Five Years Ago Today…

11th November 2014, five years ago today…

I had been living in Swindon a couple of months, having relocated in the Summer to begin my first job after graduating from Southampton University with a BA (hons) degree in History. I was living in a HMO (House of Multiple Occupancy) with four others; a hospitality worker, an engineer who only utilised the room on occasion when work required him to be in Swindon, a journalist for the local paper and a woman who worked in security. The lady in security also had a unique hobby, in her spare time she liked to dress up as a mermaid.

 

I was shopping that one night in the local supermarket when I stopped by the toilet roll isle to buy its namesake. I was debating which type and brand to purchase when an idea came to mind. Why don’t I start writing a blog?

The moment resembled something like this:

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From that minute, through to the walk back to the house in the drizzle and dark with the heavy shopping the seed of an idea rapidly grew. By the time I’d made it to my bedroom I decided on a name. I’d title the blog after the opener I used when I wanted to make a quick impression on people.

My Housemate’s a Mermaid was set up that very night and I wrote my first ever blog post in eager haste.

On 11th November 2014 I published The Birth of the Grimgrad

11th November 2015, four years ago today…

I was still living in the same house and working the same job. Both came as a surprise, my original contract of employment had been a nine month maternity cover, so I fully expected to have been given the heave ho after that time and been working/living elsewhere. Not that I wanted to leave or that my old boss wanted me to go, I was such a hardworking and loved member of the team he’d go on to extend my contact length multiple times to keep me on, even when my colleague returned from leave.

The extensions played on my mind, it was flattering that I was wanted but not reassuring that someone along the chain wasn’t prepared to make me a permanent fixture in the team. My mind started wondering to where my future lay in this role…

Meanwhile, outside of work, desperation to meet people and loneliness in a house where people didn’t talk had forced me to try new things to get me out and about. In January I started attending evening classes in pottery at the local college. Although my skills with clay left a lot to be desired (I made more things explode than create)…

…it was a fun activity that got me out the house and chatting to people.

After discovering the society building platform ‘MeetUp’ and being frustrated at the lack of societies for young people in Swindon, in January my Dad offered me the cash to set up a MeetUp group in Swindon. The agreement was that if I made back the £30 I’d pay him back the money he’d stumped up. I accepted the offer but didn’t see how it could possibly come to much.

I founded Swindon 18-30 Professionals on 2nd February 2015, and asked new members to pay a £3 fee to cover the administration costs. Then I set up the first event and nervously waited at what was then a club called Baker Street to see who would turn up. I sat there by myself with a drink, adamant that no one was going to come, but then suddenly people started arriving and things went upwards from there.

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By the summer the monthly ‘drinks night’ had been rebranded to ‘First Wednesday Drinks’ and were now starting to draw a sizeable crowd. I’d long since paid off my Dad, the fees for the next six months of operation and was in the middle of negotiating with Baker Street a sponsorship deal that would carry into the present day. I removed the new joiner fee, taking away the last barrier and making Swindon 18-30 truly accessible to all young people in the area.

In November I was in the middle of organising the group’s first Christmas meal at Pizza Express. I was chuffed when I persuaded the venue to offer up multiple bottles wine free of charge in support of the young professional network of Swindon.

As my visiting friend from London said “you’ve really achieved something in a short space of time, don’t shrug it off!” But I still couldn’t help myself, I downplayed the whole thing.

The year wasn’t without calamity though; in the Summer I sustained face, head and leg injuries when I tripped on a paving slab outside a pub (the Gluepot) whilst walking back from a lunch break. Holding a loaf of bread and food shopping, I failed to utilise my hands to break the fall meaning that my right knee and head took the brunt on the impact. I shambled back to the office completely unaware of how bad a state I was in and, when the 111 service finally stopped asking me if the injury was a result of heavy drinking, I was told to head over accident and emergency. A work colleague sat with me for over an hour waiting and checking I didn’t drop off from concussion. She was an absolute saint.

I came away from the medical centre covered in bandage tape and pumped with drugs but luckily escaped the whole ordeal with only a slight scar to my knee which remains to this day. A reminder that while looking forward is important, you’re only as successful as the last step you take.

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Blogging kept me sane throughout the year, even if sometimes the content was anything but.

On 11th November 2015 I published Don’t Touch Me Tomatoes

11th November 2016, three years ago today…

I was still living in the same house as the mermaid, but by now the gripes of living in an increasingly shabby property were starting to grate.

The tenants had moved on and I started becoming aware of how little sway I had in who I lived with. When an older gentleman viewing the property started making me feel uncomfortable, that was when I knew how little input I had in decision-making.

The housemate in the room next to me started seeing a girl who was particularly ‘vocal’ when she stayed over, which was when I realised how fed up I was of being single. From late Spring I started narrowing down my outlook from meeting new people to meeting potential romantic matches. The results were mixed but through it I learnt a lot about myself and Swindon’s dating scene.

I met my first long term partner at a speed dating event in the October of 2016 and things went from there. Naturally I put my foot in it by texting him at the same time as he was texting my friend (who’d he’d also matched with) and then went on a date with his ‘then’ best mate the night after ours, unaware of their connection! He found my horror-stricken face incredibly funny, he laughed it off said no more of the mess-up.

At the grand age of 23 he was my first boyfriend, the first man who had ever taken an interest in me, let alone buy me flowers or take me out for meals or look after me when I was sick. I was completely smitten.

He was smart, considerate and incredibly patient. He never once made me feel the need to rush our relationship.

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Nervously waiting for our second date at the local museum (my suggestion, of course).

In March I had moved roles within the same company to a permanent position in a different department. For the time being I was content, moving onto an identical salary didn’t fill me with the same level of keenness compared to when I moved to Swindon originally but a permanent job meant more security.

Throughout the Spring and into the Summer I flogged myself to death organising Swindon 18-30’s first Summer ball in the grounds of Lydiard Park, the town’s fancy country house. I learnt a lot about event planning and it served as good preparation for what would come if I ever got married; organising catering, DJ, venue, photographer etc. all single handed, it pretty much felt like I was planning my own reception!

The event was a massive success and was attended by 60 individuals, a real celebration of the young professional population from around Swindon and the local area.

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It even got a feature in local press.

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In Autumn I started writing for a local publication called the Swindonian to help build my writing portfolio and in November I took part in National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo), where bloggers around the world attempt to write a post a day. Writing a post a day whilst managing Swindon 18-30 and a fledgling relationship was very hard, but I was proud to say I achieved it.

On 11th November I published Nablopomo Day 11: What Happens when You Introduce Technology into the Cotswolds

11th November 2017, two years ago today…

I had not only moved out of the house with the mermaid but actually bought my own property one door down. The mermaid was no longer my housemate, she was my neighbour!

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I carted out as much of the stuff from my bedroom as I could, the massive items of collated furniture sitting at my parent’s home in wait for the destined day.

In March 2017 I officially moved into my house with the help of a Luton van, my parents and my boyfriend. At 6″ 8 and a hobbyist in mixed martial arts, my boyfriend came in a great deal of use when it came to lifting heavy items of furniture up staircases. It was the first time my parents had met him and they were happy enough to have him about, even if it was noticed that we barely said a word to each other.

