Outsider In Somerset House: Experiencing co-working at Exchange

My first day

I am already excited as I approach Somerset House.  I enter through one of the west wing doors, past a restaurant that evokes continental terrace dining with some tables set in an indoors-imitating-outdoors passage, and out again into the impressive establishment’s equally impressive courtyard.  I  make my way to Seamen’s Hall, the reception in the south wing, one of my only sure points of reference in this vast estate.

As I wait to be taken to security for my pass – my official Somerset House Exchange co-working space aka this is where I work and will now be a member of the community pass! – I scan the exhibitions currently on: these I will be able to take in on a break, or pre- or post-work.  What a privilege, I think, to be able to treat this magnificent Central London arts and cultural centre as an office.

Pass now in hand, I make my way to the uppermost floor of the House’s south wing and into one of the spaces available for co-working.  I am in a peaceful, forest green room, high-ceilinged and dotted with modern sofas, armchairs, and large wooden tables.  Immense windows flank the room up to which one a small set of steps leads and allows a privileged Thames view.  I experience a small frisson of pleasure.

Before I get down to work I need to locate some necessary facilities and, on my way along a corridor I pass several bags stuffed full of what look like cushions covered in African print fabric.  The bags are labelled for the MOBO awards – Music of Black Origin.  Already I feel I am in a place I want to be.

A Wonderland

The second time I choose to work at Somerset House, I decide against the grand courtyard approach (dancing fountains and ice rink sadly absent at this time of year) in favour of taking a route up the west wing, varying the commute to my new favourite forest green ‘office’.

I enter again from the north-west-ish corner and take a right past Spring the inviting continental-feel restaurant .  Down a long corridor I trot, lined with meeting rooms, or some such, and a second fancy restaurant, Pennethorne’s Café.  Savoury smells waft around me but this is not the moment to test out the extent of my Exchange pass benefits in the eateries of the building; I am taking this variant course to see what new I can discover.  I feel I will not be disappointed as I see a woman further ahead taking photos of a sight elusively out of my eye line.

I reach her spot to find myself facing an installation: sculpted trees from delicate wood and cardboard grow and erupt into chairs, waterwheel paddles, ships and bugs, coloured and lit up in pale aquas.  A uniformed security guard sits, incongruous, beneath the shadows cast.  A sign informs me that the installation, Ulmus Londinium, celebrates “the elm’s relationship with London’s historic built environment, crafts and biodiversity”.  The pleasing associated website reveals the significance of the elm to, and where to find them now in, London.

But I am then quite quickly distracted by an exhibition in the room opposite and I peek in to find exposed pianos, lying on their sides!  I plan to re-investigate all later when sitting in front of my laptop starts wearing thin.  My mission now, though, is to find my way in this unfolding Wonderland maze to my third floor spot with giant windows.

I try my access pass on the first set of doors I come across and – success! – I am through.  I assume I will find my way eventually by trial and error: that my my blippy pass will dictate my path and lead me to my desired destination.  This method proves workable but not entirely efficient as I climb floor after floor to only discover that I am cut off again and again by a series of stubbornly firmly shut doors.

Even so, my frustrating ascent of the grand, Napolean staircase is not without its silver lining as I am accompanied by the sounds of a beautifully-played stringed instrument.  I am enticed, like Alice after the smoke rings of the caterpillar, to the innocuous door number 61 from behind which the music emanates.

I linger awhile, enchanted by the proximity in which I am brought to a whole different world of aural beauty.  A modest laminated sign by the door reads Benjamin Hebbert. Consultant for fine violins, violas, cellos and bows.  Captivated, I imagine, behind the door, days spent floating in the lofty and ethereal sphere of exquisite instruments and sounds; above the mundane, frivolous, bottom-feeding antics of the rest of us where callings are less clear and the meaning of it all blurred, buried or lost to sights, sounds, anxieties and constraints… 

I pull myself away.  I’ve enjoyed my diversions and circuitous meander but I am, unfortunately, here to achieve some kind of job-work.

Down down down in to the labyrinthine more industrial-like bowels of the building I go.  A few turns, dead ends and accessible doors later and I’m sure I’m abso-bloody-lutely lost until I come across a lift claiming to give me access to the upper levels of the south wing.  And sure enough I have the sesame to open up the way (erm, i.e. my pass works to operate the lift) and, sure enough, I find my way again to the peaceful forest green room…

Adventures over for now, I regretfully burrow down into my hole of work, where time unfortunately means money rather than an anxious fantastical white rabbit, late for a date.

