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.

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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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The Bigger Picture – challenges, benefits and celebrating positivity with Diversity, Inclusion and Equity

Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a practice and equity is a goal –

Dereca Blackmon, Stanford

What do diversity, inclusion and equity really mean? …This is the question we might want to ask ourselves, especially in a diverse digitally connected world in the 21st century. It can be unclear why we even need to discuss this topic but it has been on my radar particularly since I was asked to take part in a SLA Task Force for Diversity and Inclusion in 2016. I was an honour to be asked, and I was unsure if I had anything insightful to contribute but to be honest, I realised that I was already championing the features of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity. We don’t usually need to disclose attributes of people, but for the purpose of this blog post, I have mentioned information on myself and gave a couple of real examples.

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SLA Diversity & Inclusion Task Force Participation in 2017

I am a little ahead of the game for some obvious reasons – I am female, an ethnic minority, working mother with a powerful diverse background of being a Trinidadian (other Trinidadians will understand what I mean with regards to diversity), married to a European, living in multicultural London…and I worked in world class libraries. I am heterosexual with no obvious disabilities. However we must remember that there are other areas of diversity and inclusion that is deeper than the physical and obvious. The point of this blog post is to discuss some of the challenging issues we face, but also to find examples of good practices and stress how important it is for information professionals to advocate, champion and stand up for diversity and inclusion for the communities and customers we serve. In this context, I am mainly discussing the business workplace and libraries with some principles for the wider society.

I need to do some more research on an official definition for Diversity, Inclusion and Equity as it tends to cover Equality rights and anti-discrimination policies. However there are some good pointers on this Wikipedia page, and the SLA Caucus page has a good example of the motive behind the topics. The term Equity is used more in the US, where I saw a good example on this voluntary sector site Independent Sector.

Freedom is Indivisible –Nelson Mandela

 

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Found in a Venue in Tottenham

My research also came across a motivating quote on Diversity and Inclusion at the closing keynote at the National Diversity in Libraries Conference, Los Angeles – Bourg, as a white, butch, lesbian, Army veteran, library director, and Hathcock, as a black, straight, cisgender, Christian, Southern, non-director, sat on stage and talked from the heart about the ways in which they are attempting to learn from and with each other along their varying intersections. Their work, said Bourg and Hathcock, begins first and foremost with an acknowledgement that “libraries have never been, are not now, and will never be neutral,” that whiteness sits at the heart of our society and therefore our institutions”.

This puts the topic in context and shows the library and information professional position on Diversity and Inclusion.   There is a quest of best practice by information professionals in being pragmatic with neutrality versus social justice for the communities who we serve in providing facts, unbiased and trusted information. For example, I remember being ‘as nice as apple pie’ serving members of the British National Party in a working library where impartiality and neutrality were the guiding principles. However at the same time, on balance I would advocate for libraries that were cut by mainstream Politicians and government policies. As I am aware, I still try in my own way to reach marginalised library users by stretching out.   There is a need to try to reach as many as possible, regardless of biases and background. This world should be a level playing field where everyone has a voice. We certainly should also stand up if something or if someone was harmful or threatening to others.

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Looking at ‘The Bigger Picture’ shows that Diversity, Inclusion and Equity are progressive hot topics. It is important for us to think about these terms in the workplace as well as in society. There are a few events that I kept a close eye on social media recently, where there were online events advocating and discussing the topics. The UK Lib Chat Twitter talk on ‘Celebrating Diversity: supporting clients and broadening the profession in libraries’ held some great nuggets of thoughts on how we should implement this in this sector. It was also fabulous to see the tweets (Twitter @StemGameChange) shared for the Gender Diversity in STEM event at the Alan Turing Institute a couple of weeks ago. It was nice for the speakers to invite me in too but I was busy in my normal work, so could not attend. I also refer to CILIP and SLA Connect online community caucus on Diversity and Inclusion for best practices and information.

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Gender Equality in STEM at the Alan Turing Institute

So what is the problem? Why do we need to be reminded about Diversity & Inclusion? Harvard Business Review’s ‘Research: People share more information with colleagues of similar backgrounds’ states: “in the workplace, people tend to trust and attribute a higher status to colleagues whose cultural background are similar to their own. As a result, members of the majority national group – and minorities who share cultural similarities with the majority – also share the most information with one another. Whereas minorities with the most cultural differences are often attributed a lower status and information is withheld from them. This withholding can cause those from ‘low status’ minority groups to underperform and never reach their full potential”.

This is just one of the problems. There are other issues around privilege, recruitment, team dynamics, talent development, gender pay-gap, cronyism, cliques, tribes and exclusivity, which act as barriers to diversity and inclusion. There have been some progress and positive steps to have better talent and support systems, but this also requires diversity and inclusion to be fluid enough to filter to the top of teams and even executive boards. There is a lot of research that a more diverse board or top management around the table will have broader viewpoints and experiences, which will heed better business decisions that are best for an organisation.

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Words in this blog…Diversity and Inclusion

Most of the research I read says that it is not always easy to achieve the right balance. “True equality is not taking away for one to give to another. It means having an equal voice, opportunities and rights”. There is a lot written on the ‘privileged’ White Alpha Male – a group that has long been overdone and it can be monotonous for the rest of us in the shadows. It is possible to seek more balance where anyone can get an opportunity to contribute and to harness talent. There is richness in diversity, inclusion and equity in all of this…if we are in it together. The demography, scope and locations of the global consumers are also more diverse in a digital world – and top management have to reflect and understand their audience, staff, customers, clients and stakeholders. We are not forgetting the White Alpha Male – we are simply including him in the mixture with a balanced and broader talent pool. We just have to make room for more diversity and inclusion.

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In the article ‘While automation eats jobs, it doesn’t eat work’ on Equity: “companies are committed to a diverse work force for varying motivations. Some believe that diverse teams are just smarter and more creative… Other firms, especially technology companies believe that they are disproportionally responsible for designing the future and therefore it’s simply wrong to leave entire communities out of their teams”. There is also a positive outcome when people feel they belong – they perform better.

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The other aspect of Diversity and Inclusion practices is that there are strategies for a supportive culture, with advocacy to maintain and sustain positive levels. It is recommended that organisations examine themselves and their policies for: “without them, diversity cannot be achieved because people will leave before they are given the opportunity to make a difference”.

Another piece of research by Culture Amp states: “Creating a workplaces that make people feel they belong. Without this, no matter how much diversity you might achieve by the numbers. You may find people feel disconnected, disengaged and prone to leaving your organisation”.

There is another issue of unconscious and conscious bias. There may be physical attributes to humans that make us compassionate and conscious to inclusiveness. At a Public Library Conference in the USA this year, keynote speaker Steve Pemberton (Chief Diversity Officer at GloboForce) explains: “the first picture you see of someone is not the full picture”. We come into this world with visible characteristics and diversity traits… but the real story is below the line: “This things you can’t see would be stunned to see how much commonality there really is, but it requires conversation and willingness to be open and to learn”. So with this in mind – an inclusive environment means providing everyone, no matter who they are with equal access. The richness of inclusion and diversity is below this invisible line: “Top of the waterline are people’s visible traits but below the water line many other invisible traits emerge, such as sexual orientation, beliefs and background”. Pemberton went on to say: “that we need to depend on each other and celebrate our myriad experiences because we all have something new to learn about the world”.

I may be thinking of a Utopian idea…but we can dream, and hopefully we can forget the hostile and divisive hot air that is currently blowing in parts of this world.

In reality, there is still some work to do. Libraries still play a large part in diversity and inclusion, and operate in one of the most open physical and digital areas you would expect to encounter. But we are still a profession in the English-speaking world that has mainly white professionals. It is heart-warming and motivating when I see social media shares from libraries in Trinidad and Tobago for their good work on diversity and inclusion programmes.

