early adopters, where for art thou??

So I’ve spent the past few days leafleting for one of my business ideas in various parts of London.  I’m testing some basic assumptions about the concept – i.e. that anyone, however remotely, anywhere in the whole of London, gives a gnat’s toss about what I’m trying to set up.

oh lovely flyer!

oh lovely flyer!

Which is all about real friends and happy, safe neighbourhoods.  And the flyers are nice, bright colours with pretty pictures of cute little houses.  And I spent a lot of time designing them.  So you’d think that someone would give a damn.  You’d think that friendship and belonging were pretty basic tenets of civilisation and happiness. Apparently not.

Even the blatant bribery attempt (“fill in our 5 min survey at www.beneighbourly.com for a chance to win £50 Amazon voucher”) – which still stands, by the way, so get filling – hasn’t spurred many people on to bother.

Yesterday was a particular delight.  I had trench foot by 3.30pm and not a single bloody response to my survey.  People of Cricklewood,  I two-finger salute you.

On the strength (um weakness) of feedback received so far, I think we’re going to have to pivot and start selling unicorns, ‘cos we’ve got about as much chance of making a go of it.

early adopters

One of the pillars of wisdom in startupville (which I imagine is a place where people are really friendly and create nice neigbourhoods and use the website www.beneighbourly.com to enhance their sense of community), is that for your product or service to succeed, it needs to appeal to early adopters.

“Early adopters” is a fancy term for people who like new, cool stuff.  They are the ones who actively get involved with new technology before the rest of us.  They are like Umbrian truffle pigs, always snuffling around in the dark, dank woods to unearth little nuggets that go on to be worth gazillions.  They are the lifeblood of start-up businesses.

Trouble is, most of these people live in California.  Or, at a push, New York.  The three that live in London are so exhausted by being the epicentre of all things new in business that they’ve barricaded themselves into a rec room at Google campus and are communicating only via an hourly twitter feed.

no thanks, we’re British

It’s tricky trying to start up a business in this country.  Particularly an online, networky type business.  Because we’re just not very networky type people.  And we’re not very good at cheerleading.  Or responding to surveys.

If you’ve ever worked with Americans, you’ll know that, on the whole, they’re incredibly perky, upbeat and enterprising.  Sure, statistically there must be a few really grumpy ones in each state, who just spend all their time on the couch, mithering about how unbearably cheery everyone else is.  But most that I know are optimistic and believe in that whole land-of-opportunity thing.

I think it could be because they have space.  A lot of space.  So they feel that there’s room for everyone to grow, and that one person’s growth isn’t going to leave less room for everyone else.  So it creates a culture of encouragement.  Whereas we Brits, on our very small island, are always worrying about someone encroaching on our personal space.  So we don’t really like it if someone has ambition to outgrow their little patch.  And we don’t go out of our way to boost one another.

You see it acted out daily, in a microcosm, on the tube.  I was on the victoria line yesterday evening.  I had my own space, next to the door, on that leany-ledge bit (which is the next best bit after an actual seat, as long as you’re on the opposite side to the opening doors – small wins, people).  This 20-something girl got on at Oxford Circus.  And stood into me – not next to me – into me.

And by that I mean that she pushed herself backwards so that her right shoulder was just touching the back of the leany-ledge and her left shoulder was in front of mine.  So she was at a slight diagonal.  But not for long.  Because, keeping her eyes averted at all times, and maintaining the unflinching posture of the self-righteous, she then just jimmied her sharp little shoulders until she’d crow-barred me out of my space.  At which point she became still.  For 2 stops.  And then she got off the tube.  Inwardly triumphant, no doubt.

And I’d like to thank that deeply discourteous girl.  Because I was starting to feel discouraged about beneighbourly.com.  But now I’m even more convinced that we need something like it.  So I think I’m going to build it and see what happens.  And if that means skinning my knuckles on a few more letterboxes, then so be it…

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I have included some incredibly subtle subliminal messaging in this week’s post.  Don’t worry if you didn’t pick up on it – that’s means it’s working (and thanks for completing the survey!).

