Archive for March, 2010

One amazing lady

March 25, 2010

This is one of the feature articles I wrote for my journalism course. The assignment was to interview and write about someone who’s been through a life-changing experience. It’s about my friend Charlotte, one amazing lady!


“Wing-walking: I’d love to do that”, says Charlotte just nine months short of the two decade milestone since her first kidney transplant. It is just one of the daring activities on the 31 year old’s adventurous to-do list. If you are in any doubt, ‘wing-walking’ is as it sounds, walking along the wing of an aeroplane in flight. It is not for the faint hearted, but then Charlotte is definitely not that. Having exceeded medical expectations over and over again, Charlotte has the gritty determination to live life to the full and for her that involves doing lots of adrenalin-filled activities.

Aged 12 Charlotte was a seemingly healthy teenager. The only sign of a possible problem was that she and Joanna, her younger sister by three years, were the same height. When Charlotte’s mother took her for a blood test, no-one in the family expected how quickly their world would change. Within half an hour of a phone call from the GP with Charlotte’s test results, she had been admitted into the renal failure ward at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital. It was Friday 13 July 1990.

An unlucky day for some, Charlotte later learnt that had she gone on the family holiday to Portugal planned in the following weeks, she would almost certainly not have survived. “It was dialysis or die”, she explains. “I was on the transplant list,” she continued. “They try to find them within a year for children but there are no guarantees.” She was lucky, she waited just six weeks for a suitable donor.

But it is not just luck that has defined Charlotte’s medical history and hospital experiences. It is her positivity, determination not to let any illness get the better of her and the unfailing support she has had from her family and close friends.

Told she would never go back to boarding school aged 12 her response was “I’m going to prove them wrong”. And she did. Told her first donated kidney would last eight years, she amazed doctors by living healthily with it for 17 years. Told in 2000 that she had developed a Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL) in her neck as a result of the immuno-suppressant drugs she was taking for her transplant kidney to function, she became a medical test case for a new treatment approach that avoids using chemotherapy to shrink the growth. She proved it was possible and it is now a common treatment method in NHL patients.

But what came as possibly the biggest shock to Charlotte was realising she needed another kidney transplant in 2007. She admits, “I hoped I’d be invincible. It’s easier to be told what to do when you’re 12. But to go through it again – I wanted to rebel and say no. It’s completely different as an adult. I knew what I had to go through and it was absolutely terrifying.”

This time round doctors turned to Charlotte’s family to test for a possible match. Her mother, father, brother and sister were all compatible but her father and brother were the better matches. Despite them all wanting to help Charlotte and be the one who donated a kidney, she found it difficult. The realisation that “it’s not about me”, she explained was hard to deal with; “knowing a family member had to have a risky operation to keep me alive.”

In the end the doctors chose her father. Charlotte jokes that her brother is now her “backstop” and “safety net”, knowing that her second donated kidney will not last forever. She discovered that her surgeons were keeping it in the family too – Mr Fernando her second transplant surgeon was the son of the surgeon who did her first operation.

Although she is reluctant to say that her medical history has affected her life, Charlotte does admit “It can’t not have had an impact”. She says she has always believed “I can achieve anything as long as I’m sensible”. But what has changed “is my attitude to what other people think. I was more open about it when I was younger… now I want people to get to know me… then, Charlotte with a kidney transplant.”

Her positive attitude is an admirable trait for someone who could easily dwell on her woes. “There was one night in hospital,” she remembers before her first transplant when she sat up thinking, “it’s so unfair. Why me? I hate my life.” But after that night she quickly “got over it.” Her parents and family have helped tremendously, not treating her any differently from her siblings. “They never let me get away with anything like wallowing in my illness”, she says defiantly.

The dare-devil, adrenalin junkie has many mottos to live by including “trust your instincts” and to remember that “hell is temporary and life will go back to normal”. And with that she is off to go for dinner with her ‘8th Day’ friends. They are all members of an adventure group who share her lust for life, living as if there was an 8th day in the week to do fun and daring things. Perhaps she should make sure she tries wing-walking and other extreme activities on a Friday 13th in the future. It’s obviously a lucky day for Charlotte.


