Nudging your way to impact

This article was first published in April 2016 on LinkedIn Pulse.

Researchers are under increasing pressure to show the impact of our research, and there are heaps of theories, methods and associated manuals to help navigate the wealth of information out there about what we have to consider to create any impact, how we report impact, and everything in between. It can be a minefield, so sometimes it helps to take a breath and read around the subject.

A couple of books on the subject of impact have caught my eye recently, and with both I’ve been up into the wee hours reading, but then I am a geek. The first is Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern. The second is The Research Impact Handbook* by Mark Reed.

Inside The Nudge Unit gives us an insider’s view of how the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), then part of the UK Government, came about and how they used psychology to influence citizen behaviour for the better, e.g. more taxes voluntarily paid up, more organ donors registered, more people off government benefits and into work. This team of carefully selected academics and psychologists became known as the Nudge Unit and they managed to influence policymakers using evidence from randomised control trials – the gold standard of design methodology (see the Alliance for Useful Evidence’s recent report for the low-down on methods). They had challenges (who doesn’t when working with policymakers), but broad backing too. This book is essentially a chronological account of how the BIT used their privileged access to influence even the staunchest of critics; their access to gatekeepers, elite circles and funding put them in an enviable position.

Not so for most of us, but all is not lost. Us lesser mortals can also have a significant impact with our research. Bravo then to Mark Reed for The Research Impact Handbook and the bods at Fast Track Impact for their resources. How very refreshing to read something that isn’t over-theorised, has common sense solutions running throughout, and is just so practical. I had a look at my own policy briefs when I finished reading and thankfully I meet Mark’s standards.

Mark Reed’s journey of how Fast Track Impact has grown is just as interesting as the core subject of the handbook. His stories of failure and embarrassment are a reminder that things can and will go wrong, and that building flexibility into a project is essential. Mark’s message is simple: creating impact is fundamentally about engagement; building trust amongst those you wish to represent, understanding the power that you may or may not have with different groups, being human and humble, and maintaining positive and constructive relationships with people along the way.

This is a robust, practical handbook, made all the more credible by the huge amount of research and lived experience upon which the content is based. Detailed suggestions from researchers and stakeholders are weaved throughout the book and there are many sections that you can implement straight away, particularly around early impact.

Read together, both books offer the psychology and the practical tools for researchers to create some impact in the short and longer term. Inside The Nudge Unit makes for a good read, but for something more practical, I recommend The Research Impact Handbook.*

*I reviewed the 1st edition in April 2016. The 2nd edition out now.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

There is a wall that seperates Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport from the neighbouring Annawadi slum in Mumbai. Along the wall are adverts for Italian floor tiles with the corporate slogan 'Beautiful Forever' running it's length. This extraordinary work of narrative non-fiction is about the slum dwellers of Annawadi residing behind the 'Beautiful Forever' wall, hidden and without a voice, until now. This was an undertaking of 3 years that involved documenting conversations and observations, working with translators,  using video and audio tape and verifiying data using over 3000 public records. As such, this book a testament to the value of rigorous research and the skill of a seasoned journalist who not only knows how to handle data, but can tell a ripping yarn too.

The stories of Annawadi residents are played out against a backdrop of the sorry state of the Indian justice system and of the abuse of vital resources that rarely reach those they aim to help. It is utterly hopeless and unbelievable at the same time, and nothing brings this more into focus than when one young girl ingests rat poison as a way out. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not an easy read, but you will not want to put it down when you start.

Tender Hooks by Moni Moshin

On the surface, Tender Hooks (also published as Duty Free) appears to be a light read, but it soon becomes clear that our nameless narrator’s naive judgements are vehicles for poking fun at the social norms governing Pakistan’s elite, and the inner workings of her closed circle of opinionated, Prada-wearing, back-stabbing friends. The stock subject of familial ties is also ever-present with our narrator being pulled by her shamelessly snobby Aunt Pussy into finding a wife for her ‘bore’ cousin Jonkers. And so begin the trips to visit ‘illegible girls’ with good ‘baggrounds’ (the malapropisms are perfectly selected and made me laugh out loud). The wedding circuit holds the key to Jonkers’ second marriage, and proves fertile ground for acerbic monologues. When she sees one of her closest friends at the biggest wedding of the year, she simply can’t help herself:

"Mulloo was wearing a sequenced sari I’d seen twenty times before and so much of blush that she looked as if she’d just been given two tight slaps. A thin little choker with tiny, tiny diamonds was buried in roles of fat in her throat. She grinned at me. I wondered if I should tell her that she had lipstick on her teeth. She noted my necklace with her slitty little eyes but didn’t compliment. Typical."

