The Most Exciting Part of Town

When, finally, the bus reaches Old Street roundabout I sigh louder than the pneumatic doors and plod out. Honestly, I despair at my own laziness. It would have been quicker to walk from Soho but I had become mesmerised by the slow passage through the traffic doldrums and so I had stayed put on the double decker
For all of their shiny optimistic brilliance the technophiliac would-be world-changing startups of Old Street have failed to get this basic thing right.
Things that can be disrupted  by Silicon Roundabouters include hotels, pizza delivery, our genetic codes, political debate, civility and social interaction. The thing that cannot be disrupt or even ameliorated: London’s clogged up traffic jams. In fact, the success of the Old Street’s tech startup scene has made it worse.
At the beginning of the mesmerisation I had gazed out of the number 55’s top deck window at the slow death which is Holborn’s perpetually moribund traffic.
Once there wasn’t much reason to travel east from Central London unless you were going to the City for financial dealings or you were heading home. Rare was the traveller going east with a sense of anticipation and excitement. So traffic was lighter.
But now there’s a reason for everyone to head east. It might be the hip bars of Shoreditch or its trendy restaurants. Old School ad agencies want to see what the social media agencies are up to and almost everyone wants to know what the tech startups are doing. Big corporates have read the Innovator’s Dilemma and want to tremble at the seeds of their future demise being sowed in accelerators; The news media want to delight and shock their audience with stories of the latest artificial intelligence or social media absurdity; And story-tellers want to feed the fires of their dystopian nightmares. There is no finer place to do any of this. And consequently the roads are more choked than ever.
I mutter that I should have never ventured so far west (by which I mean Soho). Who would ever have said such a thing ten years ago? Insider knowledge is no help; the traffic cannot be beaten. The sneaky rat runs that used to enable the determined and knowledgable to beat the jams are now accessible to all the Uber drivers who follow their crowd-sourced route-management software. From my top deck vantage point I spy that the back streets around Red Lion Square, for example, are full of Toyota Priuses and Honda Insights. And such cars, as all regular readers and any city dwellers know, comprise the majority of the Uber fleet. Once these roads were the preserve of black cabs whose drivers had learned “the knowledge” the hard way, which is to say they had spent endless days and nights on a 125cc motorbike driving to difficult destinations. But now the minor roads themselves contain Ouroboros-like worms of traffic where each segment is a hybrid electro-petro taxi.
Probably, the quickest way to get home would be to order a Deliveroo and climb into one of those American Fridge-sized backpacks that their cyclists wear and get them to bike along the pavement back to Old Street roundabout.
In any event I stayed true to the bus and have by the start of this article made it back to Shoreditch. Now on terra firma I turn a corner and am caught up immediately in a tour group. Here are more than a dozen people on a street art tour. This is another reason for people to flock to the area. The street art here is world class. Apparently. The pavement is blocked by this group as they pause to take and compare photographs of a stick man painted on a wall next to a cafe. Around the corner is painted the face of a laughing ape with savage fangs.
Such groups as these are not the only ones in this part of town. Other tour groups are more interested in what goes on behind the walls. These are the tours that visit the accelerators,  co-working offices and the more famous startups. These are full of investors and multinationals who are brought on tours by venture capital funds, by the London mayor’s inward investment agencies and even local government officers explaining to administrators from other cities how to create an exciting startup scene.
I take a sharp exit from the human traffic into a cafe. I flip open the laptop and it connects automatically to the wifi, the barista brings a perfect flat white, I start writing and shortly afterwards a message pings. A friend from an old startup is working on something new and wants to exchange ideas. They’re only five minutes walk away so they head over. And like that, all of a sudden, I remember why, damn the traffic,  this is the most exciting place to be in London.

Love in the loos

I’m not saying I’m a world authority on matters of the heart but I have been around a bit. And one thing I’m pretty certain about is that if a sad-faced, doe-eyed millennial asked me where to find love I wouldn’t suggest the loos in a Hackney pub. 

But the world is full of surprises.  

And not long ago, after doing the necessary, I pushed open the door of the gents intending to sway back to the table where the hot topic was, as it often is, the rise of the robots and the end of humans etc.  etc. when something caught my eye. It was a poster that said something like “Are you single and have you had enough of technology and dating apps and do you like pubs, if so sign up!”. 

This it turns out was not the only loo door that had been, in startup patois, “hacked” in this way.

