Nottingham

KNOW YOUR PLACE

Not far off one of the arterial roads that connects Nottingham to the motorway system, a dual carriageway where traffic churns pretty much 24/7, there’s a drive-in McDonalds. Opposite, there’s a turning that branches with two routes into Old Basford. One takes you over a stone bridge by a church, and towards industrial units where you can buy sheet glass or get your car fixed. The other, along a wall behind which trains rattle, past a boarded-off site that’s never been repurposed in any of the ways local rumour has suggested, to a place of terraced houses.

Locally, rather than take unwanted items to a tip people tend to leave them outside their homes for passers-by to choose whether they want a wooden CD holder with a missing shelf, a wonky spice rack, a stray toaster. Before now I’ve come home with things that I can use, or that I know a neighbour might appreciate for the kids she looks after in our back gardens.

A couple of minutes away Vernon Park welcomes Sunday league footballers, dogwalkers, families tossing a frisbee. Half an hour ago a guy in his 20s leaning back on a bike watched his 3 kids play, agreeing with their mother that they’ll have McMuffins for breakfast in a while.

I’ve been enjoying the park on a daily basis for a few weeks now. Sometimes I’ll use the exercise equipment that’s been there since 2012 courtesy of the Queen. The roads were packed when she came, on a blazing hot day. I still don’t understand what she had to do with putting gym gear there, planted in concrete to deter anyone who might want to uproot a rowing machine for their garden, but I’m appreciative of the fact.

Getting to know Vernon Park better has helped me understand the concept of parks more generally. They’re interesting spaces. If I’m not making use of the exercise machines, then I’ll take a wander around the whole area. I could use any route across the grass, through the trees, by the pond - but what I actually do, more or less, is follow a tarmac path. The whole space has been designed with that in mind, allowing you to take in a variety of scenes as you do.

Coming through gates painted municipal green there’s a low building with a 1980s feel. There are changing rooms for footballers and those who use the tennis court, toilets for anyone, and rooms available for hire. I’ve been to a Slimmer’s World class there, and voted in the exact same space on several occasions.

Just after that building is the first of the 20-odd bins dotted around the park. Dog owners are requested to deposit bagged droppings there. I use them to put in the litter I sometimes collect, which I started to do when after a few days of visiting I started to feel like one of the custodians of this shared space.

That notion of communal territory is interesting. I don’t feel obliged to pick up litter on streets, so how come I do when there’s grass around me? Partly it’s about the visibility of that litter against the green, but there’s more to it. A park feels different in all kinds of ways, and the space shapes our behaviour. You’re more likely to engage with people in a park. In an open space, where there are trees, and animals run more or less free, we change in ways that are good for us. The greetings we exchange, the little conversations that crop up, are a reflection of that. Something social is happening for which we are grateful.

The outdoorness of it all is critical. And connected to that, a park is somewhere for everyone. Unlike so many other places we spend time, a park is not branded except in the most basic ways. It has a name, and that’s pretty much it. Compare to the urban experience, where logos shriek at you from every building, insisting on the right of the corporations they denote to impinge on your consciousness. Instead, give me birdsong, lime trees, and a chance of spotting the heron who’s become an occasional resident.

There are more subtle aspects I’m still pondering. Walking by the pond, approaching a path that leads to one of the entrances, you go under a stone arch. It changes the way I feel as I do, and that’s about more than stepping through brickwork. Something about the surface above flickers constraint along with shadow as I step beneath. For an instant, the feeling of being inside strobes within, like a switch has been flicked.

We need spaces like this, and I am blessed to have one on my doorstep. And I have some sense of how others experience it. The retired chap with a dodgy hip who circumnavigates the park five times before going home, where he will have lunch with his grandkids a couple of times a week, and in the evening sit in the garden with a bottle of wine as he does his crossword. The veiled women who laugh as they picnic on a huge blanket. The geezer with swept-back hair and a cigarette who takes his aged mum for a walk. The Turkish man with three rods lined up hoping for fish he can catch to eat and sell. The middle-aged guy perched on a rock at the back of the library using its wi-fi so he can send job applications from his laptop.