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all hail Dr Gabrielle Gascoigne – one extraordinary mother

I think for most people, if they were asked who has been their biggest inspiration in life, their parents would rank pretty highly on their list.  However, I suspect that there are very few who, like me, could take that question and very quickly turn it into a script for a weekday afternoon docudrama…

My mother is ridiculous.  And before you get mad at me for being disrespectful, please know that I say this based on 35 years of empirical evidence (and plenty of anecdotal evidence before that).  She is bonkers.  Certifiable.  A card-carrying, fully paid-up member of the monster raving loony party.

Uh oh, I probably shouldn’t have said that.  Politics is about the only career move she hasn’t made.  No doubt, now I’ve planted that particular seed, she’ll be out canvassing for the Harrow by-election come Monday morning, brandishing rosettes and attaching a loud-hailer to her car for campaign speeches delivered in the form of poems.

gymslip mum

My mum had me when she was 18.  Pretty unusual in those days and a bit of an extreme way of getting out of her A-level exams.  But she liked me so much that she ordered another three girls from the stork over the next seven years.  As you might imagine, there’s a smidgen of competition between me and my sisters for the title of no. 1 daughter, but there can be only one winner and, unfortunately for the other girls, it’s mine by birthright.

We get a lot of jokes about “four girls, eh?  A house full of women.  Your poor dad, how on earth did he cope? Ha ha ha.”

… Err, by leaving us…  Not laughing now, are you??

Mum brought us up on her own at a time when being a single parent was incredibly rare.  When I was a newly-qualified lawyer, working crazy hours, she used to ring me and tell me how worried she was about me.  What a difficult time I was having.  How on earth did I manage it?  I found her concern hilarious.  I’d remind her that at the same age (27), she was divorced with 4 children under the age of 8.  “Oh yes”, she’d say, “so I was.  How terrible”.

the wonder years

We didn’t have much money, but mum made up for it with with sheer craziness.  If the great British summertime was a washout and stopped us playing outside, she’d just put down towels in the living room and set up the paddling pool indoors.  It must have taken weeks for the carpet to dry, but I guess when your parenting is essentially crowd-control, you do whatever it takes to keep ’em occupied.  And we loved it.

Xmas TreeChristmas in our family is still THE major event of the year.  My mum’s house is a two-up, two-down terrace, yet we have a christmas tree to rival the sort you’d find in most town squares.  It’s standard for us to have to lop 2 foot off the top to fit it in the lounge.  Our style of decoration is known as “explosion in a Christmas tree factory”.  Our tree lights cause a power surge on the National Grid and I believe that we have single handedly kept the lametta industry in business.  Does anyone else even know what lametta is??

Mum insists on buying us hundreds of presents.  This last Christmas, we didn’t eat lunch until 7pm because it had taken us 9 hours to open them all.  And then there’s Second Christmas.  Which is where we get all the presents that didn’t arrive in time and the presents she didn’t get time to wrap…  They tend to be the panic buys.  Mine included a date stamp.  For my business.

One year I begged her not to get me any presents.  I had a good job, I didn’t need anything.  She was horrified.  So I suggested that she bought me a goat for charity.  She relented.  And then bought me a goat, 3 chickens, a donkey, a well and 15 bags of grain.  So I didn’t feel left out when the other girls opened their presents.

Discipline was non-existent.  She used to try to pretend otherwise, but it’s just not true – she once tried to ground one of my sisters when we were teenagers, probably for bunking off school.  My sister, through her tears, said scornfully “you can’t ground me, you’re hopeless at grounding”.  And she was right.  Mum just couldn’t see it through – she felt too sorry for us.  So she just let us off.

interesting career choices

Mum was always desperate to be a doctor.  So she went back to school to do her A-levels when I was doing my GSCE’s. No specialist college for her.  Nope, she just joined the local sixth form.  And she was doing sciences.  A 30-something, mother of four in a class full of spotty 17 year old boys.  The physics teacher said that she added an extra dimension to the class.  One of the wags piped up “yeah, sheer bloody mass…!”  Fun times.