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This way – Library sign in  Trinidad & Tobago

There are still vast issues, levels of poverty and access for customers in a ‘first world’ country like the United Kingdom. A multi-cultural and diverse content coverage should be programmed, but there are pressures on public funds. Socio-economic barriers prevent diversity in developing professionals and the communities they serve. Most of these issues are in disadvantaged urban environments where there are discourse for crime, low income families struggles, poverty, underprivileged persons and other societal disparities – therefore librarians act as a haven for promoting diversity and inclusion in their communities. There are other barriers like the digital divide, dyslexia, the elderly, literacy, languages, and physical disabilities. Some will be visible and some below the line. This may be a good point to acknowledge too that there are some people who may never come into the library, but there are still a large proportion of people who do see its’ worth and will continue to use them.

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Therefore we must continue to be diverse, inclusive and equitable. Outreach and marketing work helps to reach marginalised communities which will foster positive inclusion for developing diverse professionals and customer bases. CILIP has a great page on the work they are doing in their diversity and inclusion programmes. It is motivating as an information professional that we are doing our little bit on the front line to help disadvantaged communities and individuals. It leads to better social cohesion, improve economic prosperity and the possibilities in a more level playing field in a diverse and inclusive society.

There are a lot of best practices out there for professionals and organisations to champion the business and corporate social responsibility (CSR) benefits for Diversity, Inclusion and Equity programming. These types of programmes are leading the way and act as a benchmark to adopt and ‘anchor’ in our businesses and mission. Some of these admirable organisations are Channel Four, Touchstone and Halebury. There are some tips on the CIPD factsheet, and the Gov.UK website as an employer.

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So what does this all mean to us now? …There are a lot of positive policy, narrative changes, game-changers and professionals working to create more diverse and inclusive work environments. There are also inclusiveness programmes that are trying to balance representation, content, coverage and highlight diverse stories for personnel and patrons for all types of businesses. Some cynics may even be ‘fatigued’ by the words ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ and much more so by an inclusive agenda! However, if we don’t continue to encourage positive policy and action – we will end up with an echo chamber and miss out on the richness of celebrating our differences and similarities.

In the bigger picture – diversity, inclusion and equity have a lot of benefits and are the best ingredients for shared collaboration and empowerment of individuals and organisations. Embedded inclusion with a whirlpool of diverse talent makes life more interesting, and exposes us to fresh perspectives, bringing better understanding and with it respect, compassion and hopefully, greater all-round success.

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Welcome.

 

The Summer holidays are here!

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful,

we must carry it with us or we find it not. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Summer is in full swing and it is the time of year when most of us are thinking of enjoying time off from work, school, commitments or simply a break from the normal routine. It is also the season to enjoy the usually better weather, get outdoors more, go sightseeing, travel and rest. The sunny summer of 2018 has been gloriously blessed, until now, with good weather and has helped in my decision to have a Staycation.

My last staycation was in 2012 and I am certainly happy to try mini-breaks in the UK this year having been away consistently for the last few years. As an adult, I have had time off the whole summer when I was on maternity leave twice, in between jobs and redundant. It was a blessing in disguise to spend the whole summer off, even if I had to be on a budget. I will write about one of my mini-breaks in 2018 here.

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There is also the cost of travelling that has been one of the factors for me having a staycation this summer. In ‘Caravan and Camping Sites in the UK’ report by IBIS World predicts 2.3% annual grow to reach £3.8 billion by 2023-34. The report is also insightful on why other British travellers may be doing this: “weather patterns and fluctuations in exchange rates will continue to encourage domestic tourism over the next few years, as the UK remains a cheap holiday destination”. The report goes on to explain: “fragile consumer confidence is likely to cause families to delay discretionary expenditure on holidays over the next few years. However, this could also have a positive effect on the industry as UK holidaymakers who would previously have taken trips abroad may instead choose to take relatively inexpensive domestic camping mini-breaks. Similar to the conditions at the start of the period, low consumer confidence may help to sustain the staycation trend”. So this insight is quite relevant to me. I didn’t go caravanning this year, but I spent a weekend in a campsite at a Jazz Festival and can imagine other more official campsites across the country benefitting from this type of holiday.

The last few years I have planned my holidays at least six months in advance to get the best deals possible as the flights tend to cost higher closer to the time of travel. Most of the time, like all families with children at school, we have little choice and flexibility and so must travel in the peak inflated priced holiday periods like everybody else! However, for children with working parents it is the time of year that you can actually have some quality time to relax and spend with the family.

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I haven’t travelled extensively due the cost and family commitments. However, I seem to have travel in my DNA as a fourth generation Indian immigrant to the West Indies. There are some places I have scratched off my list, but there is still a long imaginary bucket list of places I would like to visit one day. For example, my bucket lists contains India. Being of Indian heritage, I would like to visit India in the future but the cost for a family will be horrendous and I certainly don’t want to go on my own. I would also like to go to the Far East to Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, and other parts of the world such as Africa, Brasil, Peru, Mexico, San Francisco, and other Caribbean islands. The list can really go on, and on. I know that air travel is not good for the environment and wish that there were other environmentally friendly modes of transport that were quicker and cheaper. There is no real chance of me going to all the countries I would like to visit in the near future anyway, so hopefully I can ‘be chilled’ about my carbon footprint for now.

Two roads diverged into a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled

– Robert Frost

Generally, I don’t follow my bucket list of places to visit. I honestly don’t think my list will ever be finite, as I love learning and seeing new parts of this beautiful, interesting and natural world. My friend Barry blogged here and just came back from Antarctica. It sounded so very different from what I am used to – and so I wish I could visit there one day. My friends, Anna and Pete, also have had an amazing holiday this year in Japan and there too is on my bucket list. I have an aunt, Sandra, in Canada who has travelled extensively and I love how she uses Facebook to share her stories and enthusiasm for travel, culture and the people she meets. My neighbour, Bob, sent me a photo of his happy holiday in Rhodes just a few days ago. Social media has all the temptation for aspiring to visit places…or even for you to remain at home and see the world. It’s a win win for exploring the Earth! One of my post popular blog posts since I started this blog was my trip to New York City in 2016. One relative said that my photos inspired them to take a trip to New York that same year.

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My neighbour sent me his holiday view from his balcony in Rhodes …Wishful thinking.

Mintel’s Consumer Confidence Finance Tracker from April 2017 found that long holidays, short breaks and days out all features in the top 10 things people spend their disposable income on. Mintel reports that “despite the Brexit vote and the drop in the value of the pound, consumers have shown their strong appetite for oversees holidays. Mintel estimates that overseas trips grew by 5% to 44.3 million in 2016”. The barriers and bottom line to seeing all those places is the cost of travel, which is expensive. You also have to consider the time required away from a full time job, family commitments, and possibly travel restrictments such as travel visas and your safety. One can still dream about travelling to new places though. Travel is always good for new experiences, ideas, creativity and culture. We also come away understanding the places and people that we have visited.

Should I stay or go? …Well, this year I stayed in England. I went last week for a few days to Derbyshire for a break. This meant that I avoided the busy drive to an airport, checking-in procedures, the lounging, duty free temptations and general busyness of an airport. My drive was just under three hours to my destination. I was quite excited as I had been told by friends and family that the countryside in the Peak District was beautiful. There are also nice restaurants in Derbyshire and the surrounding areas – all in the mix with international and local cuisine.

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The two main attractions I visited were stately homes – Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall. The drives to both locations were very scenic through parts of the National Forest, villages, rivers and winding roads with the undulating hills of the Derbyshire countryside.

