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.