So long, farewell…

Today marked the end of an era.
At 1pm I walked out of the building that’s been my workplace for four and a half years. It was a strange feeling, made all the stranger because although I’ve worked there since January 2007, I’d worked there as a temp in 2005, been a volunteer in and out of the building throughout my student years and had been a regular visitor between the ages of 11 and 15.

In fact, my association with the building began back in 1982 when I was just a small baby. As my mother was once moved to inform during a meeting we both attended last year, she’d changed my nappy in the room in which we were gathered. (There are times and places for such anecdotes – that was not one of them.)

Because my world is small and bizarre, it should be unsurprising that I ended up working in a building that my mother had worked in for 6 years; the building from which my father was sent as a mission partner 30+ years ago. Because my world is surreal, it made perfect sense that my desk for the last 3 years was just metres (literally around 2) away from the spot at which my mother’s desk had stood.

Today, I left Methodist Church House.

It feels right to have gone and on the whole it’s been a positive experience. There have been ups and downs. Sometimes it’s been massively frustrating, sometimes it’s been fantastic – especially on the odd occasion that I’ve got to travel to interesting places.

I’ve been blessed with some utterly fabulous colleagues. In fact, so far my working life has always involved one person I’ve had to work with closely who has also happened to be someone with whom I’ve got on famously. When I started at MCH I was worried I wouldn’t find someone I got on as well with as my CMS companion; but found Abidemi who was a valuable ally and is still an excellent friend. When she left I was convinced I’d be stuck with someone awful, and Andy arrived. He wasn’t so awful, in fact, it’s kind of thanks to him that I got to spend last week in France. When he disappeared I was positive that the void would be filled by an utter nightmare of a colleague, but I was wrong again – C turned out to be an almost perfect partner in crime. Work is never so bad when it involves spending time with friends.

Generally, I don’t blog about work, but there have been some entertaining stories along the way – like the discovery of what the mysterious Railway Club Room contained; the ridiculous lengths I end up going to thanks to my big mouth and my colleagues’ non-appreciation of sarcasm; the vagaries of the kitchen rota; the trauma of moving floors; and the bonuses of being able to watch the Madame Tussauds’ queue from the office window.

It’s been good, but new challenges are ahead. Next week, I get to move house. Whoop!
It’s a time of great joy for someone whose recurring anxiety dream involves packing…

Further bookselling reveries

Ever since Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops took off, I seem to have been reminiscing more than usual about my bookselling days – days that ended over 7 years ago. Plus, thanks to a comment I left on one of the Weird Things… posts, more people have landed on my original bookselling reverie that contains possibly one of the most disturbing bookselling stories you’ll ever hear (which, fortunately, didn’t actually happen to me).

I’ve just discovered a blog that links to that post as well as a few others of a similar nature, which reminded me of a story I retold on Sunday, while waxing lyrical about the glory of bookselling and how great – and under appreciated – booksellers can be. This is the bottom line people – most booksellers are excellent. They know a lot about their stock, the subjects it covers, what’s good, what’s not… They’re underpaid and, even worse, if you work for a big chain (i.e. Waterstones) your expertise is increasingly regarded as irrelevant – you don’t get a say in what stock gets ordered and are more or less a till monkey. A small rant, but I urge you to appreciate your local bookseller – they will appreciate you for it.

Anyway, back to random customer stories…

On Sunday, I was at a gathering that included several Gloucestrians and I got talking with one of them about my old bookshop and how much it’s changed since it got taken over by the big W. I shared a couple of Weird Things… gems and got the response “Oh, I bet there was never anything that weird in Gloucester!”. Oh really? I beg to differ – see previous post and below:

One of the jobs I did on a semi-regular basis was dealing with the daily delivery of customer orders. Really, this was a perfect job for me as not only did it require a high level of efficiency (ticking books of a list, lining them up & putting the right piece of paper in the right book), the alphabetisation of the customer orders bookcase (be still my beating heart), but also the chasing up of orders with the relevant distributors. I became so well known for my determined chasing that someone at our main distributors once said to a colleague “Ottakar’s in Gloucester? That’s where that really mouthy girl works, isn’t it?”. I was proud. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it involved ringing up total strangers – something which to this day I loathe.

I digress. Anyway, one day an older gentleman arrived wanting to collect his order. I took his name and went over to the shelves to locate the books. As I took them down, I realised they were two volumes of an erotica series. Slightly surprised, I took them over and, as with all orders, checked that they were the right books. The gentleman replied, rather loudly that they were NOT the books he’d ordered and I began to feel rather horrified that we’d accidentally ordered erotica for some poor old man. However, when he finished his sentence with “I’ve already read those! I wanted these two…” and pointed to the list of books inside the front cover, I felt a lot less guilty and instead aimed to get away from him as quickly as possible.

Fairly icky, no? How about the day someone asked if we had the Karma Sutra and I asked if they were after a particular version, running through the variety we had in stock. [Did they want one illustrated with drawings or photos? Pocket sized or full sized?] Then I looked up and realised my Dad was stood in the queue behind them – I’m sure he was very proud of my bookselling knowledge at that moment. Or, the day a woman came to the counter with a teenage girl in tow, handed me a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and turned to her daughter saying “now you’ll see what you’ve got yourself into”

Bookshops are truly special places. Treasure them and pray that they are never entirely replaced by one massive, anonymous Amazon.