Similar marketing devices to this non-interactive retro-poster had been blue-tacked to the toilet doors of several carefully selected pubs in the Shoreditch ‘hood. The idea behind the poster is to identify and corral those people who might actually want to meet up and flirt with each other face-to-face rather than Tinderize each-others photoshopped online dating avatars.

Those who sign up are contacted by a company called (appropriately) Anti-Date and summoned to a nice pub and then…well, nothing, they are simply left to their own devices. No pokes. No likes. No emojis. No crowd-sourced chat up lines.

I am conflicted about this back-to-the-future innovation. First of all, I take a certain pride in living in the thick of *where-it’s-at* from a techno-startup point of view. I like to think that if it’s new and shiny and sleek and replete with technology and innovation then this is where it’s happening. Old-fashioned posters are for, I don’t know, Cornwall or the Isle of Man or some other part of the country without Oyster cards and Boris Bikes. Here everything is data-powered and overseeing it all are the omniscient descendants of HAL and R2D2. And yet in the middle of all this artificial intelligence and technological disruption is an approach to dating which rejects algorithmic superiority. It’s a cheer for messy human intuition and suck-it-and-see approaches to life and love. It’s a slap in the face for the behavioural economists, nudge-psychologists and data-munching algorithm-inventors who claim to know more about us than we do ourselves. It is, I venture, bad for the Tech Startup brand.

At the same time, we all know that we can have – and do have – too much technology and data in our lives. This is true even when the advice about interests, travel, love and diet is correct. I recall a big retailer getting in trouble a few years ago because it could tell from purchasing decisions that a young woman was in the first trimester of pregnancy and it sent some congratulatory direct mail to the household. The local manager then got beaten up by the young woman’s father who had yet to be told the news and didn’t believe it. 

There are some who will tell you that this is a perfect example of the sort of over-powering intelligence and insight we should be celebrating and encouraging in magic roundaboutland. Others will see a different moral in the tale. 

There’s something attractive in the old-fashioned idea of finding out about people by speaking to them rather than calling up their Top Trumps-style dating avatar and seeing if it matches your wish list. In any event we are hopeless at knowing what we want. The data-matching algorithms at and elsewhere already know that successful matches often come when they create a collision between two people whose details are not what they expressed an interest in. So amid a sea of 6’4” blonde haired olympic rowers generated by the MUST HAVE requirements that a dater might have specified  the computer will insert a Woody Allen type.  The trouble is 99/100 the would be dater says “no” despite the best interests of the algorithmic matchmaker. The poster on the pub door fixes this.

It may also be important to the survival of the human race. If, let’s say, the electro- magnetic pulse of a solar burst frazzles the national grid and the Internet then it may not mean the end of the species because there will be some people in a pub in Shoreditch who have learned to do dating without devices.


Two years on The Magic Roundabout

Day to day you never notice the cracks forming. The wrinkles never appear with a ta-da! But over the years the changes are obvious. This column began reporting from the front lines of the ugliest gyratory in the world two years ago.  The incremental evolution of the area is hard to recognise. But over 24 months the transformation is clear.  Here’s what’s going up and what’s on the way down. 

Accidental Car-jacking ↑ – The Toyota Prius was a relative rarity when it came out. Film stars drove the electro-petrol hybrid to signal their eco-friendly credentials and soon enough cool urban greenies aped them. But still you didn’t see many  in Old Street. 

Until Uber. And now they choke the streets because Uber drivers love the fuel efficiency. So closely associated is Uber and the Prius that civilian Prius drivers barely raise an eyebrow when, as they stop at traffic lights, pedestrians open the door and wordlessly slip into the back seat to fiddle with their smartphone and rate the driver. Millions have now travelled the roads of London in a Prius without ever knowing what it is like to actually drive one. Previously, this was only true of planes, trains, buses and tellingly, London cabs.

Sacks of coffee beans and buckets of skin ink ↑ – The coffee business continues to defy economics. There are now even more coffee shops than there were when it was already unbelievable. The reason that Shoreditch coffee consumption has abandoned economic theory can only be that it has become a quantum physics experiment. To consume all the flat whites and cortados  being frothed at any one instant requires that drinkers must be both in one coffee shop and in another at the same time. The same demand-and-supply weirdness also levitates the tattoo business. Tattoos are a Marmite affair. Those that like them love them and have inked all their available dermal real estate. Those that don’t are ink-free. But all the fields that can be ploughed have been ploughed; The supply of tattooable skin is afinite and it is exhausted. Nevertheless, tattoo parlours continue to flourish. In the quantum mechanical style of Marie Antoinette this can only be explained because those who want tattoos are both keeping their skin un-inked and having it inked contemporaneously.