The Royal Free Hospital turned her down for a place at their medical school.  Losers.  They said she needed better grades.  So she retook her A-levels.  And then took them again.  She and I tried the other day to calculate how many A-levels she racked up in the end.  We think it’s somewhere around 20…  I keep telling her she should sell off some of the earlier ones…

Her career path has taken some interesting turns over the years.  She did an undergraduate degree in photographic sciences (and graduated just at the time that traditional photography gave way to digital.  Oh.  Dear.)  She helped produced a short film for an eccentric wealthy Italian, subject matter: the omega centuri star constellation.  My uncle gave it the best critical review: “at 25 minutes, it’s about 20 minutes too long”.

She gave that up to become a carpenter.  Yep, you read that right.  My mum, with her 32 A-levels, went on a local YTS scheme and became a chippy.  She worked on building sites, where they swore at her all day, and she  f***ing loved it.  The day that we made her put her power tools in the loft, a little part of her soul died.  She still carries a retractable tape measure in the car…

doctor, doctor…

One Easter Sunday several years ago, we were all having a lovely lunch at my youngest sister’s.  Midway through, my mum said: “there’s something I need to tell you girls”.  We put down our cutlery.  She continued: “It will explain why I’ve been acting a bit weird and crying a lot over the past few months”.

My younger sisters started to cry.  We collectively assumed a terminal illness.  Probably only weeks to live.

“I’ve been accepted into medical school”, she said.

WTF???!!!!!!!

Now, the reason that this came as such a surprise to us, is because she hadn’t mentioned the whole lifetime-ambition-to-be-a-doctor thing for years.  We had absolutely no idea that she was even still thinking about it.  And unbeknownst to us, she’d gone all secret squirrel on our arses and decided to give it one more go.  And she got in.  And not just into any old medical school, but one of the top schools in the country.  UCL.

cheersSo, once we’d got over the trauma of thinking that she was dying, we went and bought champagne and congratulated her in the only way we know how.  Whooping.

you have got to be kidding me…

And then we wondered when she’d had time to do all of this.  And here’s where you should probably reach for the tissues.

Because it turns out that she sat her medical school entrance exams the day before she donated a kidney to my sister.

Freeze Frame.  Rewind.  Close up shot of sister lying in a hospital bed, her anxious mother by her side…

Yep.  My mum gave up one of her kidneys, so that it could be transplanted into my sister.  And the day before that operation, she sat some very important and difficult exams.  And she didn’t tell anyone.

As I said at the beginning: ridiculous.

Now, anyone who might have wondered how it is that I can give up my job, bum around and generally lack in anything approaching ambition?  I’m guessing that it’s starting to become a little clearer.  My mum is the most phenomenally courageous, barmy, lovely person that you’re ever likely to meet.  So it takes the pressure off.  I’ve got nothing to prove.  Never gonna get anywhere near that level of greatness, so I don’t need to worry about it.

She’s in her second year as a junior doctor now.  I wish I could tell you that it’s a dream come true for her, that she’s loving every minute and it’s everything she ever hoped for.

But remember, this is an afternoon weepie, so it’s never quite that simple.  It’s the NHS and she may be the oldest junior doctor in town, but she’s still a junior doctor.  So it’s punishing hours, terrible pay, zero support and stupid managers pushing even stupider made-up targets.

But that doesn’t stop her being a brilliant doctor.  All of that bonkers life experience has come together to create the best beside manner at Chase Farm Hospital.  Her patients and colleagues love her.  And we know it’s only a matter of time till she finds her niche and really starts to enjoy herself.

