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Energy, demand reduction (2): an Airbnb for energy?

A while ago I blogged about a Policy Exchange event which had encouraged people to pitch energy policy ideas.  One of the ones I liked was of enabling trade in ‘Negawatts’, pitched by Dustin Benton from the Green Alliance.  This one takes a bit of background, so bear with me.

The idea of ‘Negawatt hours’, according to this article in the Economist came from Amory Lovins, who one day noticed a misprint of ‘megawatt hours’ and used it to name his idea for a theoretical unit of ‘avoided energy’  – energy which would have been consumed, but was avoided due to energy efficiency measures.  If I do not use a Megawatt hour of energy that I could have done, that can be called a Negawatt hour.   According to the Economist article, energy efficiency was saving more carbon for the US in 2014 than all the investment in renewables combined.   Further, Negawatts can help deal with one of the challenges with renewables until someone really sorts out solar and wind batteries, which is that these sources are  intermittent and not enough to cope with peak demand.  If people were incentivised to avoid using energy at peak times, it would reduce the demand for dirty energy and possibly the need for entire dirty power stations that are only kept because they are needed for the peaks.

Dustin Benton’s pitch was to enable consumers to sell their negawatts back to the grid.  By way of illustration, my family doesn’t watch football but most of the UK will watch a big match and put their kettle on at half-time.  That uses up all the renewables on the grid and more, so the grid tells the diesel generators to crank up.  If it just so happens that my family are enjoying a walk in the park with no crowds (everyone else is watching football), then the grid can use the energy I might otherwise have been using at home, and give me a little financial reward.

Making this work would depend on a lot of granular data collection and smart metering; and possibly on some quite tricky upfront calculations, like what the standard energy allowance should be before Negawatts could work.  But it could be quite fabulous.

Later, when I was wondering how to initiate  small-scale trading in a currency people don’t think about much in their daily lives, I imagined it being marketed as an ‘AirBnB for energy’.  I could see a very soft focus advert with a pair of people, where one is having a party and the other is reading a book by a sunny window.  The book-reader is selling her Negawatts so that the party hostess can switch on fairy lights and heat up some birthday cake.  Like AirBnB, it’s not really anything to do with sharing, it’s much more about micro-transactions – but I think the communal aspect, helping other people live their lives to the full, is something that would sell. People often don’t think that much about energy, but they think a lot about the things it provides – warmth, cooling, light, comfort, entertainment – and from those things we build up fun times, cosy homes, great shared experiences. An AirBnB for energy would bring people in by selling those experiences with a side order of cash benefit.

There are already companies starting to link the small-scale in energy, like:  Vanderbron in the Netherlands: .  We are getting the technology in place to do much more with such very small transactions.  Then once a primary market in Negawatts is established, the geeks in the City can do their thing too and think of ways to sell Negawatt derivatives and goodness knows what else, and that will keep the high-rolling capitalists on board with the idea.  There is a bit of a conceptual jump involved with Negawatts  – but if the City can borrow shares it doesn’t have in order to buy them when prices fall, I think we should have the ingenuity to be able to trade Negawatts.


Should not-for-profit organisations develop their own unique innovation culture?

As I was researching technology partnerships with one of my clients, I was surprised to see how frequently people raised an anxiety about whether they were, organisationally speaking, innovative enough. The rapidity with which the issue came up in conversations was maybe linked to the fact that they are among those who are already doing a lot to cultivate a culture of innovation – I know they run an internal challenge fund for example. However it struck a chord with me because I often look at new innovations funds in our sector, and see that some of the things these funds end up supporting have been around for a long time. Is it true that maybe there is not enough innovation culture in NGOs? Or is it that we need, as a community, to better define what a workable innovation culture looks like for us?

The popular model of innovation is based on the idea of entrepreneurs, usually in business, devising a new thing that consumers love in droves. There is a theory to counter this emerging from (for example) the writings of Mariana Mazzucato in the Entrepreneurial State, which identifies ways in which states provide the essential social and material infrastructure for innovation. Daniela Papi-Thornton of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review of the risks of ‘heropreneur’ thinking and the need to support the people who have spent time up close to a problem – by choice or because they live with it. It reminds us that in NGOs, our role is often more to be the ‘first follower’ than the visionary, that our work should always be in the service of a community of people. I think it is fair to say that not-for-profits could benefit from defining their own unique innovation culture, different to private enterprise and the public state.