The P word

March 23, 2010

I don’t think I’m the only person who has issues with the use of the ‘P’ word in environmental communications.

I’m talking about Planet.

A la: Our planet is in peril. We need Captain Planet’s help!

Captain Planet, he’s our hero, gonna take pollution down to zero. Gonna help us, put asunder, bad guys who like to loot and plunder. *Kapow!* (BTW, I wrote that without needing to google the lines… it’s engrained on my memory!)

Is it me, or does planet sound dated? It reminds me of being 15 and playing ‘F’ – the Fluoro in CFCs (there were two ‘C’ parts as well) – in a school skit of Captain Planet.

To me, the word planet conjures up other-worldly images. It feels alien, not real world. Like we need to be superheroes to save the planet. It sounds extreme and sensationalist: Plunder the planet at your peril!!! (It also necessitates the overuse of exclamation marks).

How about the words: ‘world’, ‘earth’, ‘communities’, ‘local’ and ‘environment’? Isn’t that what we’re talking about?

I think these organisations have got it right:

Do the Green Thing


World Changing

What do you think about the perils of the P word? Am I totally barking up the wrong tree? Or is it a wise approach to stay away from Planet Hollywood and Planet of the Apes connotations when we’re talking about making positive and local green decisions?

A climate change poem

March 18, 2010

So many acronyms we use, which few people know,

The IPCC, ppm and the COP15 show.

It’s jargon at its heaviest and turns people off

It’s totally confusing, no wonder some scoff

At trying to engage them in reducing their C

Get outta here, they’d rather be watching Glee.


Climate change is huge in so many ways

Scientists will be studying it for the rest of their days.

But what about people who don’t do numbers,

80% cuts by 2050, carrots and… cucumbers?

It would be better if, we just told them a story

Of hope and opportunity and low-carbon glory,

Where everyone lives well and within the means

Of their environment, whether its icy or green.


Talking to an idler or doer, a campaigner or consumer,

We’ve gotta communicate climate change with a sense of humour.

Let’s make it fun and fashionable, as we would with other things,

Show how low carbon life can rock, and all the good stuff it brings.

How to…

March 16, 2010

It’s been one of those ‘How to’ weeks and it’s only Tuesday.

A few Christmases ago I was given the book How to do just about everything.

It’s big, blue and tells you what to do. No, that’s not the marketing strap, but perhaps it should be.

I don’t think I’ve ever explored its self-help suggestions.

But after today’s ‘how to’ dilemmas of ‘How to find a lost earring in London’, and requiring someone that knew ‘How to deal with a visibly upset girl who’s lost an earring somewhere at or between 3 coordinates in London’, I decided to put the book to the test. Searching under ‘lost’ in the book’s index, my options are:

Conceal Hair Loss  ||  Find Your Lost Pet  ||  Help Your Family Lose Weight  ||  Lose Weight  ||  Retrieve a Valuable Dropped Down the Sink  ||  Signal for Help in the Wilderness

None is overly useful in solving my current problem, and neither can the advice on retrieving a valuable dropped down the sink be adapted to rescue the spotlight I’ve lost to the ceiling in my flat. Unless I can find a u-bend up there. The things they don’t teach you at school.

Thus the purpose of The School of Life. This is the window of their shop in Marchmont Street sometime last year.

Their current evening courses cover off lots of ‘how to’ questions, including:

> How to make a difference

> How to have better conversations

> How to read

> How to survive your family (my fave)

> How to be cool

> How to be alone

> How to fill the God-shaped hole

All practical but intriguing enough. Positively framed, but a bit different from the usual after-work sewing/ creative writing/ learn to dance lindy hop lessons.

Talking to a friend last night, she told me about the book she’s currently reading… How to Be Brilliant. For someone who’s pretty amazing at what she does already, I know it’s the perfectionist in her she’s trying to appease.

