Big picture meets the nitty-gritty: the struggle of writing a TEDx talk

It sounded like such a good idea at the time. Yeah of course I’d love give a talk at TEDx Whitehaven!

And I did want to – I do want to.

But, that old, old problem which faces most writers has arisen as I’ve struggled to write my talk for the last few weeks: having a big picture which is perfect but the details terrify you into doing nothing.

I’ve literally ummed and ahhed over single sentences for hours. Do I put this in? Oh THIS MUST go in! But is it too much? Maybe it shouldn’t go in. I could put it in then take it out later. But what if it is too much and detracts from THE BIG PICTURE? Maybe I’ll leave it out and put it in at the end if it still seems appropriate? But what if I forget about it? I’ll just note it down here…with the thirty or so other MUST HAVE ideas I’ve come up with…

And so on it goes.

Day in. Day out.

I can’t help it, you know. I’m a ‘big picture’ kind of a guy. I can see the vision, grasp it and lead it to fruition. But the details…well that’s not so easy for me. I’ll get them done but it would be less painful if I took out my kidney with a spoon. Really. It’s THAT painful a process.

But – there is light at the end of the tunnel. The secret weapon that works for some writers at least, though not all. Thankfully, it works well for me: The TEDx people have given me A DEADLINE!

Thank the maker! Now I have something to work against; a galvanising push to get the bloomin’ thing written. Admittedly, I’ll be working right up to the last minute to get it in on time. But it WILL be written. In fact, I’m so inspired I’m going to get on with it now.

Or I could write a blog post about it instead. After all, the deadline isn’t quite YET. And I have a perfectly clear BIG PICTURE of how it’s going to work. It’ll be a cinch to write…

Screamin Ken

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Beer and Biriyani – a new book project

I’m delighted to announce my latest book project – “Beer and Biriyani” which is the working title of a book I’m writing with my good friend Jesmin Chowdhury.

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Jesmin is a wonderful example of how friendships over the internet can blossom and be rewarding (something I’ve experienced many times over). We met several years ago through the blessing of Facebook and quickly developed a mutual respect for one another. Jesmin was born and raised in Bangladesh but moved to Britain early in her life and has lived there ever since. Bangladesh both united us and revealed our many differences and for a long time we have shared with each other the story of our lives. Jesmin is a teacher, translator and writer among many other things and has gained a large following thanks to her thought-provoking articles for a number of publications and online media sites. I have long admired her courage and perspectives on life.

Although we met in person a couple of times while my family and I were living and working in Bangladesh, it has only been since we moved back to the UK 2 1/2 years ago that Jesmin and I really started to see each other regularly. Now our spouses and children know each other well and I have been a regular guest at Jesmin and her husband’s home – to the extent that I fear she may have to start charging me rent at some point! I guess it was only a matter of time before we felt the need to collaborate on a book together. Recently we thought it was time to get on with it at long last.

The book is based on our experiences of living in each other’s motherland, and learning about – and loving – each other’s culture. The book will be in English but we are hoping to translate it into Bangla as well.The style will be a mix of conversations between us and essays looking at specific topics such as culture, religion, language learning and the role of women in society.

As Jesmin commented on her announcement of our project together:

“At a time when the world is repeatedly shaken with violence born of hatred, we hope to spread cross-cultural understanding, and appreciation of differences and eccentricities by sharing our thoughts in this book.”

It is a motive I wholeheartedly agree with.

So why announce this project before most of the book is written? Well, firstly because then it is official and we have to actually get on with it rather than let other things get in the way! But another reason is that we will publish, from time to time, little ‘teasers’ and extracts from the book on our websites and blogs. I hope you enjoy the little snippets as they come and that this will entice you to buy the book when it comes out! The hope is to publish in 2017 or early 2018.

B and B 3

Jesmin is also the talented lady responsible for translating my ramblings in a new edition of my Sonali which will hopefully be available (at long last) in ebook form in August with both English and Bangla text. For reasons beyond my power (mostly) this book has been delayed for two years. Now it’s happening and will allow me to focus on finishing off my collection of short stories The Old Man on the Beach and get that published too – hopefully soon after my TEDx talk in September. It’s all go here at the moment…

Dotted throughout this post are pictures we’ve thrown together quickly just to get this ‘out there’. I apologise for the quality and for the fact I look a complete goon!

If you read Bangla you can check out some of Jesmin’s articles at Women chapter or read a few of her shorter pieces on her blog Amarpata. At Amarpata you will also see some of her writings in English too. If you’re interested in my writings, find me at Writeoutloud.


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Big News! TEDx awaits

Uff so sorry guys that it has been an age since I last posted. I really need to pay more attention to this blog but life is a little full at the moment – and about to get a little bit more!