Hooked on a feeling

Ten days ago, I finally got the chance to have crochet lesson number two and discovered that my brain had retained a surprising amount of stitching knowledge – a length of chain stitch was quickly accomplished and it was straight on to some single stitching. By church time an hour later I had a semi-decent piece of work and the generous gift of wool and a hook for a week in order to practice. 

Where I’d got to at the end of lesson two and the progress by the time I got home – note how much better the stitching is at the top than at the bottom. 

Practice is what I did – almost straight away. It was as though my fingers couldn’t bear to be without something to do. Nervously, I reached for the wool as the sermon began and hooked away throughout it. [I was paying attention and ensured that I looked up from time to time and laughed at the jokes.] Out it came again after dinner and in the pub and on the tube home, I was totally erm…hooked.

The next day it continued. While in the pub the night before I’d started my first ‘project’ – a headband – and this proved to be addictive. Out it came on my morning commute; over lunch at my desk [an excellent method of indicating “do not disturb me, I am not currently working and am taking my lunch break”]; and on my way home. It was at some point that afternoon or evening that I had something of a crochet epiphany: I worked out that the flat bit on the hook was for measuring your stitches (i.e. that a 4.0mm hook creates stitches of 4.0mm). With this discovery, I started my project over and found myself truly crocheting with confidence.

Maybe it was because I was slightly on edge last week, but I could not get enough time spent lost in hooking. The weather became miraculously beautiful and for two lunch times I sat in a sunny church yard stitching with a passion, setting an alarm so that I made it back to work in time. The passion was cemented when I made a trip to John Lewis’ haberdashery department to buy my own hook and some more wool. [Crafty tip: if you don’t need a specific type of wool for a project, check out their bargain bucket – I found some gorgeous multi-coloured balls.]

Over the last week I’ve discovered a few things about crochet (and its sister, knitting)…

  • It’s immensely therapeutic and can quickly become an addiction. (Or is this just because I have something of an addictive personality?) 
  • Doing it on public transport creates something of a sensation – people will stare at you, but it’s not because they thing you’re odd, it’s because they’re entranced by the movement of your fingers. 
  • It does strange things to people – a colleague confessed that she now takes a slightly longer commute purely so that she has more chance of a seat and a longer continuous chunk of time in which to get on with her knitting. (The same colleague apparently also likes to hang out in Soho’s bars knitting hats and making conversation with drunk people – whatever floats your boat, I guess.) 
  • The oddest people have, at some point in their past, stitched with wool. 
  • Carrying my wool in the (bright pink) bag I was given at the Olympia Horse of the Year show adds somewhat to the air of eccentricity this hobby gives me.

We’re now looking into organising a stitch & bitch group at work (I’d always been very good at the bitching element, but ‘bitching sessions’ are generally frowned upon) and I have – as of Monday morning – completed my first project. Voila: 

Well, it had to be seen in context, didn’t it?

The finishing off was a little amateur as I improvised, not actually knowing how to do it, but I’m pleased with the results. Now I can’t wait to learn a few more stitches so I can make something even more useful – like a tea-cosy for my mother. I know for a fact that she can’t wait to get some piece of crocheted tat from her darling daughter…

Now do excuse me, I’m currently in the quaint town (ok, city – there’s a cathedral) of Ely and yesterday I discovered a super-cheap wool stall, so I’m off to make some purchases. 


The life of a researcher can be terribly hard at times. There’s the travelling to ever so glamorous locations – like Doncaster, the patience needed while you wait for the right people to fill in the right questionnaires, and most of all, the joy that is coding…

We have a rather special computer programme that does exciting things in the field of qualitative research (oooh, look at me getting all technical & geeky!), but in order for it to work its magic, you first have to have inputted all your data (often transcripts of very long focus groups or interviews) and then code it. In this context, ‘to code’ means to tag relevant bits of text with a corresponding ‘node’ or theme. It takes hours and hours and is fantastically tedious, not to mention rather hard on your mouse wielding hand.

For it to pass as pleasantly as possible you need to be somewhere free of typical office distractions – the person who sits opposite and asks random questions or tries to get you to work on something different (at this point, even working on stats becomes attractive), colleagues who like to sidle up to your desk and talk about Glee (always welcome) or their latest research dilemma (not so welcome), people who like to hold impromptu meetings and, of course, the ever present phone calls from our ‘helpdesk’. A trip to Starbucks works for a couple of hours, but for a good all day session, you need to get out somewhere with plugs, free wifi and an inspiring atmosphere…

I’ve tried a few. The British Library is good for some serious work in a serious environment with serious scholars, but it can quickly get a bit too intense. The Royal Festival Hall has a creative atmosphere but can be limited on plug access and it’s wifi gets temperamental from lunch onwards. However, the location that wins for me is another South Bank cultural mecca – the National Theatre (or ‘the National’ as I like to refer to it, as it prevents comments from being made regarding my pronunciation of ‘theatre’…). Lots of space, plenty of plugs (though they’re well camoflauged), great toilets, good wifi, and (I’m told) drinkable coffee. My particular fondness stems from the fact that it’s often inhabited by creative types, bearing Macbooks and writing plays or actors discussing their latest auditions and roles. I like to surround myself with such people in an effort to feed off their talent and make myself look like one of them (one day soon I’ll have a Macbook of my own).