I think about other places I’ve known. The woods in Disley where I spent my 50th birthday, bathing my feet in a chill stream under a canopy of trees. A beach in Anglesey, the sea lapping against a pebbled beach as it has for millennia. A mountain in Bavaria I climbed with my father, looking at the tapestry of landscape unable to discern signs of human presence. A walk around Uluru, radiating something primal and mythic with a visceral intensity that punches through the frenetic surface of the branded world’s greedy hold on mind. Companies pay millions to create brands hoping they will establish a foothold in the consciousness of consumers, but the presence of something so powerful demanding nothing while offering so much makes it clear how pale, how needy, how empty that clamour for attention is.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

The tram bulges with people wanting release. A few days ago there was a hint of seasonal cheer getting about town, but the other side of Christmas suspicion is once again the default mode, goodwill depleted on unwelcome relatives and the stench of unfulfilled desires - to love and be loved, or at any rate get some decent presents. Step away from home's tensions, maybe snap up a bargain if you're lucky. 

I get off the tram to catch a Medilink bus over to Nottingham's biggest hospital. The service used to be free, now costs £1.20. No complaint about that, the fee an acknowledgement of the era we live in. It's 2017 - the NHS is headed by Jeremy Hunt, a habitual liar who co-wrote a book arguing for its privatisation, and the organisation's money is being pissed away on serial offender Richard Branson, who took the NHS to court protesting not only should he have won a contract to deliver children's health services in Surrey, but is entitled to compensation having lost.

Thankfully the hospital is just a convenient stopping off point, a stroll away from a walk in the grounds of Wollaton Hall with a friend. I spot her red coat, and we make our way to the utilitarian entrance, through to the other side. Only a wall separates us from a busy A road, but that's all you need when on the other side are deer, trees, and centuries-old paths. I was last here on Halloween, an impromptu decision to embrace older traditions that declared it a year-end, somewhere to reflect and refresh. Now another new year is close, and I'm Branson-greedy for a second bite of the cherry, this time with a berry-coated companion.

There's a tree stump we come on at just the right moment, discovered on my last visit. The centre is eaten away, but it's alive with mulch, mildew, and beetles. We sit and compare notes on the year, then make our way up an incline to a courtyard where a cafe can be found, and continue our conversation with coffees in hand. For both of us, there's a sense of moving forward with what matters to us, and too of being snared by the inevitable consequences of being social animals. We learn. We love. We get hurt. We carry on. Knowing people we can share our latest findings with makes the passage easier.

And then we're out of the park, arcing back towards where we started. We hug, the contact an affirmation as much as our words, and I branch off down Triumph Road. The name hints at the architecture of the university buildings dotted along it, eco-friendly optimistic designs demonstrating a faith in the future that works in its own right, but seems like a science fiction dream just a few streets away.

Austerity feels like hungry dogs wandering a neighbourhood that didn't seem so unsettling last time I passed through a few weeks ago. I could be mistaken for a bulked-up Travis Bickle from a distance, say behind the blanked-out windows of passing cars. Around here, I used to know people who ran projects for the community. There are children, but the parents with them walk fast and don't make eye contact - and why would they, if I look like Bickle? A teenager runs across the road and I can't tell if she's 14 or 34 by the time she gets nearer, in a white top with black Mickey Mouse faces, black skirt with white circles the same size as the rodent skulls, furry slippers with pom-poms.

The gun shop has crossbows and samurai swords in the window, too, and the only bigger stores are owned by adjacent bookmakers. Malevolent electricity trickles into the atmosphere throughout, a feel that anything could happen and possibly already is just a street away. Even some of the familiar names don't gel here - a pub converted into a supermarket that won't be showcased in the chain's annual report and may not last until the next is put together. It sits next to a car wash with the chill edge of a Mexican police operation. Stark white light frames an area set back from the road where men wield squeegees and buckets like they're anticipating conflict. 

Past threadbare Caribbean takeaways, minimalist barbers where all that's needed is a chair and a razor, a former corner pub now a Middle Eastern grill with a sign in the window promoting Bar Juice, and I stop at Asda. As well as picking up a few reduced items, I use the toilet. The swastika on the inside of the door that had been bleached off is inked in again.

 

 

 

 

 

DEFYING HOMOGENOPOLIS

The picture heading this piece up is one of several I took of a guy dancing to the music a talented saxophonist was playing, as he busked outside a store that had closed in the centre of Nottingham. A new shop has replaced the failed one, with peristaltic inevitability. Just don't ask me what it is. All I can tell you is it's one or other of the branded stores that you can find anywhere round the world, for the convenience of consumers who believe that a familiar logo will present them with peace of mind in whatever transaction they want to make.