Chatsworth House is spectacular and I had heard so much about it. I love the drive to the house with the sheep resting in the shade of the trees and grazing on the grass on a sunny summer’s morning during our recent heatwave. The house’s exterior itself has a magical simplicity in its shape and design. I particularly liked the garden and all its difference features such as The Cascade, the 100 steps to the maze, the rock garden, the lilies, grotto etc. There were so many vistas to take it all in, and I loved the beautiful plants and trees. It must be nice in winter but it certainly was splendid in the heart of summer with the sheep baa-ing closeby, the butterflies fluttering on plants, and the lovely birdsong. I intend to visit the garden again one day. Touch wood!

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The interior of the house was also interesting and it was nice too that the current owner, the Duke of Devonshire and family, are still involved in the house’s upkeep. I liked the mix of modern and older art pieces in the collection. It is always interesting to see how other people live regardless of wealth or social class – and this house obviously had historic significance. The actors impersonating the past head gardener, Joseph Paxton, told us about the evening that Queen Victoria visited the maze garden adorned in a candlelit atmosphere. This must have been something to see! They still host amazing events at Chatsworth House throughout the year.

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As a special treat, I also had afternoon tea served on Wedgewood China. I was even inspired to try one of the sweet puddings on my return to London a few days after. Chatsworth House is beautiful for indulgence in a beautiful setting and was really interesting for creative ideas too – be it gardening, writing novels, poems, painting, photography, music and most of all… period dramas films! It has been the setting for programmes such as Pride and Prejudice’. The shop was also full of lovely tokens and souvenirs.

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The next day was just as exciting at Haddon Hall, Bakewell. I loved the medieval features and the lived-in feel and evidence of the house’s history – from the wooden kitchen surfaces, to the medieval steps, courtyard and banquet hall. I also liked the vista over the rolling hills and countryside from the windows in the house.

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Again, the garden was amazing too and I am hoping that I can visit Haddon Hall again! I loved the planting of some of my favourite plants, the view from the garden terraces, which gave the garden a varied dimension from the river to the hill. The house was something out of a storybook with the stream and medieval setting. Places like this brings the past alive and sends our imagination into overdrive! I managed to squeeze in a nice pub lunch in nearby Bakewell (famous for it’s Bakewell tart) too.

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Travelling is my drug of choice

– quote shared by my well-travelled Aunt.

This was a short break in an extraordinarily warm summer in England. I hope to visit a couple more places such as Southwold and Norwich this year. I may even visit Paris and Italy for very short breaks too. Trinidad will always be home for me to visit. In 2019, I am hoping to visit Greece. In the meantime, I will try to save some money, use the Internet to see the place I haven’t been and keep dreaming of nice and interesting places I would like to visit…one day.

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Women’s Health – raising awareness, challenges and opportunities

“I’m interested in Women’s health because I’m a woman.

I’d be a darn fool not to be on my own side.”

– Maya Angelou

I am astonished that women are still struggling to have high levels of healthcare in the 21st century. Yes, we have come a long way in understanding our own bodies and the healthy lifestyles we need to lead, but despite the advances in Women’s Health – there is still progress to be made and we sometimes get a bit complacent with our own lifestyles choices. I don’t think we can ever stop improving our levels in health facilities and education. And so we will always aim to advance health programmes, especially in less developed countries of the world. There is an essential need to be open, transparent and to have this conversation. Our vaginas, breasts…and whole body need attention throughout life.

The last few months has provided a lot of inspiration for me to write this post. I have the following great examples of women helping other women, and also raising awareness in on health issues using traditional and social media to keep us engaged and to get their messages out. These are new channels to reach out to women, and girls. It is also encouragement to take the initative to have ownership of our health and bodies. With women constantly facing challenges in our life cycle – here are some of the amazing examples of positive action where women are helping other women to take control of their own lives and destiny. Some of the health issues on here are easy to write about as I feel compel to share the amazing work going on.

A gynaecologist relative, Dr Sabrina Ramkisson, proactively campaigns to raise awareness on women’s health issues, especially Cervical Cancer Screening. Sabrina regularly use tradition and social media to inform and empower women and girls to stay ahead on their health. She organised a 5K ‘Smearathon’ for women and men last August in the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain, Trinidad. At the event, there were other gynaecologists to offer advice, on-site smear booths and some fun activities. Sabrina also successfully hosted the digital #SmearforSmear lipstick campaign to remind and encourage women to take a regular smear test to prevent cervical cancer. I was able to take part here in London, and she also shared photos of other women in Trinidad & Tobago and other countries, who smeared their lipstick.   It was a visible bond and showed support for women who took part.

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There is a decrease in the number of women and girls who are not taking their cervical cancer screening. Therefore, it is with greater impetus and purpose that campaigns like these are being transparent with much fervour. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is a UK charity set up by a co-founder who has survived cancer, and they also aim to raises awareness of cervical cancer with active campaigns. The charity founded the #SmearforSmear campaign which is run in January for Cervical Cancer Awareness. It was an utter pleasure to see #SmearforSmear trending on Twitter last month as the figure for women taking a smear test was in decline.

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Only yesterday I read an article about comedian Karen Hobbs, who was diagnosed at 24 years with cervical cancer. Luckily she is another cervical cancer survivor, whose blog and performance urge you to not be embarrassed about your smear test. Karen has also been praised by The Eve Appeal for making light the serious topic of cancer.

I also know the lovely Claire Mcdonald, who is working on changing behaviours, cancer prevention and raising awareness in health. Claire and her colleague Sinead recently visited me at the British Library to find lifestyles information for women and girls for their awareness campaigns on Jo’s Trust and Coppafeel, the Breast Cancer Prevention Cancer charity. They were particularly interested in demographics that will help them target their audiences, and their health messages. They were looking at factors such as reproductive behaviours, poverty, income levels, age, geographical locations and other factors that may affect a woman’s health. These bring the questions: Do women share a bath? Would they have time to ‘do the check’ on their breasts? How many persons are having children at a younger age that may prevent cancer? Are they smokers at a higher risk level? Questions needs answers.

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Do the Check! – Coppafeel

The library is useful for helping in researching these issues. For example some golden information nuggets in Mintel’s ‘Marketing to Women February 2017’ are:

  • the age of motherhood continues to rise “although 2015 saw a slight increase in the number of live births, the average age of motherhood continues to rise, reaching 30.3 years”.  
  • social media stars are feeding a culture of health and wellness amongst young women
  • on ‘Period leave’ – the issue of period impacting on women’s sports performance with Heather Watson and Fu Yuanhui both blaming their period for their underperformance, whilst marathon runner, Kiran Gandhi chose to freeblee for the duration of the London event
  • 16-34 years old are most likely to use or be interested in using apps that help anxiety or stress management
  • ‘This Girl Can’ campaign helps to get female more active with 16 million people aged over 16 play sport on a weekly basis

Looking at these lifestyles choices and demographics inform their messages in campaigns. Claire said something touching to me on young women…”You don’t know who is coming up in the world under you and you must take them along”. The best way to prevent poor health is to inform people of good healthy moderate habits. Cancer Research also organise 5K or 10K ‘Race for Life’ runs to raise funds for research, which are very popular with women. As the old adage goes – Prevention is better than cure.

 

There are still so many women in the world who also cannot afford menstruation products – therefore being open and discussing this in the mainstream is great for breaking barriers.

I also know the founder, Mandu Reid, of the menstrual cup charity ‘The Cup Effect’. Mandu foundered this charity that aims to change menstrual behaviour by empowering women and girls to use a menstrual cup, and protect the environment – that is synchronicity! The charity also uses the income raised to help women in ‘period poverty’ in the UK and in other less well-off parts of the world. Mandu also takes part in active campaigning, and again it was recently publicised in this brilliant article in The Guardian newspaper. To put some zest in this good work – Mandu also invites you to come to her Cupaware Party with friends.

Menstrual Cup
An Ergonomic menstrual cup  
The invention relates to a menstrual cup (10) having a bell-shaped lower part (20), comprising a plurality of non-convex grip surfaces (22, 24) which are distributed in a substantially axisymmetric manner at least over said bell-shaped lower part (20), and designed so as to be able to be pinched by the user’s fingers in order to facilitate the removal of the cup. Source: Espacenet.