(A not-so-natty bullseye cover… but I guess you can’t have it all.)

It sounds like a read for those of us who have a constant need for self betterment.

As Seth says, he doesn’t watch TV because there are so many other things he would rather be doing. I agree.

He also writes about Clay Shirky’s concept of cognitive surplus – or should that be, people who want to make a difference?:

Clay Shirky has noticed the trend of talented people putting five or six hours an evening to work instead of to waste. Add that up across a million or ten million people and the output is astonishing. He calls it cognitive surplus and it’s one of the underappreciated world-changing stories of our time.”

While you’re all out there doing your how to courses and changing the world, I’m just contemplating my learning from all of this… how to NOT lose earrings.

People power

March 12, 2010

Nice message from Howies telling the Beeb what they (and their customers) think about the proposed cuts to 6 Music and the Asian Network.

The people speak. Let’s hope it has impact.

At a talk by John Elkington last night at the LSE on ‘adapting to climate change within a new economic framework’, it drove home the message to me again about who is gonna get us out/ beyond/ through this mess: US.

Sorry, not the United States, but us. People. Our voices. Our pressure on politicians. Our demands of our employers. Our actions.

Are you one the people who speaks out… and has the T-shirt?


This is my choice of message. Ride in style. Power to the pedal. Better get myself the T-shirt now.

When businesses get big

March 9, 2010

Photograph by Emily Wilkinson. Coffee in Birds Cafe, Cape Town.

I was surprised to hear a friend talking about the social conscience of Starbucks the other day so I googled the Radio 4 interview with CEO Howard Schultz, who joined the company in 1982 when it only had 3 coffee shops to its name, to listen and judge for myself whether I should change my view of the mighty coffee emporium.

I already had a post about customer service in coffee houses in mind but couldn’t have found a more perfect comment from Schultz to illustrate it.

He said: “The challenge for any company that gets big is how do you get big and stay small? How do you maintain intimacy with the customer and the people that work for your company… as well as constant levels of innovation?”

Exactly. Tricky.

While I was in Cape Town I became a regular at new-ish coffee shop/ venture Truth Coffee Cult in Green Point. Not only do they do great flat whites, have free wifi and were just round the corner from where we were staying, but I liked their ethos (coffee as a religion), approach (including flat pack, eco-friendly tables) and interest in their customers (asking for feedback about how to make things better).

I have to say this with a sense of context – in Africa people greet strangers and customers in a far more friendly way than I’m used to in London where everyone seems to have I’ve-got-so-much-to-do, no-time-to-delay, lives. Dare to forget the “Hello, how are you?” in Africa and you’re instantly the foreigner.

Anyway, it was at Truth while talking to the *friendly* barista that I found out that Britain’s best barista used to make my morning flat white at his stall on Whitecross Street in London. I was in Borneo at the time of the award, but how typical that I should find out so far away from home and nearly a year later.

The Whitecross coffee stall is the epitome of a friendly morning coffee experience. Gwilym (best barista winner 2009) knew me (I write in the past tense as I don’t work near there anymore so am rarely in the neighbourhood to pop by for a coffee) as the girl on the Pashley and noticed straight away when I got my new bike. Everyone who works at the stall always stops for a chat regardless of the lengthening queue or not. Customers that are in a rush and aren’t coffee snobs don’t last long.

One of the baristas said when I returned one morning after being away for over 5 months, “you’ve been away”, and I don’t think it was just my tan that gave it away! In a large city like London, feeling like you’re part of a community is so important. A coffee cult. I think someone’s already snapped that one up!

Schultz talks too about the sense of community you get from coffee shops, saying that Starbucks provides for people what pubs in the UK do – a third place between home and work.