These are my starting points for what a not-for-profit innovation culture could look like.

Be clear that our risk/reward calculation is different than for businesses in general

A not-for-profit which work with vulnerable populations, perhaps in fragile geographies, has to make a different kind of risk/reward calculation than a business developing new consumer technology. When you are taking risks with other people’s well-being, or donor money, the risk/reward calculation is usually set in quite a different place. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the most widely name-checked innovations in development, the low-cost mobile money transfer service of M-PESA in East Africa, emerged initally from the private sector, although it always had social purpose in its DNA and has proven to be a unique platform for the development of new socially valuable programmes from a huge array of other groups. As Edgar Schein, organisational psychology theorist and Professor Emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, said:

‘I was struck by how different computer companies were from chemical companies because of the underlying technologies that spawned engineers with very different worldviews, concepts of time, approaches to experimentation, and so on. For example, the easy fooling around with circuits that DEC engineers reveled in would have been career suicide in the chemical environment of Ciba-Geigy.’ (Organizational Psychology Then and Now: Some Observations)

I think not-for-profits will often feel more like the chemicals company than the software firm in terms of their risk profile. The humanitarian principle of ‘do no harm’ has to be applied to innovation in not-for-profits. Organisations like the Gates Foundation which do fund innovations in health have serious standards in research protocols, in order to ensure that their work does no harm.

Acknowledge the constraints in our type of (social) businesses

Then there are operational challenges to innovation, such as the inability to free up time to share ideas, or to borrow Clay Christensen and his colleagues, the time to develop the ‘five discovery skills for innovators’, to: associate ideas, question, observe, experiment, network. Research Councils sometimes run 5 day sandpits, (innovation workshops) but I find it hard to imagine most NGO staff I know being able to take 5 days out of their jobs for something which may turn out not to help their project at all. Where staff are project funded, this is hardest of all. And our ‘experts on the problem’ – the intended beneficiaries of the innovation – are probably busy or hard to access.

However, I think there are many, many channels for innovation in the not-for-profit sector.

First off, I think there is a lot more of innovation going on than people realise. We should celebrate the innovations that our community is in the middle of developing right now. Mostly at the level of process or business model innovation rather than product innovation but a lot of the time, that’s where the innovation is needed. We have technology that is good enough for most basic needs, the challenge is getting it through the last mile. Tim Black, the founder of Marie Stopes International invented a social enterprise model for MSI back in the 60s. People are still re-inventing that model today. Or the consistent piloting of cash transfers as an aid model (instead of food aid, or building shelters for people) is producing an overwhelming body of evidence that cash transfers are effective. Cash transfers, especially if done on electronic platforms, will bring down operational costs hugely as it’s way cheaper to transmit cash than move food around. Development practitioners have proven willing to disrupt themselves and their traditional ways of doing their work.

If things like product innovation don’t flow naturally from your social business model, don’t worry about it. You’re probably doing a great job on frugal innovation in how to deliver vital services with hard-to-reach communities. Don’t worry so much, you people are good at this.

Document, reflect and share your work

Secondly, and this is my biggest one, even if management is hardass and don’t really believe in toilet breaks as long as we’ve still not solved world hunger, quickly document your work and get feedback. Reflect on it. There may be innovations in there that you can’t see yourself, or that only become obvious after a year of implementation has kicked them into shape, like the camels carrying solar powered mobile pharmacies my colleagues devised at Save the Children with a partner organisation in the Somali region of Ethiopia. It was a great example of frugal innovation I thought – applying an existing technology and an existing – er – camel – to the problem of health services for nomadic populations in terrain where sand regularly chews up jeeps.

It doesn’t have to get written up in the Lancet to be valuable. It could be a relatively small problem that you solve, but share it. Who else is having that problem? If you or someone else fixed a problem, however small, and 10,000 people are having that same problem, actually you could be fixing a medium-to-large problem before you know it. Sometimes even carefully and thoughtfully delineating a problem can help someone else working on it to understand it better.

So in summary: Stay aware of innovations in our community; reflect; write up and share your cool problem-solving stuff. That’s all I’ve got for now. I am sure I have missed many important points and I welcome your contributions to this discussion.

