Barefoot Colleges

In spite of the fact that we risk information fatigue as we are overloaded with data from the web and other media, I can’t help noticing that sometimes something I see among the hundreds of pages and pictures and clips that I view every week “sticks” and begins to embed itself on another level. This TED talk from Bunker Roy is one such sticky thing. It fed my soul, reawakened something, pulled some threads together. I’ll let it speak for itself for this is one of the most inspiring and heartening things I have seen for a long time:


Creative Entrepreneur of the Month: Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps

Confucius say, “Make a living from what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” and although this sounds lovely and has become something of a mantra for our times, anyone who has succeeded in making a living from something they love will be able to tell you there is a lot of hard work involved.

One of the effects of the instability of our economic system seems to have been to loosen the concept of career and employment as many people seek to meet their circumstances creatively, develop alternative streams of income, and question why they do what they do and how much it matters anyway. There is a new breed of creative entrepreneurs who have stopped waiting for someone to employ them and given themselves a job instead. They have said, “The future is so uncertain I might as well take things into my own hands and do something I love instead of waiting for the next round of redundancies.”

These are really exciting times and, once a month, over the next year, I will be profiling some of the creative entrepreneurs who have inspired me and continue to offer the companionable reassurance that we are not alone on the hard road to doing what we love for a living.

I have had the pleasure of working with Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps (she provides the artwork for Stories from the Borders of Sleep) and being part of her journey over the last year. She kindly agreed to be my first interviewee for the Creative Entrepreneur of the Month series.

Robyn is a mathematics graduate from Durham who got in the habit of sidestepping the geek label by telling people that she wanted to be a florist one day. She is married to Phil and exercised by a mischievous but adorable spaniel called Samuel. In April 2011, Robyn left her full time job at the Ethical Superstore to give herself fully to her floristry, illustration and photography business, Floral Footsteps. To fully understand how these three strands link together into her unique brand, you really need to see examples of her work and style as displayed on the Floral Footsteps Website.

Robyn says that the combination of three creative practices bounce off one another and although she has a distinctive style that is somehow recognizable in all her work she gets special satisfaction out of creating exactly what a customer wants.

“My work is entirely personal in that each order I create, either a floral arrangement or a bespoke illustration, is unique and designed according to the individual.”

Of course, there is a fourth strand to Robyn’s work, the all-essential business side of things. As anyone who has watched “Dragon’s Den” will know, being outstandingly creative and having business acumen is a very rare combination. Robyn certainly has both, and I dare say the maths comes in handy here, too.

I asked Robyn to give us an insight into her business and offer some thoughts and advice on creative entrepreneurship.

What are you working on at the moment? What’s on the “to do list” this week?

There are plenty of things going on! I’m hoping that my brand new website will be launched either today or tomorrow, which is rather exciting. Samuel the Spaniel (my naughty/adventurous dog) has his very own blog, which started this week. I’m working on a “Celebrations!” Greetings Cards range and a Christmas card range and I’ve wedding flowers to do next week, amongst other things!

So you are thinking about Christmas already! And you have involved the dog in the enterprise!

Samuel the Spaniel is too inspiring to not involve him in the business, and yes, sadly I’m thinking about Christmas already. Where I used to work, Christmas tunes began playing in the beginning of July… I’m not kidding!

How does a typical day look for you as a self-employed person? Do you have any routines you depend on?

I think the only routine I have is: start early, finish late! As I haven’t been trading for long, my work really varies, from building websites, through planning financial forecasts, to actually doing the work of illustrating, designing, working with flowers and meeting with clients. In a year’s time, I’m sure my answer will be different, but for now, each day is very varied.

How many hours a week would you say you are working at the moment?

Probably about 40 – 45?

Do you ever wish for a steady office job?

Not at the moment. Having had one of those, it’s great for stability and regular income, but I found myself longing to do something else. That longing has gone now because I’m actually doing it.

Do you think that you’ll need to have another strand of income while the business grows or is it a case of succeed or bust?

I initially thought that I would, but decided to do the summer season full time. I’m really glad I made this decision. I am considering taking on another strand of income in the autumn, but I’m seeing how that goes. Setting up business is quite hard; it does take quite a lot of investment to begin with.

What made you decide to start Floral Footsteps? Was it a slow burning idea or did you have a moment of epiphany?

I studied Maths at University, but always said “I’m going to become a Florist”. When I finished University, I thought I should really study it and become qualified, to see if I like it and want to take it further. I loved it, and was asked to do a friend’s wedding at the end of the year, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. So from there, working as a florist became something I definitely wanted to do. With regards to the other strands, illustration and photography – these are things I’ve always done and have slowly improved over the years, so it seemed natural to me to incorporate them into a business as a florist. So I’d say it was a slow burning idea.

How did friends and family respond to your decision to go for it?

