Every transformation that we are witness to changes the world, & this in turn, changes us: 3.5 weeks of lessons in PhD-kingdom

It’s only been basically 3.5 weeks of being an enrolled PhD student. And what is it teaching me?

Well, I’m being schooled,  once again.

I keep being met with questions of what I’ve done – and I try to justify my lack of products with: “I’ve been doing it for 3 weeks?”… but people want something more concrete, I guess.

At first people  told me I should be reading, and reading lots! Getting together my bibliography. That’s what I should be doing for the first weeks they said. So my first week, I diligently sat in the library and looked up interesting books and downloaded paper after paper from the library gateway on creative methodologies and healthcarec(& spent a hefty time on twitter). Then the second week rolled around,  really quickly I might just add, & other people started saying that I really should focus on the making art bit because, you know, it is a practice led PhD after all and I don’t want to get to christmas and have nothing to show for it. Too right. So I started making some really terrible pieces of parts of work/thinking process (you know, it always starts off that way, so not too worried at this stage). Then week 3 was met with that I *really* should be focusing pretty much on the REF1. which has to be submitted in literally 6 weeks now. Scary AF.

So I’ve sat and stared at my REF1 form on word for about a week now, feeling the pure weight of re-framing, of patching up the holes of my research proposal, maybe even changing it slightly, of finding out an extensive and integral and good literature list.  Of finding artists to reference and draw from, of figuring out where I sit – art? design? healthcare? sociology? anthropology? (it’s obviously all of those things, but hot damn) —  trying to get my head around my potential methodologies and the pitfalls that they entail, and figuring out how long everything *should* take me to create a plan of sorts, and lets not even talk about my issues of ethics – and my potential plans in place whilst I endure a long ethics procedure — all of this needs to fit into 1000 words. No joke. And I have insane imposter syndrome that it’s not even funny.

My head of studies told me I needed to take a few weeks to just play, to knock down these boundaries I’ve learnt/built up during the past few years. To reflect upon all of the things I’ve experienced, and frame them. To see the tensions that lie within the frameworks of healthcare methodologies and artistic/creative methodologies – how these paradigms work. How they oppress and close discussion or the opposite or even offer more opportunity.  I wrote quite a few reflections, maybe I’ll share some on here in due time.

I applied with a proposal for my first symposium talk in London(combining art and healthcare together – more info soon) and got it, showed folks how to use drawing as a research and reflective tool at the IPE conference at SHU, and I’ve got the radiotherapy annual conference in Jan to present my other design research from earlier this year. All of which I’ve started to pull together over the past 3 weeks too.

I’ve drank a lot of tea, I’ve sat and stared at the walls in my studio. I’ve moved into my city center apartment/flat.

But mostly what all of this has taught me is that when the ground shifts, the next chapter begins. Here’s what I’ve been thinking and learning and trying to tell people when they’re super confused about why I’m using artistic practice-led work to create healthcare change.

Making things can expand one’s understanding of what it means to be human. Finding the vehicles for exploring the edges of your experiences can be really, really scary but it’s a great way of transforming thinking into practice. Change is inevitable, adaptation is optional.

Every transformation that we are witness to changes the world, and in turn, changes us.

‘Making’ is a process. In comes from ‘doing’. Doing something. ‘Making’ can bring you face to face with your own agency. ‘Making’ has some of the qualities of an echo. It can travel in space and time and come back to you in the form of a feedback loop.   It helps to make something that you don’t necessarily understand. And even if you think you understand what you are making, the act of making it will change your understanding of it and you will feel yourself get bigger.

I have been exploring my own tracings, teachings, drawings, wanderings and wonderings, feelings, thinkings, questionings and assumptions ever since to better see what can happen when something opens and something else falls… out. And like all ‘critical making,’ it attempts to create a context to make tangible some of the possibilities that can drive passion and engage spirit by striving to go beyond the things we know and towards our own reckoning.

‘Critical making’ can remind us that even when we act alone—as an artist, as a designer, as a healthcare professional, or as a hermit—in isolation, we are part of a larger community.

Seeing is a reflexive process, and like an echo it can find its way back to you. Of course, it all depends upon listening. Everything depends on listening. Listening is different from hearing. Hearing can tell you which way to go. Listening can tell you who you are.