Books through the eyes of children

Over Christmas I read ‘Through A Child’s Eyes’ – a paper from a 1992 seminar at the British Film Institute led by the writer and mythographer Marina Warner.  Warner brings out the ways in which adults project their concerns  onto children, and through the idea of the child. Children are fascinating to readers alternately because they are innocent – the idea of a child at risk calls on our  determination to kill the witches that threaten them (Hansel and Gretel); or otherwise because they are disobedient, irrational, not yet socialised, and live (perhaps) in a world where reality and fantasy rub up against each other – children are Where the Wild Things Are and Alice in Wonderland.

Reflecting on the essay, I realised that two of my favourite novels are seen through the eyes of displaced, off-centre children, children with losses, but they are real, or at least naturalistic children. These are ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson and the ‘Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson. In Oranges, the child has suffered the loss of her birth parents which is not compensated by her adopting parents, who are a neutral, distant father and a fiercely engaged, religiously fanatical, abusive mother. The tone of the Summer Book is much less traumatic – the book is comprised of a series of scenes of a child playing with her grandmother on their summer island in the Gulf of Bothnia, off the coast of Finland. But the child’s mother has died and the father is again a distant figure. The grandmother is a compensatory giver of love, fun, and moral education.

Oranges is the only novel I have ever read in a single sitting and then immediately turned back to page 1 and started again. I devoured my first reading in the hope that I would get to a happy ending, and then revelled in the second reading as with a delicious sweet. The language is extraordinary – it spills tonal and stylistic features of all the best literature in English, like a child who shows all the most interesting features of all its grandparents. It was like reading a new language – English, but more vivid. At the beginning of this year, I also read Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ Published 27 years after Oranges, it treads the same story, but as an account of the real childhood she remembers rather than the fictionalised one in Oranges. The book, although wonderfully written, cannot match the sheer literary brilliance of Oranges, because nothing can, but Why by Happy…? is gripping for being truer. It is horribly sad to find out that in describing her childhood in Oranges, Winterson had pulled her punches – her real childhood was much more painful even than the childhood in Oranges, and the abuse she received from most adults who should have cared for her, especially when they discovered that she was lesbian, is terrifying. The memoir illuminates interesting corners both of British social life (the racism and sexism she saw at Oxford) and a traumatic psychological journey (meeting her birth mother). In Oranges, the novel ends in triumphant mode as she comes back from Oxford to see her mother (Mrs Winterson) and there appears to be some kind of resolution at least, if not reconciliation. But In Why by Happy…? you read with real concern as the mature writer reaches, struggling, far into herself to describe the confusion of meeting her birth mother, and the psychological tearing she experiences from the loyalty she feels profoundly to Mrs Winterson, who betrayed her, but who was always there – as every child wants their parent, however bad, to be. The two books read wonderfully alongside each other as different windows into the mind and heart of a brilliant young girl in a poor Northern town – where as Winterson points out, there were mental and emotional escapes from poverty through friendships, libraries, allotments,  evening classes. A good teacher helped her get to Oxford, which for all its faults, opened up a very different life for her.  Books gave Jeanette Winterson a lifeline once and I am sure in turn her books have been lifelines to many of her readers.  Winterson’s prose is thick with line and colour, it’s like being surrounded by an El Greco painting, as the language of the King James Bible dances with the dark and the light of human passion, and kept engorged with hope by the narrator’s dogged belief that love would come to her, that belief saving the girl even before books did.

The Summer Book is a completely different kettle of fish. It  is more like a drink of water from a well – cool and sweet, close to nature. The clear and unsentimental narratives of the child Sophia and her grandmother are as understated as a line illustration, and confirmatory of the ways in which normally happy children become normally socialised.  It is minature in scope – set on a tiny Finnish island with the scenes peopled mostly only by the child and her grandmother (at most there is a visitor on a small boat or another tiny island in the waters around it).  The Summer Book creates a perfectly realised experience for the reader of a long childhood summer holiday; of Sophia’s impetuousness, of the grandmother thinking through how to balance the child’s needs with her own, their physical enjoyment of the tiny world of their island. The child has a moral education through her passions. She detests her first cat, Moppy, for  being wild and for not being  cuddling silkily in her lap, and she trades it for a lapcat, Fluff. After a week she is in despair, missing her hunting cat, which of course has been imprinted on her heart as the essence of cat, even though books or the culture around her had led her to think she wanted something different. ‘Hunt! Do something! Be a cat!’ she rages at the impassive Fluff. Similarly, she is besotted with a friend from school who has perfect ringlets of hair, but when she brings her friend to her island, she finds her terribly boring, and the friend’s departure is a relief in a way that I remember from my own Finnish childhood – perhaps it was an echo of leaving school and smelling the fir trees growing on the edges of the small town, being able to hunt down some lingonberries without a social convention breathing down my neck. Sophia learns that her passions must be acknowledged and understood, but also that she must behave in civilised ways, and treat people decently. She learns through freedom, but also through the consciousness that she is observed by the loving, boundary-setting, consistent gaze of her grandmother. I’m sure most Finnish expats have a copy of the Summer Book. It expresses many things from Finland but that evocation of the tension of being torn between the wild and the domesticated moods is the claw with which it sticks to my skull.