In hindsight I should have ended my relationship with my first boyfriend six months in, but to my dying day I will not judge the person I was then for holding out hope. Because when you have nothing to compare to how can you make a balanced choice? I’d watch the TV shows, listen to the songs, hear the colleague chit-chat, the theme was all the same. “Men are all useless, men will lie and cheat on you!” Well, my guy wasn’t any of that. He was kind, he cooked food for me, he loved spending time with me. So why wasn’t I happy? Why wasn’t I grateful? Why didn’t I love him? What was wrong with me?

This spiral got worse and worse. In August we went to Prague, during which time I snapped and ended up spending a good deal of time wondering around the city by myself. I went to a classical music concert one evening and cried my eyes out. Those next to me must have thought I was crying because of the music, in fact I was crying because I knew then my relationship was dead.

 

I swore to myself then that I would leave this man before Christmas. I returned the the UK colder and more distant than I’d ever been in my entire life. Time spent with him felt like a chore, it seems laughable now that we never kissed when we returned from Prague. He was not a bad man, but I was not a good woman for bottling up my emotions, I accept that.

We would stay together for another five months. Even when he forgot my birthday and shoved the bent card and a half price necklace through the letter box (receipt left in the damaged paper bag), when I sat on the stairs with my head in my hands in hollow disbelief. Despite that I stayed; a broken woman, a woman I didn’t recognise.

In September I started a new job for a organisation I’d never dreamt I’d be working for. I couldn’t believe my luck and made damn sure my managers knew I was grateful by the time I invested into learning the role. But every day I spent in my new job only made me feel more weighed down by someone who was on a completely different wave length to me. Was this the same man I’d fallen for? Was I the same woman?

Meanwhile, I started doing a few pieces of writing for The National Student. When the editor of the Swindonian found out he blocked me from publishing my work to his website, effectively kicking me off the team. Given the Swindonian was “Swindon’s third biggest news outlet” (editor’s words) I decided to cut my loses as opposed to grovelling for forgiveness. I was done with producing popular content for their site free of charge.

My family, my friends and my writing, they were the lights that kept me going. My boyfriend never read my blog so through MHAM I had a sense of independence.

On 5th November I published What Halloween Means to Me 

On 16th November I published my first video on the blog dedicated to my sister This Could Be the Best Homemade Video Since Charlie Bit My Finger…*

11th November 2018, one year ago today…

I was living in London (Wapping, E1W), had been since May.

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I’d broken up with my boyfriend in late January. It had been as awkward as you could imagine, he went from telling me I was the best thing he’d ever had, to begging me to change my mind, to informing me he’d go home to his whiskey and start dating women again that very night. I wasn’t phased, I returned home to find my lovely housemates having bought me wine and pizza only to be more surprised by my casualness over the whole affair.

The next day I went into work and felt nothing for the night before. When I told my manager she suggested I go home if I needed time, but I declined. This was a man I hadn’t kissed in months (and he hadn’t seemingly hadn’t had issue with!!) The relationship had died long before that night. I was able to carry on my life.

I moved to London as part of an internal transfer in May to do a eight month stint working from their Threadneedle Street office in The City. Due to work and rental challenges it would end up becoming a whole year. In that time I was blessed with a Swindon house that required little attention to support itself and Swindon 18-30 having, by now, a leadership team that could organise events while I wasn’t around to be as hands on.

London was a roller coaster to say the least. I loved how all the men around The City wore suits and dressed smart, I loved how romantic dates involved going to art exhibitions and theatre performances. I loved how I my morning walking commute took me past Tower Bridge every morning…

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…or how I could hop on the tube and thirty minutes later be in a completely different part of the capital. It was a world away from the encounters I’d had in Wiltshire. Within my family (well, to my Mum), I’d created a name for myself when I made it to the dizzying heights of the BBC News at Ten.

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**

The bars of Threadneedle Street are the only place in the world where a minority controls the majority. When it came to the financial heart of London I quickly clocked on that it was the women who held the real power over men, if they knew how to use it. I took on a certain style, a certain walk, I dyed my hair a different shade, I adopted things to make people see me differently, to stand out from everyone else. It’s a bullish world where to just be feminine isn’t enough, to be treated seriously you have to think like a man, ‘group think’ if you will. So I starting convincing myself I was the best bloody thing to walk into any room, I was a peacock on show and you were going to know it, whether you liked it or not. And you know what? It worked. I started to see myself in a completely different light, just as they did too.

‘Fox’ I branded myself, because that’s how I felt and that’s what I wanted others to feel too. I was young, single and could charm just about anyone into my line of thinking. Sometimes it was an act, but acting got you free drinks, acting got you connections, acting got you a name in writing circles.

A year in London and I learnt that where my power lay was in not being them. Bankers and investors do the same job, day in, day out. Highly paid but highly stressed roles with a high inflation of their self importance. Me on the other hand, I was just a woman with a blog. A comedy blog that was as far removed from their lives as could be imagined and yet somehow touching on relatable. They came to me like moths to a light, the draw of escapism too much to resist.

I was in a cafe in Wapping when I first heard Billy Preston’s song Nothing from Nothing. From that point on it became my anthem of London. You coming along with big ideas? Sure, but you gotta have a spring in your step and something to back it up. Ain’t nothing free in this town and ain’t no one gonna be taken for a ride.

It was also in London that I discovered one of my main weaknesses stemmed from coming across those rare individuals that took a disliking to me. The flatmate who engaged in incredibly noisy ‘activities’ multiple times a night and turned aggressive when I delicately brought it up in conversation. The same flatmate who consumed a lot of alcohol one night which was then projected all over the one toilet five of us shared. This person refused to clean it up, leaving the job for two of us to handle at 3am. She never apologised or showed remorse for her actions, that was the worst bit of all.

When my flatmates ignored the aggressive letters demanding unpaid council tax (a detail which was meant to be paid by the landlord), it was left to me to handle the bailiffs. Bailiffs are scary, especially when you’re silently hiding upstairs while they bang on the door. But the attitude of my flatmates that problems would be fixed by someone else or simply go away by themselves, it screamed a lack of maturity. I ended up sitting for hours in Citizen’s Advice and, when the letting agents ignored my calls, emailing the council myself with countless documents to prove we weren’t liable. The mould in my room, the frequent migraines that suddenly vanished when I wasn’t breathing in air pollution, I could list for hours the issues I merrily overlooked.

These were the unpleasant experiences of London that stick out in my mind, what you have to deal with living at the bottom end of the professional ladder. I got on (and still get on) well with most of my former flatmates on a personable level, but I wouldn’t rush back to a HMO any time soon as a result of my experiences.

London is a city of extremes, whether I spent the evening in a Leicester Square casino or writing in a pub where mice ran across the floor was complete chance. But it was an incredible experience all the same. Waking up to this view every morning reminded me how lucky I was to have such an opportunity, to sleep in the shadow of the Shard.