I’m having to re-learn to be diligent, and teaching myself to be better with my time, and my work. I’m practicing at staying awake and  trying to be attentive to what is elusive, fantastic, contingent, different and barely there.

I said that i was going to take every single opportunity I get as a PhD student. And I’ve attended nearly 75% of everything open to me, talk wise within my free time.

I plan on paying attention to everything. And remembering what Linda Sikora said when I feel crazily over-whelmed with all of the above.

She says that, “It’s more important to keep paying attention and to follow your attention wherever it goes, than it is to think about meaning and content, because meaning and content come from paying attention to the world.”




Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming

I recently received some incredible, completely surprising and insane(-ly good) news. 

As previously written on a few blog posts, I had applied for a PhD – not ever thinking I’d even get shortlisted, but I was happy with the learning process itself. Pushing myself forward, keeping my options open.

Before I fell poorly, and my life got all shook-up, I had an art practice-led-PhD proposal on my desktop for about a year. I wondered if I would ever be brave enough to submit it.  It was – at the time – something not super well researched. It was about Artwork and labour, and the dark-matter of the artworld – I was hoping to build upon my peers and artists who I greatly admire’s work – such as Gregory Sholette’s political activist artwork, like 1980’s PAD/D and his thesis on Dark Matter (which is one the best books ever on the subject IMHO); William Powhida’s  incredible practice on the Artworld power and structures; ARTWORK by Temporary Services; AREA Chicago’s work (that I was so lucky to have been an intern there in 2009 in Chicago, USA – under incredible people), Olivia Plender, Charles Avery, Tino Segal, ect ect.


But something didn’t feel right about this proposal.  Part of it was the proposal itself, and another part was probably my self-doubt, was I smart enough to do it? Could I justify my proposal?  And so I never submitted it. It didn’t matter much anyways, because the shit-hit the fan and the months proceeding this – my perspective changed after my life became obviously more temporary than I had imagined at 23/4. And I was left,  broken. My plans, my lil’ confidence I had left and my future-vision even more broken.

Art & Labour  became irrelevant to me, and with the recession and the popularity increase in socially engaged practices (yay!), my once some-what original PhD enquiry into art and labour became hot-topic. Diminishing any hopes at looking at it in the future.

I’ve never recovered from this illness experience. And I felt like I lost a part of who I was. For both better and for worse.


My desire to do this art & labour PhD got replaced  by my desire to change healthcare practice for the better. To make the patient pathway better.  As described many times before in these posts – my personal experiences mixed  with having this intuitive feeling about art & designs possibilities in creating a better healthcare experience and system – whether through designed medical devices (think IDEO), to architectural planning of spaces, art-therapy, using creative ways to map the patients experience or journey to generate things, to app-design and virtual reality. The possibilities are completely almost endless. It’s so exciting, but I also don’t think culturally we’ve got there to accepting it as one of our best tools (of many) to make things better.
So I re-trained, in radiotherapy & oncology to help me be part of the system to make sure I always listen to our patients and I felt that radiotherapy was this area that’s open to innovation.  And I’ve had a blast. I’m actually really good at what I do, who knew? I sometimess get 98-99-100% in my assessments, and I often get compliments & recommendations off my patients about my care, not too shabby for someone without any science background. I’ve learnt a lot about myself in this process, and built my knowledge and skill set further. And I feel such a good part of the teams I work with in the clinical setting.  But it has been ridonkulously hard. There’s no denying this. Especially whilst trying to juggle part-time work, and crappy health-issues. It’s been a battle. A healthcare course really tests you, and your resilience.