A brand is a promise and a promise is a lie, more often than not. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to whoever made them in your area. There might only be one provider, and hopefully they'd know what they were doing. Maybe there was more than one, each offering something the other couldn't. Now, it's a different story - and remember that word story. There are many shoe shops in town, differentiated by arcane marketing methods according to the demographics of the area. Somewhere down the line, data has been crunched and a customer profile concocted, and lo and behold - you're no longer a fully fledged human being. Instead you're a consumer, noteworthy only for how you spend your money, and funneled by the full panoply of advertising and marketing techniques to the right shoe shop for members of your tribe. You could be in Brussels or Los Angeles, and much the same would apply.

This process of homogenisation is predicated on a lie, remember?  Brands promise consistency - of service, of outcome - when neither are possible in the world we inhabit. We want to believe that, and to do so we get involved in creating distortions, using additives to ensure our company's sauce has the same colour and flavour throughout the year even though the provenance and quality of the ingredients changes. I read recently about some customers of an American food chain called Chipotle complaining about leaves in the food they ordered. Which there were. Bayleaves. To create a particular flavour. I wonder if Chipotle will acquiesce and remove the bayleaves or use a powdered form in future, so customers aren't troubled by reality. The customers themselves are blameless - it's not typical in the experience of eating at a takeaway you're presented with bayleaves. Bit by bit they've disappeared from popular consciousness, like the rosemary bush that grew outside the McDonalds near where I live and then wasn't there one day.

I don't know what store has replaced the one in the photo. I do know I'll remember the saxophonist and the dancer for a long time. They made me smile. They were a beautiful interruption to my day. A spark of humanity and humour, something unprogrammed and all the more delightful for that. Sure, the busker was asking for money - but he wasn't promising or implying that my earnings would increase as a result, that my cholesterol would decrease, that relationships within my family would improve. That's the branding lie, the one we hear countless times every day here in Homogenopolis.

There's a book. Spirits of Place, edited by John Reppion. And it explores a whole variety of places, from Rajagiriya in Colombo, and the various places in Iceland where elves are discussed with more seriousness than they tend to be elsewhere, to the sea forts of Southend and the streets of Mexico City. It's a rich and rewarding collection of essays from a variety of contributors, the most celebrated being Alan Moore. Thanks to this book I'm now eager to explore more of the work of Vajra Chandrasekera, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Williams and others. In very different ways, they all succeed in excavating the intertwined histories and mythologies of areas they have a connection with, and how those intricate stories affect the way people do what they do, irrespective of the ravenous ticktock of the branded world.

You are who you are in large part because of where and when you are. Pay attention to the pulse of what's happening around you. We've been deceived, told that what is presented on screens by some or other organisation that you matter to only as a consumer is more important than what's unfolding at the end of your road. And it's simply not true. Not far from the end of my road is Rachel, who in the course of running a charity to support women and children refugees vulnerable to sexual exploitation has made media appearances. On a tv show she spoke on Rachel was asked not to say words like terrorist and ISIS, which limited what she could speak about and made her message more generic, less likely to scare advertisers or bring truth into someone's midday viewing. 

It might seem that Starbucks has existed forever, but it's just another coffee shop among many. Go there by all means, but ask yourself why you've chosen that place to have your morning pick-me-up and not the cafe nearby run by a local family. The fact that Starbucks occupies a lot of your cognitive real estate doesn't actually make the coffee there any better. Maybe the local cafe will write your name on the cup, if that really matters to you. And sometimes locals will find a way to adapt the branded world to the way they like to do things. Cigarette papers are used just for that by everyone I know. But for some griots in Africa, putting a cigarette paper in the neck of their instrument gives kora strings a touch of distortion that's effective in some songs the wandering storytellers play

Interesting that one aspect of service Starbucks hit on was that - personal attention is something people will pay for, even if the truth of the matter is more complex. There are a couple of cafes in town which trip all the switches that say handcrafted and unique, but are owned by a conglomerate that's realised the value of not having a brand. And that McDonalds, which used to have the rosemary bush outside? Walking somewhere helps to stir my thinking, and sometimes it's to the McDonalds. I've spoken to a few people there, and heard their stories, like the woman who was planning her brother-in-law's funeral and turned 60 the same week.

A blue-haired teenager works there, with bright eyes that drink the world in. She grew up in Dubai, to an Egyptian/Palestinian father and Welsh mother, going to an international - ie American - school where when she left the librarian gave her a censored copy of 1984 with all the references to pigs and pork whited out. She saw me reading Spirits of Place, and liked the cover, and she was fascinated, growing up part of several worlds as she has, and with a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology at home. I popped in a couple of days back, and she told me she expects her copy of Spirits of Place to arrive any day. The rosemary bush is gone, but not the memory of it - the herb improves memory after all - and next time I see her I'll tell that tale, and ask for one of hers. It's what people do, and when we do it just because we can, and not with an eye on profit, we recover a little bit more of our humanity outside the reach of spreadsheet entries or MRI investigation, and which might lead you too to dance outside a vacated shop one day when you hear music that makes you shine.