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Ultimately I think this hijacked road works sign in West London sums up my time in the capital perfectly:

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I was in Cambridge on my birthday when I heard The Trials of Cato, a three-piece folk group, busking in the city centre. These Are the Things is an anti-Brexit song although you wouldn’t necessarily think it on first listen. In contrast to the big smoke of central London I enjoyed spending time in the quainter spots of the South East I’d never before visited.

In November there was my first solo holiday. Bruges was an incredible city break for so many reasons and I fully intend to visit there again at least once, if not multiple times in my life. Aside from being a beautiful city, it made me realise how strong I was and how I didn’t need to force myself into a relationship to have amazing experiences.

One day during that holiday I was in a large church. I was about to leave when a local man came in and started playing the organ. I was completely stunned. I sat in the empty pews for at least 45 minutes just listening to the beautiful music being played for an audience of one. And then I started to cry, and when I realised I was crying I cried some more. Because in that moment I was so overcome with emotion, reflecting how far I’d come since the little girl who’d sobbed in Prague. I was in a new job, I was living in London, I was on holiday by myself. Above all else, I was happy.

Having donated a sizeable amount into the empty box, I left the church with a different pledge compared to that which I’d set myself a year before. I will never let anyone stop me being me.

By late October I was writing freelance pieces for the Swindon Advertiser and other places here and there, picking up fans from the most unlikely of articles. To name drop a few – the CEO of Royal Society of Arts, Matthew Taylor, Deputy Governor for the Bank of England, Nemat Shafik, and artist and TV personality Grayson Perry. While I was incredibly flattered by their letters and emails, I didn’t let it impact on my writing.

On 22nd November I published  Solo Adventures

(YouTube search “Bruges Wish You Were Here?” To watch the video)

11th November 2019, where I am today…

The London grind carried as per 2018, I had my second wisdom tooth removed in January and in March I took again to travel, this time to Amsterdam. ‘Why?’ My friend asked. ‘Because I can.’ I replied.

I moved back to Swindon fully in May, full of the cultural confusion one would expect having undergone a year living in the capital. I felt more connected with the work I was paid to do, but it took me longer to reconnect with the local area. Gone were the fancy bars and influential people, nowhere to be seen were the towering buildings and the bold cultural mix that came with the crowds.

In central London being single was completely normal, but returning to Swindon I felt like an outsider in my own town. While I’d been experimenting with vegan cookery classes near King’s Cross and tackling marshmallow challenges in Waterloo pubs, many of my Swindon friends had shackled up or even got engaged. It felt weird, almost as weird as going back on the dating apps to find that I’d cleared through the search parameters in minutes. In London I never touched the sides! When I tried reaching out to guys a little bit further out, cities such as Bath and Bristol, I never got a response. When I told my friend that in London people would travel 45 minutes to for a date she said ‘but Alice, that was London,’ as if it were a valid excuse.

I needed the distraction from reality. In May that I had the best time when a friend invited me to spend a week in her villa in Granada. I’d never met the others she’d invited to join the party, but knowing her personality I put my faith in her judgement. It was trust well placed; I had an amazing time in Spain and made four great new friends out of the process, including photographer Tom who made me see that perhaps one of my biggest assets had been behind me all along.

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Writing

I started a writing course in June to work on a novel and so far my tutor is loving it. While I started the course fully expecting to get critical feedback, I’m chuffed that the first draft is getting praise from well-established authors. Because of the nature of the course there’s a lot of two steps forward in draft, one step back to amend based on feedback but I’m working at great pace all the same.

26th June – enrolled on novel writing course (0 words)

1st October – 13,500 words

20th October – 28,000 words

11th November – 41,090 words

While there’s no hard and fast rule, general publishing consensus is that anything over 40,000 words could be published as an adult novel. While there’s still a long way to go, this isn’t the last you’ve heard of my novel. Keep watching this space!

 

Volunteering

In July I started volunteering with the local Samaritans branch and through it learning a deeper understanding around the challenges of mental health, as well as practical skills such as line management (being accountable for retail operations which provides 50% of the centre’s income). The leadership team have welcomed me with open arms and, in the case of the Pride match, with a lot of branded material and face paint!

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Swindon 18-30 Professionals

At the time of writing Swindon 18-30 is 912 members strong, a number that would have made a younger version of myself well-up in pride and disbelief.

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First Wednesday Drinks moved to a different venue, the Royal Oak Gin Bar, in 2017 yet its popularity has continued to grow. Royal Oak are now Swindon 18-30’s main sponsor.

The hard work goes on, and I’d have struggled if it not for those who have championed the group through sponsorship, organising events, telling their friends or letting me put up posters in their offices/community spaces.

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**

Looking forward toward the rest of this year (and the next five after that) I’d love to see myself doing something which allows me to keep being who I am whilst continuing to add value to the everyday. I want to make sure that no one ever feels that they can’t be awesome or that they have to stay in a box because someone says so.

On 31st October I sat on a Brexit panel for local radio, I came away from the experience proud that I’d been able to voice my views in a balanced way and give a fresh perspective to ongoing debates. In the words of my Mum, “you never would have spoken like that two years ago. You should be proud of yourself.” She was right, I wouldn’t have dared put myself forward for anything so exposing a few years ago.

I want to make money from what I love doing most, writing, even if it’s just enough to cover the cost of some of the many coffees I consume whilst I type or scribble away. The feedback I get each and every day from people gives me the strength to keep working towards that goal. I want to get my first book published and then write some more, and more. My old Secondary School English teacher used to call me her ‘little-novelist’, I want to do my nick-namesake proud.

I’d like to find a partner, but I don’t want to settle and I don’t want to seek it out of desperation. I’m surrounded by friends and family who provide the love to survive, at my fingertips an internet bursting with information on which to thrive. I want a partner, but I need to know if it’s right for me.

**

Two snapshots, July 2014 and September 2019.

Maybe in another five years I’ll take a completely different opinion on how things have panned out. But honestly? In the past half decade I’ve learnt the most about myself and others through the leaps of faith and the knock backs, more than through the smooth rides. My life has changed so much since I moved to Swindon in 2014, the path to get me where I am today has been twisted and anything but conventional. No doubt it’ll shift about some more in the years and decades to come but I’m more than ready for it. Bring it on!

Below is one of my favourite songs which I discovered just before I went to Bruges. It sums up how I’d want people to embrace me; it’s fun, upbeat and a bit different from the usual (in content and language – it’s sung by French artist Zaz). In essence it’s about the singer asking a prospective partner to embrace who she is above all else.

“Je Veux d’l’amour, d’la joie, de la bonne humeur,
Ce n’est pas votre argent qui f’ra mon bonheur,
Moi j’veux crever la main sur le cœur papalapapapala,                                                     Allons ensemble découvrir ma liberté, oubliez donc tous vos clichés,
Bienvenue dans ma réalité!”

I want love, joy and cheerfulness,
Your money won’t buy me happiness,
I just want to die with a hand on my chest,
Let’s go together discover my freedom, let you forget all your stereotypes,
Welcome into my reality!

 

**

Here’s to the wonderful unpredictability of the events that we call life.