Marina Warner refers to What Maisie Knew by Henry James as paradigmatic, as one of the first novels to tell a story focalised through a child. What Maisie Knew is an incredibly sad novel from the 1890s about a child whose divorcing parents fight over her custody in order to punish one another. Like so much of Henry James, it feels written for today, not 120 years ago. But there is another earlier novel which I think focalises through a child, and that is the first section of Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Another displaced child, Fanny Price, is taken away from her poor family to the house of her rich relations, in order to be useful to her Aunts. The family congratulate themselves on their benevolence, but in fact her experience is of emotional and sometimes physical neglect, and some cruelty from her Aunt Norris, who in one episode leads Fanny to become physically ill. The emotional coldness of the family is given expression in the way in which she is socially isolated and left to herself in the unheated nursery that the bullying and self-centred children of the family no longer use. She sits in her quiet space, not much loved but at least not tortured by unappealing conventions, and reads herself into adulthood – as Sophia perhaps might have been required to do, had she not had an excellent grandmother.

Fanny Price has not been a popular Jane Austen heroine. She is not a transgressive heroine and therefore gives little pleasure to many of her readers. Marina Warner references this (p44) – the tendency of adult readers to enjoy reading about rebellious children (whether they were rebellious children or goody two-shoes themselves). Books about rebellious children satisfy the wishes of unsatisfied adults to read about rebellion. Many adult readers do not empathise with Fanny’s loss, or her anxiety about her new home. However if Fanny’s life is seen through the lens of a physically frail child who experiences neglect and who is constantly undermined by her Aunt Norris and cousins Julia and Maria and yet survives: emotionally, physically and morally intact; then her life is one of achievement. Her good cousin Edmund takes an interest in her, and vitally, gives her both books to stimulate her mind; and pen and paper to enable her to correspond with her beloved brother William, consoling her heart. Fanny builds a morally well developed world view as a result, and when that is challenged, as it is when even Edmund is half-seduced by the attractive but selfish Crawford siblings, Fanny remains true to her principles, even though a return to poverty is threatened for her. Like Jeanette Winterson, Fanny is morally saved both by books and by recognising what she loves – first her brother William and later, Edmund.

These novels do more than work along the curve of the archetypes of children in literature identified by Marina Warner. They give the experience of children the weight of humans, not toys or plot props, or  adults-in-waiting. The children are complex and sensitive in their own right. Through the eyes of an individuated child character, the novelists do indeed illuminate something about our concerns, but the gaze comes from the child and looks at the world, rather than the child’s eyes being a mirror for adult anxieties.

Cinema and the Realms of Enchantment, Lectures, Seminars and Essays by Marina Warner and Others. Edited by Duncan Petrie. BFI working papers, 1993

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson, 1985

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson, 2012

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson, 1972

What Maisie Knew, Henry James, 1897

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, 1814


My Kabul fashion diary (3)

