An English Staycation 2020

The last few months there have been several stories of countries that are now in the quarantine list if you are thinking of going on a summer holiday abroad due to COVID-19. However, way before the summer holidays came long, we decided to cancel my flights and travel to Trinidad and Tobago. I prefer to go when it is safer to go as well as to go in a time when I can experience the beauty of the country. I probably would have to go into quarantine on my return if  I went now. So it was necessary that our flights are cancelled, and our summer holiday plans redirected to local areas and within England. It is a necessary decision has made by several holidaymakers as reported in the news. This was my third staycation in eight years, and a great way to do spend time in this country.

It is also necessary to find time for a holiday. We have been working doubly hard from home in a very challenging situation. On top of this, my volunteering is very intensive and busy this year which means that I do actually want some time to myself and to go away from the urban sights I see on most days. We all need downtime like this regardless of the current situation with COVID-19 and this blog post covers the few mini-breaks I have had in the last few weeks.

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Boudica – Iceni Briton

Earlier this month, we were still in COVID-19 alertness stage so I left it to the last minute to book some time in Norwich. I only live two hours away from the rural and quiet areas of Norfolk and Suffolk but never arranged a time to visit these areas in the past. We were experiencing some hot weather at the beginning of the month and it was really promising to visit these areas. The two most remarkable items are driving through the forest near Thetford where there were signs on the historical sites of the Iceni Villages that existed on that region. The Iceni lived there about 2000 years ago and are famous for resisting the Romans for their land and property. Boudica was the wife of their Briton leader of the Iceni tribe and the story of her battle and leadership is still legendary today. Perhaps another time I will explore the area again to learn more about their story.

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Norfolk and Suffolk Borders

I do love driving in the countryside and seeing rural scenes of crops, tractors, fields and country lanes. I am a country village girl by heart and appreciate how these rural communities keep traditions as well as provide valuable food and other suppliers to us who live and work in city centres. It is so much easier now to drive with satellite navigation and smart technology.

Our first stop with the Catholic Shrine at Little Walsingham where there was a sighting of the Virgin Mary. The shine as mentioned in this tour blog states: In the year 1061, Lady Richeldis, owner of Walsingham manor, had a vision in which she was taken by Mary and shown the house in Nazareth where Gabriel had announced the news of the birth of Jesus. Mary asked her to build a replica of the house in Walsingham”. When we arrived at the Shrine, it was very hot on that day and it was great to finally visit the shrine after it being on my curious radar for a while. I said a little prayer and it has a beautiful garden and pilgrim areas for large tours but being a pandemic – it was quiet.

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My husband had also visited the shine as a child and has photos at the shrine and the seaside that was close by. The village is also known for the Abbey ruins which I didn’t have time to see and it is also great for snowdrops in spring. The village was quaint and quiet and I loved the little red building there and the surrounding countryside on the way to Wells-Next-the-Sea.

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The next stop was the northern Norfolk coastal town of Well-Next-the-Sea where it was busy with English holiday-makers during a heatwave in a pandemic. It was nice to walk around the main roads to see the high street and have some lunch. They also have this small library and it was a reminder that obviously people do live and work here with some essential buildings and shops. It really makes you think about your own surroundings and whether you can live in a quiet and quaint place like this outside the holiday season. The coast at Wells-Next-the-Sea was something I have only seen in photos or seen on Google images. The sand dunes and port were small but busy with people walking along the bank to the sea. There were also a lot of holiday homes or caravan parks all along the Norfolk coast and it was quite a quintessentially English thing to see families spending their holidays.

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We also drove along the coast to Cromer and it seemed a little bit more built up with a pier and seaside promenade. It was nice to grab an ice cream and look across at the sea just before sunset.

The sea, sand and beach huts were great to see especially at a time when you don’t want to venture abroad. If the seawater was slightly different in colour and warmer, there would be little reason to travel abroad on holiday during the summer months permanently. I always admire our Italian and Trinidadian relatives who go to the beaches in their countries without having to travel abroad. I did see some photos on social media with water being clearer, blue and warm in the English south coast. I hope to visit another time.

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The next day I spent the morning in the market town Norwich, which I have always wanted to visit. I loved the little streets with shops, river with the Norwich Cathedral steeple striking an imposing structural icon for the surrounding areas. I have a friend who said she always liked it as a university town and the surrounding countryside. I also found out about Edith Cavell, who was born near Norwich, as I went past the pub and monument dedicated to her. Edith is well known for being a British nurse who saved British and Belgian soldiers from during the First World War. She was arrested and then sentenced to death: “despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage”. No wonder there was a pub and monument dedicated to her humanity and life.

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Norwich seems like the biggest city in that area, the home of chef and food writer Delia Smith, and also Norwich Football Club. I attended a family wedding reception, which was a beautiful day. I would like to visit the Norfolk broads and also see some more of the countryside another time, especially as it is not far from London.

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I also popped into Southwold on my way back to London the next day. It was a lot busier than the last time I visited as we were in the height of a heatwave, summer holidays and in the staycation pandemic.

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I was able to walk on some of the sand dunes I have been seeing on Instagram and it really is a lot nicer when the weather is warmer. There were lots of shops serving food tp take away due to COVID-19 restrictions, and we were able to find a café for lunch for those who wanted to eat in. It was the first time we had to give our phone number and the waitress took our temperature to see whether may have COVID-19. It was also nice to finish my a few days away by just driving back home with no airport security, baggage check and long aeroplane or train journey.

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A few days away made me stop thinking of work, which is mainly in my home at present, and it also took me away from my surrounding neighbourhood, which I love but can also cause aggravations with urban irritations such as environmental pollutions such as rubbish and noise. My time during lockdown has been spent walking the lovely quieter streets of Walthamstow that has fewer people, nice flowers or homes for me to ease my busy mind, as well as part of my daily walking exercise routine. Even this time outside locally is special as I found myself having to self-isolate after having two possible COVID-19 infections, but they both were proven as negative results. It is hard staying in for those 3-5 days until you get your test results.

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There is one reason why we still go abroad on sunny holidays abroad…the weather! The last three weeks the weather has been awful with rainy summer days and colder nights. This is one of the reasons I sometimes prefer to go abroad as the days are guaranteed to be warmer and the seaside pleasures a little bit nicer. We have come to the end of August and it would have been a little bit more bearable if the weather had remained a little bit more pleasant until we reached the end of summer. Today would have been Notting Hill Carnival weekend and it is so cold…I am pleased that it has moved to online due to Covid-19. Perhaps if the virus is controlled, I look forward to a better warmer year next year.

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My trip to end the summer on a high was the visit to Whitstable because the weather had been forecasted to stay sunny. I had always planned to visit as my manager lived there for many years and you always see articles of Londoners moving there, or going on day trips. I went this weekend where it was nice to see it at last! It was great to see the seaside high street shops and the library.

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I also liked the promenade to walk, stalls selling arts and crafts on the seafront. I had paella in a café but the oysters are famous in Whitstable, perhaps for another time. I also was happy that I was able to visit in a day and able to drive back home with only a little bit of a queue at the Blackwall Tunnel.

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Covid-19 has prevented us from visit places and family in faraway lands. We have had to re-think our need and purpose for travelling during a pandemic. It has given us opportunities to travel within our own countries…like we used to 40-50 years ago. I am still discovering parts of the UK and the staycation of summer 2020 has helped me tick off a few places I have wanted to see in the UK that are not very far away from me. I am still to visit Devon, Cornwall, the Lake District, rural Wales and Scotland. I look forward to seeing more of these regions in the years to come.

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Staying home – a society in solidarity during Coronavirus COVID-19

“A society grows great when old men plant trees

whose shade they know shall never sit in.”

– Greek Proverb

Last Spring, I remember on my morning off work, wishing I had more time to enjoy my garden in what I thought would be the best time of year. I remember telling my colleague I wish I could spend more time at home enjoying it. They do say that you should be careful about what you wish for! One year on, and we are in week six of lockdown with Coronavirus Covid-19 where our homes have become an office, place of play and everything in-between as we try to prevent the spread of the virus and keep ourselves safe in what is now known as the ‘new normal’ for the time being in the global pandemic.

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It is now weeks since we have been living in our homes since lockdown, and our lives have had to change as we sacrifice our freedom in the societies that we live in across the world. Easter has come and gone and will be one to remember. We may have now gotten into a routine and begun to accept that this is what we have to do to get through this phase in controlling the virus. Since I last blogged, the devastating effect of the coronavirus on the world in the sheer high numbers of deaths has been sad and heartbreaking. The number of deaths has peaked in many countries with the daily data on deaths in hospitals and the community is still being counted. Since last month, I have also had the sad news that a distant relative in New York has died of the virus and have also seen friends on social media who have lost loved ones. It is absolutely sad and devastating to lose a loved one to infectious Covid-19 without a proper good-bye in most cases. It is with this deep sadness and survival instinct that we carry on at a time as if it is normal, although we are in desperate times to prevent more deaths, stay safe and live in what is now our ‘new normal’.

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William Morris

The most devastating story has been the number of medical and other key workers who have been at risk or even died by contacting this dangerous virus, exacerbated by the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Other countries have lost many keyworkers too, but in the UK due to (including lack of preparedness and a focus on Brexit) the high level at 64% of Ethnic Minorities and immigrant persons working in the National Health Service (NHS), there has been a disproportionate amount of persons who have died or been at risk. A Black British friend called me to discuss this and she thinks it was very obvious that this is true, and also she is looking for a better term to discuss the term BAME (let me know if you have a better idea). In some USA states, there are reports of low levels of Afro-Americans residents…but higher levels of coronavirus cases in this demography. The virus does not discriminate but it does seem to affect those exposed in the front line due to circumstances.

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There are several poignant stories of death and its effect on families. One of the saddest is Dr Abdul Chowdhory’s plea for PPE a few weeks before he died. There are many more whose lives were not supposed to die so prematurely and unpreparedly for this pandemic in a country as rich as the UK. There are several critics to the government’s policy and their spin on this that I see on social media more than mainstream media, especially when you compare the performance, competence and accountability of other countries.

The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.

— Mahatma Gandhi

It has been remarkable that companies have used their facilities to help provide PPE, support the NHS and keyworkers in any way they can. There are several reasons for the shortage of PPE, but it has been great to see some libraries using their facilities to create PPE, and some companies who have also help in this effort to control the pandemic. Companies and employees are affected all across the world. There have been high levels of unemployment in the UK, Canada and the USA – as with everywhere affected by the economic fallout of the lockdown. This is a real issue for families on the bread line, facing redundancies or being furloughed. Businesses are also going to find it a huge task to survive, and recover when we come out of this ‘new normal’. This is a time when collectively the economy, people, government and society must come together to reset from the shock of a pandemic and humanitarian crisis.