On 11th November I published this post, Five Years Ago Today…

 

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Single Girl Seeks +0 for Family Wedding

This post features images of taxidermy. To understand why visit the Powell-Cotton Museum website. “The past is a foreign country” – L.P. Hartley.

**

Sometimes on those rare moments of peace and tranquillity I take a step back and think to myself, “where does my creativity come from? My ability to construct a half decent sentence together that delves deep into an experience, item or concept while also being able to pull out some humour that keeps people coming back time after time to this humble website of mine?” It’s on such occasions I naturally turn to my family to find the source of my flowing words…

…and realise I really must have been adopted.

Despite the fact my normal dress sense makes me a walking advert for the French rom com Popularie (and something I’m completely fine with, even if it is set in 1958)

…the Cotswold Bennett clan were in fact dressed up to the nines in the Powell-Cotton Museum at Quex Park for a family wedding. The union of my lovely cousin Stella with her Welsh husband-to-be Alun. Because if there was one thing our family needed, its more Welsh (given I’m only 25% of the rugby-mad stuff this marriage couldn’t come soon enough, our family is becoming far too English).

The day started in the same way most my weekday mornings do, wondering why the hell I was awake and why wasn’t I drinking coffee. Not that it got in the way of me catching up on the zzz’s, I woke up some 2.5 hours down the M25 to find a blob of saliva on my dress and a chicken roll having appeared on my lap. I think India might have thrown it at my face. If my bodily fluids didn’t ruin my make up before then the massive size-of-your-face chicken roll did. Again, I took a bite of the roll to be very concerned over the amount of red behind (thankfully my lipstick, not thankfully an expensive brand of the stuff).

Once we’d arrived at Birchington (where Mumma Bennett had booked the apartment for the extended weekend) there was a delightful scene where the postcode wrongly took us to the wrong spot, causing us to drive up and down the street multiple times. When people in mobility scooters and shorts start giving you looks you know you’re looking like class A muppets. A particular highlight was when Papa Bennett proposed us three women get changed at the wedding venue seeing as it was apparently so close to where we’d be staying. The response?

As if we’d even be dared seen by other guests before we’d got into our wedding gear. I only had one of my normal 50s outfits on! Men.

Flash forward a few hours once we’d finally found the apartment, got bags, got changed, went to the loo, changed shoes, updated make up, went to the loo again and hopped in the car for all of the two minute journey and were at the venue. One of the first people we saw when arriving at the venue was Aunt Shiona, mother of the Bride.

“What are you doing all here so early?! We had bets on you!” She said as she gave us all hugs and chatted briefly before dashing of to more important matters.

“What a funny thing to say about having bets on us.”

“I can believe it.” Mumma B said.

“I think she was joking.”

“We’re a whole forty minutes early Dad,” I interjected, “that’s not like us at all.”

And then we were chatting and chilling with relatives and I was complaining that I couldn’t be the little toddler who got to wear a pretty dress and roll around in the dirt on a wedding day.

“I mean you could,” Uncle Martin said.

“Don’t worry, on Alice’s wedding it’ll be all mud pies and S Club 7 songs” Mumma B said. While everyone laughed I muttered to India “do you think we can get Aqua live?”

And then the wedding happened. Sorry Stella and Alun, I know you guys love my blog but I honestly can’t think of much to say – I wish I could write something wonderfully romantic but unlike your friends I stuffed up my poetry module at A Level. Urm…

The ceremony was wonderful // Stella’s dress was anything but colourful.

(I think I’ll stick to the writing.)

Here is a very small sample of some of the photos taken of Stella and Alun on the day.

And here is one of the child I want to be when I grow up.

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And here are a selection of all the many selfies I did whilst we were waiting for the drinks reception.

And then things ground to a temporary halt while we tried to fix the selfie stick/camera.

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But luckily Aunt Yvonne was on hand to capture me at my most beautiful.

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I never met the guy stood behind me in that photo but I think he liked me, that or he felt pity (very easy to get the two mixed up in my world).

And lets take a moment to admire how amazingly my bun held up, despite the four hour drive/sleeping/undressing-dressing/just being me.

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You know, with some of the pictures I’m seeing here you’d think the official photographer could have taken the day off. Anyway moving on and back, the venue was lovely. I mean a wedding in a mother flipping museum is always going to get me excited. Don’t forget this…

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…This was taken before the consumption of any alcohol. So I was living the dream being able to drink prosecco and wonder exhibitions with suited and other smart type people.

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Even if it made me look like a horned beast.

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But they had a kid’s trail (and seemingly unlimited prosecco and canapes) so I was prepared to overlook this.

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We sat down for food and, you’ve guessed it, took more selfies (remind me again why we were there?) Mumma B tried to set the camera up for Bluetooth group photos, but by this point I was on the table wine with a stomach lined with a couple of mini spring rolls. Of course I wasn’t going to be taking anything seriously.

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Stella and Alun then cut their wedding cake. FYI am I the only one thinking Stella was far too happy to be holding such a sharp knife?

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Alun probably had his eye on it for his tomato addiction. His need to consume £50 worth of the little red things a week got a mention in every one of the speeches to much laughter. Everyone needs a hobby I guess.

After speeches, food and yet more table wine (suddenly the headache I had the next morning makes a lot more sense) people broke off while the function room was set up for evening entertainment.

Papa B, India, Uncle Chris and a few others got excited over a drone and Mumma B grabbed a photo just in time to get my typically Alice reaction.

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Mumma B and I instead spent time wondering around the gardens and discussing flower beds and architecture. Standard. Once the evening portion of the night kicked off it was all dancing and fun way into the night. Have you ever danced to the hit song Nelson Mandela by The Specials at a wedding? Well you have not lived my friend.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m dancing for Mandela India! We’ve got to free him!”

“[Laughs] what the hell?”

“FREEEEEEE NELSON MANDELA! INDIA! IT’S MANDELA!”

(For context, Stella spent a good deal of time in Southern Africa growing up.)

And then eventually the whole night wrapped up with a UB40 song.

“What’s this?” India asked.

“The song played when the DJ wants you to bugger off.”

***

The following days were spent relaxing and enjoying the Kentish sunshine. A particular highlight was when the four of us visited Walmer Castle in Deal. India, with her expert technical knowledge helped restore my confidence that I must be at least related to her.

Further shored up when she got just as excited over a pair of mini Wellington boots as I did.

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Tell you what, I have a lot of time for a young Wellington. Before I say anything further let me explain a bit of background behind the rationale.

Whilst loving life in Granada recently myself and one of the girls I was staying with developed an heightened interest in olives. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the fact we didn’t know each other and were jumping on the first connection we had but our lust of olives was just off the scale. Our friends would have told us to get a room, if we hadn’t already decided we were going to because of the olives. We bought a massive jar between us and in started taking ‘shots’ of olives and eventually skipped the middle man by carting the whole jar to bed with us at stupid o’clock (don’t ask me to explain why). Anyway, because the jar was so hard to open and because of how much we loved those olives I coined a phrase to subtly describe any man (or woman) that the perciever took a fancy to. I explain this to you now a) for future reference on any subsequent blog posts and b) because seeing a young Wellington in Walmer Castle prompted me to say it.