And if not, well, she can retire in 11 years…

If you want to know how proud we are of her, this little video should do the trick.  It’s her graduation ceremony and my sisters and I provide the soundtrack.  I suggest you turn the volume down.

Happy Mother’s Day, Ma.

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Ps: Girls – I see you your mother’s day cards and I raise you.  Read it and weep, sisters.

trouble and strife – the reality of living and working together

I’m staying at The Mack’s this month, before we head off to South America.  We just about survived the moving in of my stuff.  Mainly thanks to The Mack getting rid of 95% of his possessions to make space for the 10% of mine that I carefully calculated I could hide about his place and get away with.  That and his vow of silence.

It’s been a week so far and, put it this way, I’m pretty sure that The Mack cannot wait for our 3 week trip, just the two of us.  On the strength of my performance so far, I think we can safely say I’m not in the running for Girlfriend of the Year 2013.

the taming of the shrew

Now some lesser men might have taken the view that, if you give houseroom to an unpredictable, highly-strung creature with a history of fiery outbursts, you should probably try to maintain a calm, stable home environment.  And avoid anything that is likely to rile the beast.

Not The Mack.  His view is that if he is kind enough to give houseroom to said creature, then it gives him free rein to wind it up. stand back – taser in hand – and watch it run itself into exhaustion.

I’m starting to suspect that he’s using this as some sort of social experiment.  He knows I know I’ve got nowhere else to go…

I hate you so much right now

Two things I really don’t like.  The whole start-up over-exuberance and slavish adherence to made-up methodologies.  And anyone checking up on me.

So The Mack has kindly decided to combine both of these in what has proven to be a foolproof system of destruction of will.

There are too many things that make me mad to list them all here, but I’ll give you the highlights (and don’t worry, I’ve got the others safely filed away in my brain under “things to bring up in our next big public argument”):

– his enthusiasm for our business ideas and general upbeat attitude vs my rightly-held belief that everything we’re doing is a pile of crap and an utterly pointless big fat waste of time.Post its

– making me write tasks on post-its, which we stick on the wall for each of our projects.  Colour-coded for the different types of tasks (concept/content, technical, marketing).  Ranked in order of priority.  Allocated to one of us to action.  “Action”.  Oh dear lord.

– his insistence on having “team” meetings every morning where we update one another on progress.  It’s an interrogation, people.  The man is never satisfied with my answers.  And I’m realising I’m quite a defensive person.

– scheduling our time each day “cos it’s the only way things get done”.  2 hours on my project, 1 on his, 30 minutes on planning our trip, 1 hour off for lunch where we watch either an episode of Girls or Modern Family (there are no other options, soldier).

– using an egg-timer app to make sure we stick to the schedule.

– endlessly using the phrases “engaging the pre-frontal cortex”, “synapses”, “gamification” and “what’s for lunch, babe?”.

work-life balance

I know, I know, you’re wondering how it is that I’ve managed not to crack under this inhumane regime.  Well, I’ve developed a few strategies for dealing with this toxic environment.  They include:

– crying.

– talking in a really shrill, harpy-like voice.

– sulking.

– cursing (both like a navvy and like a witch-doctor).

– taking myself off for a late night walk through dodgy estates in South London (there’s nothing like fear of personal attack to make you want to come back “home”).

– watching Rambo I and II.

The worst bit about it all is that I know that The Mack has a point.  We need to start making some money fast, and getting on with our projects is the only way that’s going to happen.

Doesn’t stop me wanting to stab him repeatedly with a fork every time we break for lunch though…

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PS:  I’d be really grateful if my UK readers could take 5 mins to fill out an online survey for a new business venture I’m working on to do with friends and communities.  Please go to www.beneighbourly.com.  Thank you!!

a life well lived… E H Lynch

My great aunt Lizza died last Friday.  She was 94.  An age that speaks to character as much as to genetics.