My parents have been very supportive, but not without their “warnings” about “financial safety”. My husband has been really encouraging along every step of the way and helps me in making some of the bigger decisions and logistics (although he keeps well clear of any actual floristry or illustration! the wiring scares him…) and my friends have been wonderfully supportive by finding ways to involve me, and being my advertisers, giving me cause to start Floral Footsteps officially.

Some people would say you are crazy to try a venture like this in today’s economic climate. What would you say to them?

I’d say that I think one of the main ways in which we can improve our economy is through local business, by supporting one another in their employment. Yes, it is a difficult time to start a business, but I do believe that working with local trades instead of outsourcing to larger companies is the way forward.

So would you say that Floral Footsteps has a socially conscious edge to it?

Yes I would. I’m keen to work more closely with local growers of flowers, foliage and herbs (although that’s not easy in the North East!) and to recycle, reuse and reduce my waste as a business. I’m also keen to support other businesses that are local and eco-friendly in what I do and what stock I buy. I was shocked when I did my floristry course that some florists throw away leftover cellophane, ribbon and non-compostable rubbish with organic waste (loads of it!) in the same bin bag and put it out for collection. Some don’t recycle or compost anything! It’s madness!

How important is blogging to your business?

Very important for me personally, and I think for those closest to me, and for those just dipping their toe in. It provides a pretty unique insight into the person behind the business, as well as the business itself. It also shows you are interested in more than just “making money”…

I guess in these days of social media, people are not so comfortable dealing with “faceless corporations”; they want to know the people they are dealing with and what the story is.

I agree. It’s funny how just communicating over a computer can change the way we feel about someone and give a sense of ownership in what they’re up to and your relationship with them (however virtual or real that may be!)

What is your most important source of referrals?

I think most referrals come from word of mouth. From people telling one another about Floral Footsteps and what I do, and passing on that information. If someone chooses to contact me, I will reply as soon as I can to find out how I can help and be of service

Are there any websites that have been useful to you in your work either for networking or information, or support or anything else?

Well, I keep an eye on lots of different blogs and websites to see what others are up to and support them. I have a profile on lots of different networking platforms and websites including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, Pinterest, Google+ and more to build up an online profile and I also have a shop on Etsy, which I link people to. In terms of specific websites, there are a few wedding blogs which are good to read to check out trends, and twitter is always fantastic for keeping up with the latest news in your business sector.

What are your thoughts about using online markets, like Etsy, versus setting up your own website?

Hmm I’m not sure yet. I have my own website and I have a shop on Etsy, but have chosen to sell goods through Etsy because of the community already established there. It’s easier for people to find you through Etsy than it is through a standalone website.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to strike out as a creative entrepreneur?

I think they need to assess 1) Is there a need for your business? I.e. – is there a market for it? Will people buy your service or product? And try to think objectively. Will your business make money or is it better as a hobby? 2) Is now the right time for you to financially go for a creative business? It takes time to earn money in setting up a business and the business takes investment, do you need to wait a while until you can afford to set up? 3) Ask your family and friends for advice and support. They know you best. Ask them to be truthful and guiding, as I can say this has been one of the most influential things for me.

Three quite hard things, but you have to ask yourself the difficult questions!

So now another hard question for you: What was the lowest point in the last few months?

Oh, that is a hard question! So often my lowest points are to do with my own confidence, rather than specific events. If I lose confidence in my ability to run a business or in my work, I can fall quite low. It’s then that the support of others really lifts me – in having people who I am accountable to with the business.

On a happier note: Can you put your finger on your favourite project or your highest moment so far?

There have been lots of great moments! Every time I make a bridal bouquet I get a little quiver of excitement and say to myself, “this is actually a bouquet for the bride!” (Yep, geek!) When you see your completed work being appreciated by others, that’s a fantastic moment. I can’t name one in particular really, as each event feels very different! Perhaps handing in my resignation at my old job was a highlight…

Could you describe to me where you hope to be in a year’s time?

In a year’s time, I hope to have full weeks of hands-on floral designs, illustrations and more, keeping busy with clients, fulfilling regular and special orders. Perhaps I’ll be in a slightly more comfortable workspace, too!

That sounds achievable.

I hope so!

And so do I. To find out more about Robyn’s work, check out her website: or her Etsy shop at:
I am sure she would be happy to answer any more questions. All images in this post are the property of Robyn Trainer.

Current Creative Projects

The next couple of months is looking exciting, here’s what I am up to:

Illustration by Robyn Trainer

Stories from the Borders of Sleep

This is my personal pet project that is delightfully growing a life of its own. For a number of years I have been keeping a dream diary and also a record of some of the tales that unfold in my mind whenever I close my eyes and let my imagination go. The process has simply been one of observing and recording stuff that doesn’t seem to take any particular effort to invent or formulate and I have ended up with a growing stock of fantastical stories that seem to happen in another realm where reality and fantasy coincide.