A palatable perk

Third day working at Somerset House and I am pleased as bloody punch.  Hunger having overcome me, and my normal working from home routine leaving me unaccustomed to sorting out a packed lunch, I have gathered together my things to head off with no destination in mind but an empty tummy to fill.

Should I cross over the river to grab something on Southbank?  Or wander in a little more centrally?  I only make it a few floors, however, as I’m drawn into the little cafe, Tom’s Deli, on the ground floor of Somerset House’s south wing.

I poke my head in to find an agreeable selection of salads, sarnies, cakes and biscuits.  A friendly server approaches me and it turns out that he will be dishing up my meal and, joy oh joy, he confirms when I wave my pass in front of him that I am entitled to a discount!  It doesn’t just open doors – or refuse entry – it gets me up to 20% off virtually every eatery, drinkery and, I’m hoping, shops, exhibitions and events too.

It’s only a few days in, so I’m sure the novelty will wear thin, but I’m truly enjoying my time as a member of Somerset House and all the perks that I’ll get to test out.  For a different type of co-working environment, look no further.

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Outsider In a Guardian Masterclass seminar: How to create a successful blog

I am inside the Guardian offices in Kings Place, Kings Cross, picking my way over the free tea and biscuits laid on as a perk of the Masterclass (six choices of tea-type beverage!).  I cannily deduce that I am in the Guardian’s canteen and take my (first round of) refreshments to a seat where I enjoy a pleasant canal view, boats of all colours, sizes and conditions berthed along the water’s edge.  Not a bad spot.  Away from the tea, biscuits and view, I allow a tiny moment of wonder at being in the offices of the journalistic powerhouse that is the Guardian newspaper

My fellow Masterclassees begin to arrive, the first appearing to be at least 20 years my senior.  I am pleasantly surprised, half having expected many a young, vlogger type, and as the influx of people increases, so do the variety of ages, ethnic backgrounds, and shapes and sizes, with an even spread across the sexes.

The mood is friendly.  I suspect that part of creating a successful blog starts with networking and generally being agreeable.  This in mind, and also wishing to exchange stories with people in similar-ish boats, I strike up conversation.

Around me I discover: a charming Catalan cooking blog, with recipes that take me back to my time living in Barcelona; an ‘old granny’ (her words) taking a, so far short, journey back into the past; a consulting site looking partly to help out tech un-savvy buggers like me; and a German expat about to embark on a new life in, and blog on, the South of France.

So all here to learn the secrets behind ‘how to create a successful blog’, we are nonetheless at very varied stages in our blogging lives.  My fledgling Outsider In flaps around somewhere in the middle.

When called for the Masterclass to begin, we file with our tea, biscuits and chatter, into a seminar room where the 50 or so of us take seat facing a small stage, powerpoint already projected.  Pens and notebooks poised, we are ready to take in how our blogs could take off like those of the two professional bloggers here to speak today.

Three hours and another tea session later, my head is awhirl from a friendly and extremely useful barrage of information on how you can make your blog your livelihood.  Whilst all still fresh in the mind, and before I am surely to be ejected from the Guardian HQ glass fortress, I gather myself into a garish vaguely lip-shaped chair in the foyer and put pen to paper…

Professional bloggers and their tips

Our first speaker, Niamh, creator of Eat like a Girl was buoyant with passion and a love of her blog themes.  Sharing her story of miserable employee in the science sector to professional food and travel blogger, she was encouraging and entertaining and impressed upon us the importance of remaining ethical when making mulah from your blog.

Three things that stood out:

  • Humans are storytellers.  And bloggers are just storytellers in an internet age.  Ergo, blogging is not just self-aggrandising, arrogant and egocentric, it’s actually just normal human behaviour.  So there.  (I’m sticking to that.)
  • Be friendly, community-minded and social – even if this takes place primarily in the virtual world.  Reading other blogs, liking, commenting, linking, collaborating, promoting, sharing, responding and USING SOCIAL MEDIA, all get your blog to readers and readers to your blog.
  • Do not compromise content to generate income, and be transparent.  By having sponsored posts that don’t fit your usual style or content, you are not remaining true to you or your blog and you alienate your readers.

Our second speaker, Julie, is an American expat based in London and creator of the travel and lifestyle blog A Lady in London.  Banking professional turned blogging professional, with a seriously dedicated can-do attitude, she gave step by step building block advice crucial to laying the foundations of any successful blog.