On the Friday, it was a non working day, so I stayed at the guesthouse. I swivelled the desk in my room around so that I could see the pretty garden through my open door. I relaxed my adherence to the dress code by slipping on a long sleeved but close fitting shirt when I sat in the garden to eat. I saw something on CNN about American citizens concerned at a threat to their right to bear arms. I saw a male guest sprawled blissfully on the lawn enjoying the bright sun, and longed for the right to bare arms. When I looked up, the the cloudlessness of the sky made it feel like being at the top of the earth’s atmosphere. Nothing between you and the nearest star. I lay on my bed after breakfast and wiggled my toes, and imagined I was back on that Italian holiday with my husband, and that it felt this hot and gently breezy, but I was wearing only a sarong and feeling the sun and the sand, and him kissing my lips as he came back out of the sea. Then memory became unbearable and I sprang up, got out my laptop and got to work. Lost in budget quarrels and resource puzzles for the next nine hours.  Then at about 7pm, there was a very minor earthquake.  My chair rose and fell as if it was on the sea.  I stopped typing, unsure whether I was just exhausted and losing my balance.  The water in my plastic bottle shook and waved about.  I quietly put on my headscarf, ready to take some sort of action. I thought, this is ridiculous, I work for a humanitarian NGO and I personally have no idea what to do if there is an earthquake.  I can do First Aid, but only if people are lying down calmly on the carpet for me to check for broken bones and bleeds.  But nothing more happened.  I opened the door and guests and visitors were sitting in the garden, chatting and drinking tea.  The earth was not opening up, and I decided to treat myself to a tonic water and some time with my Kindle amid the roses.

That evening there was a family party at the hotel. Bored and lonely, and a bit unsettled by the earth tremor, I stalked it – sat at a table where I could see the family members going in, kissing the children, greeting each other on the steps. Some little boys ran around, and played near me and said ‘hi’ very softly, drawn by the cat that was petitioning earnestly for a share in my kebab. Then off they went, clattering about looking for mild mischief. Some of the older men pulled a carpet to a quiet corner of the garden and bowed down for prayers. All sorts of fashions went in. The most glamorous lady wore a black frocked tunic, heavily embellished with silver studs and blue and green embroidery, black skinny pants and a black chiffony embroidered headscarf. Most of the older men wore their shalwar kameez plus waistcoat combo. Some women wore Western shirts over trousers. The little boys wore either mini shalwar kameezes or mini dinner jackets, presumably in line with their parents. I could see they had balloons, and they had live music. Like the Finnish, there seemed to be a preference for mournful tunes despite the happy faces everywhere. My gramdmother always sad that sad songs were more beautiful. I saw briefly a woman unscarfed, thick black glossy hair briefly visible, terribly beautiful. In the curtained windows I could see silhouettes of dancers coming closer and moving further off, like a shadow puppet dance.

The next evening, fortunately for my sanity, I went out for dinner with a former colleague whom I had discovered was in Kabul through skype. It was lucky as a combination of long work days and social isolation was wearing down my mental grip on happiness. We went to the exquisite Design Centre Cafe in Kabul.


The place, behind a plain metal door in the exterior wall that gives away nothing, was just beautiful.  Tapestried armchairs and low tables were set around an open but carpeted courtyard.  The interiors were gorgeously stylish with old dark wood and candles and embroideries and carpets too, but I always love ‘outside in’ places, and one of the bits about hot climates is being able to live outdoors – so we did, that evening.  In one of those weird moments of extraordinary privilege, we went into a room where carpets were being displayed, and met the designer Chuk Palu, who showed us carpets that he sells at Liberty and I could maybe afford one of if I stopped going out for six months.  Some of the carpets were woven new but designed old so they already looked like antiques that you might find at the Victoria and Albert.  I had been writing about carpet making that morning – it’s one of the few sources of income available to poor girls in Afghanistan, but unfortunately the need to earn money often takes precedence over education – and would it not with me?  I wished that I could support this beautiful industry.  The carpets made me wish I was richer, and I suddenly had a flash forward that in 10 years time, if we all just supported Afghanistan with development rather than pretending that we might ever be able to meaningfully interfere with its politics, Afghanistan might be the next Lebanon.  If we had realised this fifteen years ago, I’m sure the world today would be a better place.  It was strange visiting Afghanistan, this country that has come to influence much of what has happened in world politics over the last ten years, and feeling so confined and isolated that I’d had barely more experience of the country than I would have done from reading a good book about it.  What else did I see?  Kabul is one of those cities overflowing with small scale and big scale entrepreneurs, bumping up against high walls with barbed wire and armed guards.  A female politician was shot dead during that weekend, allegedly for not wearing her head scarf – but who knows who she angered and why. But there is huge and widespread support for girls’ education, including from the places where as a Westerner, our media teaches us not to expect it.  Day to day, people are friendly.  The guards at my hotel were determined that I should be able to say in Dari ‘hello. How are you you?  Thank you, I’m fine.’ Weddings and family parties are a huge deal, and joined together by a lived faith and by a value for spending time with loved ones.  The food is good.  There is world class design behind those bleached yellow Kabul walls.  I pray that Kabul and the wider Afghanistan will prosper.