I can finally announce publicly that I will be a TEDx speaker this September. I’m a little bit excited about this to say the least.

TED talks, for those of you who don’t know, are world-famous and TED has produced some of the most watched presentations available on the internet. Their slogan is “Ideas worth spreading” and they certainly are, without fail. Since 2006 they have put the videos of their talks on the web for anyone to watch for free. TEDx has been a remarkably successful spin-off from these. All the talks are 15 minutes long and range in topic from technology to arts to social and cultural awareness and more.

TEDx are independently produced talks created by people who have obtained licence from TED and stick to the principles outlined by TED. TEDx, at its best, is indistinguishable from TED. I use TED talks all the time in my research work for clients and I find no difference between them. In fact, one of my favourite talks of all time (by Yassmin Abdel-Magied) is a TEDx from the Southbank.

TEDx talks started near to where I live in the north of England last year and enjoyed great success. I had been invited to speak then but I declined for personal reasons – perhaps just as well, I would have hated to jinx their success! I was asked again this year and really couldn’t refuse a second time. I feel very honoured to have been asked at all.

I hope, time allowing, to feed you all more information about the talk I’ll be giving as well as links to various related things over the next few weeks. In the meantime don’t forget that you can sign up to my Facebook page (click on the link on this page for Sonali) which usually keeps up with my writings online (and the odd writing advice meme for those of you who are budding writers) – or follow my writing blog Writeoutloud. I’ll make sure more news on my talk is posted there. You can have a look at my bio for TEDx here and keep an eye on other speakers as they are announced throughout July too.

One good thing about the forthcoming TEDx talk for me personally is that it is forcing me to squeeze time between my commercial writing and educational consultancy work to get my books sorted. I’m reissuing a new version of Sonali as an Ebook soon with Bangla/Bengali translation alongside the English. I’m also finally giving myself a shake and getting my collection of short stories out. It has been ready for well over a year but living in the virtual equivalent of my top drawer for all that time. There’s no excuse for it other than being excessively nervous about publishing it. But I really need to get on with it. I have two other books on the go which I hope to start looking at publishers and agents for soon and I’m also delighted to be writing a book with a very good friend about our experiences of living in England and Bangladesh. Exciting times!

And if you’d like to get a feel for TED talks generally, I’ll leave you with this brilliant and funny talk from Yassmin. This woman’s passion, drive and general niceness is inspirational.

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“I cannot believe it happened in Europe, in 2016” – the plight of Idomeni

Phoebe Ramsay is a Canadian woman volunteering to help with the Syrian refugee crisis in Greece. I read her harrowing first-hand report this morning and felt I had to blog this. I apologise to Phoebe for wholeheartedly stealing her words and pictures but I feel certain that she will be happy with this small effort to circulate what the media show little or no interest in reporting on.

I ask you to read and, if you feel able, to share this on.

Idomeni March 14th 2016.

The day before yesterday, someone-we do not know the source-distributed flyers in Idomeni. The flyer had a map, and instructions in Arabic-there is a hole in the fence at this location, cross the river, if you all go together, once you get to Macedonia you will be allowed to go to Germany. The rumours spread around the camp instantly.

In the early hours yesterday, the first group tried to cross over the river, swollen with the last week of non-stop rain. Three bodies were reportedly recovered by the Macedonian police-a pregnant Afghani woman, her sister, and their cousin.

Then, mid-morning, more people starting walking. And more people followed. Hundreds-thousands-streaming out of Idomeni. They walked first through the village, down the road which turned into a muddy track through the woods and then through to the next village. Families, fathers carrying toddlers on their shoulders, kids dragging their smaller siblings in pushchairs, several people pushing family members in wheelchairs resolutely through the mud uphill. There was an electric feeling of desperate determination and hope.

Idomeni 1

We were unprepared and overwhelmed, in disbelief about what was happening. At first, we tried to stop them-we tried for over an hour, getting translators, trying to convince them it was a bad idea, that it was dangerous for their children, to turn back. We were all seriously concerned that when (or if) they did eventually reach the border that there would be considerable violence, a repeat of the riot at the border in late February when the Macedonian border police shot tear gas and stun grenades into a crowd with children, but on a larger scale. Or, as the line of people appeared to wind their way away from the border towards the mountains and the day drew on, we feared that the families would end up stranded somewhere in the foothills as it got dark. We asked them if they knew where they were going. They didn’t, really-they were just following each other. They said that whatever was ahead of them could not be worse than what was behind them. That they had to try. That anything was better than staying in the hell we call a camp. That they were going.

So, we followed too.