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Key workers are proving us with essential services in public services, and some private organisations such as shops and contracted services. They have been our supermarket workers, postal services, rubbish collectors, pharmacists and other services we just cannot do without in these strange times. A great number of community groups and volunteers have been providing services to people in the community in my neighbourhood, and also in all parts of the world. The ironic memoir for me is that I have been busy working during the day and so I am unable to volunteer as much I would like to. Also, I don’t want to put my family at risk so I have been sticking to the rules of social distancing. It is rightly so that communities across the world are paying tributes and appreciation to these special people with messages of thanks, support and hope. They are sacrificing their time and continuing these important activities in dangerous circumstances, which will not end for a while yet. In my neighbourhood, it has been heartwarming to see this display of support, solidarity and hope with the rainbow symbol and other messages of compassion and empathy. The reality in hospitals and care homes must be worst.

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As the weeks have progressed, there is more organisation in the shopping queues and local shops are getting great support. Some of them have had to adjust their service such as the local gardeners, home supplies (e.g. Homebase) and take-away services – with some of the essential services like pharmacies and post offices are still operating. This is some of the local businesses I have observed. I haven’t been on public transport since the 18th March 2020, and I am very grateful for those key workers who are out there providing essential services. So how am I filling up my days in lockdown? Believe it or not – I have been steadily busy with work since the lockdown with switching a lot of our services to online and therefore we have adjusted and adapted our service offerings using digital and web-based resources. We have used all the video conferencing services I mentioned in my last blog post, and I have since used some new ones such as Microsoft Teams for a webinar this week. Most of the time these are well attended and there are only minor issues with sound and connectivity. Our team is now virtual and we have been having regular meetings to ensure that we are supported, communicating and working together in challenging circumstances.

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For our users and our staff across the information industry – we are all very digitally aware but there is so much to learn always, and we all do not have the same skill levels. I also understand that the digital divide does still exist even in a ‘first world’ country like Britain. In addition, there are inequalities in accessibility for the young and old. Some classes have switched online. I live in a mixed neighbourhood and therefore parents are trying to home school their children but there will be other parts of this world where parents will find this extremely difficult as they may not have access to simple educational materials like books, much less so with computers.  I have seen articles where it really depends on your access to home equipment and parental support that will make lockdown learning a success. It is difficult enough to do everything at home – it must be harder to become qualified teachers and trainers to children in the last few weeks. If you are doing this comfortably – keep up the great work!

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I believe that most public libraries are closed in lockdown. I recently mentioned in an SLA Europe Webinar that although we are on the vanguard of delivering digital services remotely – one of the main challenges with delivering library services in lockdown is the obvious barriers for delivering person-to-person services, access to a rich plethora of hard copy materials, the events and exhibitions that a physical space facilitates. There will always be an essential use of physical space in libraries and museums.

In a lockdown, I have been so busy working that I have little time to do that extra Zoom lesson exercise or dance class on offer now. I have been mainly catching up on Continuous Professional Development (CPD) with all the free webinars that are available. However, I have made an effort to take my exercise time seriously and have been out on my walks most days.

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Mindfulness has been a keyword we have been seeing more in the last few years, and this has been some of the ways we are able to cope with the pressure, anxiety and mental illnesses that the lockdown is sure to cause in all of us. I think you are superhuman if you don’t feel a little bit uncomfortable in lockdown without our normal freedoms and human interactions. Therefore, finding the time for conscious wellbeing, wellness and fitness are essential and I have been making full use of my time in the open air.

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I have been enjoying time in the garden and really do appreciate the time I have spent in it recently. I have even managed to do some guerrilla gardening in my neighbourhood as a form of exercise and swapped plants with another local resident. In this time off, I have absolutely loved my exercise time walking around my neighbourhood and discovering new parts. This is the best time of year for seeing all the blooms and to appreciate all the support and community solidarity that is shown in windows in Walthamstow. I have particularly liked discovering local persons who lived in the area as displayed on blue plaques or local heritage signs. These are great signs to see the soul of the area and to reassure us that things will hopefully be better in the future. It has also been great encountering the Free Little Libraries in the neighbourhood.

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I have also had a wander in the natural areas around or close to Walthamstow. I want to cycle and may do so next week. I was able to go out in the fresh air to visit the Walthamstow Wetlands, Epping Forest and the Chalet Wood Bluebells in Wanstead. There is also something very positive and energising being outdoors in nature that takes you away from the claustrophobia of being in lockdown. Nature has an amazing way of reminding us that some things are bigger than us and we need access to escape to these beautiful areas. I do understand that not everyone is able to get away and therefore may be stuck within their home walls, and in urban densely populated areas. Some persons have been reprimanded for not observing social distancing rules in parks, and even my local park has reduced its’ opening time to prevent gatherings in the evening. It is a time for us to really appreciate our green spaces, and ensure that we maintain our social distancing so we can continue to use it in lockdown.

One of the most treasured memories of being in lockdown (and we still don’t know how long this will last) is spending time with my family.  We are watching film, listening to music, cooking and baking in our time. We are getting our groceries locally, and weekly at the larger supermarket. The supermarket is a lot better but still short of some supplies – the toilet rolls are back but the flour supplies are extremely low. Everybody is baking apparently. I have gotten some flour from the Turkish shops locally. I am enjoying my time with family, but I am thinking of family and friends who are on their own. It has been great to chat and share some time, over the fences, with our neighbours close by too. This must be a deeply challenging time and we must try to stay in touch – even if it is a quick hello.

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As I end my thoughts for this month, it is now almost 40 days in lockdown as I was away from the office since 13th March and I know a bit more on what to expect and have developed a routine. I am more than grateful to our healthcare and keyworkers who are on the frontline of this pandemic, and my sincere condolences to the families of the thousands of persons who have died across this world. Take care of yourselves, stay safe and well. There is no doubt about our role in helping and supporting each other in our societies in this great time of need.

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Lockdown and Love in the time of Coronavirus COVID-19

Like you, I didn’t realise that our lives and way of living would change so drastically since my last blog post in February. I have been keeping an eye on the developments in China since January and I have mentioned Coronavirus in my last blog post, and social media since February but there was very little to prevent us from what we are now witnessing and experiencing in our own lives.

On 23 February on my drive back from the South East, the radio mentioned draconian measures enforced in Italy to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) – little did we know that this will lead to other lockdowns in the UK and most parts of the world. We are truly in this together and I am covering my experience of this time in quarantine, social distancing and social isolation, as they are now known. We are also going to give this virus a good fight and there are amazing human stories that are a result of this strange and exceptional time in history.

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The Coronavirus (COVID 19) virus is evidently infectious, contagious and dangerous to humans all over this world. It is currently having a devastating impact with a high level of mortality in China, Italy, Spain, Iran, France – with growing numbers in the UK, USA and other countries to follow. This virus has not only affected our working lives but the whole essence of our being and freedom with uncertainty in unprecedented times. We must stay in our homes with our immediate families to prevent the spread of the virus, and to decrease the pressure on health systems. The only places we are allowed to go to are places to get food, necessities and exercise.

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I have read about the history of pandemics but never thought that there will be a time when we will be in the same situation. I was amazed to see that these plagues or pandemics were threats that humans have had to fight off since the beginning of time. The infographic above was shared on social media and is a great eye-opener for previous pandemics, to the modern epidemics like Ebola, SARS etc. I still remember reading as a child that we say ‘Bless You’ after sneezes due to the plague whereby the Pope Gregory encouraged it as a blessing for the ill. Quarantine is also the Italian word for 40 days isolation (Quaranta) from the Middle Ages when merchant ships return to ports to prevent the spread of foreign diseases. It is also interesting to learn that Shakespeare also lived and wrote through the plague with references in some of his major works like ‘King Lear’ and ‘Macbeth’. It was also a terrible time for the theatres and other social gatherings such as theatres, which were closed in that period.

Diptych of a portrait of Shakespeare and an illustration of the plague.
Source: Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/shakespeare-plague-influence-hot-hand-ben-cohen.html

The most intriguing for me is the Spanish Flu 1918. I vaguely heard it mentioned in the past but due to the current coronavirus, there are similar references to it and a reminder that only a few living persons now have memories of it. The National Archives has a letter from 28th October 1918 by E.S. Bennett from Walthamstow with the rate of death is mentioned as Doctors are on ‘constant call’, while undertakers ‘can’t turn the coffins out or bury the people quick enough”. IWM 96/3/1 (28 Oct 1918)

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Spanish Flu Letter – Byron Road, Walthamstow, 28 October 1918

There are some other interesting blogs on this topic if you have the time to read – In 1918, the death rate in Britain exceeded the birth rate for the first year since Government started maintaining records in 1837.  Yet this was not due to the First World War, but to so-called ‘Spanish Flu’’. It is reassuring to see other human experience of this in the past and that it is not going to last forever despite the high level of death. These experiences will hopefully make us more resilient for the future.

Now back to the present time Coronavirus pandemic. When Ebola was getting under control a few years ago, I do remember this video by Bill Gates but it is interesting to hear his prediction on the current pandemic and the state of unpreparedness if this was to be on a larger global scale as it is now compared to the West Coast of Africa. This is now real. Believe me – I have family and friends in lockdown all over this world and we are worried and concerned about their safety and welfare. We have been hearing first hand from relatives from Italy as the scale of the pandemic increased, and they were put into lockdown. We were having first-hand stories on the situation and the changes they have had to make for work (getting permission to move about by Commune in Italy) and remaining at home. This was soon to be our own experiences. I remember seeing the sale of pasta flying off the shelves and the queues outside supermarkets in Italy as the country went into lockdown. However, they have generally been organised and didn’t have the level of panic buying as in the UK for groceries. Their tone has become more and more concerning as the weeks progressed with further bad news with the viruses devastating effect in Italy.

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Italy is by far the hardest-hit country in terms of recorded deaths as I write this blog post – even more than China where it starts perhaps late November 2019. It has been heart-breaking in the last few days seeing the level of deaths and this has to be investigated further for the reasons for the spread of the disease there. There are probably a number of reasons for the spread of the infectious fatal virus – Milan has links to suppliers in China, there was a football match in Milan between Atlanta (from Bergamo) and Valencia, the commutable towns close to Milan which are affected, and the whole social way of life and extended family life in Italy. It also has one of the highest aged populations in the world and other contributions to the spread – from the Italians communal living in flats, church attendance, general close human contact with the extended family and friends. This was sadly breathing grown for the virus and contagions to spread. This is just my personal view and thoughts from what I have read, but hopefully, there will lessons learnt from this devastating impact of Coronavirus in the Lombardy region. Similar stories are also now unfolding to various degrees of death and virus cases in Europe and other parts of the world.

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In the early weeks of lockdown, the Italians in quarantine were able to use their time to spread cheer, joy, happiness from their balconies and neighbourhoods. This has changed in recent days due to the sheer devastating number of death and virus cases coming out of Italy. In Spain, France, Iran and the UK – we have all been cheering on our healthcare workers and key workers through this difficult, anxious and dangerous time on the front line.

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Traveler at St Pancras – February 2020

In hindsight, we could have all been more prepared for the pandemic with critical care information, preventative and preparation for our lives and the health service. There has been a slow build-up of information for us to be more vigilant – with was your hands better, sanitizer and eventually with social distancing and self-isolation. Eventually, the state had to step in due to much movement in our everyday lives to work, school, business and other commitments. Coincidently, I was off from work from the 13th March and only went in for a few hours on 18th March. Since then we have been working form home and adjusting to life.