Growing up in Trinidad, the girls in my school and neighbourhood circulated a famous book on puberty called ‘Growing up and liking it’ – see the link for past versions. It was in an easy-to-read format, and was instrumental in educating us on menstruation, pregnancy, menopause and what to expect of our bodies. We were fortunate to have mothers, sisters, aunties, friends and teachers at school to inform us too. Sadly, some countries still don’t have basic adolescent and puberty education, and so these challenges still exist.

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Growing up and liking it – Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.       http://www.mum.org/GULIcov.htm

In all these Women Health issues, there are still opportunities to create charitable and profitable businesses. I have recently conducted some business research on these very issues. Again, only recently I have encountered ‘Fab little Bag’ whose mission is to stop pollution caused by flushed sanitary items: to make an awkward disposal into a fab experience…and to break down the barriers to promote female hygiene. You too might start to see their product in toilets across the country. These are the opportunities that entrepreneurial women are taking to help other women.

Women’s Health is too vast to cover as a one-off topic. As we enter the theme ‘Press for Progress’ for International Women’s Month in March 2018 – there is so much we can be thankful for in developments in research, health screening, hygiene etc. It is even better that we can rely on each other to talk, communicate, lobby, and raise awareness on Women’s Health to those near…and far to us. Pressing ahead, looking after ourselves is the best gift we can give ourselves – making time for our health and happiness should be top and number one on our To-Do-List!

Ring out the Old, Ring in with the New

“Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.”

Alfred Tennyson

I am writing this at a restful festive time after Christmas when most people tend to wind down with family and friends during the season’s celebrations. It is also a time when I mentally close off the year in my mind. I sort of remember things and memories by the year it occurred (be it by association by music, smells or other unconscious triggers). It is also a great time for shopping, spending money on presents, which is great news for the retail industry. I was considering a more serious topic such as what consumer and economic trends to look out for in 2018 as forecasted in some of our business information sources in the library. However, I decided to reflect on a light-hearted look back at an average, but at times, exceptional year for me. I will leave the traditional media and magazines to tell you about the official world review of the year. I am going to cover some of the little things that mattered a lot to me – my iPhone photos are like a visual journal of the year. So, I am ready to say goodbye to 2017.

January – I started with a blog post about ‘Beating the January Blues’, on reflection it seemed that I actually managed to do just that! I saw some amazing Ceilidh dancing at the Southbank on 1st Jan, made my first Gallette Du Rois, celebrated Burns Night with friends, and also had fun at the SLA Europe Quiz. I will be celebrating the Gallette due Rois again, and I am looking forward to the next SLA Europe quiz at a new venue in a few weeks time. You too can join us if you really want to.

February – I seemed to have baked a lot this year going by the photos I’ve taken. I made pancakes for Shrove Tuesday, and a lemon drizzle sponge during a break in February. I attended a Guardian Newspaper supper club at the Geffrye Museum, hosted by the amazing and beautiful Eleanora Galasso, who was also launching her cookbook. Her menu for the evening was interesting and the supper club dining company was friendly. I also went to see Mario Biondi at the Union Chapel. He was great live and used the LIVE feature on Facebook, which also prompted me to use it for the first time to the pleasure of a few of my friends who interacted with me.

March – Spring was in the air and it seems I was getting ready with my neighbours for some neighbourhood spring cleaning, E17 Art Trail plans, and more baking (must do a blog post just on baking!). I also went to Cardiff for the first time for a two-day training course at the Intellectual Property Office. I have now visited three capital cities in the UK, except Belfast. I still want to visit the countryside in Wales again after visiting Monmouthshire over a decade ago.

April – The days got lighter and the spring blooms were out. There were lots of places to see beautiful daffodils and blossoms. I was already beginning to channel the ‘Tree of Life’ submission for the E17 Art Trail by our neighbourhood. We organised a group of volunteers to clean, prepare and source plants for the garden with the advice from the local councillor. I attended Jonathan and Theresa’s fabulous wedding party with the John Ongom Big Band. I went to see the E17 Puppet Show ‘Vikings and Valkyries’ at the William Morris Gallery as they would be performing a street theatre in June for us. I also had a girly R&R (Rest and Relaxation) day with friends in Essex with cream tea as a treat.

May – I prepared a lot for the E17 Art Trail garden and it seemed to go according to plan. It is amazing when you depend on people to work with you voluntary…and you do actually pull off something out of nothing! My neighbours were brilliant and created fabulous designs on terracotta pots and donated plants for our garden. That was heart-warming. It’s December now, and the last time I looked at the garden, there were only about three plant pots that were missing or damaged. The space is used more than before and we have since received further funding to redevelopment and redesign the space. Luckily we have an expert resident architect to help and advise us with the redesign.

I also went to Dublin in May and it was an amazing experience! I was warmly welcomed by my friend Lina, and also the Irish library and information professional community as an SLA Europe representative. I blogged about my trip here.  I still think of the Irish green fields I saw on my trip to and from Dublin to Galway.

June – The launch of the much anticipated E17 Art Trail and we were pleased with our participation in Poets’ Corner E17. Walthamstow went wild for the 1000 Swifts and other collaborative and community creative activities and events. We had lovely weather for the ‘Vikings and Valkyries’ street puppet show on our newly pedestrianised street in the neighbourhood. We also held a fabulous street party.

July – One of the major highlights of my year! I went home to Trinidad and Tobago for my 30th School Reunion. My schoolmates chatted, praised, danced and re-acquainted ourselves, as well as made new memories. After 18 months of planning by a small group, it was amazing and much appreciated. It was also a special time to spend with family and friends. Regardless of all the problems in the country and this world – I see the beauty in this small Caribbean island and know that it is a place I can always proudly call home.

August – It is normally depressing coming back after a summer holiday but I had the Notting Hill Carnival to look forward to. After the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy – it was a devastating and shameful reminder of the disparity in one of the richest part of London in the 21st century. Notting Hill Carnival itself was good fun on a very sunny day and I loved our costumes to the ‘First People’ theme. Two annoying factors were the real threat of an acid attack, and the false reporting of an acid attack. You can never win here.

September – It was back to school, back to work and back to routine. I baked my first Coffee and Walnut cake for the library’s fundraising Macmillan Coffee and Cakes afternoon. As I wasn’t in the office – I still don’t know how it tasted! I also went to Derby for the first time to settle my son into university. It seems like a nice city, if a little quieter than other major cities. I hope to explore more of Derbyshire next year.

October – The darker months were here again and there were Halloween celebrations in town. I went to see the Basquait ‘Boom for Real’ exhibition and Banksy’s Basquait tribute graffiti, which were brilliant. Also at the Barbican, I saw Annoshka Shankar’s live accompaniment to the digitally restored 1920s silent film ‘Shiraz’. It was an unforgettable experience. I also had luck on my side at the SLA Europe gin tasting event, as I won a raffle for three flavours of gin, which I am hoping to try soon.

November – I was lucky and happy to return to Trinidad again for a family wedding and reception. I don’t usually go often and it was worth going to see a modern Indian-Trinidadian wedding and reception. The merging of the east and west cultural influences is special. It was nice to spend time with loved ones again and I had a mini reunion with some school friends. I witnessed some fabulous wedding business ideas and event planners for our unique Trini wedding. It was nice again to dress-up, have my hair and make-up done by professionals. I received nice comments on my outfits. The bride and groom looked utterly beautiful in all the wedding celebrations.

December – Back to work and lots of activities in the library. It was also a reality check to come back from the tropics to very snowy weather. I went to the newly opened Walthamstow Wetlands for a Christmas Carols concert. I had fun at the YSBD Christmas Party theme disco, and so I danced to the end of the year. I have not taken part or planned much in my community this month as I was away, and we are taking a break. Personally and honestly, I feel that something is amiss.