My Kabul Fashion Diary (2)

On the plane, I went to sleep as soon as I sat down, exhausted already by the night flight from London, and woke up with two high school or student aged girls. They were both smartly dressed in narrow black pants, black tunics embellished with silver, and light black scarves; one chiffon embellished with silver threads, the other soft black cotton or viscose with silver, leopard like spots. We got chatting – they had left Aghanistan five years ago, had settled in Peterborough, and were returning to see family. They were as keen as I was to see Afghanistan from the air as we approached. Leaving the azure waters lapping the desert of the Gulf behind, nearer Kabul we saw endless rows of dry bleached yellow mountains, with what looked like chains of fields threading their way through the valleys. I asked if their family would think they had become too British ‘Yes, maybe,’ they replied together, laughing. The two girls and I shared a fear of aeroplane turbulence, and giggled nervously together at landing. They were part of a much larger family group, it turned out – my last glimpse of them was at the baggage carousel, where the elder one looked like someone born to lead orchestras or nations, with relations and porters following the rapid gestures of her arms to fetch copious volumes of baggage, while the smallest members of the family danced around her like a maypole, running off to the exciting carousel, and back again to safety.

At the border control, I was relieved when the guard laughed at the photos clipped inside my passport for various official forms. One of my colleagues had said that in my passport photos I look like a psychopath. Other things were funnier, but not suitable to be written here, to do with various types of criminality. All agreed they would not let me into their country. The guard was quite chivalrous, and said ‘is that really you? Maybe it’s your sister.’. I thought of my pretty sisters and laughed. He stamped my passport and I had entered the country. Would he have been friendly if I had not been wearing a headscarf? Probably, but why take the risk? Foreigner registration was slightly less easy, with a man barking at me that I should have brought a work permit, not a visa. I explained why I was here, his colleague looked at my passport, and then they stamped my registration form. It probably wouldn’t have been harder if I had been bareheaded, but again, I felt more confident arguing with them knowing that I had not possibly offended anyone before even opening my mouth.

The five minute walk to meet my greeter at the car park was almost unbearably hot. I began to hate my woollen scarf. I met another lady who was visiting the programme who had come in on the same flight. She’d had trouble finding the car park and asked for help. Her head was covered, but the airport men who jovially assisted her had told her that ‘people in Afghanistan don’t really like women who don’t wear the burka.’ I attribute half of that to the way some men like to frighten women almost as a form of flirtation (‘it’s ok lady, you’re in safe hands now,’ kind of thing).  A casual glance at the streets told us that wasn’t true.  Some women wore the burka for sure, but others wore smart black tunics and pants, others wore green and pink shalwar kameezes, there were as many ways for women to express themselves through fashion as there were in London.  Except I was not making a fashion statement, I looked like a bag lady wearing badly assorted clothes, and I was ridiculously hot. We passed through traffic so hectic I nearly didn’t see the soldiers passing with a gun mounted on a flatbed truck. First impressions of Kabul: bustling traffic filled, shop-lined streets, houses that matched the bleached yellow brick of the encircling mountains. Then there was a side street, a metal wall, a man with a gun in a metal cubicle surrounded by sandbags. I had arrived at my hotel.


Between the office and the hotel, I was driven past a road with shops selling evening gowns and Western wedding dresses.  ‘Who wears those?’ I asked a colleague.  ‘Afghan brides,’ he replied drily.  I puzzled over how a woman in this dress culture could wear a strapless, corseted Pronovias dress when the rest of the time they must be covered.  Then a colleague explained, she will only be seen by other women.  Men and women celebrate the wedding in different rooms.  There is a ceremony between the groom and his father in law, and then a messenger will go to tell the bride that she’s married.  At one point she will sit with the groom to receive guests – but the enormous neon lit wedding halls, for the massive and loud Afghan weddings I could hear nearly every night from my hotel in downtown Kabul, are separated inside for the parties for men, and parties for women.  Having been married three months ago, it felt like a different way to do it.  At the office, I had nearly made a gaffe on my first day by going to eat lunch at the men’s table, but caught myself just in time.  At the hotel, I ate on my own every night.  There was a male colleague staying there, but in addition to traveler reticence, offering a colleague ‘space’, I felt I didn’t want to expose myself to observation by brazenly walking up to him to suggest we eat together.  After a few days there, my goal was invisibility.

