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Silicon Drink-about

Five years; a lifetime in Tech

Words: Benjamin Southworth

I glance over at the beautiful young things gathered around their aluminium devices – eyes and ears orientated to another keynote presentation. A pitch that aims to transform businesses and delight clients – and no doubt change the fortunes of all who dare to dream. My eyes trace over the meticulous chefs, their mise en place laid out with the exactitude of architects, a tiny replication of the skyscrapers sprinting up all around Old Street. I hear the military precision and process of another order in, eggs benny and side of bacon, and witness the whirlpool water take hold of the albumen and watch the vortex turn the tendrils white – I’ll never be able to make eggs like that, I think to myself.

V60? Ah, yes. There it is. I smile and say please. It’s almost my favourite moment of the day – if it’s not, then it’s certainly my most consistent, the pure knowledge of a beautifully soft and perfectly made cup of coffee that lifts the spirits.  A lover long since lost to time, once pointed out to me my little coffee ritual – one I’d not really thought about, I’d certainly never deliberately constructed it, but once observed, it can never be unseen. I slide the tray in front of me, the cup to the right, the pot to the left. I pour the magic happiness to the line on the school yard glass, no further, no less. I say grace to the eternal, press my hands together and acknowledge my luck. Then taking the glass in hand, I smell the coffee. I ask myself what can I smell, how would I conjure it up if I had to? I rarely can find the words, but smells are something intrinsic, they hammer home memories and can construct entire places, people, scenes and moments. The olfactory thread stretches back over 5 years, since my first glass of really good coffee. Only God, my accountant, James and Lizzie know how many I’ve had since then.

I’m not sure how I heard about Ozone (or what made me go in) but once in, I rarely left. At the time, I was freelancing and had been working on a project called the 3beards – we organised and hosted networking events for the emerging digital scene. There was no real plan beyond that I was a geek, Michael a designer and Bryce did communications. We all needed a place to meet clients, attract work and to share war stories of projects past. Around my kitchen table in Tottenham we were born, and over the last 2 years, we’d taken on a weekly drinking event called Silicon Drinkabout which had gone from strength to strength. Somewhere along the way, this led me to giving an earnest speech about how inspiring the new entrepreneurial scene of East London was, and how energised it all felt. It seemed all my friends were starting businesses or agencies, hiring and expanding. It was thrilling, it was charming, and best of all, it felt dynamic and passionate, and no doubt a bit Nathan Barely. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously, we didn’t put on suits and we felt like anything was possible. I was probably a bit pissed (and the actor in me loves any excuse to wax lyrical whilst the musician in me loves the sound of my own voice), so I said what I saw and thought no more of it. I went back to the beers and laughing at my massive beard with my friends.

"I say grace to the eternal, press my hands together and acknowledge my luck. Then taking the glass in hand, I smell the coffee.”

One day, an email appeared from 10 Downing Street, asking me to come in for a coffee. I promptly threw on the only suit I had, got a haircut and went along. I only went to get a picture for my Mum. Well, that and a bit of curiosity to see inside that iconic televisual address.

Once I’d gone through the rigmarole of security and searches, and gotten used to the curious feeling of being watched and pointed at by tourist and school children, I was led through that big black door, shinier in real life, larger, heavier and thicker than any door I’d seen before. Or maybe it was the moment that weird feeling of crossing the threshold of British power with all it’s arcane and antiquated filigree. They take your phone off you. So there I sat, twiddling my thumbs as various politicians and the occasional journalist ambled past all shiny shoes and Jermyn Street shirts. I tried to remember their names but my interest in politics went as far as protesting and causing a fuss when I was in my twenties – I’d long since dispensed with revolutionary ideas and had settled on the notion that politics is pointless.

At this point, I was met and gathered off for coffee in the basement canteen (the most pathetic cup of coffee I’ve ever had). It was the sort of treacle, thick, digestive tract instant awfulness that airlines serve, I sipped at it to remain polite. Then the bombshell was dropped – how would I feel about advising Her Majesty’s Government on its digital and tech strategy? More precisely, how would I feel about helping them make East London into what they’d named Tech City? My world spun and I felt lightheaded, I wished desperately that the coffee was better, that I wasn’t in this silly suit, and I looked across at Rohan Silva who asked the question – I tried to be nonchalant but I was floored. I didn’t think anyone knew who I was, let alone thought I had thoughts in my head.

I walked back from Westminster via Clerkenwell back to Shoreditch. I had no clue how to do a job like that, I certainly didn’t think I was suitable, and besides, I had my clients and my little 3beards business, I was happy enough.

"If we’re truthfully honest, we can’t escape ourselves, no matter how much we may want to, we are always forever changed by life, and when it comes down to it, change is the only constant, and people are the only true value in life.”

I decided to accept, or rather, my friends decided I should accept, and also decided that Joe Scarboro should come and help us run the 3beards – he’d made himself invaluable at Silicon Drinkabout and had a great understanding of business – something we rather lacked.

That’s when the coffee really kicked in, I spent my days in Ozone hammering out emails, having endless phone calls and meetings. I lived on caffeine, adrenaline and electricity of the moment, a sense of change, a bright, shining moment of optimism and hope. The year I spent between Westminster and Leonard Street flew past faster than a cycle courier, and I became a consultant and returned to the 3beards, where the team had done sterling work in my absence – and we’d found ourselves organising Art Hackathons, the largest of which was in The Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. It was like a dream come true, to display our friend’s ideas in that cathedral of culture, to make a tiny mark alongside the greatest of all time.

Much around Old Street has changed and will continue to do so. From the dissidents graveyard of Bunhill Fields to City Road, and with the regeneration of Old Street station ( a plan five years in the making ) to the hundreds of businesses come and gone. But humans are frequently far too distracted by the shiny and new to pay heed to the history of the place, to fully acknowledge and recognise the true order of the world.

Two years ago I left London for Amsterdam. I was running away from the past, and from myself I suppose – I’d failed at a relationship and couldn’t forgive myself, couldn’t look people in the eye anymore, and the skyscrapers flying up felt like edifices of my failure. I felt I’d corrupted everything I’d held dear, I felt unclean and worthless so I packed my bags and left. Luckily for me, I couldn’t escape the draw of Ozone Coffee and would frequently visit Bakers & Roasters in Amsterdam for a V60, where I still performed my little ritual, another location but the same process.

If we’re truthfully honest, we can’t escape ourselves, no matter how much we may want to, we are always forever changed by life, and when it comes down to it, change is the only constant, and people are the only true value in life. I’m pleased to say we sold and closed our little business down – it came with a few nice rewards and trinkets, and the opportunity of change enabled by the sale has put me on yet another path, one of painting and poetry, and everything I ran away from. I’m trying to make peace, and so back to London I’m returning, and taking up my seat at the bar once again, to pray at this most wonderful of happenstance churches to celebrate people once again.

I pour the last of the coffee out, raise the glass to friends who’ve been lost, and smile at what has been.

Who knows what the next five years will bring….