So this sums up an average year for me and I am grateful for the good health and happiness we have. As the days slowly wind up in December, I looked to see what would be the serious United Nations theme for 2018, but apparently there is no theme. We can make it up as we go along! But I am looking forward to their theme for 2019, which will be the year of indigenous languages (hopefully I am still alive!). We do still have high levels of poverty, inequality, prejudices, environmental causes, Brexit, ever-present troubles in the Middle East and parts of the world to keep us preoccupied.

However, we can bring in some new perspectives, peace and control with our personal New Year’s resolutions and hopes. I always try a few new things. For example, I had always hoped to read more each year…and out of the blue recently – one of my neighbours created a book club, which I am a part of. I now make time to read leisurely and have read three books. This blog was also my resolution for 2016, and thankfully I have been able to carry it on for almost two years. The feedback received is motivating and makes it all worthwhile.

‘Old year’s night’ as we say in the Caribbean, is one way to say a fond farewell to another year. I understand in Italy they literally practice ‘out with the old, in with the new’ by throwing out rubbish on New Year’s Eve to be collected. I hope to do some of that! I still hope to exercise more, learn new skills, and visit parts of the United Kingdom in 2018 that I haven’t been before. I usually spend New Year’s Eve in a house party with close family and friends. In a Princely way…we will be partying like it is 2017 as we say hello to 2018! Soon, all across the world, we’ll watch images of the skies lit up with fireworks to ring in 2018 with a bang. There is nothing left for me to do but to wish you a happy and healthy new year.

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On the agenda…Planet Earth

Om Sam Maa Sinchantu Murutah Sam Poosha Sam Brihaspatih –

May the five elements of Air, Water, Fire, Earth and Sky make my body healthy and strong.

Line from a Hindu Mantra.

We rely on the Earth for our own wellbeing, inner peace and life. In the last few months, you may have noticed that there has been devastating damage and loss to human life, property and the Earth by natural disasters exasperated by climate change. If you did not notice this in the news or social media – you must have been on another planet! I have started with this mantra as we said it at a prayer meeting which was a serene and gentle reminder that we are vulnerable mortals.  Just as nature can have a detrimental effect of loss and damage on us – we too must try to show some respect to the Earth. It is not too much for us in return to respect it and take small positive steps to sustain it for future generations and life as we know it. I will discuss some small environmental thoughts and ideas that have been bothering me.

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South East England

It seems that the environmental issues have come to a head recently with this year’s natural disasters.  Sadly, we all know that this is not the end of this type of devastation and all around the Earth… we will continue to have floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, avalanches, Tsunamis, droughts, etc. I will discuss briefly these big local and global issues, and acknowledge that it should not just be on the agenda…but remain a standing item on our consciousness.   I have little power to do much on a grand scale but in terms of raising awareness and acknowledgement of these issues, it is the least I can do.

First to note down, is the issue of plastics pollution. Plastics and tin cans are frequently dumped in my neighbourhood by street-drinkers and passersby.  Littering really aggravates me. I frequently get dirty fingertips from picking up discarded bottles, cans, plastic cups and other litter on my merry walks around town. I normally have to put them in the closest recycling bins that I can find. Plastic take away cups are also dumped near King’s Cross St Pancras as there are not many bins possibly due to security reasons.  I generally have to resist myself from picking up discarded cups left near the station’s Taxi rank.

 

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One solution to plastics pollution is the simple ethos of the three 3Rs – Reduce, Recycle and Reuse. It is better for us to practice these three Rs whether it is on a personal, commercial or larger countrywide infrastructure level.  In my initial research, I soon realized that this is not just a local level but also a global issue.  As a global community, there are already some discussions and work in progress to solve this in a collaborative and forward thinking way. We still have a long way to go on this issue.

Larger white goods and household trash (no fluffy word) are also frequently dumped in my neighbourhood.  Like-minded passionate environmental digital champions such as @Littergram and @CleanupWalthamForest frequently report ‘fly-tipping’ in neighbourhoods to local authorities.  This is a local problem but there are also global questions. I recently looked at a BBC documentary ‘Inside Story: A Week in a Toxic Waste Dump’ by Reggie Yates which mentioned the direct impact of our developed world consumption for white and electronic goods, which eventually leads to Third World toxic graveyards that affect lesser developed countries.  So to be clear…this is not an isolated issue.  There are reactive and circular factors that affect us and our world when it comes to consumption of goods. I visited my nearest recycling waste plant London Energy about five years ago, and it was an eye-opener on recycling, the circular economy and waste management on a large-scale urban city. We still have issues with dumping, litter and flytipping regardless of local authority run initiatives. Education and public information awareness may be the answer to solve these pollution problems, but it also requires behaviour change by citizens (culprits may be a better word).

 

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Somewhere along the way on this Earth, plastics make their way from urban and rural environments to our seas and oceans.  In Plastics waste inputs from land into the Ocean Science Magazine 13 February 2015, reports that ‘80% of marine debris originates from land with 275million metric tons (MT) of plastics waste was generated in 1992 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean’.  This horrendous amount of pollution is predicted to increase in future.

In recent weeks, plastics pollution has also been highlighted by Sir David Attenborough, naturalist and broadcaster, in Blue Planet. I was so pleased to see this conversation ramped up a few octaves and is still ongoing.  Sir Attenborough said that “everyone one of us’ has a responsibility to reduce plastics ending up in the ocean.  It is one world. And it is in our care for the first time in the history of humanity for the first time in 500 million years, one species has the future in the palm of its hands.  I just hope (humanity) realizes that this is the case.”

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Shared by my contacts on Facebook

Another exemplary organization I found in my research is The Ellen McArthur Foundation, which has been raising awareness on the ocean plastics issue and the circular economy.  In ‘Speaker: Recycling alone won’t solve ocean pollution’ Plastic News 25 September 2017, this foundation explains “plastic bottles caps and closures can easily become separated from their bottles and are particularly dangerous for seabirds, who see them floating and mistake them for food…..an estimate 90% of seabirds have plastics in their guts”. Seabirds are not the only species affected by plastics pollution – fishes and marine life may also ingest small plastic debris.  Apparently, Asian countries have the highest levels of plastics pollution. This may also end up in our own ecosystem and human food chain!

A paradigm shift is essential – and there is a warning that “our waste will continue to grow with the increased population and increased per capita consumption associated with economic growth, especially in urban areas and developing African countries”. Some behavioural change is required, and slowly this can change with education, positive attitudes and action. There has already been progress, for example, with the Plastic Bag ban or tariff introduced in some countries, so change can happen.

Five years ago at the London Energy tour, the Public Relations Manager told us that she felt that there was too much packaging in UK supermarkets. I always remember this too.  However, again with small steps, positive change can happen – behaviour and commercial initiatives can change pollution for the better.   For example, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched ‘The New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize’ for rethinking of the design and materials of plastic packaging – with categories in rethinking grocery shopping, redesigning, sachets and reinventing coffee-on-the-go. At their awards ceremony at the ‘Our Oceans’ conference, the commissioner reportedly said “bringing your fish home in a plastic bag one year and bring the plastic bag home in the fish the next is the reality. The rethink design awards show how innovation can inspire redesign, reduction of waste and re-utilization”.

 

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This is only one aspect of the Earth’s vulnerable environment that has captured my attention in recent months.  Climate change has also come to the front of my attention due to Earthquakes in Mexico and India, and hurricanes in the USA and in my beloved Caribbean. I tend to keep an eye on the storms in the Caribbean, but the hurricanes this year has been devastating in American and the Caribbean. The relentless and catastrophic damage to Texas, Barbuda, Puerto Rico and other countries in the region as witnessed on social media in real time was very sad and worrying to see.