My Kabul fashion diary (1)

I spent 10 days in Afghanistan for work. I’m supporting a team there planning a large education programme. They bring knowledge, I bring post it notes and flipchart pens. Together, we can. But hope. Please nice donors, fund us!

Before I left, I faffed with my packing. Evening upon evening, my husband came home to find me rummaging through my clothes, muttering vengefully about moths. The way to get round the modest clothing issue with a Western wardrobe, I had discovered, was a long shirt or dress over trousers. But it doesn’t stop there, the ‘cultural awareness’ photocopy lets you know. The trousers must be wide legged, and the sleeves of the dress must come below your elbow. Nothing must be sheer. It’s so obvious that the neckline should be high that they don’t even mention it. Fortunately I’m a fan of wide-legged pants (Fenn Wright Manson or just Top Shop) but I have literally one long shirt that meets all those criteria, and (since a great shopping trip in Islamabad) one beautiful shalwar kameez. But that wasn’t going to get me through 10 days in Kabul. So the answer is – layering. Trousers, a dress worn back to front so that the low neckline is hidden, and a strange black coat that my best friend was getting rid of because it was too shapeless, and I, squirrel-like, hoarded. For this day, it turns out. This day of 35 degree heat.

I took my Kindle with me of course, and started reading Moby Dick. Even there, Afghanistan was ready to meet me.  Herman Melville uses a reference to this desperately important land as an ironic comment on the long repeating cycles in the news, and casts his narrator Ishmael’s boat journey as part of a global epic by this reference which could have been as pointed in 2001 as 1851:

‘And doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States
“Whaling Voyage by One Ishmael”
“Bloody Battle in Affghanistan”‘

Then there’s the business with the headscarf. I love hats and fascinators, so I was fascinated by the idea of covering my head. My colleagues were quite clear: whenever you go outside, cover your head. When you arrive at the airport, have your head covered. If anything goes wrong and you need help, people will not respect you if you do not have your head covered. I was concerned about the details. ‘Do I have to pin it, or is it okay to wear swathed loosely about my head? I don’t know how to pin it. ‘ I asked one of my new male colleagues. There was a pause at the other end of the line. ‘just wear one, it’s better.’  But then what kind, and what to do with my hair? I have fine blonde flyaway hair, and if the whole point is that my bare head is offensive then the straggling strands around my face would be an insult both to my host country and the patient efforts of my hairdresser. I decided I would wear a headband to keep the flimsy strands discreetly hidden.

I planned some outfits, but could not figure out how to appear as anything other than an eccentric British lady who, for reasons of her own, prefers to wear all her clothes at once. I hummed and hawed over the choice of headscarf with which to make my respectable debut at Kabul airport. The pretty ones from Pakistan would have to wait until I’d sized up the prevailing attitude to decoration, and I packed a plain grey wool scarf. A floor length full skirt borrowed from my best friend, my long black longsleeved shirt, and a shapeless macintosh completed the look. Sitting at gate 5, terminal 2 in Dubai (very much the Stansted of Dubai, a hot 20 min bus ride from glittering terminal 1) I tried to gain a sense of dress culture. Standing in queue to board, I thought there were relatively few women at all, but of those there, only two or three seemed bareheaded. So I bowed to the majority, raised my scarf over my head, and lowered my eyes.

Two hit wonder

When I was in Pret yesterday I noticed that instead of offering ‘strong’ coffee you are prompted to order a ‘two hit’ one. After a brief struggle between a commitment to plain English and caffeine addiction, the devil won and I obediently asked a ‘barista’ for a two hit cappuccino, despite thinking it sounded like a summary of John Prescott’s relationship with journalists.

She stared at me blankly, and asked her colleague for advice. He stood beside her supportively and stared at me blankly. After a moment I asked for a double cappuccino, and they smiled and got me one. I explained I had just been asking for what it said on the board. It’s ridiculous, they said, in Southern European accented English. It’s Oxford Street, most of the people who come in to this place don’t speak English as a first language, why do they make it more difficult? Marketing, I guess, after all, I feel much more kinship with the staff of a cafe if I know that they have the same problems as me in understanding management speak.