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At short notice too, I had to drive to Derby to pick up my son from University. My 16 year old had just finished his mock exams but was told that same week will be the last week of his year. This was also an abrupt end to his secondary year with a quick assembly to wish his friends and teachers goodbye…for now. Graduation ceremonies are also postponed. I do agree this had to be done because I think we were not aware of the impact on and the dangers of children spreading the disease further to others in society. Nurseries and other children services are also now closed. For parents with young or special needs children – this will be a challenging time. However, I think in the next 5-10 years, children will understand this shut down was for the greater good and it is to help with the prevention of the spread of the virus and support for our health systems.

Just like my colleagues at work, we were also unprepared and shocked by the lockdown that has been happening in China in the last few weeks. I made the decision to go into work on the 18th March to tie up a few loose ends, and even though I have worked remotely one day of the week when my children were younger, I haven’t done this at all at the British Library as we are very much face-to-face interactions with our customers in the reading room, workshops and in one-to-one advice. In the last ten days or so, we have really had to adjust our offering with continuing some of the digital information services and knowledge that we can share remotely. We have been working swiftly to change our programmes where possible to be delivered from our homes and I think this is going as good as you would expect considering the unexpected and unusual circumstances we find ourselves. Our physical events have moved to online events and we are seeking research resources that are open-sourced on the Internet. However, most of our resources are still unavailable due to the contractual and technical issues and are not available remotely. The library’s rich hard copy collection is also locked up securely until we are able to access them again. Information Professionals in the 21st century are digitally advanced and some of us are able to offer services remotely, and curate content that is available for free.

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Some of the winners in the digital switch in lockdown are systems such as Zoom, Skype, House Party, Whats App and VPN (Virtual Private Network). Also, effective digital communications have been an enabler in this real-life crisis management scenario. I have hosted and attend video conference meetings at home using Go-to-Meeting in the past, and will continue to do so in lockdown. We are also looking to host online learning and workshops with Go-to-Webinar. In both my stay-at-home day job and volunteering with SLA Europe – we are using these technologies. As with human behaviour – there is a lot of humour and reassurance with some technical issues that we are all experiencing. It certainly is a learning curve! However, I have been through the 7/7 London Bombings, the London Riots 2011 and other causes for working from home in a crisis.

It is also great to see that people are looking after their wellbeing, mindfulness, kindness and exercise routine despite being stuck at home. We have also hosted webinars for working remotely and doing research from home. Some of the best tips are to make sure you have a routine, a positive mindset, exercise, be realistic on what you can do from work, and also use your time wisely. This is where our home lives merge with work life and you have to understand your own boundaries.

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One of the most remarkable aspects of the pandemic was access to food and essential supplies. As I was off work on the 13th March – I noticed that there was panic buying and the supply chain was disrupted to a very severe level. These carried on for about two full weeks until my supermarket was able to introduce social distancing and more sanitised procedures for their customers and staff. Local shops have also been useful to supplement some of the supply issues the UK was experiencing. The whole joke about toilet rolls selling out was amusing…but seriously, it was also the same for fruit, vegetables, rice, bread, pasta etc. Online deliveries were also most affected and I was unable to get my normal slots. Even if I do online food shopping now, I am not sure if I can get everything I ordered with the disruptions in supply. The use of bidets in Italian homes may be one of the reasons there wasn’t the toilet paper panic buying there. In the UK since lockdown, there are also cases of people breaking the stay-at-home rules by having parties or going to beauty tourist spots when they should really stay in their vicinity.

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One to the biggest impact is that we are not allowed to travel and fly as freely as some may like, but seriously it is also one of the components for the escalation of the infections of the virus spreading so easily in the age of globalisation. It is also great that we may have some light relieve on our CO2 emissions in this quiet travel time. Airlines and travel agencies are obviously struggling due to travel restrictions but it may be a good time for us to reflect and change our behaviour with regards to unnecessary flying.

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The virus has no boundaries and affects all of us. It really brings to mind the way civilisations are organised, governed and the role of citizens. Businesses have had to shut down and are only able to open in cases of necessity. There are still some businesses that are still open like take-away food services, pharmacies and pet shops.  The others are closed due to public health orders to protect staff and the public from gathering. This fatal disease has not discriminated and so, big as well as small businesses are affected. The self-employed, charities and other voluntary organisations are also affected. Even if you are retired – you are still affected, as you do not have your freedom to roam. The pressure is building on businesses to adapt and implement their business continuity and crisis management plans. There are some positive aspects and re-purposing such as companies that are helping with changing their models – such as producing sanitizers, ventilators, Personal Preventive Equipment (PPE), food supply rather than restaurants, etc. However, it must be clear that the global economy will be affected and there are hard days ahead with a recession predicted. There are some companies that are stepping up to the challenges, collaborating and also protecting their staff and clients. The trade unions are also busy looking after workers and making sure that workers are protected in this very difficult time. We will also see that the use of goodwill and kindness will be essential when we press the reset button when this is over.

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Local community groups were foreseeing these changes before workplaces and government. One of my neighbours quickly organised community leaflets for older or non-digital neighbours to contact us should they need help with shopping or anything in the imminent lockdown. Thankfully we are able to coordinate and support each other on various local services and also cheer each other on in these difficult times. It is strange going around with shops and businesses closed. As we are allowed an hour of exercise, I have tried to go out every day for a walk locally to get some fresh air. It is difficult in an urban setting to practice social distancing but most of us are trying to keep our distance. In the run-up to lockdown, I had to cancel three social events with friends, and even birthdays and Mother’s Day are celebrated apart. We have been in touch with friends and family by Whats App, Facebook Messenger and Zoom – just imagine if we didn’t have these technologies and only had to rely on letters.

People are also using this time to catch up on all the leisure and homebound tasks that they do not have had time. This is one of the best aspects for using our time in lockdown to do the things we never really had time for – film, music, reading, gardening, talking more and spending time with dear ones in our homes. I do recognise that not all of us have families and there is a lot of loneliness, anxiety, depression and mental illness that will be exasperated by being confined. I dread to think of the homeless, people with mental illness and in the community who are less fortunate and how they are coping with this. I do believe that they are being cared for by social care and local government agencies.

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As the pandemic has spread across the globe, concern for the wellbeing and safety for family, friends and communities near and far has become an obsession. This is a global issue for human life where ever we are. It really is unique in our living collective experience. We are facing the same issues from within our homes and we are reliant on the same care systems to get us through it. Unfortunately, this is still on-going and we are still to know the devastation that the virus will have on less prepared and poorer countries. Italy, Spain, China, France Iran and USA are leading the death barometer, and they are struggling – we can only hope that the impact will not be as devastating in less developed countries. The assistance offered from Cuba and Russia and other countries to Italy has been good to see online and restores your faith in humanity. This story from the New York Times is a must-read on the situation for families in Italy during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Since January, there has been news coming from China but the number of deaths at first is alarming and the lockdown was weirdly fascinating to see in the news. However, since the virus’s exponential spread to Western Europe and the Middle East, this has been one situation where you can look at the news on social media and get information, news coverage and datagraphics that is supplementary from the normal broadcasting agencies. I am also able to keep abreast of the developments in the Caribbean and North America from social media and website feeds. I have been looking at facts and figures at BNO Newsroom, World in Data and the Financial Times (who has loosened their usual pay-wall). There are also the usual suspects – fake news, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, fraud, cybercrime and scams by rogues. This is also a gentle reminder that the NHS has a great number of information centres and libraries with professionals who are providing library and knowledge services.

With the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelming healthcare systems and some level of lockdown in all corners of the world, we find ourselves in an unprecedented era of information demand. At the same time, the pace of discovery and dissemination of information is faster than ever before, creating uncertainty and stress about where to find reliable answers. …While these initiatives have not been associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgency of our current situation has shifted the focus to developing solutions to improve the knowledge ecosystem today.

– Dr Brian Alper EBSCO The Development of a Covid-19 Information Portal

https://health.ebsco.com/blog/article/the-development-of-a-covid-19-information-portal

 

The most important lesson to learn about Coronavirus Covid-19 is that we are fragile as humans. Good health and access to healthcare are the most important factors in our lives. This is something some of us have known for a long time and it is with utter respect and understanding that we should invest, support, provide and reward our health services in this country and around the world. Public services and local government services are also in need of our support to keep the engines of society and humanity at an equilibrium. Outside hospitals, good hygiene and sanitation are getting attention now but there is still a lot to be desired. Low paid ‘key workers’ have been providing us with our essential foods in the urban environments but we should be grateful to everyone – from the rural farmers, delivery drivers, the rubbish collector, postal services, local shop keepers, emergency services, police, firemen, park keepers, pharmacists etc. Those who do not use these now vital services, or any public services should go live in their own isolated country! Whilst we are inside our homes, the key workers are out in the front line fight overtime in the good fight for us.

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We still are in the heart of the Coronavirus pandemic and I am not sure how this will turn out for all of us. The cost of human life is enormous. And the impact in the economy is also bad. However, we need to support our health care systems and services. We also need to support everyone whilst we stay at home, follow instructions to avoid social gathering and practise social distancing. The human stories that find their way to the media are exceptional and very heart-breaking such as the medical staff who lost their lives, to the thousands who have died or been affected by the virus. One thing about past plagues in previous centuries is that life carried on to a certain extent and humanity was not totally wiped-out. Obviously, it is very sad for the millions of lives lost such as in the Spanish Flu 1918. I am not sure what the situation will be with Coronavirus by the end of April (or in future months) but we will come out of this hopefully together.

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Everything and everyone has become a player in this real-life apocalyptic movie with this deadliest disease in our modern memory. As we spend time with our families and dear ones, we must cherish and care for each other. We are discovering things about ourselves, and hopefully using this strange and quiet time in quarantine to do some fun and creative things we didn’t have the time to do. Love sustains. We will also be better resilient persons for understanding life and love in this time of coronavirus.

You just have to walk around in the quiet streets to realise that our human life is on pause until we beat this virus – country by country, community by community, and human by human.

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A healthy Information Ecosystem for all

This year I have to up my game with various new challenges in my professional roles. At the same time, we are all living and breathing news, information, knowledge and insight that are shared or published on a daily basis in our leisure, social, cultural and business activities. I am now SLA Europe President for 2020 and in practice, this means that I use, disseminate and think about information and knowledge as a professional for about 10-12 hours on most days. It doesn’t stop there – I have a family and various other commitments but if you know me, you will be aware I also consume information in my downtime via social media and news channels. There is a lot to notice in the information ecosystem I am going to talk about on here. However, all is not perfect in this complex and interconnected information ecosystem and there is always so much work to do to maintain the nutrients and care to make sure that information does not become disinformation, misinformation or event a parasite. Information professionals act as gatekeepers, angels, knights and custodians of best practice, and when it comes to information should be recognised for our passion, integrity and commitment to the cause and purpose.

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Information is like the glue that holds together many aspects of life – it is energy and a kinetic flow for all human interactions. Thus understanding information ecosystems and how it is manifested in humanity, processes and communities is important for the healthy state on any of these levels and forms. We must acknowledge that information is power, and we must guard and protect it from being compromised, corrupt or worst – extinct!