The last couple of weeks I’ve had a few days of working at the NT and it’s been highly productive. Yesterday was going particularly well, until an elderly trio of matinee goers arrived and – despite a virtually empty second floor balcony – chose the table next to mine at which to eat their picnic and talk loudly to each other. Fortunately, their conversation was quickly amusing enough not to be annoying.

Elderly lady to her two male companions: “Last night I sent my first e-mail. I was actually going to print it off and take it round, but John told me it would be more convenient to e-mail it, so I did…”
“…thing is, I was telling her about Rummikub and the word kept getting underlined in red. I couldn’t work out why, so I rang up John to ask. It seems that the computer didn’t think that was how it was spelt, so I checked on the box and it was and so John added it to the computer’s dictionary for me. Now, next time I use it, I won’t get the red line – isn’t that clever!”

At this point I re-inserted my headphones and got on with my work. If you’re not fond of elderly people or their conversation topics, I would recommend avoiding the NT on matinee days when the restaurant is open. For some reason this eaterie draws every pensioner within the central London region to it. However, if you can cope with them, they can come in ever so handy. If you’re working alone, refilling your water bottle or heading to the loo can be annoying interruptions – what are you meant to do with your laptop? The above elderly lady very kindly watched my stuff for me while I nipped off for a comfort break, so I felt kind of bad for having relayed her e-mail antics to all my Twitter followers. Oh well.

Final fabulous thing about the NT? Quite often you get to work amongst art – currently it’s the ‘Angelheaded Hipsters’ photography exhibit which mostly consists of black & white shots of moody hippies. In fact, it inspired me to take (another) series of reflection shots last week as the sun was setting – this is the iPhone version sadly, as my ‘proper’ ones are on the other computer:

Of course, being a theatre, there’s also the chance you’ll find yourself next to someone terribly famous and exciting. It’s not happened to me yet, but I hold out hope…

All I want is a room somewhere…

“…far away from the cold night air. With one enormous chair. Oh wouldn’t it be lovely…”

I don’t often quote dear Eliza (Don’t get the reference? Shame on you, even non-musical lovers should recognise a bit of My Fair Lady!), but today the lyrics sprang to mind as I was bemoaning a particularly irritating absence in my working (or even non-working) life. This absence specifically relates to furniture, of a soft, comfortable and curl up upon nature – sofas, large armchairs or even a chaise lounge – I’m not overly fussy.

Why should I need such comfort while working? Surely I should just sit at my desk and be an effective typist? Problem is, my work is rather diverse in nature and one element of it involves reading – lots of it – often of actual books, made of paper, that need to be read and take a long time to get through. Such a task is difficult to do at a desk – the screen, phone and presence of colleagues often distracts.

Currently, I need to read the whole of the recently published The Faith of Generation Y (conclusion so far: dubious sample, but hopefully the theological conclusions will be good) which has now ended up in my handbag so I can read it on the tube – even though I have lots of other (non-work) reading I could be doing in this precious slot. Thus, the most reading I’ve got done all week was while sat at Bermondsey station for 45 minutes on Monday, waiting for the Jubilee Line to get its act together. On the plus side, nice to feel like I’m working while quickly realising that I’d be horrifically late for work.

My ideal location for reading would be a luscious armchair or sofa, free from interruptions and comfortable enough to get a good long stint of excellent reading done. At university, we had the perfect location – a quaint room at the top of the (originally named) Old Building holding non-academic books and an array of red, plush armchairs into which you could sink while reading journal articles, a dull text book, the 25p copy of the Guardian or – shockingly – a novel. George Bernard Shaw would, I’m sure, have been proud that his name was bestowed upon this haven that kept me sane during my student days. [Wow, have just impressed myself that I began this post with a quote from My Fair Lady – aka Pygmalion, GBS’s most famous work. It’s almost like I planned it that way, and I didn’t…]

In the real world, such havens do not seem to exist – sadly. There is nowhere at work for me to escape to and read in peace. Starbucks could help, but comfy seats seem to be gradually getting pushed out of their branches (presumably to make room for their new ridiculously large mugs). Local libraries only have boring chairs and tables, unless you take your reading into the children’s area.

Actually, what I could most do with is a version of Central Perk, located in the Marylebone area. I’d have first claim to the sofa, and it would act as my second office when I had masses of reading to do. My friends could hang out there too and keep me company. I’d be able to consume muffins and endless Chai Lattes… Actually, this is now sounding less like a viable work option, and more like an ideal Saturday afternoon. Ho hum. But seriously, if anyone knows of any publicly accessible sofas in the NW1 area, I’d love to hear about them!