I felt that being an artist, I could use all my criticality skills and creative abilities to make this change. I felt that art had a place here.And i’ve flexed it out:
I made the first ever radiotherapy patient info app & won a bunch of awards.
I made the A-Z radiotherapy handbook comic
I made the faces of healthcare website of stories
I made an interactive radiation oncology revision group using twitter, storify, google docs and tumblr.
I made the first ever student-led conference dedicated to radiotherapy & oncology.
And a bunch of other things, which you can see here: http://radiotherapysmizz.tumblr.com/


Then I saw a call out for PhD proposals.
I was amidst in applying for radiotherapy jobs. I had been told that some of my ideas were “just too ambitious” in my first rad job interview, and then a few weeks later an informal chat with someone who previously worked in clinical-practice told me that: “I need to stay within my band, it’s not a band 5’s role to think of making things better”. Which started to give me a sinking feeling.
I’m a true believer in transformational leadership – whereby everyone – whether a porter, or service user, or volunteer, or student, or band 5 or band 8 HCP – can suggest an idea to make things better – because they’re the ones who experience the system in their way. And may see it from a different perspective – and that we all have equal responsibility: to practice safe and compassionate care. And to work together – effectively and collaboratively – to make things better. It doesn’t matter where you stand. As Judy Hopps says in Zootopia (AN AMAZING MOVIE THAT YOU HAVE TO SEE!) “Life’s a little bit messy. We all make mistakes. No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you.”


So, I emailed my amazing Radiotherapy professor – Heidi Probst – and told her how I really saw creative practice/methodologies as a way to make change in healthcare. She instantly helped me out, said she’d be willing to talk through things. She pointed out her call out for breast/trunk odeama  (something that had come up with my app with a previous patient who was on an award panel – as I hadn’t included it in the side-effects – showing specifically why this needs to be researched as we’re not really taught about it in practice -i hadn’t really thought about it) and the quality of life issues associated with these patients – and we discussed how a creative way would be able to bring out these narratives – in a way that more well-known scientific qualitative methods aren’t able to do. To really make the people heard.

Sheffield Hallam has a unique research center called Lab4Living – it’s this super cool place that combines art & design practices to healthcare research. It’s a collaboration between art & health & wellbeing. So I saw this proposal sit right in the middle. A collaboration – and interdisciplinary investigation – with an outcome of a rich diverse narrative in many visual forms – it would be both art and health. I was advised by a bunch of academics to submit it to both departments – both art & health – because it was both, after all – and I felt that I’d do the same kind of work where ever I was based. So I did. I submitted the same proposal. Not expecting ANYTHING in return. No shortlist. Nothing. Just this increased knowledge that this massive gap in patient information and care exists for breast/trunk odema.

And honestly – for about a month – I thought of nothing more other than the plight of these people. I began to see people with trunk swelling on their posterior thorax with no advice in clinical practice. And this whole experience intensified something. Like when my eye doctor gives me option “1 or 2” when he sets my prescription, I suddenly saw option 2. It feels like it has heightened the stakes somehow -— reminding me repeatedly how precarious life is, and how every act is a contribution to a finite set of acts, that should be contributing to a bettering of the world (in whatever form that takes). Thinking constellations and not just stars.

Then I got shortlisted in 2 departments – and I panicked. I never envisioned this to happen. in-my-wildest-dreams!

So, after feeling like I was betraying both departments – I interviewed in both departments – each time feeling like I had let myself and the people who had given me this chance down. Both departments asked for 2 different kinds and types of presentations. PhD interviews are really hard to judge! I expected my chance to end there.

I don’t really know what happened in between.

There’s a quote that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, about having to let go of our planned life, to allow us to get to the life that’s waiting for us.

And when I fell sick, I let go of my planned life. And I went into radiotherapy but for a long while i just didn’t know what was waiting for me. And that has been one of the hardest parts. I now feel like maybe this is what’s been waiting for me. This beautiful combination of practices – both creative and health.

“You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than 1 way.” —Marvin Minsky

After much soul-searching. And I mean, really soul searching. I decided art would be the best place to sit – for the freedom. Though this decision did not come easily.

Getting this fully-funded PhD scholarship in art feels like I’ve come home. I’ve been lost, but I’ve been found. Changed but not fully forgotten. For a few years now I have been caught up between all that was and all that could have been and be. You feel lost.  As soon as the bones mend, you forget about the fracture, but you don’t forget that experience that lead to it.

It’s a bittersweet moment because I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Heidi’s help, and I wouldn’t even be interested in making healthcare better through creative methodologies if I never fell sick in the first place.

My great friend Magda pretty much sums  up the bittersweetness perfectly with her quote to me: “Life sometimes gives us lousy hand of cards and we play it like it was fucking aces!! that’s what we do.” Someone make this into a motivational poster.