 

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In the insurance industry magazine Reactions 2nd October 2017 Grappling with Irma Climate Change Link’, a Research Fellow at the University College London said that “warmer Atlantic sea surface temperatures mean more active hurricane seasons and stronger storms”. After the damage to property, lives, homes and the land caused by Hurricane Harvey, Lloyd’s of London issued a statement calling for greater industry awareness over changing weather patterns.  The statement said: “We know that climate is changing and with it traditional weather patterns.  The costs of natural disasters are on the rise, with direct losses in the past decade estimated at $1.4 Trn US Dollars globally”. There is no doubt about the financial and human cost.

All this damage is harder for smaller Caribbean Islands – there is a call for more disaster planning, a “wake up call”, a marshal plan as penned by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, whose own island was affect with by the hurricane this year. It is best explained on Caribbean Intelligence’s site as “a fresh approach to coping with all Mother Nature has to throw at the archipelago of territories prone to geo-faults and Cross-Atlantic high winds”. No time for wasting, there must be a coordinated approach to helping these beautiful islands in the Caribbean…and also the US states affected by these mighty hurricanes now and in the future.

As I reflect, I have experienced a terrifying Earthquake in Italy in 2009 and a hurricane as a child in Trinidad in the early 1970s.  The earth’s environment and sustainability is a big topic for just me to battle, and perhaps for you alone too. Optimistically, it is the little actions we should aim to take as often as we can to change course. Otherwise there will be dire consequences that inaction would lead to, should we ignore it. There will be even worst results for the environment and humans…if we do nothing. The United Nations is actively working to solve some of these issues and see their #BeatPollution hashtag on social media.

However small we may do to reduce, recycle and reuse with care for our world, it would eventually have a big impact on our lives, wellbeing and future generations for a better livable environment. We currently have a responsibility of leaving the Earth in a better state than when we arrived on it.  This is the universal language that we must try to speak, understand and live by. Earth is the very thing that sustains us. Therefore, it should stay on our agenda.

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Steady Progress – a lifetime of learning

This month I am coming to you LIVE from my homeland of Trinidad and Tobago, the twin islands in the Caribbean.  I don’t visit home very often so I will definitely indulge myself here and share some photos of the country with you.

 

 

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I am here for my 30th School Anniversary Reunion and a holiday.  Therefore, I have been thinking of my schooling and education in general.  I was fortunate to have my nursery school closeby and my first primary school, Esperanza Presbyterian School, only two houses away from my home.  The motto of this primary school is ‘Knowledge is Power’, and still is today. I was an average achieving child and the teaching focus was on Mathematics. It was fun to go home during breaks, lunchtime and even to use our own toilet.  I remember putting on my mother’s lipstick sometimes in breaks, and doing the privileged things you would do if you live two houses away from your primary school.  I quite liked the school and have fab memories of playing in the school yard at weekends and during the holidays with other children in my neighbourhood.

 

 

At the age of seven, I changed schools to attend a private school called Sevilla School for the employees of the now defunct sugar producing company Caroni (1975) Limited. I initially had some difficulty adjusting to the new teaching styles, and a curriculum that was focussed on literacy more so than mathematics. Reading out loud in front of classmates was a dread for me, but my Grade Three teacher, Mrs Lalla, recognized that I needed some extra help.  To assist me with my literacy, she allowed me to take home a book from the school library in the head teacher’s office (Mrs L. L. Mike) to read at home with my mother.  It was not all scary as my forte at that time was in mathematics, learnt at my previous school, and I distinctly remembered getting the equations finished and correct before all my classmates in that grade.  I even received an award, which was the book of the story of Heidi, in my first year in this new school for mathematics at the end of year prize giving ceremony.

The next three years at primary school I eventually caught up in my literacy levels. So much so that I received a prize for ‘Steady Progress’ in my last year, which was a book of Girl Stories which I still have.  My sister on the other hand, had adjusted very quickly to her new school and was very academically inclined.  She won prizes every year in our new school including three prizes one year for Mathematics, Good Citizenship and Perfect Attendance.  There is a Caroni (1975) Limited corporate news article on her in a family album, and I am very proud of her even today.

 

My next school was Holy Faith Convent, Couva – a secondary school for girls that has been one of the top performing schools in Trinidad.  I had seven happy and memorable years growing up and learning at this school.  Recently, our 30th anniversary school reunion was suggested and organized after most of the school mates joined a Facebook Group.  A few hardworking, committed and kind schoolmates volunteered to help plan and organize our reunion with meetings internationally via Skype, What’s App, email etc. I personally want to thank the main organisers for a terrific weekend for re-connecting with our ‘sisters’, as we fondly like to call ourselves.

 

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There are so many wonderful, innocent, brilliant and funny memories we shared at school that it was no surprise that when we all met again after 30 years a couple of weeks ago – we chatted non-stop, and carried on like we haven’t been apart for decades. Some of us have kept in touch over the years, others have fallen off the radar, and three schoolmates sadly have died.  Regardless of time, we share memories and an understanding of a special formative time in our development. Our school song was excellent for transporting us back to those days and reinforcing us with the kind ethos of the school.  Attending an event like this gives you a perspective on where you came from, the journey you made and the road ahead. I was proud to see the girls, now women, and hear about our struggles, the challenges and achievements.  It makes you realise the importance of roots, genuine friends and that basic right…a good education. Learning never really stops.

Thirty years ago our Graduation theme was a ‘Time to Remember’ (my chosen suggestion as it was a song title by Billy Joel).  Our valedictorian then and now is the Honourable Judge Marlene Smith.  Marlene reminded us of her speech and linked it back to us 30 years on to the present with her recital and understanding of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Four Quartets’ – it all seemed to make sense with time. We are very proud of Marlene and she also came from my village in Trinidad.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

…T.S. Eliot

We also had thoughts on the current way of the world, gratitude for and anecdotes on our teachers, the nuns in the school convent, praise and even some heckling for our fellow schoolmates.  There was excellent food, drinks, steel pan band, DJ, photographer, songs by students and teachers, and dancing until 2am. The venue was on the East coast of Trinidad and was great for relaxing as well as seeing each other over two days. It was utter fun and I am so glad I came to Trinidad for the reunion – do watch out as we are planning a school reunion in London and Paris in 2021.

 

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On the Sunday morning after our reunion, one of my schoolmates offered to lead us on a hike in a nearby rain forest near Salybia. It was an offer I could not refuse as I was looking for something exactly like that for my children to experience.  Akeeta Ali, our hike leader, was amazing and clear at giving us instructions from the onset, pointing out risks, tips and the promise of the beautiful Waterfall at the end of the trail. The trail was wild, muddy, wet, humid and you certainly had to watch your step and hold tight at most times – frequently using the roots of ginormous trees to pull you up or their root groves for support.  The sound of the rivers, birds, animals, fishes and the wind were also spectacular.

Like with most things in life – some of the novice hikers went at a slower pace while the more confident and experienced ones went ahead.  Certainly there was teamwork and camaraderie as we formed groups, and it was good to see the novices take the lead at times within the group.  All in all – I loved every moment of it and the experience was worth it for the beautiful waterfall at the end. We then had to make our way back with the whole exercise lasting about three hours. This is a great exercise for team building and I am pleased I had experienced this type of nature exploration as a child growing up in Trinidad.

 

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I am still on holiday in Trinidad and Tobago and there is no place like home!  A place where you have nothing to prove to anyone – you can just be yourself.  I love coming home to Trinidad and Tobago for this reason and it is very nice to spend time with family and friends you haven’t seen for a long time.  The country is also in constant development and it is amazing to see new roads, buildings, shopping malls, foods, musical styles, and reacquaint oneself with the familiar.  It isn’t always a perfect paradise here – there are high levels of crimes for a small island and litter annoys me as much as it does in London – but hopefully this can be changed with some extra pride and public awareness campaigns.