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“Ooh. He can open my olives.”

“What?”

I related the above story to India.

“Again, what?”

**

I attended my cousin’s wedding with only my immediate family and happily so. It made me wonder why people have this need to put on their dating profiles “seeks +1 to attend weddings”. Why? What’s wrong with going solo? I had just as much fun being a plus zero, if not more so by being able to be classic Alice and wander around a museum late at night after a glass or two, pretending I was living my own version of Night at the Museum. Would I have wanted a plus one to see we twirling about and exclaiming “I love History!”? Goodness no!

The Cotswold Bennett clan left Kent early on Sunday having spent a four days in South East England, a part of the country that none of us had visited in any depth before. We came away feeling very relaxed and India and I with a long list of wedding ideas for that of our own one day (although for the love of God don’t let that be any time soon – Aqua don’t have the availability).

**

Big love to my cousin Stella and her husband Alun, I had a wonderful time at your wedding and wish you all the best now and long into the future. I’m no poet but I hope this, alongside the wire chicken egg holder (memories of hunting cheap eggs in London), I hope they both make you smile.

With love, AEB x

 

Seven Little Books

“29/04/18. My arms are aching, my legs are covered in bruises and I’m completely shattered. I must be in London.”

It has been a week since I vacated my flat in central London and returned once more to Swindon. It almost feels like the past year has all been but a dream, vape steam in the breeze. Invisible, abstract and only memorable by the faint smell it leaves behind.

On 2nd May I left London Paddington station for the last time packed like a loaded Buckaroo: an overfilled holdall case, a heavy rucksack, an additional handbag, a canvas tote filled with redundant bedlinen and a heavy laptop across the body for good measure. I learnt from my mistakes moving out and managed the travel back relatively bruise free, however my body has ached for days from strain. The day before I fully moved I’d completed a separate trip to Swindon with a similar amount of goods and wondered why I couldn’t stop violently shaking. I spilt coffee everywhere at the formal work function, of course. At the time I put it down to the amount of rushing around but now I see it as the culmination of mental and muscular stress.

Other than the short term pains it would be easy to pass off what I’d been through and achieved in just over twelve months living and working in the English capital as nothing more than normal. ‘Business as usual’ as my colleagues would say. But it isn’t. And it’s not just the big things that make me say that, like moving into the flat and travelling solo in Europe for the first time, but it is the little things as well. The events I put myself out of my comfort zone to attend, the weird obsession with finding the cheapest eggs, the men (goodness the men). And as I stood in Brompton cemetery one Sunday afternoon while a random man called Nicolas tried to chat me up I thought only one thing.

Thank God I’m writing this all down.

Seven separate notebooks, all documenting the experience of spending a year in London. Seven books with unique but different personalities as I went through a deeply personal and professional journey. Just glancing over extracts from book one and comparing it to book seven the transformation is really quite something (excluding coffee spilling and egg hunting, those two are deeply trademarked parts of me). Admittedly I haven’t read any of the books in depth since writing, I want to let some water trickle under bridges first. But I remember so clearly picking the first notebook off a shelf in a stationery store and telling myself I would make every effort to record the upcoming eight months in London (as it was then supposed to be) so that I should not forget the experience when I returned once more to Wiltshire. To ensure that I never let this fantastic opportunity turn into little more than a faded dream. And maybe, just maybe, one day I will do something more with my scribbles, that people will know about the time I ended up at a celebrity wedding, when the artist Grayson Perry became a fan of my writing, the time I got screen tested for a dating show. And again, the men.

If two things show how much I’ve changed over the past year then look no further than these separate quotes.

“11/05/18…Let’s make this work.”

“06/04/19…Because I can.”

 

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Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Swindon Anymore: On Moving to London

The below was written as part of an internal communication piece showcasing employees who have chosen to relocate for their work. My piece focused on moving to London but with a classic Alice twist.

I wake each morning and stare at an isolated patch of peeling paint. I don’t how it came to be or why I look blankly at it every morning, but it has become a weird habit I’ve developed since relocating. Everyone has habits here, some people get through their commute with a super-skinny-muchos-frappy-bean café deluxe, others smoke like the bellowing car exhausts on Tower Bridge, for me staring at length at a flaky patch is mine. And I wonder why my Mum worries for me.

The most over repeated piece of advice on Development schemes is to make your own opportunities and I suppose for me London represented this to the extreme. If I could survive in the big smoke I could thrive anywhere. Combined with an exciting placement proposition I could hear Threadneedle calling in May 2018.

Upon arrival I told myself that I wouldn’t become another digit on London’s loneliness statistics which is why I have made every effort to try new things outside of work. “Speed-friending” events are all the rage in central London, up there with humanitarian clubs and vegan veg-outs. Regardless of my outlook I’ve attended all manner of get-togethers and learnt so much of wider society. I’ve even learnt to embrace my inner hipster, sitting crossed legged at acoustic sets and hanging out in independent coffee shops in berets and neck scarves (and getting subsequently mistaken for being French. “Je suis…Anglais”, the end result of five years of the British education system).

From the moment I leave my flat each morning I’m reminded of how far removed I am from Swindon. The smell of soot in the air, angry cyclists cursing at pedestrians, the wrapper of a tourist poncho blowing down the street, admittedly my battered copy of Lonely Planet didn’t prepare me well for daily life in the capital. But through perseverance I’ve forged my own lifestyle and friendship groups and that’s what I’m proudest of. The experiences I encounter, good and bad, are shaping me into a stronger person, the person I never thought I could be.

My advice to anyone considering placement relocation comes as no surprise. Do it! In the protective bubble of development schemes there’s a lot to gain from taking a plunge. Just don’t get in the way of my morning commute, yeah?                            

The Bits of London that Make the Bigger Picture

It’s been a while since I put together a heavily picture-based post and I also haven’t given much of an update into my crazy London lifestyle* (*crazy mainly because I now shop at Tesco’s rather than Sainsburys – I’m off the chain). So as I was scrolling through the very typically Alice photo reels I thought I’d combine the two and create a random post full of random images. If you want to see more photos like these check me out on Instagram (aeb_thewriter).

First off, start with this to set your weekend off right:

Maybe it’s the work, maybe it’s the general buzz of the big city but I’ve very much got into my acoustic covers since moving. Perfect music to unwind to.

And what’s a chilled weekend without a good coffee? My local haunt is a tiny little shop on the corner of Cinnamon Street rather aptly called Cinnamon Coffee Shop.

Inside there’s only a small selection of seats however every one offers a perfect people watching spot, be it people walking down the quiet back streets of Wapping or those dashing in and out with their soy lattes to go. I’ve spent many an hour in this place on a weekend afternoon, chilling with a book whilst The Beatles play in the background.

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I drink coffee alongside exposed lightbulbs and at 2/3 circle tables. I’m not hipster, but…

And if Cinnamon is packed out then the coffee world is my oyster. I usually hang out at Caffe Nero on the South Bank (Oxo Tower), but closer to the flat you can find me either at the Starbucks at St. Katherine’s Docks or the Starbucks at Hay’s Galleria.

