser from hertfordshire. week by week vans arrived to offload my purchases, each one more eccentric than the last.
the bevenden street site had twice the capacity of the original building, spread across two floors. but in four months every desk was gone. at the same time word was getting round about this peculiar workspace that looked more like a country house than an office. by the summer we had a steady trickle of people coming for tours, including journalists, investors, government officials and corporate bigwigs. we also had a variety of curious passers-by knocking at the door wanting to know if we were a furniture show-room, cafe or members club.
then in september the day arrived when i answered the phone and it was buckingham palace on the line asking if the duke of york could visit the trampery to meet some of the entrepreneurs working there. i took a deep breath. i’d never hosted a royal visit but i had a feeling some preparations would be involved. it was also clear the visit would have considerable symbolic weight since it would be the first time a member of the royal family had come into the east london technology community. i was thrilled the trampery had caught the attention of the duke’s team and told them we’d be honoured to welcome him.
for the next month the small team running the trampery worked like demons to get everything ready. we engaged a brilliant designer (david cuesta) to create a new logo in double-quick time, found a local catering business (“we made it for you”) to provide british-sourced trout and stilton sandwiches for tea, bought some giant steel tea-pots on ridley road market, had an aluminium plaque made for the duke to unveil, paced the floor with the duke’s team to choreograph his path through the building, went through the plans with his security detail, refined an agenda for a round-table discussion with the entrepreneurs, printed place cards, made arrangements with the media, selected a photographer to document the day, printed posters to put on the walls. five minutes before the duke’s arrival we were still rushing around getting everything ready. but when his bentley pulled into the mews outside outside everything was ready.
the duke was with us for an hour an a half. the discussion with entrepreneurs was considerably livelier than i’d predicted. the duke swiftly dispensed with small-talk and started asking pointed questions about the barriers that prevent technology start-ups from growing faster and what could be done to overcome them. he formed an easy rapport with the entrepreneurs and soon got them speaking without inhibition or stiffness. after the discussion i ushered him downstairs, stopping with the fuerte team so the duke could play with one of their augmented reality apps on an ipad. then we went through into the studio where the duke mingled with guests. i gave an address to welcome him, including an impromptu suggestion that he might consider turning one of buckingham palace’s bedrooms into a start-up incubator. then he made a speech, hailing the trampery as one of the most interesting things he’d seen in ten years supporting uk businesses. finally he unveiled the plaque we’d prepared.
initially i’d not been enthusiastic about having a plaque. the whole business of pulling a string to open a little curtain seemed rather trite. but the palace was keen to do it so i racked my brains for an approach more in keeping with the trampery’s spirit. the weekend before the visit i was trawling round spitalfields market when i spotted an offcut of purple suede which i thought would make an excellent curtain. after that i visited a craft market on brick lane and came upon a stall selling little people made from clothes pegs, with drawn-on faces and pipe-cleaner arms. i bought a peg in the form of a glamorous lady with flowing hair. i thought we could use this to fix the suede curtain on the plaque. to release it the duke would simply unclip the peg. it occurred to me the curtain would need something to hold it taut and ensure it fell away cleanly so i bought a couple of nine-inch nails from a hardware shop. my friend ben pickering, who’d just joined the trampery team, trimmed the suede to size and glued the nails at the bottom, then secured it to the plaque with the clothes peg.
to his credit the duke was completely unphased by our eccentric plaque unveiling and sailed through it without skipping a beat. at the end of his speech he turned round, grasped the clothes-peg lady and lifted her from the plaque. the purple suede curtain plummeted to the ground with a satisfying thud revealing the plaque beneath. then he turned straight round and pinned the clothes peg on the lapel pocket of my jacket. everyone was laughing, the duke included. it felt like a proper trampery ceremony.
the second project to take off was trampoline’s “tech city map”. back in 2008 i’d suggested analysing the networks linking technology businesses around shoreditch as a way to understand how the cluster was growing. however at that time nobody was interested and the idea didn’t go any further. then in november 2010 the new government announced its “tech city” initiative to boost east london’s technology community and suddenly everyone wanted to understand the cluster and help it grow.
in february 2011 i was invited to join a group of entrepreneurs, industry leaders, investors and university heads meeting monthly at downing street to brew policy for the east london technology community. i was asked to outline an approach to map networks across the cluster. the suggestion i put forward involved analysing the data published to social networking platforms day by day from businesses in the east london ecosystem. using trampoline’s technology we’d be able to see which businesses were talking about each other, forwarding each other’s messages and following each other’s activity; giving us a detailed picture of networks spanning the community plus a barometer of changing patterns of influence and interest. nobody had ever tried to conduct a live analysis of an entire business community before but based on trampoline’s experience analysing corporate communication networks i was certain we’d get interesting results.
