CowCoop co-workers meet in Global Cafe

As I write, a pair of freelancing individuals are working, tweeting, demonstrating and exchanging ideas from Reading’s Global Cafe. They call themselves “co-workers” and the organisers of this minor movement are CowCoop (#cowcoop).

Co-working is not a clearly defined concept. But from what I can gather, it refers to microbusiness or independent workers gathering in a public location such as a coffee shop to work and share knowledge. These workers, being free, roam from workspace to workspace like cows (and there you have “CowCoop”, a name also derived from co-working).

The benefits appear to be the environment itself (low-cost and comfortable); the coffee, probably better than the stuff served in most conventional workplaces; and the potential for new idea generation and innovation arising from different people interacting with one another.

I can see how something like this, given enough publicity, could take off. Britain is changing: the number of people in one or two-person companies shot up from 140,000 in 2005 to about 400,000 today (according to Experian). Many of these micro-company workers are armed with toys such as iPhones and iPads, making remote working an attractive possibility.

Today’s small herd in the Global Cafe seem optimistic enough. They have just told me via Twitter that their first CowCoop session is “going well”. Cow-abunga!

The Monk’s Retreat

Wetherspoons.

That word provokes instant thoughts doesnt it? Teenagers. WKD. Aggressive young men with pierced ears and VD.

Or perhaps its other incarnation comes to mind the day time version of Wetherspoons, full of the retired ale-drinking gentlemen of advanced years, reading The Sun and flirting with the barmaid.

I have to say I prefer the latter. Hopefully that doesnt prematurely place me in the same social sphere as these people. Actually, to be fair, they seem happy enough. What better way to spend your day than sat in a pub drinking modestly priced bitter and studying the form for the 2.40 at Kempton Park?

Most Wetherspoons around the country are fashioned out of old theatres, or disused civic halls, or in one Northern case close to my heart, an old Turkish baths, but Reading has defied this trend and the three town centre spoons are all non-descript, low ceilingd places with nicotine stained walls and sticky wooden tables.

It was 2pm on a Tuesday and the most central of Readings Wetherspoons, the Monks Retreat in Friar Street, was absolutely rammed. We managed to find a table, right at the back, up the stairs below the swinging monk, dangling precariously above our heads like a 12th century fathers4justice campaigner, and parked ourselves at the only table available.

I was with two female companions and, other than the barmaid quietly going about her business, they were the only two girls in the whole place.

The service was swift and friendly. I had a pint of Black Adder, which is a light stout, more drinkable than I expected and thinner than a Guinness or a Murphys. A nice compromise when one is unable to decide between a pint of the black stuff or something more traditional. The sauvignon blanc which my friends were drinking was smooth and fruity, and more than worth its modest price.

Foodwise, this is where Wetherspoons can also justifiably claim value for money. My fish and chips was 2.99, cheaper than a McDonalds, and much more fulfilling. It even came with a free cup of tea (which I shunned in favour of my Black Adder), and I feel it would be remiss of me to complain about the hardness of the peas when the fish was covered in such delightfully crispy batter and the chips were so fresh that I had to wait for them to cool down before I could begin eating them.

The girls enjoyed a cheese and tomato quiche and a steak and ale pudding with deliciously salty gravy (I dipped the odd chip) and had very little complaints at all.

Yes Reading has great independent restaurants and a good selection of national chains serving pretty much anything you could imagine. And I appreciate that Wetherspoons hardly needs any publicity on a website such as this, but you know what? Them 2.99 fish and chips were the dogs.

What are Reading councillors tweeting about?

In a recent post, I revealed that roughly a quarter of Reading councillors maintain a blog and just under one-third are on Twitter.

Following this entry, I created a Twitter list of Reading councillors atReadingRoars/reading-councillors (it seemed like a natural next step).

Now I’ve gone a little further. For fun, I’ve created a “word cloud” of Reading councillor tweets, as shown in the image below (not interactive, unfortunately). This is generated from tweets posted over the past 24 hours (there haven’t been that many).

So what do you think?

Reading councillor word cloud

This is how I did it:

  1. Created a Twitter List of Reading councillor Twitter accounts;
  2. Submitted the list to Twitter Lists 2 RSS for converting into RSS;
  3. Added the RSS feed to Wordle. The font I selected was “Kenyan Coffee”, in homage to Workhouse Coffee’s Kenyan coffee tasting Sunday.

We can all consign clone town tag to history

In her post Celebrating the Hidden Histories of Reading…in Knitting!, Felix mentioned a new report by nef in which Reading is labelled, somewhat undesirably, a “clone town”.

On a 0-100 scale, from clone town (0) to home town (100), Reading shares second place with Exeter, notching a score of 15.4. Perhaps surprisingly, Cambridge, a hit with international visitors, tops the list. Seaside town Whitstable sits at the opposite end of the spectrum.