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It’s outside, but covered over, but charging eat-in prices (but paying for take out).

And if you disturb me whilst reading…

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Or clean away my coffee when I haven’t finished…

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“The small girl took command of the situation”…by running away from the body.

That said, even though I’m arguably doing more ‘young professional’ reading (sans avocado) than ever before, I still think I have a little way to go yet. A) because an equally intellectual man has yet to act on this (“wait, you’re telling me Hollywood is a lie?”) and B) my powers of embracing all forms of Art is still a little way off. Case in point; this Sainsburys receipt on display at the Tate Modern (South Bank).

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You know I’d probably have found it easier to accept if I hadn’t discovered the shopper-come-artist spent over £50 and didn’t claim any of the Nectar points.

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That’s 26.5p in points. Wasted. And you know, back in June 2016 I’d have happily have taken those. It’s just selfish if you ask me.

But that’s the crazy thing with living somewhere where you wake up with a view of Tower Bridge and say goodnight to the bright lights of the Shard. Things and places that I wouldn’t have ever imagined having access to are now only a short walk away. I see the Tower of London twice everyday on my walking commute to work to the point of being blasé to its historic value and beauty.

Loathed as I am to say it, London has also opened me up to some great opportunities and experiences. I’ve attended fancy events with old friends I haven’t seen in ages…

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…and at the polar opposite I’ve got completely drenched queuing for tickets in the pouring rain.

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I was one of the last people to get a seat but, from looking at everyone else, the worst prepared for the British weather. My whole body was so numb and shaking it’s a wonder I could take a photo.

I recently discovered that, contrary to my assumptions, my name isn’t as obvious as I had thought. This is what happened when I went bowling after work with some colleagues (including Bev and Theo).

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Hmm.

The weekend just gone marked the main celebration of Bonfire night (English tradition of lighting big fires and fireworks on or around 5th November. Has historical links, Google it). And in part because I didn’t have anyone to go with but more significantly because I didn’t fancy having to pay the money and fight the London crowds I chose to have a quiet one in. That was until I realised that my bedroom window had a clear sight of a massive firework display happening locally, which this expertly taken photo proves (and will you full on instantaneous envy).

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You really had to be there. After trying about ten times to get a decent shot I put my phone down and enjoyed the display as it was intended to be seen.

Have you ever watched a firework display in slouch clothing with a plate of Chilli Con Carne? Very novel experience.

In a pictorial nutshell those are the key elements of my life in London. Work, coffee, books, exhibitions, embracing spontaneity. So far I think I’ve got the balance right, I’m spending more money (“welcome to London hun”) but not as much as I had expected. As I say to work colleagues and friends, “I can buy a cheap-ish coffee at work everyday and gulp it quickly in front of a computer monitor, or I can invest a little more on the weekends and enjoy a hot drink and cake in a coffee shop where I can relax for an hour.” Seems an obvious choice to me.

Central London may be causing havoc with my skin and with my shopping habits (it is frustrating that the entirety of ‘The City’ shuts down on the weekend) but I have come to accept that it’s what comes as part of the lifestyle when you live so ridiculously close to work by London standards. Charm and character will just have to wait for those times I travel back to the family home (picture the opening scene of Bridget Jones).

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Fun fact: the opening scenes/scenes of Bridget’s family home were filmed in a village called Snowshill which itself is near to where I was brought up. In case you wanted further proof I am country bumpkin.

For what it’s worth (worth being not having to pay for a Tube season ticket and live in an area of suburbia feels out of character given its location), Wapping is more than good enough for me. Who knows what the next weeks will hold as I take on this smoke-filled jungle at Christmas, but right now I’m going to focus on the more pressing questions.

For example…

1. What was going through this person’s head last Saturday at the Surrey Quays Tesco Extra?

If it’s what I think it is then they’ve missed the point. Everyone knows the quality of water is only as good as the plant feed when it comes to cut flowers. Boy are they going to look silly when they come to put those on their kitchen table.

And 2. Why are they called epanbeppies here?

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Day Two and Still Here: Parental Visit to London (Continued)

(View part one of my parent’s visit to London here.)

***

I met my parents in near the same spot as we’d parted the night before, outside a quaint little Starbucks housed in a building originally built to mark the Queen’s silver Jubilee in 1977. Not that we thought much of the buildings intended significance as we walked over the commemorative plaque in the entranceway. We took our large Americanos and admired the unusually peaceful view of the marina. Yards away Monday morning commute was in full flow, but here we were settled from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It reminded me of how days off should be spent, sunglasses in hair, enjoyable company and a mouthful of guilt-free cake for breakfast.

After coffee I led the way over Tower Bridge, stopping briefly to let Mum take photos on her camera phone. Given the frequency I utilise the tourist trap crossing the leisurely tourist stroll pace felt very much at odds with the route march, shopping on shoulder, approach I took every other day. Further along the South Bank I diverted Mum and Dad through Borough Market for an idea of how one of the main city markets looked and worked which in the same manner as St Katherine’s and Tower Bridge, was welcomed more positively for the lack of humans first thing in the morning.

West and West we went, ambling along the Southern promenade of the Thames until we reached the Tate Modern. I’d forewarned my parents about the type and medium of the exhibitions on display at this popular art gallery, but regardless they were keen to experience it for themselves. Who would I be as a local and tour guide if I ignored the requests of my guests?

Given my Father’s occupation in the Horological sphere, a trip to the worldly famous (or a least that’s what the advert said) film screening ‘The Clock’ was a must. A 24 hour film comprised of the artist painstakingly going through footage to get clips of every minute of every hour. The viewership spoke for themselves, at midday on a Monday the film screening room was about a third full, people sat in rows in front of a large cinema screen. I gestured for Mum and Dad to do the same as we walked in but they decided to remain standing on the back wall nearest to the door. We watched clips for 12:35, 12:36 and 12:37 before Dad decided he’d had enough and walked out, myself and Mum following.

“They’re all watching that film so seriously!” Dad said with amazement as we waited for the lift to arrive. “Did you see them in those chairs?”

“But don’t you see how that could be art?” I said in defence. “That someone has spent hours, months or years even trawling through footage to find a clip of that exact minute. There can’t be two 12:35s in place of zero 12:44s. The investment of time is worth something surely?”

Dad mumbled something under his breath which I took to meaning he respected but rejected my view. In a later room he made similar remarks about some lengthy pieces of brown leather that were hung from the ceiling. He defied how anyone could view this as art.

“Well what do you interpret art as being then?” Mum challenged as we moved across into a room covered floor to ceiling in printed mantras.

“Something of meaning, something of value and something I can’t do.” He gestured to the confined room we stood in, his finger ironically coming to point at one statement which read ‘stupid people shouldn’t breed’. “This is not art.”

“Well I quite like it in a weird way” Mum countered. Her acknowledgement in the face of Dad’s strong reservations surprised me, it was as if they were different people with different views. Unnerving.