 

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As I literally switch off here, most of the year we are busy with work and our own busy interests – but being on holiday is a dedicated period when we can enjoy going at a slower pace, take it easy and to simply relax. My holiday in Trinidad & Tobago is certainly a time for me to rest, before I get ready, steady and get going again in this wild world.

Magnificent Summer Art: roots to blossoms

The summer days are here and I have been looking forward to June with much anticipation. The reason for this excitement is the biennial E17 Art Trail 2017, which ran this month with a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) theme. In cold January, some of my neighbours and I met in the pub to discuss how were going to participate in the art trail.  After a brainstorming session, we agreed that we would try to begin the process of creating a community garden in a public space that was a little nondescript, and in need of some attention.  Our title art trail submission from this garden was ‘Tree of Life’ which worked with the existing trees already in the green space, and to highlight the environmental benefits of this little oasis on the corner of a residential area and busy high street.

Earth, Wind and Fire

Sun, Rain

Wind, Snow

Hail, Sleet,

Chaos, Calm

Energy, Light

Day, Night

Earth, Sky

Stars, Moon

Out and Open to the Elements

Our Tree of Life.

by Seema.

Fast forward a few months to June and we have now created a community garden with some community funded that was kindly suggested by our local councilor Cllr Saima Mahmoud. We also found out from Cllr Saima that for the long term, we can nominate the space for a council run project call ‘Making Places’. We most certainly will be looking to develop this place further.

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In the last few months, I have relished the art elements of helping to create the garden and sourcing STEAM items, such as solar lights, wind chimes, bird nests, paints and other items to showcase the trees. We also got dirty in the process of tidying and clearing the area one weekend, and planted the garden borders another weekend.  Without a doubt – I loved coordinating and decorating the terracotta pots that were distributed to 20 residents too decorate, and then plant them with an outdoor plant.  It was even more pleasurable to get them delivered to my home one by one – it was a privilege to hold them if only temporary in my own garden before the official launch of the E17 Art Trail on 3rd June.

Bob, a local resident, also came up with a brilliant idea to create cogs with the help of the local wood turners, Nichols Brothers, to the STEAM theme.  The cogs were a hit with the garden visitors, and I frequently saw children playing with them as I went past.  I also liked that it reflected the cycle of the life of a tree.  Since then I have paid attention to many by-products from trees – paper, furniture, buildings etc.  I was even inspired to buy a wooden bracelet from a shop off Walthamstow Market that only sold wooden products.

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We placed STEAM themed poems on one of the trees to add interest to the garden especially as we are officially known as Poet’s Corner E17. We have already showcased poems and stories a few years ago, and coincidently when I was researching this idea, I saw the Royal Botanical Garden in Scotland also had poems on their trees.  John Hudson, a poet with local connections, had one of his poems displayed in their tree…and ours of course! I was also motivated to write some brief poems (some on here, be kind to me!) as they were tweeted during the art trail.

Tree of Life

Give me a…

T – Towering

R – Rejuvenating

E – Energising

E – Elasticity

o – Oxygen

f – Fibrous

L – Living

I – Indigenous

F – Fruitful

E – Evergreen (sometimes)

Tree of Life.

by Seema.

We also wanted to encourage wildlife, and so we sourced two bird nests for one of the trees. I had the pleasure of painting them with my son.  I made a point of tagging on to 1000 Swifts project to raise awareness of Walthamstow Wetlands (one of the largest urban wetlands in Europe), and Swifts as part of the E17 Art Trail. There were literally fabulous artistic Swifts all over Walthamstow that were displayed everywhere locally!  The magic and serendipity was also apparent on social media with RSPB sharing facts and figures about the importance and habits of this extraordinary bird.  Swifts migrate all the way from Africa to Europe each year, and can fly without stopping for days and months.  They became a metaphor to me – the Swifts in flight were like music to my ears…floating and gliding on their merry way, and so I was inspired to include them in the garden.

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We collaborated with another art trail project called the Bird Box Stories (@birdboxstories). There were several artistically decorated Bird Boxes that were distributed around Walthamstow, and in them they contained a notebook and pens for you to continue the collaborative story. You can also draw a little picture if you preferred.  It was a lovely to continue the story written by someone else whilst sitting and taking in the garden view in the sunshine. Some writers used the Bird Box notebook to give us positive feedback on the garden too!

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The garden will continue hopefully in the long term as we are going to nominate it in the borough’s Making Places project as mentioned above. Hopefully it will develop into a proper place for the local community, residents and passer-bys near a busy main street with phenomenal amount of regeneration in the area. We really could not leave this spot neglected for much longer.  In our ‘Welcome Hour’ for the opening weekend of the garden, and frequently during the art trail – we had positive feedback from local residents, businesses, strangers and passer-bys on how some simple low-budget items, and plants had transformed the public green space and made it into a ‘place’.  I saw people reading, chatting, reading poems, admiring the space and generally appreciative of what we as residents and volunteers have completed.  It feels very worthwhile!

In the performance art side, we also held a puppet show ‘Vikings and Valkyries’ by E17 Puppets on the road at our new street gallery. The performance was brilliant, funny, interactive and very engaging for children and adults.  Our main concern was that it did not rain on the beautifully handcrafted puppets.  This area of our neighbourhood was recently pedestrianized and it a much more pleasant area than the rat-run it used to be.

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In the neighbourhood, we certainly had some serious fun with our 6th annual street party with the New York Block party inspired theme.  We had a live funk brass band called ‘The Cracked’, salsa instruction and dancing, serious grooves with our resident DJs and fun activities on one of the hottest summer days of the year. See more photos on our blog here.  Hopefully 40 years in the future…the children will remember these fun times as I remember growing up similarly in Trinidad.

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I also attended a fab concert a St Mary’s Church in the neighbourhood to see Senegalese Kora player, Seckou Keita, who is one of the best Kora players. The instrument is beautiful (partly made out of a Calabash tree fruit) and made mesmerising music. Seckou Keita was great at telling stories whilst playing the Kora and getting us to sing back, such as in a ‘call and respond’ gospel style.

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I was so pleased that I was able to see this concert as part of a new initiative call the St Mary’s Art Collective.  The same church also had displays for the art trail which included fab women in STEM by the artist Emma Scutt, a Caribbean Windrush installation and other pieces by young artists.

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It was funny that week as I went to churches three times for art trailing and social reasons! I also went into Westminster Abbey for a work-related Summer Reception and was impressed with the 1200s era mural, Poets Corner, stained glass windows and other interesting features of the abbey.  It was the first time I went inside the abbey after remembering Prince Andrew’s and Sarah Ferguson’s wedding televised live to Trinidad, as well as other televised state occasions since then.  I also visited St Saviour’s Church in Walthamstow to see Veronique’s, my friend, art trail display.  I even bought one of her pieces and she was raising funds for a local charity she supports called Carefree Kids.

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Special thanks to all the neighbours who helped create the community garden and also for the E17 Art Trail team for giving us the opportunity to create art in a place where we live for the whole community and guests.  There is always something creative going on in my neighbourhood, where I work and sometimes at home. So I may seem relentless on social media, as some of you have mentioned to me.  I can only explain that there is some special energy where I am, or it is just me being me.

If you want to see my neighbourhood’s art heritage, the ‘Be Magnificent’ exhibition on the art school influence of Walthamstow School of Art 1957-1967 is currently on at William Morris Gallery. This really is a motivation place to get your creative sparks, heat and inspiration.  Like our ‘Tree of Life’ small community garden in its’ natural living form, and with future plans for development of the place – the roots are there with hope and aspiration for its’ future, and I have an inkling feeling that out of this small art project, the best is yet to come!

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Put Spring in your step

April is the cruelest month, Breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

The Wasteland.

