Lin Biao was the Deputy Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from 1966 until 1971 and was instrumental in laying the foundations for Mao Zedong’s Cult of Personality (fuelled by “The Little Red Book”). This Cult became a dominant feature underpinning the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.
Ironically, the Cult and Lin’s subsequent rise in power deeply unsettled Chairman Mao, in fact Lin would later face severe criticism from within the ruling Communist Party for being the sole cause behind the reckless cultural destruction inflicted by the youthful Red Army in the 1960s.
By 1971 Lin had fallen from favour, putting him and close supporters at risk. After an alleged assassination attempt on Mao failed, Lin was in the process of fleeing China that same year when his plane crashed just off the Russian border, killing all those on board (including his family). It was reported nationally at the time that this was due to his plane running out of fuel, however due to the nature of Lin’s political decline and the secrecy of the Communist state, the true cause of death is still speculated to this day.
Huh, now we know. So, tune in next year for another edition of “Born on this Day”!
(Oh, and happy birthday to me too.)
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I was recently interviewed by as part of a industry-wide ‘Ones to Watch’ podcast. The resulting interviews were distributed across a large national network of Life Coaches and clients.
The series showcased and promoted creative talent but also encouraged high-performers to pursue development goals outside their 9-5 jobs. It was a great project to be part of and I’m now excited to be able to share the final output.
This week we’re meeting Finance professional and writer Alice E. Bennett (author of comedy blog My Housemate’s a Mermaid).
Having relocated to London for work, Alice provides a first-hand insight into the challenges of renting in the capital, getting onto the housing ladder and how a career in Financial Services is continually helping to shape her success as a creative writer.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Blogging kept me sane throughout the year, even if sometimes the content was anything but.
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.
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.
It even got a feature in local press.
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.
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!
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.
I was living in London (Wapping, E1W), had been since May.
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…
…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.
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.
Ultimately I think this hijacked road works sign in West London sums up my time in the capital perfectly:
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.
(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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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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On 31st October I was fortunate enough to be invited by radio station BBC Wiltshire to sit on a panel to talk all things Brexit in the light of the failed October exit day and the announcement of 12th December election.
It was all very last minute, I got invited in at 16:30, an hour later I was in the radio studio! However, having since listened to the entire recording I happen to think it’s turned out better than expected. An example of when not having the time to overthink a situation can be a good thing!
Below is the edited audio featuring all my interview segments, an extended clip with everyone’s hopes for the future of the UK and a delightful secondary discussion around pizza. Enjoy.
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“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.
Guess who’s been writing internal news articles again? Below was produced to promote the tool I’m developing as part of a team for a sub-project at work. More details below but so far the reception to both writing and project outputs have been great.
Keanu Reeves is a Better Career Advisor than Britney Spears
When I was a little girl I wanted to be Britney Spears. Then around the age of seven I realised it would be a difficult career path (turns out it’s a ‘dead man’s shoes’ role), so instead I settled on hard-hitting journalism, only to find myself documenting the adventures of a pineapple in a party hat (don’t ask). Post University there were three years in charity and now I’m fast approaching two of the same at Nationwide but it’s only recently that the words ‘Project’ and ‘Management’ have sprung out as possibilities for someone like me.
I applied to be on a team for this year’s Association for Project Management (APM) challenge with echoes of Britney in the back of my mind. What skills and qualities do you
need to have to enter it? Where do you go to access accredited material? Is Project management even the right career? I was about to call it out on when someone else said it, and then another, until we’d all agreed that between our collective 17 and a half years’ experience no one knew the answers to these fundamental questions. Our deliverable was born; in four months we’d build a tool to help practitioners focus their development time more effectively. We would call it the “Project Development Matrix” (and Michael, our project manager, would tell me to stop suggesting we wear long coats and shades like Keanu Reeves’ did in the 1999 film The Matrix). With our tool all you’d need to do is answer a few questions and the answers would automatically populate charts to help tailor the development plan of the user.
The APM challenge is designed to develop project management qualities and knowledge of the project lifecycle. We produce detailed reports to deadlines, stage project boards with our sponsor and must deliver what we set out to do. For the finals night in May we’ll either have produce additional material or present to a panel. You’re up against teams from a range of organisations so company lingo has to be stripped away and everything taken back to APM fundamentals. The project would be enough of a challenge for a single co-located team, however we’ve added a layer of fun to the mix by basing ourselves across two Swindon and one London office.