After the Tate we retraced our steps and stopped off for lunch at a historic pub called The Anchor. Historic in that it’s rich history included visitations from Samuel Pepys and Edward Jenner and owned by The National Trust, modern in that it was being managed by the Greene King pub chain. Meters away from a shrine room dedicated to Jenner, city folk were chinking glasses on the rooftop terrace to celebrate successful business meetings.

“Does anyone do any work around here?” Dad commented as he reflected on the number of people he’d seen in coffee shops earlier in the day.

“It’s how they do things here,” Mum said flippantly. “It was in a copy of The Telegraph a few weeks ago, even interviews take place in coffee bars nowadays.”

For the second time in as many hours I held my tongue and sipped on my pint of cider. Was Mum becoming Londonised?

Before long all three of us were polishing up our plates and having to think of what we’d been trying to ignore all morning; that eventually my parents were going to have to get back to Paddington to catch the last pre-peak train back to the Cotswolds. Before that though there was just enough time to showcase of the City’s most iconic buildings.

“And there is Saint Paul’s Cathedral” said as we began walking across the pedestrian bridge.

“Isn’t this the bridge that wobbled when people walked across it?” Dad asked.

“Well yes, but that was when they opened it originally, it’s long past that time now and perfectly safe to cross.”

“I’m not stopping on this bridge. I don’t like bridges like this.” Mum announced as she started walking across the bridge. At first she clutched the handrail but realising that fellow tourists hogged the bar for selfies she opted instead for the London commuter approach, to storm down the middle without even pausing to look at the view. She waited patiently on the secure concrete bankside for myself and Dad to catch up and end our conversation about something so trivial I cannot remember what it was about.

“And there is Saint Paul’s” I repeated. Dad was, at first, disappointed there wasn’t the time to go in, replaced by disgust when I told him the ticket price.

“The outside is fine enough.”

Briefly stopping on a bench in the cathedral grounds we observed an Asian bride and groom having staged wedding photos done in one of the doorways, Mum and I hissed at Dad when he accidentally-purposely walked through one of their photo set ups, and then we moved on. By the time I’d shown them the restaurant location for the Channel Four reality series First Dates (which oddly got a better reception than the cathedral) we had to head back to Paddington station via the Central and Bakerloo Tube lines.

“You didn’t have to come with us back to the station,” Dad said, “we’d have been fine on our own.”

Mum looked at me from the seat almost directly opposite. She shook her head subtly so Dad wouldn’t notice and mouthed “no”. As well as seeing them off safe I had no issues with staying with them that bit longer. After all, on my day off I hardly had any other pressing engagements to attend.

I waited with my parents at the station until their platform was announced and then walked them up to the train doors where their seats were ready and reserved for them.

“Thank you so much for showing us round London these past couple of days,” Mum said. “I don’t think we’d have managed without you.”

“We’d have been fine with my map reading skills!” Dad quipped from behind.

“Thank you anyway. We’ll definitely have to visit you again.”

“Definitely do.”

“We are really proud of you, you know?” Dad said as he stepped forward. “What you’ve achieved and what you’re doing, you don’t know how much it means to your Mother and I to see you doing so well for yourself here. And Wapping is such a nice place to be living. We’re just very happy for you.”

“Thanks Dad” I said, trying to not dwell too long on the sentiment for fear of breaking a tear or two. Instead I gave each of them a big hug and told them I loved them both and that I’d text as soon as I got back to the flat and that I’d visit home very soon.

They hopped onto their carriage and I turned on my heel back down the lengthy marble platform. The old-fashioned door slammed and, in just as cold and brutal a manner, our physical connection was cut.

Half an hour later I arrived at my eastward flat as they were speeding in a westerly direction outside Slough. I was wondering what to do with myself when my phone lit up with a familiar notification. A half smile on my lips, I reignited the familiar bond once again.

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We Are Strange: Corporate Innovation in Action

Been curious as to my whereabouts these past few weeks? Sat at home wondering what coffee shop I’m loitering in or whether, quite possibly, I’ve melted into a sticky puddle on the Tube? Well now I’ve come out the other side I can fill you in on exactly what I’ve been doing.

Snapshot summary: shut up in freezing cold rooms with the same people, ferried about the country in bright t shirts to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’. After 15 days pushed onto a large stage in front of important people to perform a corporate dance. For the winners, glory, for the losers, vending machine coffee. Scaring hashtag memories and bursting inboxes for all.

Make sense? Lets take it back a step or two.

In the beginning…

Cast your mind back to mid June. That crazy time when the temperatures were seasonally normal and people scoffed at England’s chances in the World Cup. Myself, alongside all those on two of my organisation’s career development streams were called into a room and informed that for the first three weeks of July we were to come off our day jobs and work on another sub-project titled “Innovation”. In true project style, the title Innovation remained as clear at ditch water to all but the organisers so what followed was a more detailed brief. Simply put, in teams we had between then and the 26h July to produce a new, innovative, solution to a problem being experienced currently by our organisation.

While we understood the aims and objectives of the Innovation Project as a whole, what we struggled with more was the idea of being removed from the business for three whole weeks. As you can imagine our day managers were less than thrilled but conveniently had been briefed in a separate meeting in a different building. Their ‘feedback’ pinged into inboxes just as we were being put into teams.

After brief conversations within our separate units, team names and compulsory hashtags were provided to those in charge. Given at the time none of us expected these to go any further than a internal communication or the organisation’s corporate social page, my group went for team “All Change” alongside #WeAreStrange. The hashtag in particular was done in good humour at the organisation of the Innovation Project. A week or so after that we were assigned a topic to base our separate projects around. For my team it was “how might we better identify member* needs of the future?” (*member being another way of saying our financial customers’) And with that we were all set off into the big world. It was now mid-late June and we knew that in a few weeks we’d be presenting an idea, a solution, a product to senior executives.

Late June – Another presentation on presentations…

Enter Capgemini, one of our organisation’s third party suppliers and soft skills trainers for the duration of the Innovation Project and organisers of several weeks of WebEx talks and dynamic team building sessions. On the whole these were good, it only took an hour a week to listen to the online video conferences and they required zero preparation (unless you had a question). Unsure of who did or did not know me, my signature intro ended up being “hi this is Alice, Alice Bennett here” but otherwise I held up my strong cool-kid reputation. Admittedly given my London location I often couldn’t attend meetings in person, but instead dialled in to noisy boardrooms only to question the benefit of me hearing fragments of ten different people instead of my team mates.

Other than these sessions our day jobs carried on as normal. All of us manically working away in the background to get what we could completed, tidied up or handed over for someone else to cover whilst we were away. It really did feel as if we were leaving our current teams for some shiny prospect that none of us could quite explain without making it look like we were going to be paid to do nothing for three weeks. Like parrots our default justification was “it’s development”.

July – week 1

Admittedly I was off in Majorca for the first formal week of tech training, led by second supplier IBM. Although I was off enjoying the sun I felt a bit sorry for the two remaining team mates who had to go through a tough five day boot camp into all things tech related from coding to the Cloud. As the heatwave blistered on outside, within the walls of the hotel the teams were shut away in ice cold rooms, spaces that were so chilly I later heard tales of people bringing cardigans and jumpers to keep warm.