Wires ↓ – We are barely at the beginning of this trend. Apple has declared the end of tangled headphone cables. If one part of town is going to embrace the wireless earbud and embrace the life of Theodore, the protaganist in the movie Her, it is Shoreditch. Alas, the  sheer volume of discarded headphones in the litter bins of Old Street will shortly become an infinite overflow that transforms the pavements into a mangrove swamp of knotty dirty white wires. 

Moving the meat sacks ↑  – On the roof of the White Collar Factory, the new  building that dominates the south west corner of the magic roundabout is a running track. A few hundred meters south is the Alphabeta building whose key feature is a cycle ramp. As the haptics on your new Apple Watch tell you hourly, while we are not yet cyborgs we must move our flesh and blood bodies to be in good shape for the next startup. Moving the old meat sack around a rooftop running track, a yoga mat or bicycle path has become all the rage. Obstacle course races such as Spartan runs and Tough Mudder have become commonplace. And now we have Pokemon Go which, in Old Street like elsewhere, allows pre-corpses to run around the streets while still really focusing not on their bodies but on their beloved smartphones. 

Unfeasibly large back packs ↑ – Deliveroo, Jinn, Uber Eats and Amazon Restaurants are in a bitter battle to deliver restaurant food to your East London office or crash pad in under 30 minutes. At night, the little road space unoccupied by Priuses is claimed by delivery cyclists with grotesquely huge thermal-control food boxes strapped to their backs. 

Restaurant dining areas sq ft ↓; Restaurant kitchen sq feet ↑  – see above

Carefree walking ↓ – Walking along pavements used to be such a simple task that you could simultaneously turn your mind to idle contemplation. But over the last two years walking has come to command your full attention. Especially at rush hour. As you approach Old Street roundabout the underground station disgorges hordes whose lives have been temporarily made horrible through the loss of internet connectivity. As they surface from the depths their smartphones are cluster-bombed with rolled-up notifications and they lose their sense of self, their sense of space and their sense of direction. And yet their legs keep walking. Consequently navigating the streets at this time is like playing level 20 in the Asteroids arcade game. For carefree walking try doing some laps on a rooftop running track.


The hell of neighbours who sing

Through the pillow over my head I can hear show tunes. I have a neighbour with a terrific seat of lungs. She should be a start up founder.  

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance” said Steve Jobs. 

The “most important quality in startup founders”, wrote Paul Graham, the founder of the most hallowed Silicon Valley start-up accelerator, is “determination”. 

But sometimes you really should just stop. If I ever meet my anonymous tormentor I will harmonise to her that some projects are doomed to failure and no amount of bloody-mindedness will win the day. Today she has started early. Outside, the birds suspend their chorus and wait. Their time will come but I don’t have their patience. I need a coffee and scramble to get dressed; A trusted barista is only minutes away. 

Mercifully, when I get outside the singing has stopped. The birds strike a tune and I hit my stride.  Immediately I cut through an alley behind Jamie Oliver’s flagship “15” restaurant where trainee chefs are puffing on cigarettes and bemoaning fondues, or customers, or the inadequacy of vaping. The restaurant is within a year of its 15th anniversary. It was one of the first, if not the first fancy restaurant to open in the neighbourhood’s current golden age. 

 A few paces further  and I find, across from the restaurant is a well-behaved demonstration. Squatters have inhabited one of the gazillion newly-built work-live buildings to protest against the shortage of affordable living space in the area. Coincidentally (or not) they have installed themselves in the premises  of a company called Camelot which inserts tenants into empty buildings to prevent squatters.  In keeping with the neighbourhood’s creative impulse Camelot has retro-invited the squatters to use the space for an art installation. I can tell you all of this, even though I walked past in seconds, because the windows are plastered with slogans and messages. It is skilfully done and I wonder whether they have read Guy Kawasaki’s The Art of The Start in which he gives very specific advice on the number of slides a startup founder should use when pitching to the money men. His was the first book I read which went into such detail. There is a correct point size to use in your slide deck (20pt) and there is every other size which is certain failure. There is an order by which you should make your arguments. Anything else will reveal you are an unserious amateur who deserves the ignominy heading your way. 

The main sheet hanging on the largest window articulates the squatters arguments in terms which are easy to understand and are written in a hand-painted equivalent to 20pt which is easy to read for the passing pedestrian (or the traffic-jammed Uber driver).  The “call-to-action” isn’t clear to me but maybe I am not their target audience. I am, in any event, not paying attention because the absence of show tunes in the air is sending me into raptures.