When the weather is good, I walk further up the road, to a Portugese cafe, and though the original owner has moved on it's still a place I treasure, and remember my father taking her by the hand and dancing with her as Frank Sinatra played. Next time I tell that story, I might instead say a rhumba was on the radio, and that's fine too. Part of the beauty of stories, is that - unlike brands - there's never even the pretence of consistency.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us (and a quotations website reminds me) "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". Think about that next time you pass another shopfront promising familiar names at a newly opened store in Homogenopolis. 

 

 

3 REASONS YOU'LL ENJOY BEING MORE CONFIDENT & CHARISMATIC

1) Frankly, who wouldn't want to be? The objective isn't to turn you into someone else - that's one of the problems people have with this in the first place, trying to be something they're not or using alcohol or drugs to fake personality. Truth is, what people respond to is authenticity, and getting to that is mostly about unlearning what we think we know. The benefits, personally and professionally, are incalculable.

2) One of the big problems we face is fear. Which is about the unknown. And confidence and charisma both relate to your ability to face the unexpected. Change how you perceive situations of that sort, and everything else changes in small powerful ways. Imagine doing more of what you've longed to do, and fear not being a problem - more often than not, the problem is imagined, and can be unimagined.

3) Doing a performance that's rehearsed with lines you've learned is one thing, and it can be impressive. Far more so is the ability to deal with the unexpected. With that capacity you can enter into uncharted territory knowing that what you're doing is learning, and that you have a lifetime of resources to take you forward and benefit from new situations, however scary you might have made them in your mind.

How come I'm running a workshop on Confidence & Charisma? Well, I used to be nervous about talking in public, and unsure about myself. And now I'm not. The reasons for that are many and various.

I had to present ideas when I worked at a leading London ad agency. I believed my ideas were good, and to get that across I became better at speaking up. Then I got involved in scriptwriting, and early on found myself in a meeting with Tim Bevan, who produced Four Weddings And A Funeral. It really wouldn't have helped to be awkwardly silent around him, and I've got better still in pitching story ideas to filmmakers with increasingly positive responses.

It helps too that I've been mentored by some of the smartest and most successful people in the personal development world, and been invited to work with them too. Getting to see professionals of that calibre behind the scenes has been instructive. And what I learned in that context was invaluable in working with vulnerable and volatile people in a hostel, some of them that way in part because of their refusal to engage with unknowns that many of us take for granted. Anyway...all of that, and more, is why I'm doing these trainings. Come to this one, or even better - come to all 3.

Places on the upcoming courses are limited. Go here to find out more and secure your place now.

3 REASONS YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE CONSIDERED WHY BEING MORE CREATIVE AND INNOVATIVE COULD BE HELPFUL

Professionally, I've been trained to come up with good ideas to a deadline. When I worked for a major London ad agency, newspapers wouldn't stop the presses because I was stuck for an idea that morning. I had to create.

I've done the same as a screenwriter, faced with constraints as a result of budget, and working with a team where juggling the input of others to make a script shine was more important than getting my own words down.

I learned more when I was a member of an invite-only group learning cutting edge psychology with Eric Robbie, who in his copywriting days came up with some classic TV commercials, and worked as a journalist and editor too before leading workshops along with Richard Bandler, the co-creator of Neuro Linguistic Programming. (Never mind if you've not heard of NLP - suffice it to say applications are used widely within both the therapeutic and business communities, covering topics including learning styles, communication skills, and fast phobia removal.)

All of that, along with experience as a support worker in a hostel for people with mental health problems where the job required being more flexible than them, helps explain why this second session is about Creativity & Innovation. You can come to this session on its own, or attend all 3.

1) Look around you. Pretty much anything that didn't start off growing in a field began as someone's idea. And with the ease of getting your ideas out there thanks to digital media, 3D printing, and crowdfunding, there are more opportunities than ever before to turn your concept into something real that can increase your income and lead to new opportunities.