I, The Burial of the Dead
T.S. Eliot (Poet)

T.S. Eliot obviously had his reasons for writing ‘April is the cruellest month…’ in his Wasteland poem, but it is in a puzzling and ambiguous style to remind us of Spring. In reality, it is one of the most upbeat time of the year to get outdoors in better Spring weather. It is a time when gardens are in need of some tender-loving-care (TLC) after the long and cold winter months, and so do us for our own well-being and happiness. It is exciting and compulsory to get the lawn cut, give the garden borders a new lease of life, renew with new soil, plants and ornamental features.

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I have always liked gardens and gardening. I used to help my parents maintain our garden at home and still like spotting tropical and exotic plants from the Caribbean on my wanders around London and on holiday. There some adorable gardens in the United Kingdom and Kew Gardens is am must if you are looking for garden inspiration, a place to picnic and for relaxing for the whole family.

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In March for the last few years, we have had a head start with gardening in my neighbourhood with a borough wide ‘Spring Clean’ Day. Residents usually register online with the council and are given equipment for cleaning, free compost and plants for public green spaces. The social and health benefits for this scheme is amazing for an urban environment, where residents can engage in their local communities and environment.  The results are that residents take ownership of these green areas and a positive dialogue with the local authority is in place. With this engagement in the community, we have frequent input into consultations and decisions that may affect our neighbourhood. Some residents have adopted some free spaces with gorgeous guerrilla gardening! Residents have so far transformed an alleyway, facilitated outdoor street art and changed our air quality with closure of a rat-run roadway. These little initiatives have enhanced our areas and created pride in our neighbourhood.

I do have herbs, plants, and trees already in my garden and have been a keen urban gardener for about 20 years. Around springtime, I also start planting seeds for my favourite vegetables – such as courgette and herbs. I love planting courgette as it is easy to grow, get crops all throughout the summer, and I have my own supply of courgette flowers! The Italians have been cooking and eating it for years – the flowers are delicious.  I have made so many dishes with courgettes as you may have noticed on social media! …But I am not apologising as this year there was a courgette shortage crisis. So I am very pleased that it is not some sort of silly habit of mine. This spring, I am being more ambitious with planting tomatoes, French beans and more plants.

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I have an apple tree that looks beautiful in spring with blossoms now but later in the year I look forward to making apple crumble, apple pie, tart tatin, chutney or anchar from the apples in the tree. One day, I would like to plant another apple tree too.

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My mother-in-law is an amazing gardener and used to have a very self-sufficient garden. She is a bit older now and doesn’t plant a lot but she used to produce and bottle her own year-round supply of tomato passata from her own garden! Together with her home grown basil – the Italian ragu sauce was even more amazing!

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One social media Springtime success story is the humble bluebell in woods as described by the National Trust. If like me you have seen bluebells shared in Facebook, Twitter and blogs – it is one of the greatest pleasures that you would find for free in Spring. I found out on Twitter that there is a Bluebell woods near me in Wanstead, and went there last year for the photos below. I am hoping to go there again with two friends soon. It is magical to see the ground covered in colour! One request they ask for – is for visitors to stick to the pathways as the plants are adorable but delicate. If you are a professional or amateur photographer, the bluebells in April really is a must to see.

The gardening business and industry are vast with large garden centres, independent businesses and markets too. IBIS world reports that Flowers and Plant Growing have had some recently “growth after some barren years” in the United Kingdom.  At work, we frequently get gardening startups coming into to do research for their business. A few weeks ago, I visited the Columbia Road Flower Market in Tower Hamlets. I have been there several times before, and it is best to go on a Sunday morning about 9am. Parking is restricted but you can get the bus or public transport. The flower and plant stalls are amazing to see with cockney stallholders. The shops along the sides are interesting and quirky – and you can grab a light brunch or lunch. There was definitely a street party feel with buskers outside on that sunny morning when I went recently. It was also Palm Sunday and there was an Easter Procession with a Scottish bagpiper and traditional donkey. A few years ago there were lots of Pearly Kings and Queens for an annual event. What is obviously changed is the large number of tourists that visit the market and you can tell by the various European languages heard.  They like me, were taking lots of photos of the flower market to share.

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There is a cluster of garden centres in Crews Hill, just inside the M25 in Enfield. If you are looking for that hard-to-find plant or garden ornament – do take make a visit but you may need a car for all the plants you buy!

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This Spring, I am keeping busy with our residents and volunteers in my neighbourhood to create a small urban community garden next to a busy high street in time for the launch of the E17 Art Trail with a ‘Tree of Life’ submission. We also have long term plans for this green space and will be working with our fabulous councillors to suggest ideas. We are actively sourcing plants and objects for the STEAM theme for the art trail, and excited for the long term plans to make this a little oasis of calm and beauty on a busy urban high street.

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As ongoing research has shown, the environmental and ecological benefits for gardening is for our own well-being, fitness, mental health and sustainability. The beauty, colours and gifts of flowers, plants and trees are great for us whatever the time of year. They are beautiful and naturally made…sometimes with help from us. April is just the beginning of this happy warmer season in colder northern hemispheres, and let’s remember with appreciation and anticipation that the best is yet to come with Spring and Summer blooms and fruits.

Fashion Conscious

I am not an expert, queen or slave to fashion but like most people, I have a keen interest in fashion throughout the ages. Growing up with lots of women and female cousins around me meant that we would chat, admire and pass on hand-me-downs items of clothing. I think that was such a lovely and memorable part of growing up. Again, I repeat that I come from a little island in the Caribbean but we were still in step with fashion trends. Matriarchs in my family have some fabulous photos of classic late 1950’s and 1960’s fashion, and some of these would look just as on trend today! There are two points that I like about this – the sustainability of sharing unwanted clothes with close ones, and the important creative inspiration that fashion archives are for new creations and innovations.

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It is so easy to find historic fashion on the web in various fashion archives. I follow Europeana on Twitter @Eurofashion, and I’m warning you that they frequently share real treasure designs and photos that will give you fashion flashbacks! The special thing about fashion is that it can still seem very fresh in the right context and setting. I am lucky because as I work at the British Library…and we have access to archived fashion books, magazines (Vogue archive) and even dress patterns.

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I have also met many start-up businesses that are using the current research resources to plan and grow their businesses from designing and selling fashion from childrenswear, women’s plus sizes, womenswear and menswear, lingerie, shoes, handbags etc. The fashion opportunities are endless. I have also blogged about fashion along these same lines here in this link in ‘Fashion has nowhere to go but in Circles’ on the Business & IP Centre’s blog.

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Jumpsuit

Customised and seamstress dressmaking was a great aspect of growing up in 1970’s and 1980’s Trinidad. We had fashion shops, markets and shopping malls but it was still special when we would go with our specific designs to seamstresses for these designs to be made uniquely in the fabric, colour and made-to-measure for ourselves. Before the internet, we would get fashion and design ideas from television, film, music videos and American shopping catalogues too – such as JC Penny. I remember a few seamstresses that used their dressmaking skills as a livelihood and business to support their families. Presently, some of my friends are keen dressmakers at home for their own consumption, and have been creating fashion pieces in their spare time to their preferred tastes, which I think is amazing!

One of my favourite customised outfits I remember, and have a photo of, was my first jumpsuit! I was about 7 years old and my lovely grown up neighbour, Radica, took me with her to San Fernando (a city in Southern Trinidad) to get it made. I remember the cotton denim look and the little red berries pattern on the fabric. I loved it! Jumpsuits were initially a world fashion trend in the 1970s (possibly older). However even then, I remember that it was awkward to go to the lavatory in a jumpsuit. Fast forward to the present – and the jumpsuit is back as seen in these Pinterest curated photos. And I am still trying to perfect the art of using a jumpsuit at parties and festivals.

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Jumpsuit for a boat party – Summer 2016.

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