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It is not difficult to define the information society (as I have done on my blog before) when we are consuming information and sublime messages in various tradition media, and now the ubiquitous digital landscape with the proliferation of technology and social media. I chose the word ‘ecosystem’ to relay the interconnectivity of information and knowledge but also because it was used frequently for the 15 years in the arrival of Web 2.0 and the digital revolution. However, in my recent research on the topic, it seems that a lot has been written about the ‘information ecosystem’ that is definitely having an impact on all of us – from farmers in a rural part of the world to a busy city dweller in an urban environment. We all become part of this ecosystem, and so it needs to be healthy and maintained for the benefit of the good fight.

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There are a few definitions I found on ‘information ecosystem’, but the most comprehensive is for a study from Internews – Centre for Innovation and Learning: “the term “information ecosystem” is used to describe how local communities exist and evolve within particular information and communication systems. Within these systems, different types of news and information may be received from outside then passed on to others— through word of mouth, key community members, phone, the Internet, and the like. An examination of an information ecosystem looks at the flow, trust, use and impact of news and information. An information ecosystem is not a static entity; it is by nature constantly evolving and changing. Nor is it a discrete form; it can be defined at many levels, from global to national to community to interest-based groupings within communities”.

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This encapsulates my thoughts on information being almost 24/7 on our conscious and unconscious lives. From word of mouth, key discussions, smartphones, the internet, traditional media and content (in whatever format). There are many sources of valuable content for information professionals but is also consumed in our private time. It is also adopted in most people of the world and in all forms of life. The digital revolution has had the same impact on society that the industrial revolution had on mankind.

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In this Guardian article, the writer Lydia Polgreen critiques the current wellbeing of this information system with issues such as fake news, consumerism, manipulation and other ills: ‘the creation of tools that allow anyone to be their own publisher has made it possible for new voices to reach large audiences around the world … The collapse of the information ecosystem has already wreaked havoc on our political systems. It has undermined democratic elections. It has shaken basic trust in institutions”. This is the situation when information is an asset and information is power – information is used to push us in detrimental directions that are not objective or beneficial for our own wellbeing or that of the wider society. Trust and integrity are some of the practices that need to be maintained and injected when this ecosystem breaks down. This is when information professionals and experts who have an interesting in keeping high standards are essential for up-keeping the status quo in the industry and for all purposes.

The Web consists of numerous Web communities, news sources, and services, which are often exploited by various entities for the dissemination of false or otherwise malevolent information. Yet, we lack tools and techniques to effectively track the propagation of information across the multiple diverse communities, and to model the interplay and influence between them. Also, we lack an understanding of how Web communities are exploited by bad actors (e.g., state-sponsored trolls) that spread false and weaponized information.

Being an ‘information ecosystem’, one media is reliant on another for this to function correctly. I read an article that the loss of a good information ecosystem may also affect journalists, advertising and other media-related industries. There are issues such as Bots and ad-blockers that will deter true digital advertising and therefore endanger roles within the industry, but also decrease advertising revenue. It is argued that we get less foreign news as news organisation close down, whereby thousand of journalists have lost their jobs, and few new agencies that remain may have their own agendas. We may have to rely on news from social media sites and our own networks. However this network information is not varied, consistent, may lack credibility and analytical qualities that journalistic training may provide. It is not all doom and gloom – there are challenges but Deloitte writes that new digital landscape gives companies more opportunities to harness data-driven and analytics with can then be used for better strategies and performance.

If I could, I would add an eleventh commandment to the first ten: Thou Shalt Not Distort, Delay, or Withhold Information. You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, more accurate, more complete information.

– Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

As a librarian and information professional, we are reliant on research using information systems, books and content in all formats. Hey, we got to do, what we got to do to get that information! Obviously, we need good sources and relationships with researchers, writers, publishers and information providers. It is also an opportunity and necessity for us to share information face to face.

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Recently, I was invited to a Breakfast Briefing hosted by The Economist Intelligence Unit at Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly. It was mind-blowing, insightful and enlightening to hear the global risk impact by an expert Economist on the topical issues that will be affecting us. With the growth in numbers affected by the Coronavirus Covid-19 in the last month, it has been a true demonstration of globalisation with the virus affecting persons from different territories who were resident or travelling to these areas. This is a classic ‘spiral and escalation’ example of the information ecosystem that we rely on for our news and current awareness. So here is a perfect example for us as we listen to a world-class economist talking about the top five global risks in person, but also launching a well-researched report, later providing customers with a webinar…and anyone can keep abreast of their analysis from their social media feeds. Being a client of the EIU gives us value-added content and services, but as information professionals, we also use their sources for reliable and evidence-based information and insights to pass on to our own customers. This to me is a perfect example of an information ecosystem in my role.

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In the Spring I am also planning a Knowledge Café with David Gurteen and Dominic Kelleher, Knowledge Management Guru. This will highlight the need for face-to-face conversations and the techniques by business leaders in resolving issues and relaying tacit knowledge and insight to other individuals. The best aspect of the Knowledge Café is that is non-hierarchical and information can flow freely and without barriers especially away from technologies in an informal environment. This is another healthy form of the information ecosystem.

So how beneficial is your information strategies, governance and work plan?

In the workplace, an information ecosystem with information professionals at the helm is a value-added asset and gives companies the competitive edge. I write this from my own professional experiences and recollection, but I am only just reading in ‘Business Information Review’ that a Reuters’ report in 1995 entitled Information as an Asset’ concludes that ‘The digital revolution is here – few assets are as critical as accurate and timely information. In tomorrow’s information society information is the dominant commodity’. Rosemary Nunn also points out in the article the innovation ecosystem and knowledge management: A practitioner’s viewpoint’: Leveraging the knowledge of the human capital in your organisation is one of the best ways to drive innovation’. There is a real benefit to ensure a health airway of knowledge and innovation and she suggests that you ‘Don’t leave innovation to chance, develop an innovation strategy and define your innovation ecosystem. If you don’t know what you know, how do you know you are being innovative – define your knowledge map and engage in activities to curate knowledge across your organisation’.

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Information professionals work hard massaging and alleviating knowledge across organisations as well as other similar functional roles like communications teams. Information as an asset has to be managed with flair but practical such as this advice for leaders on Brexit …‘make sure your business is as strong and organized as it can be from within. Get on top of your information. Ensure you have a clear, current and accurate understanding of your market, customers and competitors. Develop the skills of your staff at all levels. Senior management that feels in control of the nuts and bolts of the business will be in the best position to enter into new enterprises with confidence.

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In the digital age of social media, professional motivations and intentions require an effective information strategy that is based on integrity and standards to nourish, build and maintain an ecosystem of trust and reliability within the landscape. It is great that there have been concerns and conversation about fake news, online abuse, cyberbullying, Bots, et cetera in some of the literature I have read and noticed. There is evidence of the negative aspects such as fallouts and untruths within the ecosystem that we will continue to have, even before the digital age. It is just more intense now! And like some contagious disease or natural disaster – we must remain vigilant of the danger and consequences for all of us.

In wrapping up, the information ecosystem is a truly living organism that reaches inside all of us in one way or another. It is essential for our own wellbeing, though it may be vulnerable to risks and damage, it should be cared and nurtured so that it benefits us all throughout its flows and life span.

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2020 Vision – looking at the past, present and future

As we get closer to the year 2020 and the closing of the last decade, I have been looking back but also thinking of the years ahead. It has been a decade of great change on the political, social, technological and human landscape reflecting on what is going on in the world. There have been numerous highs and lows as expected in such a long period. The present is grounding us to what is happening now but there is bound to be a wonder with what is ahead when we look at New Year’s number ‘Twenty Twenty’ – 2020. We even have to get used to saying, writing, hearing and seeing it. This blog post gives me the opportunity to reflect, adapt and anticipate what trends may be coming our way.

Past, present and future: it makes it easier for me to look at this in these three categories to clarify what this means, mostly for my own self-awareness. However when I started researching this topic, I quickly learnt that it is an analytical and forecasting technique that is also being using to show how quickly the world is moving on major issues for example sustainability, climate change and technology due to changes, innovation and higher levels of disruptions. In my busy personal and professional life – there are great experiences and photos for me to share these three timeframes with you here.

 

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The Past

“My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step,

they are gray faces that peer over my shoulder.”
― William Golding

The last decade has seen a lot of changes for me professionally.   I was working at City Hall in 2010 with changes already happening with the arrival of the dire austerity plans hitting libraries and other public services across the United Kingdom. I hung on with our team to our jobs until early 2012 right on the cusp of the start of the Olympics. There was so much anticipation and preparation on the one hand with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but then we were dropped like hot potatoes to be made redundant and disbanding of services. The heartache of seeing colleagues lose their job in the heart of London with the Olympics which was in our breath and bloodstream was very hard to get over but we survived.

We were able to experience sadly one of the defining moments of the austerity decade that thousands of people have to endure. Some of us are not better off financially and thankfully for the support of family – we are able to manage. This first-hand experience is only the tip of the iceberg of what austerity really meant for basic infrastructure to people’s health, well-being, opportunities, education, public provision (no police station with the increased crime) and degeneration of libraries in the UK. I know some of the stronger survived but it certainly wasn’t fair for many people and this is with the benefit of hindsight. I also had people cut me off on social media when I left City Hall but most importantly the ones who mattered…stayed with me. I knew this would happen from my experience in the 2000s. I was just waiting for it to happen as an ever-present information professional.

 

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Eventually I was employed again at the British Library and this has been one of the highlights of the early 2010s. I have grown and developed in many new areas but I was also able to use the experience I have built up over many years. I don’t feel so odd when I have to use old and new information and library skills. It also helps when I see the past brought to the present in exhibitions, collections and digitally in the libraries and museums world. This month I visited the London Metropolitan Archives and the British Library’s exhibition on Buddhism – and you will get this point.

 

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We have also seen a lot of changes on the regeneration of my local area in the last ten years and it was one of the defining eras of new volunteering and community activism for the neighbourhood and me. Due to having free time due to redundancy, I was able to take part in the Street Party to celebrate the London Olympics in 2012…but then I never stopped!!! Due to my amazing neighbours and community spirit, we have been able to put on 8 fabulous street parties, poetry events, book clubs, Christmas parties, use social media, promote civic activism for local issues, and look after our community with great camaraderie. We literally look out for our neighbours and neighbourhood, such as creating What’s App groups and social media accounts for all of this!

 

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My neighbourhood has changed from a sleepy suburban town to a buzz hive of activity. There are negatives for this – such as Anti-Social Behaviour (ASBOs), drug dealing, professional beggars and high levels of litter. However, I was able to push myself to new activities such as writing basic poetry, organising Spring-cleaning, starting guerrilla gardening and this winter I am participating in my first pantomime in ‘A Christmas Carole’ by Charles Dickens. This was also my inspiration for writing this blog post looking at the past, present and future!

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A Christmas Carol

I was also able to do a lot more volunteering for my profession with SLA Europe and stopped being Fundraising Chair for The Lloyd Park Children’s Charity in 2016 after 12 years. I will look back at the last decade with fondness for the new and exciting things I learnt, the new experiences I gained and also the fabulous time I spent with great people and loved ones. The holidays and travels are always a great highlight in this enormous world and are entrenched in my memories of the past.