Week 2

Getting over holiday blues and how Britain could possibly be so hot still, the day after I landed back in Birmingham I was off again up north to Manchester. Here all the teams spent three days with, you guessed it, another third party supplier. Cisco is very proud of its innovation labs up in the northern powerhouse city, so was keen to show us what a dedicated innovation space looked like. But before that we had to settle into our hotel accommodation and be presented with our team t shirts. Remember what I said before about assuming the team name would go no further than that? Well I learnt a very painful lesson that evening about making assumptions…don’t. So now everyone had brightly coloured t shirts with a team name and hashtag printed boldly across the front and back. And we had to wear them the next day. And we had to walk halfway across Manchester to get to Cisco’s offices. Coincidentally management had long gone to bed by the time we realised all of this.

Day one in Manchester and we spent most of the day sitting on bean bags, because the stereotypes of creative spaces aren’t reinforced enough nowadays.

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Comfy at first but try sitting on them for three hours…

On this day we learnt more about what Cisco were doing at the MI-Idea labs and we met with start-ups to understand the personalities, mentalities and ideas that fall under the umbrella term.

On days two and three in Manchester IBM were back again to teach us how to unpick and create our own chatbots and visual recognition (VR). We found these sessions to be a lot quicker and easier to pick up and in no time at all Mike in my team was formulating his own Gareth Southgate chat bot and I looking into the boundaries of VR. I also posted several witty social media posts such as…

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“Now, while VR can tell you there are coffee cups in this image, what it can’t recognise is that you have a problem.”

We started Wednesday’s session earlier than planned so we could rush back to Swindon in time for the England vs Croatia match. That evening both our bodies and souls were crushed. It would take several days for us to regain ourselves.

On Thursday all of us reunited in the conference suite, alongside the corporate graduates, to be briefed on another project we were to start working on. So now we had both an Innovation and Charity project to work on. As you can imagine we were so very, very, happy that day. So happy.

Friday was the first day were our teams all got together in separate rooms and started thrashing out ideas to tackle our theme. After so much time travelling or being lectured or learning or fighting off angry day job managers, the strain showed on everyone. We were all ready for the weekend.

Week 3

In the final week of formally being off project team All Change started to do that, change. We had a concept but how that would look on paper and how we could make it work for our organisation was a tougher challenge. It’s one thing to say your idea is innovative, but if that idea is a dancing unicorn handing out red velvet cake to customers then it’s not likely to be as well received compared to something that is crazy but works.

For our team this final week featured a lot of competitor research (which isn’t easy – turns out corporations don’t like to make their finances public) and trying to pin people down for answers. In any other situation you wouldn’t expect a specialist to have a free enough diary to meet, say, the next day however in our bubble project time wasn’t a luxury. We quickly learnt that saying “we have to meet tomorrow because we’re presenting next week” made no difference at best and at worst got them asking us questions instead of our team asking them. Quick emails from their side did the job just as well. Alex pulled together a great presentation and our mentor Steve was a star in helping and showing us how to build a mobile app prototype, an essential part of making our idea tangible to the panel and creating a stand out presentation.

Throughout this week there were touch points with our project sponsors, the wider project leads and general chit chat with the third party suppliers who operated in a facilitate, support and provide external perspectives on our idea. On the Friday we delivered a dry run through of the presentation to a dummy panel of persons whose role was to provide initial feedback. As a team we were quite happy with the response and readily took on board the tweaks and minor adjustments which the presentation needed.

Despite all the craziness we made time for this ‘official’ team photo:

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On the board: HOW TO LOOK BUSY – Dynamic team photos, post it notes, Latin team name (a jab at teams Acta Non Verba and Sempre Progrediendi), bean bags

Week 4

Back in day jobs = craziness = do not disturb = reminding team members we’re alive

Adjusting Innovation presentations = making time for research = making time for team rehearsals = trying to find rooms with phones (so I can dial in) = travelling back and forth from London to Swindon = shattered but ready

Thursday 26th July

Team All Change were fourth on the agenda after introductions and then the first presentation by Acta non Verba.

As we went up onto the main stage with all the big wigs, managers and colleagues of our organisation in front of us, we felt a little nervous. I’d never seen Claudia look so uncomfortable, bouncing on one foot to another as Alex set up his laptop with the presentation. “You’ve got this” I reassured her as we walked to the other side of the stage.

We not only smashed that presentation but completely owned it. All that was missing was internal fireworks or fire itself (the budget was there for health and safety checks).

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We did good for a team which had #WeAreStrange printed across our backs (or yeah, the t shirts just had to be compulsory attire on the day of the final presentation, didn’t they? Cool-kid cred reduced to minus figures in seconds.)

After post presentation questioning and celebratory complimentary coffee we returned to our table in the conference suite and listened to the other three groups deliver their problem statement solutions. As each group watched the other in turn we were all amazed by both the quality and complexity of what had been designed and tested in such a short space of time. These weren’t “have you considered setting up a Google docs account?” or “have you thought about getting Amazon in to fix this?” It goes to show that if you give people resource and a free space then the ideas that can formulate are without limit. What is that saying about a man and a fish pole?

During the panel’s deliberation time I sipped on my coffee and wondered how anyone could pick out winners when all the presentations and contents were so good but so different. To me it felt a little bit like comparing chalk and cheese.

After a lot of heated discussions, the three winning teams were as follows:

Most viable (i.e. something the business could start doing straight away) – The Dream Team

People’s Choice (voted for by the audience) – Semper Progrediendi

Most Innovative  – ALL CHANGE!! Yeeesss!

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All the teams in our assorted bright t shirts

I wish I could say we won a pile of cash or a mini break to Paris, but instead we were happy to accept a framed certificate and team photo where we all looked good.

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Team All Change (I’d say the dream team but the yellows were called that). Left to right: Me (Alice Bennett), Claudia Pellegrino, Mike O’Keefe, Alex Wheeler

After all the excitement and the close of the main event at 1pm there was only a little time to take lunch and crash. After that for most it was a case of taking off t shirts and getting back into the day job. I personally kept my t shirt on, firstly because I missed the memo about everyone bringing a change of top (and I don’t think my company is about to relax its uniform policies that much) but also because by that point I was beyond embarrassment. Enough people had seen me strutting about the office in heels, pencil skirt and black jacket like some product rep for a new health drink. I didn’t care anymore. Like the presentation I’d been part of several hours beforehand I was happy, if not a little proud to own the look on that day. And when friends outside of the challenge pointed to my top with a smile and a laugh all I had to do was turn on my heel and lower my jacket.

“Well, we are strange”

“Aren’t you hot in that black jacket?”

“You cannot begin to imagine.”

After all that you are probably wondering what All Change’s big, award-winning innovation idea was or indeed the ideas of the four other teams. Well, I guess you’ll just have to watch this space to find out… #WeAreStrange #SimplyInnovating

(A big thank you to everyone involved in the Innovation Project, including organisers, facilitators, educators and panellists. Of the third party providers there are far too many of you to name individually so I hope that in thanking Capgemini, IBM and Cisco will suffice. You guys know who you are, especially the person who thought bright t shirts were a good idea…)