this time my proposal was received much more enthusiastically so i set out to raise funds for the project. over the next few months a consortium of powerful technology and media businesses came together around the project and finally the “tech city map” (as it had become known) had sufficient resources to get underway. by september development was in full swing and the first glimmers of data were looking exciting. we were on course to provide a completely new source of insight for researchers and entrepreneurs interested in the east london community.
then the day came when i answered the phone and it was downing street on the line asking if the prime minister could launch the project to mark tech city’s first anniversary. i took a deep breath. this would place the project in a completely different context from the geeky research tool i’d envisaged. it also risked politicising the data generated by the project which might prove uncomforatble. but i was thrilled by the opportunity as any entrepreneur would be and quickly agreed. as icing on the cake, the launch event would be hosted at the trampery.
for the next month everyone in the trampoline team worked like demons to get the map ready for launch. we added extra features, partnered with a graphic design agency (playgen) to create a vastly improved user interface, juggled priorities day by day to squeeze every iota of functionality from the remaining time. to everyone’s horror a fatal bug came to light the evening before launch. i went to bed late that night not knowing if there’d be anything to launch the next day or not. craig and daniel were up all night battling with it. but at 10am on the 10th of november when david cameron’s car pulled up in front of the trampery the problem was fixed and the map looked ravishing.
i was with the prime minister for an hour but i was so exhausted it passed in a blur. first there was a discussion upstairs in the yellow room for the prime minister and twenty corporate leaders. then i chaired a discussion in the studio with the prime minister and half a dozen east london entrepreneurs, during which he tried out the map. next the bbc’s technology correspondent rory cellan-jones interviewed mr cameron in the green room with the map projected on the wall behind him. then he greeted the partners who made the map possible. and with that he was whisked off to his next engagement.
everything went without a hitch. the bbc’s interview with the prime minister was broadcast on the main evening news. a separate interview with me went out on the london news. in the hours following the tech city map’s launch 10,000 people explored it on the web. thanks to craig’s impeccable engineering the system performed flawlessly. the political storm followed soon enough, in the form of a notably futile argument about the exact number of technology businesses in east london. it seemed best to keep out of it and let people make up their own mindes. a couple of journalists made slightly unpleasant personal attacks on me, portraying me as political stooge raking in taxpayers money whilst prancing around in peculiar clothes. not a word of it was true (except the part about the peculiar clothes) so i just ignored it and got on with my work.
2011 was an amazing year for me and i loved it. i was blessed with magnificent friends and collaborators in every area of my life. at the height of the whirlwind in september i also met a beautiful man called mattia and we’ve been together ever since. in the middle of it all i turned forty.
if you’re wondering about the “third project” i mentioned at the beginning, i hope to be able to talk about that very soon.
: c :
[ 09:38 monday 24 november – eurostar 9019, gare du nord, paris ]
a cold clear-skied morning in paris. four minutes to departure. the carriage is a-bustle with people stowing luggage and finding their seats. a cursory scan suggests three quarters tourist to one quarter business. that ratio would have been reversed on trains two hours ago.
i came over on saturday morning to see claire’s exhibition at the espace porte de champerret. this is my first visit to paris since i won a traveling scholarship from my school to come and investigate electro-acoustic music in 1989. somehow i’ve always travelled further afield. paris was so close it never occurred to me to come.
thinking myself very ingenious on saturday i strapped on my backpack and pedaled down to st pancras on my folding bike, expecting to throw it in the luggage rack for the journey then have my own wheels in paris. but at check in i was greeted with a firm insistence that the bike could not come unless it was packed in a bag “for security reasons”. what? in what conceivable way is a folded bike less of a security risk if it’s in a bag? i could understand if the company wanted to prevent their trains being dirtied by oily bikes, but i hate that we’re expected to nod in acquiescence at patently absurd rules if they’re justified by security. anyway i didn’t have a bag so the bike wasn’t coming. i tried to dump it at st pancras’ left luggage but got the same “it needs to be in a bag for security reasons” mantra. so i trudged across the road to the left luggage office at kings cross who took it without question. by this time i’d missing my train but the eurostar folks were kind enough to rebook me on the next service.
over the last couple of days i’ve done a lot of walking, exploring different neighbourhoods without any map or particular objective. saturday was crisp and cold with clear flat light. yesterday it rained all day, undulating between gentle patter and full-on deluge. on saturday night we all ended up at “point ephemera”, a club in an old industrial space by the side of the canal near stalingrad metro. then last night i met pierre at an event in belleville where the walls had been covered in tin-foil, a band discharged a krautrockish drone, two girls danced together semi-naked and a cocktail based on tomato juice and tequila was liberally dispensed. it was charming.
i spent several hours yesterday afternoon at “les puces”, a market at the north-eastern periphery of the city. it was like a huge casbah, gorgeously photogenic in the fluorescent light and rain. most of the stalls offered generic hip-hop apparel, cheap north african leather goods and chinese trinkets. but i found a few vintage clothes emporia and some inventive small-scale designers. the best find was upstairs in an indoor section of the market. walking past at ground level i spotted a mannequin in victorian dress so i went up to investigate. what greeted me was a staggering collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century clothing from all over europe, curated by a delightful couple. there were embroidered peasant clothes from romania and the balkans, servants’ liveries from mid nineteenth century parisian households, military uniforms. but what caught my eye was a louis xiii herald suit, made for a paris theatre at the end of the nineteenth century, consisting of a jacket and calf-length doublet, made from scarlet and celeste wool, decorated with braid and brass bobbles. it fitted me perfectly and was ridiculously cheap so it’s here on the train back to london with me.