I’ve not read the full report (yet), but Reading’s low score doesn’t surprise me. Without naming names, there are indeed many chain stores in the town centre.

However, if the visitor looks harder they will find nuggets of independence. They will see heart, soul and rugged gutsiness.

It’s of course regrettable that the likes of County Deli (delightful) and Sushi one0eight (fearless) are no longer with us, but we should not feel disheartened about the situation overall. It’s encouraging to see Picnic continuing to thrive against strong competition. Workhouse Coffee, also resilient, boldly opened a store – its second – bang opposite Starbucks (take that, clone town!).

Mavericks like Greg Costello of Workhouse and Sushi’s Chris Allen have shown that it’s possible to set up shop in the town centre and shake things up a little. That’s impressive. Having met both individuals I can attest that they are normal, down-to-earth chaps without extraordinary backgrounds. They just decided to have a go.

It’s therefore a game that anyone with a vision and tenacity can play (comment if you think otherwise).

Ultimately, my feeling is thus: if Reading is by and large a “clone town”, it’s because we all allow it to be that way. Rather than apportion all blame on local policymakers or attack big business, let’s make change happen ourselves – and restore balance. Let’s create something new and let’s start today. That, or we might find ourselves dominating the “clone town” rankings ahead of Cambridge in future reports.

10 people from Reading who made Britain what it is today

Ricky Gervais
Ricky Gervais

Tom Meltzer this week asked in The Guardian “Who made Britain what it is today?” (inspired by a new children’s book by US President Barack Obama). Tom proceeded to list 13 Britons who have helped shape Britain.

Looking at his list, I can identity four names with a Reading connection: Jane Austen, who studied at Abbey School; Charles Dickens, who became president of the Reading Athenaeum, according to Wikipedia; Queen Victoria, whose statue stands by Reading Station; and Stephen Fry, who played Oscar Wilde in the film Wilde.

But who born in Reading played a role in changing our country? For fun, here are 10 suggestions:

  • Daniel Blagrave, a signatory of King Charles I’ death warrant. A republic (short-lived) was then declared, the Commonwealth of England.
  • Richard Burns, rally driver who became World Rally Champion (in 2001). Demonstrated courage on and off the circuit.
  • Ricky Gervais, comic. Ricky (with Stephen Merchant) gave the world The Office and changed television comedy.
  • Harold Hopkins, physicist who invented the zoom lens and the modern endoscope used in keyhole surgery today.
  • Joseph Huntley, whose biscuit tin innovation led to biscuit empire Huntley & Palmers.
  • Cormac Murphy O’Conner, former archbishop of Westminster. He recently welcomed the Pope to Britain.
  • Sir John Soane, architect to the Bank of England (he designed the famous entrance facade that City workers walk past everyday).
  • Chris Tarrant, a popular TV and radio personality over the years. Who Wants To Be a Millionaire is an international success story.
  • Sir Thomas White, founder of St John’s College, Oxford. Notable alumni include history makers Tony Blair, Philip Larkin, Rhodri Morgan and Kingsley Amis.
  • Kate Winslet, actress. The “little girl from Reading” (in her words) has risen to the top of her game and continues to inspire many young actors.
Who would you have in a list of 10 great Redingensians?

Celebrating the Hidden Histories of Reading…in Knitting!

Johnny Arrow talked in the last post about the hidden histories of Reading, and the way that distinctive, regional stories and buildings nestle behind the ubiquitous chain-stores that characterise what the nef report has dubbed ‘Britain’s Clone Towns.’

Unfortunately the link to the free PDF file for the report ‘Reimagining the high street‘ doesn’t appear to be working, but one thing that seems fairly straightforward to comprehend, is that patronising local, Independent stores in our town will mean that those businesses tucked between coffee-chains, stationery giants and bargaineous High Street retail outlets will survive, so that we can continue to appreciate them in the under-celebrated, not-so-touristy manner that Johnny Arrow describes.

Which is why I was so excited to see this, whilst standing outside Jackson’s of Reading, waiting for the no. 17 bus.

Jacksons knitted cake, created by the Outcasts
Jackson's knitted cake, created by the Outcasts

You won’t see this in any other town in Britain!

One of Reading’s best-kept secrets in my opinion is Jackson’s of Reading. From the still operating change-chute at the front desk to the wall-to-wall wood panelling, it retains a charming, understated splendour, and a timeless range of products that remains relevant, for who does not need pins, umbrellas, handkerchiefs and a sensible pair of gloves for Winter? The gentle hubbub of staff chatting to each other can be heard as one drifts from room to room surveying the fine ties in the menswear section of the store, or the treasuretrove that is its needlework department. There is no music blasting from speakers to distract you, and the warm smell of the good wood that lines its walls is a great comfort when one steps in off the street. Civilised, regional, distinctive, it holds the rare distinction of being run by descendants of its original founder, and there is no place quite like it in the whole world. This year, Jacksons is celebrating its 135th Anniversary and one of several local knitting groups – the Outcasts of Reading – have partnered up with them to produce this stunning window display featuring a knitted birthday cake.