I cross City Road opposite Moorfields Eye Hospital. Between here and Old Street tube station a green line on the pavement aids the partially sighted to navigate. You learn after a while that,  just like trams on rails, the human traffic on the green line doesn’t budge or slow down and you could be mown down while browsing your notifications. That said, there are patches where the paint has been worn away and at such points anything could happen.  

The coffee is close and I yomp on past The Alexandra Trust Dining Rooms built in 1898 by Sir Thomas Lipton (of tea fame). Here the workers of the early 20th Century ate together and caught up on Facebook-type updates. The Dining Rooms are now home to a Peruvian restaurant where workers sit together and silently bathe in the glow of their smartphones. Four minutes have passed since I left home and I have passed three coffee shops including the excellent Westland Coffee (whose tables were all occupied) but I am nearly there. 

 Behind the dining rooms is yet another significant development where media and internet companies are putting down roots. It includes the headquarters of FarFetch, a luxury clothes app, which is one of London’s $1bn+ valuation startups. The squatters should get my neighbour to sing outside the offices. It might do something to property prices. That would be what the call to action should have said. 

Nearly there. I pass the steamed-up windows of a wintery Starbucks and am now at Old Street Roundabout.  I duck inside one of the artisanal coffee shops (that is secretly a chain) and say the first words of the morning, “Flat White” and prepare for another day in Magic Roundaboutland.


The Angelic Yogi

I stifled a scream; Gulped down a sob.

“What have I done to deserve this…this incredible PAIN?” I appealed to the heavens.

“I think you know the answer to that question very well”, said the torturer.

“But this is unendurable!”

“We’ve only just started”,  she laughed.

Above me the sky was blue and bright green leaves jittered in the breeze. Nature has no mercy. It can be beautiful and inspiring amidst even the vilest agony.

“Now try to relax the muscles of the face”, she said. “And breathe”

“But I have a deadline.”

The parallel invasion of Old Street by the two tribes of startups and yoga is  a Manichean battle of opposing world views. It’s a binary tussle, to speak in a language more familiar to tech startups. 

On the one side are the startuppers who believe in working like dogs and sacrificing their today to build a better future either for the world or at least themselves. The Summer sun may shine in Shoreditch’s parks and outdoor cafes but the world can only be changed at your desk, away from the reflections, distractions and poor wifi of the outside world. Besides, the sun will shine again next year and by then your startup will have made it.

On the other side are the yogis who believe that the only thing that matters is the present and worrying about the past or the future brings only cravings and suffering. All you have is now. 

During the Summer I had noticed yoga classes taking place in the various green spaces in Shoreditch. Human nature being what it is,  I noticed this not when I was perambulating with time on my hands  but when I was power walking to a meeting whose start time was imminent. The disconnect between the stress of my adrelanalin-fuelled, Olympian-quality striding and, on the other side of the fence, these lazy good-for-nothings lying on their yoga mats gurning at the mackerel sky felt ever more unfair. One tribe was getting life all wrong. The question was who: the hard-working start-uppers or the lazy free-loading yogis? I approached this matter with an open mind.

One morning, after briskly sinking a couple of turbo coffees from an artisanal coffee shop (whose side are they on – the startuppers or the yogis?) I marched to a park to investigate the question.  In fact I booked a private class with someone whose yoga business (or “non-business”)  went by the name of Angelik Yoga, a name I was hopeful ought to bring bliss or at least hold some sympathy for my laptop-wrecked posture. 

We met in a small park at the top of Pitfield Street and as I lay on a mat and stared up at the branches of the birches and elms all seemed fine in the environ of Silicon Roundabout. After ten minutes or so of gazing at the sky, breathing and simply just “being”  I felt pretty good and only a little anxious at the self-indulgent frittering away of time.  Maybe yoga has something to recommend it after all…

The Angelik Yogi coughed. “You’re snoring”,  she said. “Shall we start?”

I won’t go into detail. It’s enough to know that decades spent hunched  over a keyboard and many years leaning into a smart phone have not been kind. This was the merciless Spanish inquisition of physical therapy. And despite every injunction and straining every sinew I could not relax the muscles of my face. Besides I had work to do.

And this it seemed was the problem. How can you reconcile the priority of living in the moment with living in the future as every startup necessarily does. One culture has to assume priority.  As I headed off to a co-working space I did feel taller and lighter, not to mention smug,  but I also felt a little relieved to be slipping back into work mode.