2) Whatever it is you're doing, it can help to get ahead if you make it stand out somehow. That applies to the concept you're developing - you can't always rely on an idea's inherent appeal to stand out, sometimes you have to think about how it comes across too. And that can mean considering new ways to present yourself too, online and off. Finding ways to become more memorable is a real asset. That counts if you're working within an organisation, and it counts even more if you're making your own way forward in the world. Innovation is sometimes about the big ideas, but without getting the small ones about how you're perceived sorted out, you might never achieve the bigger goal.

3) The more ways you have to solve problems, the less problems you have. Having ways to tackle issues can transform not just your own life and fortunes, but the happiness and effectiveness of the people you care about. 'Being there' is great sometimes. Being able to make a difference puts you in a different league.

Places on the upcoming courses are limited. Go here to find out more and secure your place now.

3 COMPELLING REASONS TO IMPROVE YOUR SKILLS WITH LANGUAGE & PERSUASION

I learned a lot about language and persuasion as a copywriter with one of London's leading ad agencies. The work I did for clients like Coca Cola, Debenhams and Motorola was experienced by a national audience, and it was effective.

I learned even more when I started to study the psychology of communication, mentored by trainers who had skilled up students including Paul McKenna and Derren Brown. That knowledge transformed the way I worked, and equipped me with capabilities useful when I worked in a hostel for vulnerable adults.

All of that then came together in my scriptwriting. My first film idea won me a meeting with the producer of Four Weddings And A Funeral. That led to TV drama writing with the BBC, and now I'm in the running for feature film projects with experienced directors. All of that explains why the first of the 3 sessions in the Hone Your Professional Edge series is about Language & Persuasion. Here's how you'll benefit as a result of attending:

1) You're undoubtedly familiar with situations where you're talking with someone, and get that sinking feeling you're not connecting. It's one thing to have that recognition, another to be able to do something about it. And the stakes could be high, in the context of a pitch or presentation. The material we'll explore in this workshop will give you practical steps to take, derived not from academic theory, but by paying attention to the person you're dealing with in new ways.

2) We're all aware of the idea that a picture is worth 1000 words. What you might not have considered is your ability to create powerful images within the minds of people through the way you use words. Comedians do it, poets do it, and we'll be building that skill to increase your range as a communicator - with loved ones, in meetings, and in written form.

3) How much attention do you actually pay to the people you're talking with? One way and another, we all present a wealth of signals and patterns in the way we engage. Some of them are in the words we use. And there's useful information too in the gestures people make, where we look, even in the speed we talk. All of it is incredibly useful if our goal becomes to communicate with people using their own preferences, rather than imposing ours.

Places on the upcoming courses are limited. Go here to find out more and secure your place now.

THE 3 BEST REASONS TO HONE YOUR PROFESSIONAL EDGE

These are tricky times, whether you're self-employed or with an organisation. And that's something I know about, having worked in both contexts, in the private and public sectors. I was one of a third of the staff let go by a leading London ad agency only a couple of years after headhunting me. That led to adventures with the producer of Four Weddings And A Funeral, and writing TV drama for the BBC. I moved to Nottingham, and joined the team at a charity-operated hostel for homeless people with mental health problems. Great experience, and one I wanted to move on from. That's when I returned to self employment.

Putting together what I've acquired through my own training with mentors who skilled up the likes of Derren Brown and Paul McKenna, plus adventures in film, advertising, coaching and more, I realised that what enabled me to keep moving forward could be summed up under three categories. And they're covered in the sessions that I'll be presenting: Language & Persuasion (Oct 20), Creativity & Innovation (Nov 10), Confidence & Charisma (Dec 8).

The banner heading for the sessions is Hone Your Professional Edge. It took a while for me to spot what the initials spell, and it made me smile. Which is the attitude I'll be taking into the trainings too. So, what can you look forward to when you join us?

1) The theme connecting the sessions, which will be practical and (I promise) roleplay-free, is freedom. What that boils down to is being able to make more choices. Like, having options for what to do when you're meeting someone who isn't responding to what you've said so far. Like, coming up with new ideas for your future, and some sense of how they can be realised. Like, finding that entering the unknown is a whole lot easier than you might have expected.

2) The more resources you bring to what you do, the more valuable you are to others. That's true if you're working within a system. And it applies if you're self-employed, as well. Being the person others come to rely on for ideas gives you leverage that's valuable across contexts. It also puts opportunities within your grasp that may have eluded you so far.

3) Turning your capacity to engage with people up a notch can be invaluable for professional networking, and it has social and personal benefits too. Feeling more comfortable with talking expressively and with confidence can open doors as well, especially when you're more secure in your ability to deal with unexpected questions.

Places on the upcoming courses are limited. Go here to find out more and secure your place now.