 

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The Present

“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”
― George Harrison

As in LIVE in the moment of now, it is both exhilarating as well as concerning. All the big topics I can honestly think about presently are Brexit, Climate Change and much progress already made is being damaged! Most things in my life are stable but there are still everyday worries and stresses that make me wonder what the hell is going on. Just look at some of our media and politicians! Politics is affecting all of us at present but they are very disruptive and move swifter than the previous decade. This could be a result of social media, but also the volume increase, manipulation and incensed use of mainstream media that is used to polarise us. It seems to be an on-going battle with new life and professional challenges such as data protection, fake news, privacy, racism, bullying, and various negative broadcasting. Information certainly is more intense with some people probably rightfully switching off from all forms of media. I do think that presently social media is still a very good facility for communication, and the world is generally a better place for it. Politics will affect us all and is currently in an awful state but we are more engaged regardless with an opportunity to share our views, voice our concerns and opinions with the people we want too online and offline.

 

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Climate change and sustaining our planet are hot topics that are right up the agenda in the last years and especially the last few months. We have seen young Greta Thunberg mobilise children and adults across this great big old world for environmental concerns and activism. We also all know about Extinction Rebellion. Food, travel, air quality, poverty, homelessness, diversity and inclusion etc are all various topics where work is still in progress. There are good days and bad days for all of these issues, and like so, we have to live in the moment but also find ways to make good choices that will sustain us as well as our fragile planet and environment. It’s only a few years ago we implemented the plastic bags ban, saw more of the reusable cup and ‘single use plastic’ become a no-go. Positive policy and behaviour change are possible and we should not give up!

 

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It is not all depressing in the present, I still find ways to keep my positivity flowing by exploring the new, interesting events and shows in the city. I love that you also see all the ‘live’ moments people are having around you on their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Yes, the present is not perfect but somewhere in this world, the sun is shining and a new day is dawning. I am also very grateful for every new day that I am alive to be with my family and friends in the present.

 

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The Future

“The past is always tense, the future perfect.”
― Zadie Smith

As we creep into 2020, it is great to know that some things will always remain the same but it is obvious that there will be new developments and ways of living that we will adopt and adapt in our lives. After all, 2020 is just a number created to represent time.

I am certainly not a clairvoyant with a crystal ball and will not predict the next day, much less the next decade. However, this is what scientific, evidence-based and good research is able to do for us. Trends and forecasting are used all the time to help us plan and prepare what may or may not become a reality. I have the privilege and access to authoritative published research in my role as an information professional, and therefore I am able to research very serious topics that will have an impact on all of us.

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I recently popped into the busy technology department of Selfridges when I went to collect an online order that I couldn’t find in local shops. Seeing all the smart technology is a great eye-opener (pardon the pun!). There are innovations and inventions that are here already and there are more to come on the horizon. Wearable technology is here and according to Mintel market research on “Wearable Technology 2019” – “There has been an increase in ownership of all wearable devices, with the most significant jump being in the adoption of smart ear-buds. As a result of the increasing popularity of these products, more and more manufacturers are offering their versions. Meanwhile, fitness bands/sports watches continue to be the wearable that consumers are most likely to own”. Consumers are also using it for controlling smart home devices, making contactless payments, monitoring security, social media, fitness etc. The smart glasses were certainly a new way to see and interact with things.

 

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One of the burning issues is consumption of natural resources and the environment. There are questions on how can we make this world more sustainable and ethical in our policies, businesses and our own personal responsibility. GlobalDataOnline has their great Trendsight predictions and analysis to tell us about the MegaTrends that will affect us all regardless if we are generations from: Baby boomers to iGeneration. In the report ‘Trendsight overview: Sustainability and Ethics – Meeting social and environmental challenges amid growing populations and energy brands’, these megatrends highlighted are: Social Responsibility, Ethical Wellbeing, Fairly Traded, Created Fairly, Ethical Luxury, Localism, Trust and Transparency, Resource Scarcity and Environmental Responsibility. These are all great topics that make my heart sing! The same report looks in great detail at the past, present and future trends. One of the great sector examples with the changes we have seen in the last few years is plastic pollution and recycling which concludes that: “in the past five years, recycling schemes were being used by several types of retail outlets, and will remain a crucial consideration for retailers in future. Retailers at present are more prominently shifting away from the use of plastic, while innovative recycling schemes will propel into the mainstream five years or so in the future”. Do make some time to look at these reports and you will be inspired or in-the-know on what is in store for the future.

 

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My own personal view, simply and most importantly, of the future is that I want my loved ones to be happy and healthy. I also want this clarity and vision for humanity and the Earth. I know there will be developments in technology and gains in progress with living standards but there is so much work still to collaborate and work on together as so many people are outside of these acceptable levels, struggling with being happy and healthy. I am not able to control this but in my own way, step by step, little by little, I can only hope that we keep this beautiful planet and its’ people safe and well for years to come…and certainly to 2030. Ask yourself too what you want for the future.

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Sicily – a Spectacular place in the Summer Sun

Finally the summer holidays are here!  Italy is one of my favourite places on Earth, and there are so many beautiful parts to see. I can’t get bored of ever going there on holiday and I was super excited to finally go again to Sicily in Italy. I have been to Palermo for the day as part of a cruise a few years ago, but it was a real delight to plan this year’s summer holidays in the spectacular east coast of Sicily.  A few years ago some friends visited the beautiful resort of Taormina for their honeymoon, and their photos were so amazing that I thought I would love to visit there one day. I have been looking at the hashtag #Taormina on Instagram prior to going on holiday this year as it seems just the ideal place to relax and enjoy ‘La Dolce Vita’ …the Sicilian way. After an early morning flight, it was phenomenal to see Mount Etna just before landing in Catania. Mount Etna is an active volcano and dominates the skyline from miles away along the east coast of Sicily. Like Vesuvius in Napoli, it is amazing to see people living in the path of the volcano and accepting the natural beauty as well as the potential risks as part of their lives. I didn’t have time for a Mount Etna trip, but may do so another time as I was so charmed by Sicily, I hope to visit the region one day in the future.

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Sicily as an island is also shaped with three-points and therefore is known by the symbol Trinacria, which is also on the Sicilian flag. First stop and our based was the beautiful hill top resort of Taormina, which was an hour’s bus drive from Catania. Taormina has been attracting and welcoming a lot of people from the ancient Greeks, Arabs, Phoenicians, Normans, British on the ‘Grand Tour’, Hollywood figures, to current tourist ranging from Italian-Americans, Russians and other international tourists. The buildings and the architecture have stories to tell from the ancient to the modern and still is a magnet for worldly glamour, natural beauty, culture, holidaymakers and sun seekers.

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One of the main highlights of Taormina was seeing the Greek Ancient Theatre, which was built in the 3rd century. It is constructed on the hill in a natural setting with views of the Ionian Sea, the beaches, towns and Mount Etna. It is still a functional theatre and concert venue to the present day. I was in the adjacent garden when I heard the crowd singing along, and also saw fabulous laser light emanating from the theatre at night. The sun was striking at that height when I visited during the day aand great for lighting and the views.  I understand why it is on top of everyone’s list to visit, and a must to share photos on Instagram.

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Isola Bella, when translated means ‘Beautiful Island’, is a little island in Taormina. It was bought in 1890 by English noblewoman Florence Trevelyn and remained in her family until 1990. It had since been turned into a natural reserve, has a few buildings and museum. Florence Treveylan eventually married a Sicilian Mayor of Taormina and lived there until the end of her life. Florence was from Hallington, near Newcastle and a keen gardener before living in Sicily.   She was instrumental in creating the beautiful public pleasure garden ‘Hallington Siculo’ or Sicilian Hallington. The municipal garden is still beautiful today which is situated just under the Greek theatre and with breath-taking views of the sea and Mount Etna. Her contribution to the life and economy of Taormina has been recognised in books, film and there are tributes to her in Isola Bella and the public garden today. Isola Bella is a fabulous beach, and the walk down to beach and the cable car up is a must-do experience.

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The rail service from along the coast of Sicily is reasonably priced and the trains ran regularly. The local bus service was also well serviced to nearby towns and villages. It was nice to use these modes of public transport, as I didn’t want to drive in Italy this time. We decided to go north to Messina for the day and left early for the hour-long train journey along the beautiful coastline. I knew that we will be able to see the coast in most parts of this holiday but I didn’t realise that you can also see Reggio Calabria on the Italian mainland with your naked eye. Messina is less of a tourist destination than Taormina and seemed more relaxed with normal activity of life. I had my first Granita (which is a little bit like Trinidad snow cone) from a mobile vendor on the street, and also a fabulous lunch inside, especially as the weather was very hot outside. The views are great again over the city and across the strait of Messina to the mainland. After seeing my photos, our relatives on holiday in Calabria three hours away said that they felt that we close to them in Messina! Messina is an important gateway and port and the Piazza de Duomo, War Memorial and Church were all very impressive buildings to see.

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A few days later we also went south to the historic city of Siracusa, which is Syracuse in English. The have seen many television documentaries on Syracuse as it was an important place and played a key role in ancient times, when it was one of the major powers of the Mediterranean. The Greeks inhibited this part of Sicily and it is famous for the culture, architectural ruins, ancient history, and for the important mathematician and engineer Archimedes who invented the theory of Pi. The city is proud of this heritage and there are monuments to celebrate Archimedes. I loved the architecture, marble piazza, quaint streets leading to the sea, art shops, market and excellent restaurants. There was a nice buzz and bohemian feel about Syracuse with a modern vibe to it, although it is now a Unesco World Heritage site. I hope to visit Siracusa one day again.

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When I decided to go to Taormina for a holiday, I didn’t realise that it was also the setting for the Italian scenes of the well acclaimed The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola. The book is based in Corleone, on the other side of the island but I had always wondered where in Italy the film was based – it was great that I actually visited the setting for real!  I eventually found out via the Internet that you could visit the villages of Savoca and Forza D’Argo on a coach tour known as ‘The Godfather Tour’. The coach drive to these towns where very very steep… hand in heart and acute corners for passengers but the drivers all seem very able and used to the landscape. Our Dutch tour guide was also excellent at telling us various anecdotes and stories about the local people, the film and region. The two villages were both very charming and medieval in their layout. It was also nice to see people who lived in these villages getting on with their daily normal chores. Savoca still has the famous Bar Vitelli where the young Michael asked for Apollonia’s hand in marriage, and the church where the got married. The main piazza where they danced at the wedding reception is still the hub of the village.

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I was also in Taormina to relax and enjoy the summer holidays, and to mix the cultural as well as the fun things you can do in Italy. The Italians do know how to enjoy life and also the weather makes a big difference. We spent a few days at the beaches in Taormina, the next village and a day at the pool. I could easily spend more days lazing around on the beach but would need more vacation time to do this.

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Sicily is also amazing for its food, restaurants, markets, ice cream, sweets such as Cassata and Cannolis. The food was just divine to taste fresh in Sicily – it is are a million times better there!