It is at this juncture that I want to REALLY thank all the people who has made this possible – a reality- Heidi, Alex Robinson,  Jo Doughty, Laura P –  all the people in art – Becky Shaw, Kathy D, Penny M, Claire — so many, many other people  – ALL OF MY FRIENDS & my mom & nan & bro – for all of your help. For taking a chance on me, for believing I could do a PhD, for inspiring and advising, for your belief in making healthcare better. For hoping for a better future for these patient. For all the talks, for all your time, supporting me. For taking a risk.

I am endlessly grateful. I know I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for these people. I never take anything for granted and I feel like I can never repay y’all.

For everyone whose had a dream, and for all the working class kids who get told they can’t even make it to university — this is for you. We can do this.

Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.

My new chapter begins in September. And I am SO nervous.

No risk, No adventure.
To innovating healthcare by focusing on people & their experiences!

Your good friend,
Hopefully, future Dr. Smizz 😉

PS: my radiotherapy career isn’t over either.




What endures, what lingers, and what gets washed away?

It’s  nearly been a whole year since the last Thanksgiving, already. I know, Thanksgiving as a Brit living England is technically not my holiday. However, I wish we had something similar in the UK. Like, I dunno, a Kindness-Day – a national holiday where everyone gets the day off & it’s a reason to take the time to really be grateful & help others out – without it having to be related to some underlying pilgrim genocide. But you know, a time to take in & be present for all the small things. Because they probably matter the most. And you guys have given me the bestest small moments this past year.
I started to pen this post in my head, slow walking home through a freezing fog through the quiet neon light of Sheffield city streets. I do like evening walks like that, just listening to christmas-jazz music. It makes me feel like I’m in a Hollywood movie.  But it’s also made me realize something about Sheffield that I love. I love how Sheffield’s meteorology is an excercise in whims and micro climates. I can see how Sheffield has become a city for rebels, artists, hackers, nerds, runners and hikers.  It often feels like we are not on the same schedule as everyone else. Time passes in a non-narrative mish-mosh of second winters, monsoons and fourth indian summers, calendar dates be damned. Ney, all this can happen in just one day! Those small things.
2013-2014 was very kind to me, work wise. And you were all very kind to me too. I got to draw some amazing things,  people and talks. Stories.
My medical ‘journey’ started making me think more about how narrative helps us all be more compassionate & empowered (if you’re telling the story)… How empathy is first an act of imagination. An illness is not merely a set of signs & symptoms – it is the story in which it is told that gives us the necessary clues of what needs to be done. What kind of support this person is looking for, how it is affecting their quality of life & ultimately what tests/treatments need to be done/undertaken. The thing is, it’s often the smaller things in a healthcare pathway which makes the most personal difference.
I tweeted the other day it was the 11th Anniversary from when my mom, bro & i were made homeless for about 6 months – properly (another post for another time). This is something I think of often when I check my privileges.  How I can never be certain of anything. We are made from our experiences – our failures & successes, our loves & dislikes, what we have witnessed; gentle creatures that get hardened by tragedy. I walk through streets, sit on the bus, in hospital waiting rooms and cafes and think about these people who surround me, I wonder what their stories are. What would be YOUR story?

Because I often find it hard to concentrate these days due to unruly fatigue, brain-fog or just general overwhelming pain on top of deadlines & clinical work – I’ve spent a crazy amount of time online & reading books trying to find a cheat to trick me into being more productive & waste less time. Ultimately – I’d like to gain more time so I don’t have to carry the guilt of not working as fast as I used to do.

But all i’ve learnt from this is that we are never-ever-satisfied. Life coaches think they’ve figured out the secret – to delete all your apps on your phone. Bullshit. Just turn it off!  #firstworldproblems. We await bigger phone screens, & watches that do the same as our phones  and complain about things that are arbitatory. I too am guilty of this. This is like a product of my generation.  But it’s just more proof of not us not enjoying our smaller things.

Robin Sloan in his book Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore writes about this idea that basically you write a book, a “Book of Life”, that represents everything you have learnt in your life. You work on drafts your entire life and it gets stored and read by a privileged few upon your death. Our lives are filled with a desire to know the universe, and to be known. To leave a dent.

