Bemoan the MacBooks – but the rise of the coffee shop workspace is a reminder of public service cuts

This man should be in a library. Image: Getty.

There’s are many reasons why watching Friends in 2018 feels like such a blast from the past: the poorly-aged fat jokes, the landline phones, the screaming lack of diversity for a show set in central Manhattan.

But watching the gang hang out at Central Perk during a recent Netflix binge, a new thought suddenly struck me: this was the last time coffee shops were just for, well, getting coffee. Before the age of scrambling for power outlets and stretching one small americano over several hours of research, coffee houses were simply places to meet, date – or, in the case of the Friends, spend every waking hour of your life socialising. (Seriously, when do any of them actually go to work?)

In the Costas, Neros, and bare-brick hipster roasteries of today, you can barely move for laptops. Some, like London’s Shoreditch House and Forge & Co, have capitalised on the trend by offering meeting rooms, skype booths and even spa services for a hefty annual fee. Others see the macbooks and ipads as an anti-social blight on coffee shop space, erecting smug “no wifi – talk to each other” signs with increasing frequency.

But in the rush to condemn laptop-users for inflicting their stony silence on the regular clientele, the troubling forces behind the coffee shop’s unstoppable transformation are often ignored or forgotten. With the UK’s public libraries threatened by cuts and closures, freelancers, students and other remote workers often find themselves with little other choice when it comes to workspace.

An estimate from last year put the number of self-employed people in the UK at 4.8m. The number of freelancers alone in the UK increased by 43 per cent between 2008 and 2016. The demand for a quiet environment providing desks, chairs, toilets and power outlets is greater than ever – yet library access continues to dwindle, with more than 478 closures recorded across Britain since 2010.

Even if your local library hasn’t closed, it’s probably experienced a squeeze of some kind. Volunteers are rapidly replacing paid staff to keep up with budget cuts, shortening opening hours in the process. Cafes and charity shops have been forced to move in, limiting available desk space and resources. Whatever is free often gets snapped up quickly and early in the day.


Part of the overcrowding problem, of course, is that libraries are just one area in which the UK’s public services are floundering. Since 2015, state schools have lost almost £2.7bn in funding. Recent research from the University of Oxford estimates that as many as 1m000 “Sure Start” centres – introduced to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged children – have closed since 2009. In a survey last year, 84 per cent of local councils blamed government cuts for the UK’s soaring homelessness problem. For school children with no place to go, cash-strapped parents, and homeless people simply looking for warmth and a toilet that won’t cost them, libraries have become the next port of call.

This isn’t to say that vulnerable people, children, and low-income families shouldn’t be welcome in libraries: the monumental role they play in enabling social mobility cannot be overstated. Rather, it’s to say that, when people are forced to use their local library as a replacement for child care, social care, or services for the homeless, something’s gone seriously wrong.

With over 22,000 coffee shops in the UK, it’s little wonder that workers-from-home flock to them in their droves. In many cases, they’ve got a much better shot at desk space, long opening hours and a hushed atmosphere than they could bank on at their local library today.

The sad thing is, many accept this situation without ever wondering what a generously funded library system could look like for them. You only need to visit the home page for Stockholm’s public libraries for a stark comparison: bookable group study rooms, homework help, librarian appointments and well-stocked shelves. There’s even, bizarrely, an electric piano available in one of them.

With funding returned to the right places, our libraries could look this way too. Without it, lower-income families will have their access to computers and literature slowly eroded, whilst freelancers and students will routinely pay for the privilege of a workspace in their local Costa.

Libraries represent some of the last truly public space in the UK today; it’d be a tragedy for every section of society if we lose them.

 
 
 
 

“You don’t look like a train buff”: on sexism in the trainspotting community

A female guard on London’s former Metropolitan Railway. Image: Getty.

I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.

I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy.  I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.

I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.

After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.

The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.

I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.

She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”


Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.

“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”

Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.

“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”

Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.

I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.

We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.