She was my favourite.  She was tiny (her passports, little books of history, said 5ft 1, but even as a small child I was aware that Lizza was made in miniature.  I’m sure it’s where my peculiar fondness for mini things comes from.

tiny person, big life

Until very recently she lived in a dolls’ house near Bradford.  A homely-sounding address, 5 Allen Croft.  Just the fact of saying it forces you to flatten into Yorkshire vowels.  And when I say dolls’ house, I don’t just mean that it was small, although it was.  One room downstairs and one (plus a bathroom) upstairs.  Nicely proportioned with high ceilings, but essentially thumbelina sized.  And there was no central heating or even a kitchen.  It felt like one of the dolls houses I would make as a kid out of shoe boxes upturned on one end.  An upstairs and downstairs created by cereal cardboard partitions.  Hand-drawn wallpaper glued on the walls.  A pretend house, for putting nice little things in.

As I child I was enchanted by her house.  It was full of beautiful objects.  Decorative plates, painted paper leaves and brickwork on the walls.  Candelabra, tapestries and mirrors.  The embodiment of the mantra of more is more.  When I helped her move into sheltered accommodation last year, I had the chance to really look at these things I’d found so intriguing.  And boy, were they beautiful. Beautifully bonkers.  A wall devoted to pictures of cockerels?  A finnish voodoo doll for hatpins?  You betcha.  A veritable old curiosity shoppe.

Lizza was a wonderful seamstress and gave me loads of incredible fabrics over the years, which, predictably, I’ve done nothing with, but I get great pleasure from taking them out of the loft from time to time and stroking them.  I’ve also inherited her beautiful clothes.  Bizarrely, given our height difference (she barely came up to my shoulder), her stuff fits me perfectly.  Well, now that I’ve decided that gangly arms and 3/4 length sleeves are the height of elegance.

she was fondly known as “The Duchess”

She was a headmistress, so did imperious like no-one else.  She would start most conversations with “Now darling…”, so that it was impossible to refuse her.  She had a way of tilting her head as she looked at you, so you knew she had you sussed.  She liked who she liked and had little time for people she found dull or narrow-minded.  She once described one of her sisters as “man-mad, incredibly stupid and bovine”.  Wickedly funny.

Lizza was an original thinker, a timeless personality and one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known.  She had great knowledge, the sort that comes from a classical education, a sharp wit and a fearless spirit.  She was well-travelled, genuinely cultured and a real aesthete, without any of the stuffiness of pretension.  Put it this way, you’d be looking at one of her allegedly “priceless” paintings and realise that she’d coloured in parts of it herself, where she thought it too feint.  Priceless is right.

She took a stab (in both senses) at most major religions.  Faith was both a comfort and troubling to her.  I put it down to her intelligence.  She didn’t have the easy belief that comes from ignorance.  She was too knowing.  So she sought answers and had to make do with rhetoric.  Last time I saw her, she borrowed a fiver from The Mack to give to the priest.  It went totally against my lapsed-Catholic dogma, but in the end I was just glad I’d talked her down from £20.

She was exceptionally generous and in the best possible way.  There were no conditions attached to her gifts.  She’d send you a cheque, just because she wanted to.  And she didn’t care how you spent it.  She encouraged frivolity and was thrilled to hear that I’d quit my job in favour of adventures.

When I was studying in Manchester, I’d get a bus to Leeds and we’d visit galleries, Harvey Nicks (which we both agreed was a poor provincial cousin to the London store) and drink so much red wine that I’d have to sit on the bus back with my face pressed to the cold window, so as not to throw up.

She was an inspiration to me.  A smart, beautiful, stylish, inquisitive, funny, independent (read: mulishly stubborn) woman who knew her own mind and wasn’t afraid to impose it.  I will miss her, but I’m not sad.  Hers was a life very well lived indeed.  Her funeral wishes summed it up for me – she left strict instructions for us to hold a “happy reception for any mourners”.  We shall do exactly that.  And there will be plenty of red wine.