As time becomes more valued to me as I know how quickly it can be erased, I started thinking about “quality time”. And its role as the primary means to an end for a fulfilled life. This quality time should be with our own selves, with our interests, and with those people we connect deeply with. They each feed into each other, without one – the others become disconnected. Quality Time becomes makes extremely clear that those smaller things become some of the most important moments in your life. Be present for them, but that’s not easy. Cultivating quality time means attempting to remove circumstances that hinder quality time, and it means attempting to put into place or strengthen circumstances that encourage quality time.

I am learning to be wild again. This week, I – arguably stupidly – decided to not do ANY work after class. I slept (because of the headache) I went on a date! I went to the movies with friends, I had 2 christmas parties, I stayed up and watched the Apprentice, I went reduced food shopping with rich, I finally managed to grab lunch with a friend I haven’t seen properly in ages. And the housemates and I sat down & had dinner together. I needed this. In so many different ways. I truly believe one of the keys to happiness is to build meaningful ways to make a living whilst working on something you wholeheartedly give a shit about — with good human beings who you give a really big shit about.

In each of our lives, things have changed, for better and for worse. Change and struggle is part of our every day. Becoming a new parent, as many of you are this year! is a struggle. Starting a new course, job, moving house, starting a new relationship is all full of struggle. But it makes us better, in some small shape or form.
My crazy 8 month headache (nicknamed Trevor today!) reminds me that whilst we might understand the surface of things, deep down there is unprecedented amounts of uncertainty that we have no idea of. All I know is that this Thanksgiving I am happy and thankful for the smaller things. The ability to hold a conversation, the ability to write a blog post, to live with several groups of amazing and kind friends in 3 different cities at different times of the year. I get to travel. I get to try and make a difference. I get to draw for my job. I get to hear your story. I get to call you my friends.
I believe that whilst our trauma’s may linger, kindness & friendship is the thing that helps us endure.
So this Thanksgiving, I ask you: What endures, what lingers, and what gets washed away?

Everything is fragile.

Mid-20’s isn’t that old, but I feel like I’ve aged 2 lifetimes in the past 3 years. Maybe aging like that makes you look back a bit more. Just as you can see from my blog, my focuses in life have shifted; I’m not just looking for self-improvement in what I can change per-say, but  more to learn how to have grace in the parts of me that won’t budge, or have grace in things I can’t control right now.

One of the hardest parts of having to adapt to being a much slower, less  interesting and hardly a multi-tasker Smizz due to illness, is being observed 24/7. I used to invite people to watch my performance of trying to make it in the artworld— I’d post lots of things I’d make, constantly advertise myself – I kind of craved the attention— but I had no idea that it was going to open me up to some damaging mindsets. It now makes me feel like I need to be on top of my shit 24 hours a day, and I can’t do that anymore. Mainly because I’m either in bed (mostly), studying (secondly),  drawing, or out trying to live life (making up for 1 & 2).  I’ve been trying to learn the “It’s okay to say no to things sometimes. Because if you can’t say no, you can’t fully say yes”.

I’m no longer  living up to the persona I assigned to myself.  I feel like I’m not only letting everyone down who invested their time into me, but I’ve let it make me believe I’m letting myself down too.

So after feeling like I was going to die, and feeling really sorry for myself. After not having the mental /energy capacity to work on my own work, just enough to work on others (which has been/is amazing, and I needed it to survive- both mentally & financially). After seeing people who I admire and respect because of their vision & dignity, struggle in this world. After months and months and months of wishing I could be part of it,  I returned from this ordeal to resume work and rejoin the artworld, but  my membership had expired. I felt like the Artworld had forgotten about me. And everything I made and saw seemed like trivial bullshit—because quite a bit of it was/is (not all of it). Disingenious money grabs.  all speed was stupid.  Some things was just despicable, because it stole the dignity of everyone involved. We deserve better.

This is harsh criticism, and way super cynical, but it is how I felt at the time. These feelings have eased a lil bit, but I’ve always had a critical view on the Artworld because I’ve always been coming from a disadvantaged point anyways. And I’m a Marxist. However, noticing the bad also makes it easier to see and notice the good. Many of the things I love about the artworld are still here, and doing maybe better than some of the crappy parts of the Artworld.