We all walked for hours, along muddy tracks, through farmers fields and down dirt roads, following the line of people. I saw a boy slowly leading his blind father along with a scarf. A young man with a club foot limping along over the rocks, an arm slung around each of the shoulders of his two friends. Women in sandals; people without any shoes at all. As they went, many dropped the few belongings they had been carrying-blankets, tents, extra bags-unable to carry them.

Idomeni 4

Then we reached the river. When I arrived, people had already been crossing for several hours. The river was only knee deep, but freezing and the current extremely strong, swollen with the past week of nonstop rain. Volunteers and refugees, as well as a few journalists who put their cameras down to help, had formed a human chain to get people safely across, passing children and babies along the line. An elderly woman started to faint halfway across and it took several people to grab hold of her and catch her to prevent her from being swept downstream. Small, terrified children were crying.

Idomeni 3 Idomeni 2

And on the other side, we continued, following the silver razor wire border fence always on our right. Some started celebrating and smiling once they crossed the river, thinking that was the border and that they had made it safely. We walked on. A heavily pregnant woman was struggling through a field, breathing heavily and stumbling, holding on to her husband who was carrying both a huge backpack, several blankets, and their three year old crying child. I spread a blanket down on the grass and tried to convince them to sit and rest. They wouldn’t. They couldn’t. Their fear of missing whatever unknown chance for freedom might be awaiting them at the end of this trek outweighed anything else.

What happened next to me, personally, I am describing here because it is important to be honest, but it is not an important part of this story-this is not about me. We rounded a corner, and suddenly encountered soldiers. This is when we learned that we were in fact in Macedonia, which came as a surprise to most of us-at some point in the woods without us noticing, the razor wire fence had ended, and we had all unsuspectingly crossed the border illegally. They allowed the refugees to continue, but herded all the volunteers and journalists off to the side and confiscated all the cameras. As we stood, surrounded by soldiers with guns in a Macedonian field, we heard the roar of the crowd up ahead in the distance. As for us, we were marched single file into the adjacent Macedonian village, and past the hundreds of refugees who were sitting on the ground in a farmyard, encircled by soldiers as several tanks rolled incongruously by down the dirt track, amongst the chickens, decrepit farm buildings and rubble. We-about 25 volunteers and perhaps 40 international journalists-then spent the next 11 hours in the police station in Gevgelija getting processed, fined 15, 638 Macedonian dinars each, (about 260 Euros, which should fund at least several hundred metres of new razor wire) and given our deportation papers.

Idomeni 5

The Macedonian army allowed about 1500 refugees to pass, and then prevented the remainder from crossing, leaving several hundred stranded on the hillside just before the border. MSF, as well as the remainder of our volunteer team, (those who had the foresight not to get arrested), spent all night going back and forth dropping tents and blankets, and delivering hot soup and bread shuttled in a LandRover across the river.

Although spending 11 hours in a Macedonian police station allows for a lot of self reflection, I am still struggling to process my conflicting feelings about what happened on this day. I do want to be clear that what we did-getting arrested-was stupid and by no means heroic. We let our emotions take over and it meant that 25 of our most experienced volunteers were out of commission and unable to provide aid at a critical moment, while the remainder of our diminished team worked until 6 in the morning, scrambling to help the hundreds of stranded refugees while also being deeply concerned about us (unfounded concerns, but huge thanks for the cross border dry socks delivery.) Some of my fellow volunteers have also forcefully pointed out that all of the media footage of volunteers physically assisting refugees across the river towards an illegal border crossing, puts the entire volunteer effort here and the relationship we have worked hard to build with the authorities here in jeopardy. They’re right. At the time, what I can say is that although it was perhaps reckless and very poorly thought out, what we were doing did feel deeply important-it felt important to walk with the refugees in solidarity, to witness what we ourselves could hardly believe was happening. And moreover, there were five year olds and old women trying to cross waist deep, freezing rushing water, and there was no stopping them. I don’t know what else we were meant to do but help. As my friend and volunteer Chloe wrote about her actions yesterday: “We’re not activists, we’re not smugglers, we’re human.”

The 1500 refugees who did make it into FYROM apparently were sat in the farmyard for several hours, and then loaded on trucks, sent back to the Greek border and released. As we finally drove back across the border in a taxi at 5 in the morning, we passed hundreds of people walking slowly along the highway back to Idomeni, still wet from the river crossing. There were children sitting, exhausted, in the middle of the road. They were walking, defeatedly, right back to where they had started, almost 24 hours earlier, except now missing many of their belongings, their tents and blankets, and their hope completely gone.