So where are we now? In February we housed a focus group to get consumer views and refine our ‘product backlog’ for the first release, with a view to develop and expand the tool and its use case after that. No project is entirely smooth running, given the snow I experienced in central London I struggled to see why the original focus group in Swindon had to be moved, but it’s the setbacks you learn best from.
The tool is presently due for release at the end of this month. Give it a go and let us know your thoughts. Any issues and I’ll don my shades and get Keanu to enter the Matrix himself and investigate further.
For my second of two articles I had to produce for the internal monthly newsletter I decided to do an interview with a senior bod in the organisation. However this is me and while I’m still clinging onto the famous ‘graduate’ gold pass (I’m not a graduate, but there has to be some perks to people forever calling me that), well, it seemed perfectly reasonable to take a different stance on the traditional dry corporate interview the Executive Committee usually answer via email. Even though you won’t know the guy directly I hope you get what I was trying to do here, I certainly got the feeling he did.
Jeremy Paxman got nothing on me.
Closed Conversations with JS, Head of Digital
JS: So why are we doing this?
AB: I thought it would jazz up the newsletter interview if we got to know the man behind the face. Don’t get me wrong, I love Digital strategy…
AB: …but we don’t really get to know you. Shouldn’t take long but before we start I should say you’re allowed to decline questions or terminate the interview should you feel uncomfortable
JS: What are you going to ask me?!
AB: I’m just covering my back J
JS: *Chuckles* okay, go on.
AB: What’s your favourite chocolate bar?
AB: Biggest strength?
AB: Football or Rugby?
AB: Favourite team?
JS: Bath Spa
AB: Playground nickname?
AB: Would you rather be a giant hamster or a tiny rhino?
JS: Tiny rhino
AB: Bath Spa or Swindon?
JS: As in the city?
AB: Well, yeah, I wouldn’t make you compare Swindon to basic hygiene.
JS: *Laughs* fair enough, Bath Spa
AB: What’s your Zodiac sign?
AB: Morning lark or night owl?
JS: Morning lark
AB: Tea or coffee?
AB: Would you rather meet an alien visitor of travel into space?
JS: *Pause* travel into space
JS: Anything before 1998
AB: What happened after 1998?
JS: It all went downhill
Describe yourself in one word.
JS: *Long pause*
AB: Just anything
JS: It’s a tough one
AB: Have you never had to answer that at an interview?
JS: I haven’t been interviewed in ten years! *long pause* Determined
AB: Digital or analogue?
JS: Analogue…joking! Of course it’s Digital.
AB: God, you had me worried there for your job. As if an analogue fan could head up digital, I’d have to get you escorted of the building out on principle!
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?
From July to October 2018 a small team of us from my organisation worked with Booth House, Salvation Army Centre in Swindon (Wiltshire, UK) to help increase revenue and awareness of one of their social enterprises called The Sandwich People. As part of our activities I spent time volunteering with the charity and even wrote an article off the back of my experiences.
Below is a video summarising what Booth House do, specifically the two enterprises Recycles and The Sandwich People:
Three months after we delivered our final report and presentation to staff and volunteers, myself and the team are so pleased to see how the social enterprise has implemented some of our recommendations and come on leaps and bounds in such a short space of time. Three things in particular which stand out for me:
The Sandwich People have set up an Instagram account and are more effectively using social media to get their message across.
As per our suggestions, the management have refined the menu based on the cost of production versus sales.
Starting this week, the centre manager has informed me that The Round (the daily sandwich delivery around offices) now have the equipment to take contactless payment. This is a big deal as before sales were entirely dependant on office workers carrying cash (which often they didn’t).
The social enterprise is also seeking collaborative groups and communities to help spread the word and foster a supportive environment for a number of local charities. I was recently asked to help contribute towards a case study article, the results of which you can find on the Swindon Social Enterprises website
It was great working with the guys at Booth House, as stakeholders they were infinitely helpful and useful, as human beings trying to make a difference they were complete saints. The residents and volunteers certainly taught me a thing or two (including how to make a chicken salad wrap) and it was an experience I will not forget in a hurry.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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:
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).
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!
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.
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…)