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It was also a pleasure to spend some evenings going for a meal in the many restaurants, even though meals seems a lot more expensive in Taormina…and with the Pound Sterling performing so badly. However, everything was sooo delicious and the Sicilian arancinis and local delicacies you must try! I could believe that a simple almond granita could be sooo delicious and I can’t wait to try an authentic one again. The Italian evening habit of going for a pre or after dinner walk know as the verb ‘Fare una Passeggiatta’ is a highlight of the evening where you can look at the stylish people of all ages, browse the shops and enjoy some fabulous sweets or their world famous ice cream.

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The last few times I went to Italian were to visit relatives and so there is no need to check where you are going or to research places as we rely on local and family knowledge. This was the first time I was able to fully use my smartphone to find restaurants, read reviews and also for using Google Maps for navigating the streets as pedestrians in the cities. It was great to use a smartphone to check for bus and train times too. I know we are able to do this with smartphones but it is still brilliant that we can access these features on the go. It might be another story in another remote place with no network signal.

To end the trip, we spent a day in Catania. The city was very cosmopolitan and exciting to walk along the long promenades, though it was extremely hot during the day for a walk although we saw the bustling market and piazzas. However after a rest, we went out in the evening when the locals and tourists in Catania were walking around and going out for the evening. There are many parts of the city still to see, and Sicily as a whole has been really captivating to me. It is great to see spectacular seas, hills, Mount Etna, the towns along the hills, coast and most people enjoying life in the Sicilian sunshine. There is a lot to do and quite a bit to keep it exciting. I truly hope that I will be able to visit Sicily again, and I will hold that dream of a place and life in the sun until then.

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Volunteer your time – it is all worthwhile

Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves – Horace Mann

In the last few weeks I have been busy supporting volunteers in my local community, neighbourhood and profession. I am what is termed ‘a frequent volunteer’ and actively volunteer in various roles and diverse causes. I also do this unpaid and in my own time. According to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2019: …“there are 20.1 million people who volunteered through a group, club or organisation during 2017/2018” with £17.1 Billion the total contribution to the voluntary sector to the UK economy. I have been fortunate to also be able to have an impact locally, as on my doorstep, but also internationally across the world as a Board Member to SLA Europe. The research by NCVO in their report ‘Time Well Spent’ quotes …“81% do their volunteering in and for their local communities” and volunteers get involved in different ways, reflecting their lifestyles, values and priorities. Volunteering is quite common now with a large number of us giving our time freely, and the benefits are not just for the causes we support but also for our own happiness, wellbeing, achievement, fulfilment and self-satisfaction.

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Two years ago, when NHS hospitals – among other organisations around the world – were attacked by ransomware hackers, one of the first to have their computers back up and running was the Lister Hospital in Stevenage. It did not pay the hackers a penny. Instead, Hertfordshire police provided a team of young techies from their squad of volunteers, whose employers encouraged their staff to support local charities and public services. Welcome to 21st century volunteering.

CEO Peter Keller in ‘Time well Spent’ NCVO

Volunteering is really important for the success of various causes, organisations and society as a whole. We sometimes volunteer in informal ways and do not necessarily recognise this. Most of us also volunteer to causes that we care about that are nearby but a very small percentage (3%) volunteer outside the UK. Overall we are providing unpaid help to groups, organisations and individuals that matter to us. Volunteering is one of the best ways we can help others in society.

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It has been an extra special time this month to be able to spend time briefly with past and fellow volunteers in my various roles. They were moments of celebration, an opportunity to meet old and make new contacts in the nice summer months. I will mention some of the events I have attended below. And in true connecting the dots style I will be thinking of the greater impact volunteering has in the short-term…and as well as the long term for me and hopefully for these communities.

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Plant from seeds for my guerilla gardening volunteering

I volunteer throughout the year regardless of the weather, indoors and outdoors, virtually, in groups, individually and tirelessly. I have been a frequent and addictive formal volunteer for the last 15 years, and prior to this in my childhood.

The first set of volunteering this summer was for my local neighbourhood which usually entails gardening, picking up rubbish (constantly!), sending out local notices and information, sharing news and relevant stories on social media feeds and giving a helping hand or moral support for local arts and community events. The best photos here are from local guerrilla gardens, our street party and poetry competitions. I am certainly not the only person to volunteer but there are a few hard-core dedicated people who have been doing fab things year on year since 2012. I am not sure how long all of this will last but I live here, and our neighbourhood is fully engaged in the whole process of looking out for each other and our patch. We have also missed having a local police station after cuts to public budgets, and sometimes have to literally clean up mess, anti-social behaviour and watch out for drug pushing in our neighbourhood. There are lots of families in this area yet there is a lot of worrying anti-social activity. Recently it is the worst it has been, but hopefully our community action will help us all to keep our neighbourhood happy…but also safe.

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It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference – Tom Brokaw

In early July, I was invited to attend the celebration and retirement party for the CEO of the local charity, The Lloyd Park Children’s Charity, where I volunteered for 12 years. Pauline Thomas MBE has dedicated the last 35+ years for developing, championing and actively campaigning local authorities and local government for the provision of services for children, their families and the wider community. She is an amazing person and has a real, authentic and kind portfolio of all the work that she has fought for, won and established. She is the first one to make it clear that she has not achieved it all by herself and constantly depends on her brilliant staff, dedicated volunteers and supporters. Her leadership and committment will always be an inspiration. In this organisation, I was happy to learn so much, develop new skills, challenge myself and offer whatever time I had to assist over those years. There was also a great community affairs programme at the time at the company I worked for whereby they supported staff that were volunteering in their local community with a financial award. I was able to get some recognition and the financial reward, which went to the charity. There are several companies who do support charitable causes and communities – this is reported that there are 8000 funders giving to £8 Million in The Guide to UK Company Giving by the Directory of Social Change.

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A tip to share with you is to give incentive, encourage and display value to volunteers and paid staff. One such way is to hold fun award ceremonies for staff and volunteers. You can reward with a certificate, and those events that were held at this charity were great fun and motivating. I still have my certificates for volunteering and fundraising as they are great merits for community and charitable work. Volunteering is worthwhile not because of awards – but for the intangible skills, experience, talent, understanding and networking you gain working outside your day job. This is beneficial for my own personal development, and I gain experience in tasks and roles that I may not do in my day job. I still refer and draw on volunteering time spent with the charity. There are some good award examples for recognising volunteers on The Third Sector website.

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With Pauline at ex-employers Volunteering Award 2007

I currently volunteer mainly for SLA Europe, an international and professional organisation which the motto – ‘Connecting Information Professionals’. It is an organisation this is based on volunteer support. Events and my activities with them helps me to keep my skills and experience fresh, broad, at the cutting edge of technology…and thought leadership. I host meetings monthly, help in various tasks and activity that may arise – gaining valuable ‘hands on’ experience in the process. It is also great for my strategic thinking and professional leadership experience exposing me to experience that I may not have in my day job. Over the years, I have also grown in confidence in the roles that I have conducted in the Digital Communications Group and as Membership Chair. It has also been excellent for me to also gain regular training and Continued Professional Development (CPD) from physical and virtually events (e.g. webinars). SLA Europe and my self-development are so inter-link in my mind that I sometimes don’t see my volunteering as separate to my day job. It has a direct impact on my abilities, experience, exposure, competency and personal development. To be honest in this profession, we have to be constantly moving with the times, and in this professional volunteering capacity…I am the one who is benefiting from the time that I give freely. It was especially nice to celebrate with other members at the recent Summer Drinks and to feel rejuvenated.

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Unselfish and noble actions are the most radiant pages in the biography of souls – David Thomas

I am really lucky to see the holistic way that volunteering can regenerate and also create new business and artistic benefits for the local community and the wider society. The borough I live in is celebrating this year with the Borough of Culture, and there are a great bunch of volunteers over the years that initially helped the borough to achieve this accolade, funding and attention. There are many activities for this year and the volunteers were in full mode ‘Getting Involved’ at the Walthamstow Garden Party as shown in my photos.

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I still too have a lot of respect and admiration for voluntary organisations that are tackling poverty, homelessness, abuse, or the general well being of other citizens and community members. I sometimes wish I could do more but there just isn’t enough time for me to fit in more. I do like that I work full-time in a profession which helps and empower people to get on with their own objectives. You are never too young or too old to volunteer, and so I will always look to volunteer in the causes and communities throughout my life hopefully.

Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.  – H Jackson Browne Jr.

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Summer sunshine – the best time to go out and about

The sun has been gloriously out the last few days and it is my favourite time of the year. I do like the when the seasons change throughout the year in this hemisphere, but for me it is better when the temperatures are a more amenable for going out more. We spend months and months experiencing rain and damp weather.  Some seasons make me cold and cooped up, although I still try to do interesting things in the colder months. I am thoroughly happier to spend time doing as much (or as little) as I can when the sun and warmer months finally arrive. The British are know for being obsessed with the weather, with even British Vogue charts the reasons for this obsession. It may still be a nice way for the usually reserved British to open a conversation about the weather. What is guaranteed in Britian is that we will be talking about it whether come rain, snow, wind or sunshine. It is also not uncommon to experience all of these atmospheric elements in one day. Regardless of the weather, we must make time to go out for our own wellness and happiness, and that is exactly what I try to do. Here are some of my recent summer ventures and delights to recall with you.

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I am not obsessed about the weather but I do tend to keep an eye on the weather forecast if I am going somewhere, or if I have an event coming up. Being originally from Trinidad, we usually do talk about the weather occasionally as it may be extremely hot, or it may be slightly cold. We rarely talk about the weather when the temperature is ideal. In recent years, there have also been frequent floods, hurricanes and earthquakes – which makes you appreciate good weather regardless if you are on a Caribbean island. For those of you who do not know, the rainy season in the Caribbean can be a big damper on your ‘summer’ vacation in the tropical islands. I had some visitors coming to see me in London this year and I was secretly praying for good weather when they visited a few weeks ago. There are several reasons for this:

  • Tourist destinations look much better in the sunshine
  • You are not cold and wet, otherwise you would have to seek comfort and warmth frequently
  • You can enjoy a lot of outdoor sports and venues
  • You get more done in daylight hours
  • Homes may have an extra room outdoors
  • Gardens look amazing
  • It is a great time to get together
  • Or have a party!

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This year as I had visitors, it was nice to see and plan some events I have been meaning to do for ages. For more of these activities, we were reliant on us enjoying the sights and venues on a clear bright day. My friends are from the Caribbean and ‘feel the cold’ a lot more than myself. Acclimatisation is necessary to feel comfortable with your surroundings but even I have to be prepared for unexpected changes in the weather. The British Council has prepared some tips for visitors. If you are not sure, layering is definitely one of my own recommendations. It was slightly different between June–to-September 2018, as we experienced one of the warmest summers in the last few decades. The Met Office recorded that: “the summer of 2018 was the equal-warmest summer for the UK along with 2006, 2003 and 1976”. It was a relief to have good weather…although there are bigger questions and concerns about climate change.