I interviewed Suzanne Stallard – one of the talents behind the project:

1. There is a big knitted cake in the window of Jackson’s! It has many candles on it… why is it there?

We were asked to work in partnership as part of Heritage Open Days weekend event. The Outcasts are based at Jelly and are quite adventurous knitters, and we thought it would be great to partner up with Jackson’s which is Reading’s oldest family run department store. When we heard we could work wherever we liked too, we knew it had to be haberdashery. We have an affinity with cake, it is important to us, everyone needs a good birthday cake and Jacksons were very deserving at having reached such a significant birthday. The target was 135 candles, one for each year but we doubled the number created so it can be used for many years to come.

many, many candles
many, many candles

2. There is also a banner in the window display which says OUTCASTS; who are the outcasts and where can I read more about them?

The Outcasts are a bunch of renegade knitters based in Reading. We are a mixture of all ages from 12 to 84 and have met up every Wednesday evening since 2003 for knitting, tea & cake. We are an active group taking part in many local public knitting events. More info on the outcasts can be found here http://theoutcasts.co.uk

3. I also noticed a sign that said ‘come inside and knit a candle’ can I really do that and if so, how does it work? Who do I speak to in the shop?

We were running a series of 4 workshops in the store where you could come and make a cake but they ended on Saturday however you can still knit your own birthday candle by visiting the outcasts website or http://alabamawhirly.com – who is the pattern designer – and download a free pattern. There are some printed patterns available in Jacksons if you want to pop in and ask the ladies in the wool department.

4. How can people get involved in future knitting events like this?

You can join the outcasts mailing list by signing up here http://theoutcasts.co.uk/do-you-want-to-speak-to-us/ or sending us an email to info@theoutcasts.co.uk

5. How long will the amazing cake be there?

It will be there for one week, as you know it is wrong to over indulge in cake-goodness but it will be stored and may make surprise appearances again

6. What does Jackson’s of Reading mean to you?

Jacksons is a store of surprises, it has the most obscure items alongside style icons – yes, believe it they have a comprehensive range to suit everyone. It is a part of my Reading history, where my school uniform came from, where I thought only older people went but now it means a store of secret stairways, interesting items, shoppers bargains and surprising art events. We should all be using it to make sure we keep it for the future and don’t forget they have the only working pneumatic payment system left in the UK, that’s a good reason to spend your shiny gold there.

shiny crocheted gold and Jacksons shopping bag
shiny crocheted gold and Jackson's shopping bag

Hidden Histories

Matt wrote at the end of last month asking how Reading should rebrand itself and appeal to the wider world in a more exciting way, and attempt to ditch the clone town image with which it is sometimes tagged.

I think even the most devoted defender of our town can admit that this description is at least partially deserved, you just have to look at the shop fronts of Broad and Queen Victoria Streets to see them as either identikit national brands, or miserable, uncared-for bargain basement eyesores. But look up the unmistakeable red and gold brick first and second floors, with their pointy turrets and carved fascias point towards a more important and interesting history than at first there would appear.

The Abbey was one of the most important monasteries in Middle Age Britain before its power was seized by good old Henry VIII, and now it sits in quiet humility hidden between the beautiful Forbury Gardens and the Prison yet another historically important landmark, having housed Oscar Wilde who wrote his Ballad of Reading Gaol after being contained there.

There are also plenty of stories of war, such as the important battle between the Saxons and the Vikings which was fought where the rivers Kennet and Thames meet, over near where the gasworks now stand to the East of the town. And the battle of Broad Street which was the only military encounter during the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Im not going to go on Im not a local history expert and Im not attempting to educate anyone here.

Besides, you probably know all this if youre a Reading resident and if youve taken an interest in your town, but one thing Ive noticed since living here is that none of this history is cashed in on, or shouted about. People dont generally come to Reading to see these things because theyre not told about them. And personally, I like it that way.

Look at towns like Oxford, whose streets are swarming with tourists and tour guides, whose local shops have been replaced with gift shops and novelties. Who trade on their past and their traditions. Whose whole image is defined by its admittedly impressive forefathers.

I much prefer the fact that I can wander through Forbury Gardens and under the Gatehouse. Down to the Holy Brook created by monks by diverting the Kennet towards their Abbeys walls so that it would power their mill and quietly contemplate the fate of Oscar Wilde, housed behind the red brick wall of the Gaol. All this without being jostled and bothered by map reading tourists and bored kids trailing their anorakd parents.

Readings history keeps a dignified silence, there for those who care enough to find it. Thats the fate it deserves.