: c :
[ 00:22 thursday 3 april – haggerston road, london ]
everything is such a rush at the moment. i’ve just finished cataloguing a batch of slides going back to november and now the work begins to scan them and process some to put online. so much has already happened since i was snowboarding in breckenridge. i’d been in america for three and a half weeks but i only stayed in london four days before setting off again, this time to the south of france. the trip turned into something completely different from what i’d intended.
the plan was for me and timur to turn up unannounced on josselin’s doorstep in lyon and surprise him. josselin is a wonderful double bass player. he also plays the guitar, the piano and does a mean beatbox. he and i spent a many hours playing together during his months living with timur in london. but in january he decided he was sick of london and scuttled back to france. needless to say i missed him enormously. so when timur started planning a trans-european pilgrimage by bicycle and train, setting off from germany and hoping to end up in lisbon, it seemed like an ideal opportunity for us to cross paths in lyon and visit josselin.
unfortunately a few days after i’d booked my flights to lyon, it emerged that josselin wasn’t even going to be in lyon over easter. his uncle had rented a farmhouse near the village of nant, up in the mountains an hour north of montpellier, and the whole family was assembling there for two days. disaster. timur sheepishly confessed our thwarted plan to josselin and after some ingenious negotiation managed to secure invitations for both of us to join the family gathering. i grappled with the french railway’s ghastly website and finally managed to secure the last available seat on a tgv running from lyon to montpellier. then i reserved a car to pick up at montpellier airport (for some reason only scooters were available for rental at montpellier station).
so on easter saturday my alarm went off at half past four in the morning and my journey commenced. taxi to liverpool street, train to stansted airport, plane to lyon airport, bus to lyon part-dieu station, tgv to montpellier, arriving at two in the afternoon. waiting for me outside the station was josselin, it was marvellous to see him again. we took a taxi to montpellier airport, picked up the rental car and drove back to the station to collect timur who’d arrived from paris in the meantime. after struggling with the montpellier traffic we finally achieved escape velocity and nipped down to the coast where we ate oysters and watched with curiosity a reunion of elderly rugby players outside the restaurant one of whom suddenly stripped naked, ran down the beach and threw himself into the sea. once we’d recovered from this alarming sight we set off into the mountains, arriving at the house around seven in the evening; fourteen hours since i’d left home in london. the house was a big rambling stone structure whose various wings and turrets looked to have accreted over many centuries, set in isolation beside a tumbling stream.
gate-crashing family gatherings isn’t generally a recipe for popularity so timur and i were both a little uncertain how it was going to work out. but from that first evening josselin’s family was delightful and we were made to feel completely welcome. on easter morning we all went for a long walk up the hillside and along the limestone escarpment, eroded into fantastic jutting forms, that overlooks nant. while we were walking a succession of snow squalls passed down the valley and successively engulfed us, each with distinct boundaries almost like solid masses. afterwards we visited a chocalatier in the village and gorged ourselves silly. in the afternoon we drove up to roquefort and visited a cheese cellar excavated four stories down into the stone. i have an intense dislike for roquefort cheese which is too salty for my palette, but the town itself was engagingly bleak and strange.
on the monday we drove timur up to millau, the nearest railway, and left him slightly forlorn with a six hour wait until the next train was due. then josselin and i continued in convoy with his twin brother martin for the long drive across the massif central to lyon. for most of the journey we were in a blizzard with driving snow sweeping across the dazzling white landscape. it was a magical experience and driving was quite an adventure. at a certain point martin peeled off for his home in valence and josselin and i continued alone. as we descended onto the great rhone plain the surroundings became more industrial and the concentration of traffic increased. we stopped for a coffee and pain au chocolat in the town where josselin’s grandparents had lived. finally we reached the suburbs of lyon as the sun was setting. i dropped josselin close to his flat and faced the final challenge to find my way through the labyrinth of bypasses and intersections to reach the airport. all my criticisms of satellite navigation were forgotten, i’d have killed to have a supercilious robot barking instructions at me. but with a few hairy moments i made it.
the symbolism of lyon airport is very odd. the whole complex is dominated by one sublime piece of architecture, designed by santiago calatrava. however it’s got nothing to do with flying or aeroplanes. it’s the airport’s railway station.
: c :