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One of the first activities in my list of things to do was to show the sights around the West End and historic London. It is handy that I live in Central London and can get the London Underground trains and buses to see most of the sights. We spent about four days in total going around seeing the sights that all first-time visitors like to see around the UK. These include Buckingham Place, Whitehall, The Southbank, The Thames, Covent Garden, The City, Olympic Park and a lot of shopping. I also had a fabulous first cricket game at Lord’s Cricket Ground, and we certainly appreciated that it was a dry day to watch the match.

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I do have a car, which I do not use everyday. However, it is especially useful for going outside of London to see the countryside and other nice outdoor venues. I took my visitors to Cambridge, as it is only about one hour away from me. It was a stress-free drive but we had to make sure parking was organised, as it can be a headache trying to find parking anywhere! It certainly was cheaper to drive than the train tickets for the group of us going there for the day. Travelling in the United Kingdom is very expensive by train compared to other countries.

Cambridge is nice to visit all the universities and colleges – and has an international reputation for it’s academic facilities. In Trinidad, we had (or have) secondary qualifications and examinations that were accredited by Cambridge University, so it is one of the most well known academic institutions for any Caribbean visitor. It is also nice to wander around the town city and to go punting on the River Cam. I am also looking forward to attending and speaking at the SLA Europe Conference in Newnham College in September.

 

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Arundel was an idyllic place to visit that was not too far away from London. I also wanted my friend to experience a traditional castle for its’ history, architecture, rooms, garden and the view. I have visited before to see friends who live there and knew the town well enough to see Arundel Castle and the amazing garden. I could have spent hours in the garden but I also wanted to go to Brighton whilst I was down on the South of England for the day. As the saying goes – make hay whilst the sun shines!

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One of the highlights of the last few weeks was a visit to Paris. I haven’t been to central Paris for 18 years and it was nice to see the city again with all it’s charm and Parisian beauty. I again kept checking on my app to see if we were going to have nice weather and luckily we had some fab weather for three days of walking around and sightseeing. I have since heard that the temperatures have just soared due to the recent heat waves passing across Europe. I also liked that along the Seine, it seemed less busy and the architecture remained tradition as compared to London. I also managed to get my friends on boats three times in one week – Cambridge, The River Thames and The Seine. One disadvantage of travelling in the summer months is the length of the queues to go into Tourist attractions. I went to Eurodisney about 9 years ago and the queues were so long in July, but we still enjoyed the venue over a couple of days. On this trip, I was able to experience all the outdoor must-do’s and Paris will always be a city of love for those who want to be enchanted by it’s glory and culture.

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We didn’t spend the entire time outdoors but it was nice to visit some of the main shopping areas and high streets in London. Whilst out, you see so many shops, and shops in turn, are also reliant on the business of tourists buying their goods. Every city has the usual souvenir shops and we do tend to buy the most iconic souvenirs and treats to take back to friends and family. We mainly shopped in malls, the high street and markets as I mentioned. For my guests, we only bought one item online, as we could not find it in the shops. The outdoor markets are just as fun and become a hive in the nice weather from Borough market for food to my local Walthamstow Market for everything.

 

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If you are helping or planning community events outdoors in the summer, you may have felt panic or anxiety when have to plan for good and bad weather! There are always contingency plans for extreme weather but it is extra nice when the weather is good enough to continue as planned in the ‘great British outdoors’. This was the case with our 8th Street Party – the weather was forecasted to be raining up until the 11th hour before the party started. However like magic, we were able to have a warm and fun day outdoors without having to move equipment and all our gear indoors.

I also went to a recent Indo-Caribbean event in a Sport Centre in Ilford on one of the hottest weekends for the year so far. The heat wave from African and Europe had apparently pushed its’ way to the United Kingdom and temperature was notably humid. However, again it was uncomfortably warm in an enclosed venue but the evening was full of fun and good cheer even though we were sweaty and hot. I also spent a lovely summer’s evening in St Mary’s Church, enjoying the coolness of the ancient church to the rhythmic Flamenco all-female band from Barcelona, Las Migas, making their London Debut.

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Ascot is another event where you hope there is going to be sunshine. I went this year with friends and as soon as my friend booked the tickets, she said, “Pray that it will not rain!” It was a bit rainy this year but luckily for Ladies’ Day, there was more sunshine than rain. I have been to Ascot before in the 1990s when we were in a Marquee with corporate hospitality where your food, drinks and betting are all within the tent. It is nice too to see everyone in the open racecourse and get the general exciting vibes of the races and the entertainment provided. For ladies…and gentlemen, it is even better when the weather doesn’t ruin your well-thought out outfits and hats.

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The summer sunshine definitely improves our mood and wellbeing as we go out more, exploring our surrounding in better conditions and experiencing what’s about. It is my favourite season for going out for a number of reasons. I also love gardening (as you may know) and enjoy flowers and plants in this peak season. Ironically the summer months are also a time to look forward to a proper time to rest and relax here or abroad. Good and bad climate does and will affect us all and we should pay attention to it for our own good. For now, I think I am safe in saying that there is something special about summer, and everybody loves getting a little bit of sunshine.

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Holi – a Springtime festival of Colour

The clocks may have gone forward to signify the beginning of Summertime, but there are other colourful signs of Spring and Summertime that are bursting from nature in this part of the northern hemisphere. It is also festival time for Holi – the ancient Hindu festival celebrated to mark the coming of spring as a time of renewal, regeneration and reconciliation.  It is celebrated with colour to represent vibrancy, fertility and togetherness associated with family and friends who have gathered to have fun. There are other significant stories of the festival such as the story of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha, as well as the story of Holika and Prahlad. It is a time of vibrant celebration when people run around covering each other with the rainbow of Gulal powders or coloured liquid, the latter known as abeer. Drums known as dhol and other musical instruments are played whilst people laugh, sing and dance in the streets or fields. The festival is celebrated in India and various parts of Asia – including the Indian diaspora in the West Indies, North America and even the UK. All in all, the festival represents love and the victory of good over evil.

 

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I was happy to see and learn more about the spring celebrations from past centuries in the Mughal Empire Exhibition at the British Library. The manuscripts and paintings were brilliant and capture the period in time by recording images of people, music, fashion, Holi-playing equipment, the entertainment and fun they obviously had during the celebrations. It was heart-warming to see the extravagance, elegance and details of the Mughal celebrations in the past in their regal settings. I am sure they got dirty too! I was compelled to buy a Holi celebration post card as a souvenir as the festival will always be special to me.

 

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These are some well-documented past celebrations in books with beautiful illustrations and online that show how it was celebrated by all classes in a society – from the Mughals to the people in the streets.

 

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Playing Holi / Phagwa in my village in Trinidad late 1980s.

 

Celebrating the festival of Holi is one of my best childhood memories, and it still makes me happy to see it celebrated from afar. It is a time for peaceful fun with the family, neighbours, friends and other villagers. It certainly is still very much a festival of togetherness which showcases the physical activity like a special rainbow – full of vibrant colour, music, dance and love.

 

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Phagwa, as we call it in the West Indies, is an integral part of the cultural calendar and is still very much alive considering it was brought from India to the West Indies by the indentured labourers in the 1840’s. Holi goes according to the lunar calendar which means it is usually celebrated in March. It is a national holiday in India but in Trinidad it is celebrated on the closest Sunday to the Indian date. Our local temple (mandir) is still the hub for organising and congregating for the celebration in the village, with persons wearing mainly white clothes prior to the start of the coloured festivities. With dholak drums carried around the neck and other musical instruments – the procession starts at the temple and goes along street after street, where people are invited in homes for some drinks, sweets or refreshments. This can last a few hours.

 

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It is exciting, thrilling and fun to play Holi. According to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago’s website – ‘A Carnival-like atmosphere pervades as willing participants are sprayed with a variety of coloured dyes.  You can hear the strains of special folk songs called Chowtal being sung, accompanied by two instruments – the Dholak, a small hand drum and Majeera, percussive instruments.  The music is fast-paced and extremely infectious, making you want to take part in the joy-filled revelry’.

It has gained popularity over the years by other non-Hindus and ethnicities. In the chapter ‘A rich blend of cultural influences’ in the book ‘Trinidad and Tobago: Terrific and Tranquil’, the island is described: “…but then in Trinidad and Tobago, always expect the unexpected, for this is a nation of two separate territories, many different ethnic groups and religions, and discrete and common cultures. You’d be hard pressed to find a population as ethically or culturally mixed as Trinidad’s, in such a small place, anywhere in the world”. The chapter also goes on to say: “Holi is an integral part of the cultural calendar”. Phagwa, March’s Hindu spring festival is celebrated on savannahs throughout the island to the singing of chowtal or pichakaaree songs and the drenching of all with colourful abeer”.

 

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Abeer is the purple liquid that my father would make in a bucket early on the Sunday morning of Holi. It used to be still warm from the water used to infuse the dye when we used to fill our saved and recycle bottles for the purple liquid. The buzz of getting that first spray with colour is truly joyous, fun and bonding! You certainly would not wear your ‘Sunday best clothes’ because by the end of the day your clothes will be soaked, and even ruined. In the 1980’s the coloured Gulal powder was introduced but prior to that we would use mainly the abeer liquid for spraying or drenching each other. My father would try to find some of the elders, such as Mama and Argee, in the neighbourhood to spray with abeer as a sign of respect, and to join in the fun. Throughout the day, we would look to spray our neighbours, family and the temple group as we go street to street through our special village. Phagwa is still celebrated with much fervour through Trinidad – now in schools and has been adopted by some as a national celebration and part of our identity.

 

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My Roman Catholic School – Holi Greetings on Facebook

 

My mother, family and villagers still welcome the local temple groups to our home for Holi, as do many homes along the parade in the village. I am grateful for the persons who are committed and still carry on these traditions after many years. It will always be our heritage and a true celebration of our past journeys across the seas. The message of good over evil, and the joy of life are always relevant. I am thankful to feel part of the great festivities, and the contagious happiness when I witnessed them on social media.

 

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Holi has influenced our multi-cultural society, such as when carnival band designer Peter Minshall used the spraying off colour on his masqueraders for his band Callaloo in 1984. Chutney music, which is the fusion of Caribbean and Asian beats and melodies, has been successful in creating mixed and modern music for the festivities. There is still a religious festival so there is no alcohol consumed on the day. So it is pure fun and happiness with the colours, music, dance and interaction with people.

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Callaloo – Carnival Band by designer Peter Minshall.   Source: Tumblr – http://carnival2014-blog.tumblr.com/post/46371316750/peter-minshall-callaloo-1984-photo-roy-boyke

I also can’t help thinking of Holi when I see the music video for the calypso by Machel Montano, better known as the Soca king, called ‘Fog up de Place’ with the lyrics: ‘you can’t play mas if you fraid powder’. J’ouvert and the Carnival sailor masqueraders share powder for different reasons (US sailors stationed in Trinidad used talc powder to cool themselves from the tropical heat), but the visual effects of the powder in the air is still amazing and similar. We have these festive traits in common.