Having enlisted the help of a phenomenally gifted illustrator, Robyn Trainer, and a brilliant sound recordist, Tim Wiles, these stories are now finding their way into the world. At the moment, I am podcasting the stories every fortnight at but also hoping to develop some spin offs such as a series of books and CDs and marketing myself as a storyteller. My real hope is that this project will develop into something that will enable me to blend my writing with performance and to tell my stories to live audiences.

iMass: a digital eucharist

iMass at Greenbelt 2011

My good fortune in knowing the tirelessly creative and innovative James Robinson (AKA noahsapprentice4747) has lead to a few crazy collaborations, the latest of which is developing the iMass for this year’s Greenbelt Festival, which will run from the 26th to the 29th of August this year at Cheltenham Racecourse. The Rev. Jim Craig (the community arts chaplain for Gateshead) and James are heading up this event that will explore the innovative use of digital media with on and offline aspects contributing to a service of eucharist.

My small contribution will be working with digital tools and musician and graphic artist Mark McKnight on the soundscape for the event. it should be a blast! We have also been given the job of decorating a tent on the theme of “Dreams of Home”.

Kronheim's Baxter process illustration of Reve...

The Apocalypse of St John

Following the success of Bible on a Washing Line, it is looking more and more likely that the next creative endeavour from Noah’s Nanny Goat Productions (another brainchild of noahsapprentice) is a performance of the entire Book of Revelation in the King James Version.

For the last ten years I have harboured a dream to present the vision St. John received on the Isle of Patmos a couple of thousand years ago as a monologue. When I spoke to James about this, he basically said, “right, when are we doing it then?”

It seems like the 400th anniversary of the King James translation and the apocalyptic natural events of 2011 pointed to this year being the perfect moment to realise this dream. James is bringing all his expertise as a visual and digital creative to compliment the monologue with sound and video and I’m trying to memorise 22 chapters at a rate of ten verses a day.

All being well, we are hoping to rock this in time for Advent.

Somewhere in the midst of this I’m trying to stay on top of the laundry and a handful of freelance writing and editing assignments. Life is never dull.

My Five Most Popular Blog Posts of 2010

I have been writing this blog for nine months now, since it was born on the 5th May 2010. An average of 1000 visitors have passed through and hopefully found something worth reading. Reviewing the most popular posts of the last year has given me a few surprises. Here are the top five in order of popularity:

1. Man The Gatherer: The Foraging Instinct.

Inspired by a raspberry picking trip with members of The Durham Fruit Group, I reflected on the anthropological aspect of wild food sorties, the superiority of fresh wild picked raspberries, and even managed to leverage in some comments about why we should all adopt a peaceful plant based diet. This article got “stumbled” by a couple of people which may account for its astronomical viewing stats.

2. Who Is Edward Monkton?

This was intended as a fairly flippant post but it turns out I was not the only person who was curious about the identity of Edward Monkton, the naively drawn proponent of off-the-wall folk wisdom who haunts our greetings cards. This is my most googled post and includes my own attempt at a bit of Monktonography.

3. Foraging Friday: Saffron Milk Caps

This post must have been published just as a lot of people were getting curious about these garishly coloured edible mushrooms. It is the most popular of my Foraging Friday series which will be continuing just as soon as spring starts to put out new growth and make foraging worthwhile again.

4. Milk Monday: Twelve Talking Points

Part of a long running series on all things “Dairy” that has been fueled massively by the terrible threat of the US style zero-grazing cow factory proposed for Nocton in Lincolnshire. Milk Mondays have been about asking if we really want to consume milk and, if we do, then what are the ethics of our consumption habits. I wanted to give consumers some idea of what goes on behind the supermarket shelves. The series grew with a significant helping hand from the folk at the Not In My Cuppa campaign. This post offers a few points for discussion on the dairy industry in Britain.

5. Jazz and Light: Two Things I love

Another fairly rapidly scribbled post that did unexpectedly well. I muse on two of my passions: Jazz and Photography. I love them not just for the aesthetic of the end product but for the path, process, spirituality and philosopythat underpin them. More on both these topics, I hope in 2011.

Many thanks to the people who have read, commented and retweeted in the last year. Happy New Year and all the best to you in 2011.

The Mind Denies What It Can Not Conceive

After my A levels, I spent seven months working in a pub to save for a gap year. At the time I had set my heart on being a writer and the patrons of the bar were such delightful personalities I must have got a lifetime’s worth of plots and characters just listening to the conversations. I quickly learned that pulling pints is only the beginning of a barman’s duties and at times I functioned as an informal counsellor and confessor as well as a bouncer and master of ceremonies.