I’m a bit lost for words now, at three in the morning. Yesterday, I saw the most desperate scenes I’ve ever witnessed. At points, I had to shut my eyes because everywhere I looked I was surrounded by horrific vignettes of human suffering and indignity, and even thinking about it now makes my stomach clench-a mother wearing a towel for a headscarf (the only thing she had left) changing her baby on the roadside, a man trudging barefoot and wearing only boxer shorts through the fields, small children crying, exhausted and thirsty, their scared and worn out parents pleading with them to continue.

I cannot believe it happened in Europe, in 2016. I cannot believe that three thousand people fleeing war felt like they had no other option but to make this horrific, humiliating, and futile trek. I cannot believe they are now back exactly where they started, and are still without any real options. I’m not sure what else I can say, anymore.

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The Lone Jigsaw Piece

Dedicated to KP who inspired this allegory. Conversations after ‘Missionary Midnight’ are always the best.


Once there was a box of jigsaw pieces which sat on  the Dining Table. The pieces were very happy together even though they were all a bit of a jumble and enjoyed the jostle and bustle of life together. Some found their edges matched and became much closer friends. Larger groups formed gradually and became cliques but that was okay because, over all, everyone was pretty tolerant of everybody else.

Then, one day, The One-who-was-having-a-dinner-party-that-evening moved the box of jigsaw pieces from the Table to the Desk. The Desk was a strange land and though the pieces couldn’t see much over the high borders of their box, they could see enough to intrigue them (even though it was a little scary too). So they decided to push one of the pieces out of the box to go investigate this strange place and report back to them of all he found. He was an insignificant little piece but friendly enough and adventurous so he was glad to go and felt good to be supported by so many friends who had helped push him up and over the wall.

Meanwhile The One-who-was-clearing-up returned to the Desk and took the box of jigsaw pieces back to the Table, leaving the lone jigsaw piece in the land of the Desk.

Back at the Table, times were exciting. Now the pieces were removed from their box home and spread out. Borders began to form and quickly and idea of who they were and who they could become started to take shape.

puzzle-piecesThe lone piece was also enjoying an exciting time. The Desk was such a different place to the flat Table which had so little features of interest. Here there were mountains of paperwork, wide rivers of pens and pencils, huge edifices of lamps and great museums of encyclopedias and dictionaries. He missed his friends back at the box of course, but this was still a wonderful place. Best of all was the sunshine which shone down so brightly all day from the window onto the Desk in ways it never did over in the corner where the Table lay.

Over time, the cliques grew larger and now anchored themselves firmly to the borders of the jigsaw puzzle and began to take charge of where the other pieces should go. It was an efficient process with lots of meetings and discussions and plans. Many of the pieces missed the lone piece and enjoyed hearing from him occasionally as he would shout from the Desk to tell them what he could see and how life was over there. Some even hesitated for a while and wondered about making the journey over to the Desk to visit their friend. But, in the end, they decided there was too much to do here at the Table and they were far too busy. Besides, it still sounded quite dangerous and… well… foreign over there. There was so much still to do in their own little world which in recent days had started really coming together well. The grand picture was really taking shape now.

And the lone piece continued to explore the Desk and loved everything he found there. He noticed that just as the sun shone down so brightly during the day, so the stars lit up the sky at night making an amazing tapestry of art which he had never seen before in his life. He learned much from the books, grew fit from climbing the mountains of papers and generally felt his life was bigger and more certain than it had ever been before. Yes, the sun was so hot it was sometimes unbearable but it was worth it for the beauty of all he could see.

Back at the Table, the pieces had finally all joined together and found their proper place too. But there was a big hole which was so obvious now that everyone was in place. They all missed the lone jigsaw piece and thought of him often. They looked forward to his return.

One day, The One-who-likes-to-finish-things-off picked up the lone piece from the Desk where the sun shone so brightly and returned him to the Table, putting him into the hole made just for him. There was so much excitement over his return! Oh how perfectly snugly he fitted into place (almost like he’d never been away) and how good it was to be back among his friends. How they had missed him! For quite some time he regaled them of tales about the Desk and all he saw and learned there.

But there was a problem.

The sun which had been so wonderful, so invigorating for the lone piece all that time, had also changed his colour. While the piece fitted perfectly in place in the jigsaw puzzle world, he was a completely different shade to the rest. The lines and contours across him matched with those around and there was no doubt he was part of the picture yet…somehow…he was too… different. The other pieces were very kind to him initially. They sympathised saying how hard it must be to have come back to boring old flat Table land after all his adventures at the Desk, how different he must feel. But eventually, there was nothing more they could say, nothing left to talk about. It wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t his. It just was.

And so they all fell into a group silence around the piece. They acknowledged his presence each day but otherwise ignored him and he felt it. He knew he was different, knew he belonged yet didn’t belong. He longed for the Desk but knew he didn’t belong there either. And so he sat, in place, and waited, and waited.

Today, he’s still waiting.


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