 

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A few years ago, I saw that there was a globetrotting event based on Holi called Holi One Festival at Battersea Power Station in London. I also recall seeing some people on the London Underground with the powder on their once white clothes. There is a brilliant article ‘Holi One Colour Festival – Battersea Unites in an Explosion of Colour’ which explained the festival’s aimed to bring together people from all walks of life to share music, arts, fun and vitality. It was reported that: “14000 expectant revellers dressed from head to toe in white – three quarters of them women – streamed along the pavements like angelic ants, moving collectively towards one of London’s most recognised landmarks. They would leave an entirely different colour!” At the end of the event – the organisers found it promoted the ideas of togetherness and vitality that did not disappoint – “they were multi-coloured and it’s fair to say – unrecognisable mess”. A jet-wash was used for the clean up the next day. I can relate to this, as it is absolutely true too that you can still see some of the colour stains and evidence of Holi for a few days after the event. Your hair and fingernails will also bear the colours of Holi as a gentle…and sweet reminder afterwards. I don’t mind that.

 

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The Indian Bollywood film industry has helped us to appreciate the festival for its connection with the East Indies and West Indies. In the 1980s, we had neither Internet nor social media, so film such as Silsila was brilliant for us to see the visual expression and art of Holi as it is celebrated in India. We also know some of the songs, and they remain classics to this day.

Silsila
Film – Silsila 1981. Source: Wikipedia.

Holi is celebrated and popular throughout other West Indian countries such as Guyana and Suriname, where there are large Indo-Caribbean communities. I have also seen celebrations on social media in New York, Houston, Paris, Canada etc. The event in Queens, New York seems to be a merger of West Indians and East Indians, and there are Tassa drums used in the parade. The New York Police Department also participated in one of the Holi celebrations and used the opportunity to showcase their LGBT+ community. The rainbow symbol is very apt. It is a festival of time for everyone regardless of religion, colour, class, gender and age from my personal experience.

 

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A few years ago I went to the Caribbean Hindu Temple in North London to celebrate the festival and it was nice to be welcomed by the community and to play Holi again after so many years. I was going to play it this year but was busy on the day. I saw on social media that Indian students were also celebrating Holi at Middlesex University recently, and a couple of primary schools in the UK.   It was nice to see the celebrations in secular environments for the happiness and fun that playing Holi brings.

 

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Holi has been given a lot of exposure (rightly so!) by Google. Google’s logo is colourful and has evolved over the years.  In the last few years they have commissioned colourful and animated ‘Goggle Doodles’ for Holi with clearly explanatory details of the festival. In 2018, it depicted the traditional dhol drummers amongst a cloud of colour, who move from house to house, adding a musical touch to the day’s festivities. In 2019, it states that the visual excitement marks the start of spring but also offers: “a time for renewal, and a reversal of the social hierarchies among ages, classes, and castes. Holi’s also known as the festival of colors or the festival of love because it marks a time for coming together and releasing old grudges”. 

At Holi, the story of Holika is depicted with bonfires.  The bonfire signifies the demoness Holika, who tried to destroy her nephew Prahlad in a fire, but burnt herself to death in the end. Its’ meaning at springtime reminds us about the true victory of good over evil.

 

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The colourful festival of Holi is a diverse and inclusive celebration of dance, music and other rituals, which is a common thread amongst most cultures. The vibrancy, warmth and togetherness by people taking to the streets or in their community spaces, is something we all should try to experience at least once. The rainbow colours of the festival are played to the beating of songs of joy and happiness. It heralds a warm welcome to the new spring season with its’ stories, merriment, song and dance. In some form or another in human life, we can learn and admire this rich ancient celebration as we dance along to the beat of drums.

 

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Disruption and Innovation in Retailing – Online vs the High Street

You may not have missed the news headlines lately about our high streets facing some challenging times. Noone is unaffected and even large ‘safe’ department stores are experiencing disruption in their sales with some of them closing at a very fast rate or on the brink of liquidation. There are lots of factors that may have contributed to poor performance and sales, especially with the current lack of consumer confidence, the weak pound with inflated prices, jobs at risks, high business rates, steep rents and overheads. No wonder accountancy firm BDO published their latest 2018 figures for their high street tracker confirming that footfall was down by 6% than 2017, and that there are further shop closures expected in the future.

10C
Source: eMarketer

 

In my research, I saw worrying headlines with the titles ‘Hell on the High Street’ or ‘The Death of the High Street’! However, it is not all doom and gloom. There are some real disruptions…and innovations already changing the way we purchase goods online and in-stores. Without a doubt, online shopping is changing the physical high street but in some cases – it is offering innovative new in-store experiences and also giving consumers more choices and a different shopping experience with the use of new technology and social media.

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I want to share my observations to highlight the great ways entrepreneurial and creative businesses are proactively changing the high street with the help of regeneration programmes. And I want to stress here that I will always seek to support the high street as it is our living environment and the heart of our communities and local businesses.

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One of the main factors of the changing high street is the proliferation of online buying. Global Data Online in ‘E-retail in the UK 2018-2023’ reports following “robust growth over the past 10 years, the UK online market is set to top £55.9billion in 2018 and remain on a positive growth trajectory, albeit glowing as the channel matures… the online channel will remain a key driver of total growth in the UK retail market as physical channels underperform due to falling footfall and shoppers seeking convenience and choice online”. More and more we are shopping online, and people are increasingly trusting online channels. The demographic analysis shows that younger people are using mobiles to order more so than compared to older spenders – and the figures are growing with social media penetrating retail markets to drive purchases, especially via the smartphone. Surely you have seen promoted adverts on Facebook and Instagram on your smartphone! We have recently just survived the US influenced Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

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The Global Data Online report lists the eleven drivers to online shopping and my personal comments are mentioned here too as I can relate to them:

  • Convenience – do shop from home or anywhere with a smartphone
  • Lower Prices – keep track on items for when they are discounted
  • Can shop at any time that suits me – order groceries from home
  • Save time – not spending time and travel costs to supermarket or high street
  • Better selection – competition to have higher quality and quantity
  • Product not available elsewhere – hard to find items so easy on digital
  • Allows me to compare prices – showing virtually without even visiting the shops
  • More product information – descriptions and photos help indeed
  • Prompted by Online promotions – how can you avoid promotions really?
  • Receive an online voucher – spend it when you can…why not!
  • Less likely to forget to buy it – it is in my basket and always there to remind me!

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This is being silly…but seriously online buying is here to stay. I started using Amazon in the late 1990s to procure books for libraries and our customers. I personally also used to buy music CDs in the early 2000s. I now frequently buy from most online shops or my favourite hunts. Compare this to the 1990s when I used to love browsing the physical shops in my lunch break when I worked near Covent Garden. Now I have a real problem with the shops being at my fingertips 24/7! I sometimes can’t avoid being distracted by push emails, adverts, change of season sales or campaigns. There is now an actual term called ‘impulse buying’ which I certainly do. Are you like me and try to justify your purchases? Yes, I look for bargains and so I try to control my expenditure. Certainly there is a shift in my online buying behaviour on the last 10 years and I am not alone.

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I do like researching items online such as when I recently needed (another!) pair of shoes for work. I was thinking of going to a shop for some comfortable shoes, but I was browsing online recently and saw the right colour, shape, heel height, size and at a discounted price! Therefore, I was unable to resist buying some new Vagabond shoes for work. One feature I look for in online shopping is ‘Click and Collect’ as I am not able to predict the delivery times to collect packages. This option usually means that you do not pay delivery charges and it is my preferred form of delivery. It really is as easy as that to get what you are looking for!

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Another major shift is grocery shopping. I remember my friends trying to convince me to buy groceries online circa 2012. I eventually started ordering groceries online and there are some clear benefits for me. Some of these include budgeting better, saving time by ordering at home rather than three hours of shopping in store, and avoiding to buy items in store that I may not need. Sometimes there are issues with items being replaced by either an inferior or even superior product. You might get squashed bread, wilted vegetables or occasionally order the wrong item yourself, but generally I like ordering food online as it frees up my precious time. I still go to the local supermarkets if I want fresh items from the bakery, butcher and to top-up my mid-week groceries. One friend pointed out that this is more environmentally friendly to grocery shop like this as there are less people using cars, or we are walking to local mini-supermarkets and shops for the mid-week shopping.

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The last main point about online shopping is the ubiquitous Amazon. It is no doubt that Amazon dominates the online cyberspace across devices due to its wide range of products and brand offering. It really is brilliant…but so annoying too! As mentioned above I do remember the earlier days of just buying books, but it is worrying the negative impact it may be having in dominating the retail space and pushing local and smaller shops out of business. Although Amazon says that it is helping small business sellers, there are also big picture issues that they pay little tax whilst their profits are tripling. I have love/hate sentiments about this and so now limit how often I order from them. For example, if I am looking for a book for personal use, I try to use local bookshops but would only use Amazon if I am unable to find the title easily.

Now away from online shopping, the ‘bricks and mortar’ high street is going through some disruption too from this ripple effect. The major retailers are having to innovate and cope with the aftershock of online but high street shops are also changing. For example, pubs are the fastest growing failing businesses but at the same time the pubs that are surviving are gastro-pubs serving food and therefore they tend to employ more people. My local pubs are now used for Quizzes, entertainment and other community initiatives. Coffee shops, artisan, creative makers, boutiques and other start-ups are forging new ground on the high street via pop-up shops, co-working spaces and regeneration of the high street. It is never easy. There are still immense pressures and costs to manage but generally, we are consciously trying to support local businesses by shopping local. In the past there have been the Love Your High Street campaign, and this weekend is the Small Business Saturday initiatives to promote and support local small businesses.

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I recently presented a webinar with Open to Export whereby food and drink retailers are doing fairly okay on the high street (with exceptions of course). Tobacconists, barbers, coffee shops are some of the growing independent businesses but there are some worst off businesses such as Post Offices (which are having to innovate services), Banks, Photographic services, Travel Agents, Newsagents and even Indian restaurants due to healthier eating habits. One thing is for sure is that shops have to be one step ahead of all the challenges faced by being smart and adaptable to the dynamics of the high street, technology and consumer behaviour. It is brilliant to see creative businesses and artisan shops thriving in some areas brought about by groups of creatives and makers who are proactively engaging with their local community and neighbourhoods. In my neighbourhood, they are also collaborating for the seasonal ‘shop local’ street promotions.

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I attended a recent presentation where the founder of Workary and Wimbletech spoke of all the benefits of localism and how these groups use their libraries, local councils and commercial co-working hubs to start and grow their business community. This sort of activities are very prominent in my local area and I couldn’t be more pleased and proud. I just don’t have the money to buy things frequently from these businesses but I am certainly rooting for their success and it pains me when a shop do shut down. The shopping mall is also actively changing to host a new coffee shop, local family friendly events and other social activities. It is interesting to observe all of these shopping options as we also have the famous Walthamstow Market adjacent to the shopping mall and the rising number of independent shops. Walthamstow Market is the vibrant and unique longest outdoor street market in Europe and should be a must on your visitor’s list.

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As we head into the busiest shopping season of the year. It is hard to think we will be exclusively shopping online…or on the high street. I certainly will be looking to mix-up my shopping experiences and try to support these two very different options to make sure that I go with the tech flow, but also to remain human and use these very different two options available to me. Some shops are adopting new technology and surviving brilliantly. Long may they innovate and survive the changes! The robots are not doing it all for us as yet.

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