The bar opened at 11 in the morning and played host to a steady stream of retired men who would come and nurse a pint of “mild and bitter” and argue the toss about minute details of events that had happened 40 years earlier. Taffy was a tall and exceptionally thin welshman who had been twice imprisoned in Poland during the war. He told me that he lived on Guinness and eggs, and I think he probably did. Trevor was another welshman who was extremely garralous after a few drinks and very suspicious of my “eddycation” (education). Stan was half the stature of everyone else and lovely company unless he was drinking gin. Turk was working into his eighties, delivering carpets and still as strong as an ox. Michael was ancient and came for a pint of mild and a sausage sandwich every day like clockwork. Younger working men came in at lunch time or after 4pm to unwind; painters, decorators, construction workers from all over the British Isles. It was mostly gossip, the conversation, and sometimes it got philosophical.

Tall Ship

I really wish I remember the name of the painter who told me this story. We had many long discussions. I told him about the book I was writing about a child who is brought up, literally, by a garden instead of having parents. He told me about the books he was reading and he told me something about “perception” that has haunted me ever since. I have never been able to verify this tale but it illustrates a seductive possibility.

A ship-borne explorer and contemporary of captain Cook put in by a remote pacific island one day. Through his telescope he could plainly see the locals on the beach, going about their everyday business and seemingly oblivious to the approach of the galleon. With a small detail of sailors, he put down a rowboat and they headed for the shore to make contact. As they got closer, the locals continued as if nothing was happening but as soon as the prow rammed into the sand and his men leapt out they turned in absolute terror and fled into the interior. Over the next few days they were able to make contact with the people and trade with them, and the curious fact emerged that they had never seen the great shadow of the ship off the shore or noticed the sailor’s approach. In fact they were unable to percieve the ship at all until it had been described to them. All of this is supposed to have been faithfully recorded in the captain’s log.

If there were aliens in our midst would we even be able to see them?

It is as if the eyes receive the visual stimulus but if the thing seen is beyond the mind’s ability to conceive, it simply dismisses the data as erroneous. If there really were, for instance, aliens from another planet walking our streets, we’d never see them unless we had first been able to imagine them.

I have also been told that in atomic physics, the presence of a subatomic particle has to be postulated and conceived of before it can be measured. How much are we missing? This tale serves to remind us that, like Horatio, there may be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosopy.

Learning in a Drum Circle

(c) 2010, Seymour Jacklin

Growing up in Africa, I have very early memories of drums going all night in the village half a mile away. I think this left a lasting impression on me. In spite of my African roots, my favourite drum to play is a goblet drum called the “Doumbek” or “Darbuka” which is of middle eastern/eurasian origin.

Doumbek Player
A Small Doumbek is my weapon of choice.

This week, I’m facilitating a drum circle/workshop at Harvest – a Christian Youth Festival in the northeast of England. It’s something I have just tumbled into that is getting a life of its own. I’m not a percussionist of any great ability or experience but I have found communal drumming to have very little to do with technique and everything to do with an openness to participate.

I have been asked on several occasions to facilitate communal drumming and I guess I am developing an understanding of why this can be such a powerful experience for people. Drumming together teaches people without needing a didactic approach and I find that people take to it with very little instruction – the less the better.

The concept is incredibly simple. I usually gather people in a circle and encourage them to choose from a selection of percussion instruments, finding something they feel comfortable with. Right from the outset, it is always noticeable how people’s choice reflects their personality and this is always an opportunity for me to get a feel for the make-up of the group; from the confident men who choose the biggest drum they can find to the more diminutive people who choose an egg shaker and hope they won’t be heard.

There is always going to be at least one person in the group who is a far more accomplished drummer than me. This is always a relief because I know they will be able to carry things a bit. Facilitating the group is about letting the more confident individuals define the groove and make space for others to contribute around that.

Drumming together is about listening to each other. The most exciting thing is to listen as the rhythm shifts organically as new strains arise and catch on. The group is self-regulating as it is simply not possible for one individual to show off and take over. Experienced beat technicians have to take their place alongside the noobs who are just trying to keep up and everyone is making a contribution.

For me, a drumming group is like a microcosm of a community as it should be. Drumming together is a perfect way to have a conversation where everyone speaks at the same time, simultaneously listening and contributing. It is exhilirating and draws strangers together in a common experience.

During the course of an hour session I tend to aim for about three episodes of drumming lasting up to about ten minutes each but letting it flow for as long as it needs to. Between each episode there is time to feedback, swap instruments, and encourage people. I use slower beats to get people listening to each other and growing in confidence and faster ones to create energy. I use hand signals during the session to do a little bit of direction, like getting sections to play more quietly or drop out and back in again but prefer to keep this to a minimum because the joy of a drum circle is the way that it feeds and directs itself through consensus.

I always felt the drummers were having more fun than us; now I know why.


The Psalm Drummers – a heart to drum.

My Doumbek Playlist on YouTube.