My friends, Lesley Guy & Dale Holmes did this super cool show  at Bloc Projects in Sheffield about Pizza  a few weeks ago. It was so good I went home & ordered a Domineos.

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One of the best artists out there Gregory Sholette is trying to crowd-source this phenomenal project. http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/imaginary-archive-kyiv –  Which is an Imaginary Archive – a collection of fictional and real documents from a past whose future never arrived of Ukraine. It’s such a special and important exhibition, and so necessary at this time, so if you can find the time/$ to support it, that would be amazing!


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I really, really, really want to see William Powhida’s phenomenal “overculture” show at the most AMAZING gallery Postmasters NY, that just opened this week. Powhida’s practice is about helping us see how fucked up things are and to inspire us to strive to a world of justice, supporting (art) world which encourages criticality and  risks.  it’s basically the (art)world we all really want, yet too scared to bite the hand that feeds us.  I keep putting (art) like this, because the artworld is just a microscopism of the ‘real’ fucked up world. Every problem within the artworld is a problem within non-art-related society. Mainly because it’s the same shitty force that drives both: greed and value in the banal, and unethical under-valued/under-paid labour in order to make $$. When in actuality, there’s significant power in our dark-matter-ness if we realize it, together.


My focus  and definition on “progress” made it easy  for me to forget that you can turn around from traveling in a wrong direction, and return to the place where things last felt right. You can go back. Now I feel like I’m starting from the beginning with my personal art practice, and it felt like a failure. But I’m slowly accepting that sometimes going back is sometimes progress.

A few painful years has taught me 1 of the important lessons about life: you only become bulletproof when you refuse to disguise your injuries. The wounds are a gift: You learn how to accept help, and better yet, how to better give it. This in turn is another reason why I’m studying again, to emulate the best care & understanding I kind of know that the patient needs. Remember: if you need help. Ask for it. We can’t do it all alone. All the time.

Life is now somehow more precious and less. I’m now back to my humble beginnings: To share what you know.

So that’s part of what I’ve been quietly doing/working on with F/O/R/C/E, a collaboration with Paul Harrison and a few others – >  forcelectures.org

Don’t wait for a life disaster to be the thing that spurs you into action. Everything is fragile and you are more resilient than you think.

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Essentials: Markus Freitag

you guys know I love my bike, right? In another life, I would love to own a bike shop a bit like Mission Bikes in San Francisco. But for now, I can dream and continue to make and think about bikes. This is like the dream christmas list! If you don’t know what to get me for xmas – and you get me for secret santa or something – chances are anything on this image above would be dope. You can find out what everything is here: http://hypebeast.com/2013/11/essentials-markus-freitag

Essentials indeed.



I think about the blanket of care I have received over this past year. And it astounds me. It really genuinely amazes me that I never knew it existed for me, until I needed it to.

My friends & Family have all been amazing and supportive. My colleagues.  Strangers. People on Twitter. Doctors, and nurses & everyone else working within the NHS. Everyone has been amazing.

I feel super proud to be part of a system that looks after me, and I feel super lucky to have the friends that I do. And I have no idea how to thank everyone individually, and sound 100% grateful and genuine about it? I hope it translates, but I dunno if it does?

So I put it out there? How would you like to be thanked? What’s the best thank you thing/moment that you’ve received/had? Share with the Smizz!  Can a thank you be too cheesey? or too much? What are your thoughts. I don’t want to over do it.


Book Launch!

I’m very pleased to say that my partner-in-crime (collaborator!) Abi Goodman & I’s SUBVERTIZE project (http://readvertise.wordpress.com/ – website needs to be updated hehe) work is featured in the amazing Ania Bas book which is created from a whole year’s awesome residency in Parsons Cross, Sheffield.

It’s a fantastic book – which you can get for FREE – on Saturday 2nd March at the Learning Center, PX, Sheffield. And not only that but Abi & I will be continuing Subvertise, with a different edge – making badges! Whilst our other artist friends offer some great events/projects/things too!

It promises to be an awesome day, so if you’re Sheffield based – DEFO NOT SOMETHING TO MISS. Come and celebrate a fantastic residency project that celebrates the people of Parsons Cross! 🙂 Making a difference.