Back in the office, pods of desks summoned workers whose various companies attacked the future with ravenous appetite.  It was beyond evident that these people have no time for gazing at clouds… except that here and there yoga mats poked out of bags or nestled next to coat racks. I went fact-finding.

“Do you believe in now or the future?” I asked and learned two things: 

The first is that people ask the same question on Tinder. 

The second is that the answer is frequently “both”.  The worker yoginis  earnestly do their now-based yoga at the crack of dawn before switching their electric fluoro yoga pants for work clothes and flying to the office. At some point between the mat and the desk they switch heads and transition their emotional orientation from today to tomorrow. One brings peace and one brings purpose.  The relationship between the two is empowering and symbiotic.  Old Street never seems like  place of balance, so intense is the ambition of its denizens, but it may, in fact, be its secret.


The co-working churchyard

The liquidator paused by a fountain and then suddenly glanced upwards, as if to look at some astonishing birds in a nearby tree. Even as I followed his gaze I noticed, from the corner of my eye, how he lightly brushed the edge of the fountain with his hand and silently muttered a short prayer.

“What was that about?” I asked. “Oh. You saw, did you?” he said. “It’s just nothing. Well, it’s a thing I do. If I think a situation’s going to be a bit, say, tricky, I come here. It’s a lucky fountain. So what I’m saying is, I think we might need some luck.”

This took place in the churchyard behind St Luke’s, a few minutes’ walk from Old Street roundabout. What seems like many lifetimes ago, at the dawn of the World Wide Web, my first business had hit the buffers and the liquidator had suggested we go for a little stroll before the creditors’ meeting began. We ended up here by chance, I had thought, until this inauspicious moment.

The scene came back to me the other day as I took a short cut through the churchyard to one of my favourite working coffee shops. It being one of this summer’s rare sunny days I paused on a bench in the dappled shade of the trees. The fountain is no longer there. Perhaps some of the excessive demands on its magic had worn it out so that now, surplus to requirements, it had been replaced.

While the fountain may have had nothing left to offer, the same could not be said for the benches. These were jam-packed. In addition to the dog walkers, itinerants and flaneurs, there were many who were instantly recognisable as members of the startup community. They brought an intensity to the park. Here and there were programmers sporting furrowed brows and noise-cancelling headphones while they tapped on their laptops. Elsewhere, huddles of two or three founders (or disaffected early staff hires) agonised over strategy, investment terms or share options.

The explanation for all these interlopers became clear after I heaved myself upright and walked the few hundred meters to the bicycle-workshop-café. It is spacious, well lit, full of flat surfaces, and the coffee is good. Consequently, it’s so replete with students and workers that laptops are banned on certain tables so that at least one or two patrons can pursue the noble tradition of not being online.

But for three weeks every summer the population gets upended because the tribe that normally visits only at the weekend arrives during the working day. This is called The Tour de France Effect. Tricolour bunting and the yellow, green, white and polka-dot shirts of the tour swathe the coffee shop. A big screen dominates one wall and excited TV commentary cranks up the adrenalin as much as the coffee. On the day of a mountain stage it is standing room only.

Which is why the nearby churchyard was full.

Another factor exacerbated the effect. Over the same period the building housing Runway East, one of the best co-working spaces in the area, was found to have a structural fault that needed urgent fixing. All the companies in the building suddenly became nomadic while urgent works were carried out over several days. They struck out for cafés, hotel lobbies, shared workspaces and the churchyard.

As summer passed, the park reset itself and reset its equilibrium. As for the fountain, it has been replaced by a giant stone circle, which has been engraved with the words ‘Cyan Yellow Magenta Black’. These are the colours famously used in printing, but what relevance did they have to a churchyard?

The answer, I think, is to be found in front of the church, where a solitary tomb contains the remains of William Caslon. Born in the 17th century, Caslon had an enormous impact on printing and thus, in some measure, on the world. He created a series of fonts that are used to this day and you will have some of them already installed on your laptop. Such was his influence that when his metal types were shipped to America in the 1700s they became oxidised by seawater and it is this that accounts for early US printing’s ‘decayed’ look.

The persistence of Caslon’s work offers a different perspective to the speed of digital startup life. Yes, he came from a different time, one of sea travel and fewer liquidators, but despite – or perhaps because of – this, as a replacement for the lucky fountain, Caslon in the park is an excellent departure point for some quiet reflection.

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