Three important bits:

  • Time and consistency.  It may be no surprise but to maintain a blog takes time and it needs to be regular!  Julie used to get up half an hour early each morning before work to fit in blogging, and she now makes sure she blogs on the same two days each week.  Blimey, I better get a shifty on.
  • In the blogging world, 300+ word posts are considered long reads!!  And paragraphs are best kept to 3-4 lines.  Possibly need to work on my editing then…
  • Give your readers somewhere to go: at the end of a post, make commenting or sharing easy; suggest another post to read; have social media buttons for further connecting; have a search box for readers to find content etc.  Oh, how woefully inadequate my blog still is on these fronts!

Finally, two things they both emphasised to never EVER forget if you want to be a successful blogger:

  • Content reigns supreme!  Above and beyond anything else.  Substance over style (social media wizardry and search engine optimisation) every time.
  • Once you’ve got that down, though, Google and social media will be your constant companions, love or loathe ’em.  Bum.

Should I follow these pearls then Outsider In will be a showcase in transformation over the next months – although professional blogging was never the initial intention when I started.  What lead me to this point was an idle moment over the Christmas holidays, and an email alert from Guardian Masterclass, informing me of a discount on their vast array of career-, life- or creativity-boosting seminars.  A few clicks and £37.24 later and here I am.

If, however, I don’t decide that ‘monetising’ my blog is the way for me, then at least I have found myself in an attractive spot in London, on a sunny Sunday lunchtime with an open mind and a fresh experience under my belt.  I’ll have walked away with two (!) free papers and the ability to forever picture where the Guardian comes together.  Oh, and I also have this blog post, which may actually now be read by one or two of my fellow amateur bloggers!

Conclusions?  Impressed by the calibre of the Guardian Masterclass, I’d definitely sign up for another.  Professional blogging itself?  Watch this space.  Literally.

Outsider In a world of limited mobility: Supermarket shopping on wobbly legs

This series of posts harks back to summer 2015 when I broke my foot, the first time I’ve ever experienced a debilitating injury.

After my minor outing to the opticians, I was craving a bit more going out time and so hit upon the rip-roaring adventure of a supermarket shop: food needed to be got and I needed an exit from the house, so it seemed like a good idea.

Of course I couldn’t make it to the supermarket alone, so I hopped (literally) into the car with my mum who’d promised me that the nearby Morrisons had wheelchair trolleys, as crutching it around the shop with my novice ability was going to be tiring, dangerous and completely useless (see first entry about carrying stuff).  Oh, and slow.  So, so, so slow.  I reckon it that I’m at least four times slower on crutches than normal moving about pace.

We arrive at the supermarket and I start to get the willies.  This seems to have been a bad idea.  The supermarket seems big and awkward, with lots of other people in it, and we’ve accidentally coincided with school kicking-out time.

As I stand at the entrance while my mum searches out the wheelchair trolley, I feel in the way and vulnerable.  My mum is taking an age and I’m now anxious that my decision to come along is causing an unnecessary fuss, and that I am going to be a bothersome nuisance; I could have just stayed at home.

I learn from my mum when she arrives back, tutting that the motorised wheelchair trolley was wedged in an area at the far end of the shop and getting it out was causing a considerable amount of difficulty.  Whilst this only serves to compound my embarrassment and certainty that it was a mistake to have come, my mum has only criticism for the incompetence of the staff and the store for not being immediately ‘disability ready’.  A motorised wheelchair, though?  I feel like a complete fraud!  I’m ok, I want to say, it’s only a temporary break after all; I’m sure I’ll manage…

Some moments later, my mother loses her patience: off she goes again, and comes back instantly with a bog standard, push around wheelchair.  With relief I plop myself into the chair, grab a basket to go on my lap – this chair will get me around the supermarket but it sure as hell ain’t got no trolley attached – and wheel off with half the list, determined to be an aid in this shopping expedition, rather than a complete encumbrance.

Half an hour or so later and I’m positioned by the checkouts in an attempt not to get in anyone’s way.  There are a few last bits and bobs to pick up, and my mum was deemed the more capable of retrieving them.  It transpires, you see, that supermarkets are not really designed for wheelchair users (not an original discovery, I’m sure).

I’m not talking about the fuss and the faff at the beginning, nor the layout of the aisles with obstacles of piles of specials, pop-up mini frozen counters or pretend market carts, chicane style all over the place… what I’m saying is that a lot of stuff is just too darn high up!  And not just too high up to reach but too high up to even see.