In London, my other, local, independent coffee house/ brand is Monmouth. Fabulous coffee. Beautifully served. Great location in Borough Market. Fun experience. Not that big and not a corporate chain, but usually busy. Yet, do they recognise me or any of their other regular clientele and stop for a chat? Not that I’ve seen or experienced. Is it their size? Attitude? Busy-ness? Business? Perhaps they have just got that bit too big without keeping the small guys’ intimate approach.

To me, being the best coffee house isn’t just about getting the right temperature for the milk, perfecting coffee art, knowing your blends and sprezzatura (my new favourite word thanks to Seth Godin), it’s also about staying small no matter how big your brand gets.


As a PS, the following coffee shops deserve special mention for fellow coffee snobs:

Dose, Smithfields

Whitecross Street Market, Barbican

Federation Coffee, Brixton Village

Fernandez & Wells, Soho

As for Starbucks, I can’t make a recommendation. I never touch the stuff.

Bermondsey Antiques Market

March 7, 2010

Last year I did a 12 week Introduction to Journalism evening course at The London School of Journalism. One of my assignments was to find a local news story. I chose to write about the Bermondsey Antiques Market which is just round the corner from where I live. Over many chilly early Friday mornings down at the market throughout November and December, I explored the stalls, spoke to traders and snapped up some absolute steals.

Last Friday popped down there for the first time in 2010 to find a present for my Mum’s birthday and it reminded me that I should post my article. So here it is… and Go Visit!

Fears for future of Southwark Market

The world-famous Bermondsey Antiques Market, which has been open to the public every Friday morning since 1966, is at risk of closure unless drastic support is given soon.

Occupying a prime plot in Bermondsey Square, the market and the square have undergone many changes over the years. Recent redevelopment of the square has brought residential flats, a hotel and businesses. The combination of new and old users and declining market trade has sparked cause for concern amongst traders who fear for their future in Bermondsey.

Lack of investment and reduced visitor numbers mean the market is a shadow of its former self. There used to be a greater range of traders and many more stalls (300-400). Now on a good week customers will find 40-50 traders.

Cameras at Bermondsey Antiques Market. Photograph by read me.

Joan Bygrave, Chairperson of the Bermondsey Antique Markets Traders Association and a trader for over 40 years is a vociferous campaigner for the market’s survival and an icon of its heritage. She leads negotiations with the Council.

“Land in Bermondsey Square has became valuable,” Joan explains, “the Council allowed the redevelopment of the Square for residential flats and businesses, but now the market is squashed into the interior. We feel closed off like a prison. It’s going to be a hard fight to bring it back up.”

Southwark Council recognises the challenges facing street markets in the Borough and recently launched a consultation to determine the support they need. Their market strategy identifies that Bermondsey Antiques Market “is in decline with large numbers of empty stalls, and needs a significant rebrand and re-launch if it is to remain a significant tourist attraction.”

Southwark Council officer Stephen Douglas, Engagement Manager for Environment and Housing, spent a morning at the market talking to traders.

“We spoke to as many of the traders as we could and distributed questionnaires,” says Stephen. The consultation is now closed.

Matt Steele, a market specialist, works closely with the Council and market traders. He was brought in for 3 months in September 2007 to help make a decision on the market but is still here over 2 years later.

“The area was different”, he says, “the buildings are privately owned now. We are fortunate to have the area still but the stalls are antiquated…the market needs to come into the 21st Century, it needs investment.” He also notes they are “constrained until the council makes a decision.”

Steele believes a decision on the way forward for the market will come soon. “The Council wants to find a partnership to make markets as good as they can be and help them survive financially,” he explains.

Staff and guests at the Bermondsey Square Hotel are supportive of the market. Frankie Gaiger, Events Manager at the Hotel says of the market: “We like it, it’s a little story to tell and to invite people to see a piece of history… guests go round it.” Although, she agrees that it is in need of investment: “It would be great to be more aesthetically enticing.”

While traders await the council’s street trading strategy which they hope will provide support for the market, a core group continues to brave the elements each week come rain or shine.

As one old-timer said, “We wouldn’t know what to do on Friday mornings if we weren’t at the market.”