In some cases this impedes just my brand or price choices: Happy Eggs, supermarket’s own eggs, or the oh-no-I-can’t-reach-them-so-I-can’t-have-them organic farm eggs.  And as I wheel along the booze aisle I have the choice of three, rather than five, shelves worth of wine.  Boo.  But in the rice section, the powers that arrange the selection of bags of dried grains are clearly telling me that I shouldn’t cook paella, way over my head as those little pouches are.

Sitting in my wheelchair I feel a number of things: uncomfortably conspicuous and a bit of a nuisance – I’m not sure I like being more noticeable in this way -; somewhat indignant (or even self-righteous!) – why should I not be able to independently shop and have access to the same choices as my upright counterparts? -; and a little bit tired in a kind of powerless and vulnerable way – what a faff and palaver to go through, just to half-achieve something so run of the mill!

Then, suddenly, I feel something else: a girl, whose uniform denotes that she works at the supermarket, goes whizzing by me on a pair of crutches at some super speed to reach her till and start running things through the checkout.  She had moved with two crutches planted ahead of her then swung both feet through quite a distance where they limply, but effectively, propped her up long enough for the next purposeful crutch plant, allowing the swing to happen again.

I deduced that she must have some form of muscular disorder, maybe from birth, rendering her legs unable to take strides by themselves.  I also reckoned that she must have steely-superwoman arms and hands from the nifty way in which she got herself about.

Looking at her I feel humbled and, quite quickly, a little ashamed.  What fusses and new discoveries I’m making, what new difficulties and obstacles I’m experiencing, what new grievances I’m venting, and how temporary my impairment…

My mum arrives with the last bits to go through the till.  I abandon my wheelchair and manoeuvre my way through on limbs and crutches.  Six weeks.  I’ll probably forget all about it once I’m ‘back’.  Well, I determine, I better just write some stuff about it then, that way I jolly well won’t forget, will I?

Outsider In a world of limited mobility: Cabin fever

This series of posts actually harks back to the summer, but I wrote them fresh as the experience unfolded, so I’ve kept them intact here.

Temporarily (and serendipitously?) living at my parents’ at this point in time, I couldn’t be in a better environment for this period of enforced convalescence. Both parents retired, I awake to breakfast laid out (quite a decadent affair*), have lunch fully prepared and dinner seen to, so no complaints possible there.  Makes me wonder, though, how anyone can manage with the loss of use of a lower limb without a parent or two around… saintly housemates or a devoted partner, I suppose.  Or with an immense amount of difficulty and no choice but to just get on with it.

Nevertheless, comfort and care though I be in and under, vaguely bored I have not escaped being.  The number one rule of working from home, as I do, is to bloody well make sure that you get out of that home once a day to avoid ‘rat-in-a-box’ syndrome.  So, again, without forgetting a) how lucky I am to be surrounded by unconditionally loving carers (M & D), and b) that my unfortunate accident (one dodgy moment in netball) has not unduly interrupted my working routine (er, yay..?), it has most definitely royally arsed up my ability to GET THE HELL OUT OF THE HOUSE which is undeniably necessary to my equilibrium i.e. sanity and, in seriousness, happiness.

With usual activities off the agenda of netball, a long walk, popping up to London to hang out with boyf, getting in the car to see friends, yoga, rock climbing, tennis, going to a gig, walking over to brother’s house to pester him and potential future sister-in-law (blah blah, doing active, social stuff)… I have had to settle for other ways of breaking up the periods of: sitting in front of computer; sitting down for a meal; and crawling, bum-slipping, or actually using my crutches in the correct and incorrect manners up and down the stairs.

Yesterday, therefore, I demanded to be taken to the opticians. Oh yes, the opticians. My new glasses are too loose on my face and constantly slipping down my nose, plus, being larger than before, they end up getting smudged by my eyebrows (bit weird) and so they’re constantly a bit foggy.  Ergo, I absolutely MUST be taken to the opticians.  Quick trip in the car, stumble stumble of crutches, chat chat, momentary blindness, glasses returned, better fit, which size bottle of glasses cleaning spray should I get (medium)… and then I’m back home again.  Oh… balls; that wasn’t as momentous or distracting as I’d hoped. A new plan needs concocting for tomorrow… oh yes, I know – The Supermarket!!

(*muesli pre-soaking, at least three types of pre-cut fruit, a selection of juices and tea in the pot if I’m up early enough for it to still be warm!  Spoilt?  Yes.)