Wealthy, cocooned, and oblivious to how bitchy she is, she still manages to perceive herself as a kind-hearted woman of the people who lets ‘buygones be buygones.’

Knowledge of social norms in South Asia will probably make reading some of the scenarios more rewarding, and you can see the plot turns coming from some distance, but that doesn’t take anything away from them when they arrive. It is a cleverly written satire with a strong voice, and a blessed relief too from reading South Asian fiction about family dynasties and war. Funny, biting, clever.

Count Arthur Strong: Somebody Up There Licks Me - national tour

I absolutely love Count Arthur Strong. I discovered him on Radio 4 when I was doing my PhD – a wonderful distraction from the months of coding and analysis – and I’ve been a loyal fan ever since. During his Command Performance in 2012, I thought there wasn’t a wasted word or movement in the stage show, and the Count has since come to life on our screens and so the visual cues and facial expressions are even more honed. The Count’s most recent tour – Somebody Up There Licks Me – has had excellent reviews, so I won’t repeat the sentiment here, except to say that the reviews are well deserved. Instead, I’m going to try and push you towards his earlier work – the genius that is his radio performances.

Radio is a great medium for visualising the chaos he leaves in his wake. Sit back and listen to the Count’s blood pressure rise at the slightest question, comment or conversation that he can’t quite grasp, his twisted logic and blundering conversations, his claims to fame (Juliet Bravo and ‘that vet programme All Things Bright and Beautiful’), his links with stars like Danny La Rue, Anita Harris and Edward Woodwardwardward, to name a few.

Sit curled up with your cocoa as you’re introduced to his long suffering friends – Wilf the butcher (who unwittingly hosts a book reading for him in his shop), Geoffrey the church hall caretaker (forced to engage with the many, many auditions and revues organised by the Count), Gerry the cafe owner (never has taking a breakfast order been so stressful) and Sue the regular at the Shoulder of Mutton (will she ever be able to have a quiet drink?).

Bartering, queuing and conversations with customer services departments are the staple of his annoyance with everyday life. Then there are the inexplicably frequent events to which he is invited, woven together with a thread of delusion and self-importance that is the hallmark of the Count.

From the smallest of errands at post offices and libraries, through to appointments at hospitals and opticians, and grand days out, there is not a moment of everyday life that doesn’t descend into farce and borderline horror. The range of ‘incidents’ span a cookery show on cable TV (Ready Steady Dinner with a cabbage, package of ginger nuts, half a bottle of vodka, packet of odour-eaters and chewing gum), a murder mystery evening (comedy gold), a book reading (a ‘cricketly acclaimed’ book), ‘Piddler on the roof’ (the title says it all I think), and various speeches at universities and WI events (after a wee tipple of course). The best moment for me was when he thought a full Brazilian was a type of breakfast (‘I know that’s real cos someone on the estate’s had one of those’). Priceless.

A second wind for The Living Library

About a year ago, I thought I had given my final live reading from The Living Library. What a journey it had been: 2 years of working on a personal project, in between writing, researching and training full time was an ordeal. What started as a simple ‘might be nice to do this’ activity after work had mushroomed into a mammoth project spawning blogs and features on my residency, a prologue to my book, over 400 pictures, interviews with dozens of people, over 30,000 words in notes, a book proposal, a couple of live readings and me becoming a volunteer news reader for KR Talking News. In short, Kirklees took a punt on me, and the punt has paid off. It’s been a fruitful relationship, not least because I think the library service relies on my fines to keep the lending library ticking over. Just after I did my last reading, I attended a meeting of the Society of Chief Librarians (Northern region) where we all discussed what we could do with the pile of information I had gathered. We’d been unsuccessful in an Arts Council application, which in a way freed us to be as creative as we wanted with the material. The Chiefs were hungry for something to use, so we thought about producing podcasts from the stories I had gathered. But we needed money to hire the studio and pay the technicians to record them. After doing the equivalent of looking down the back of the sofa for loose change, the Chiefs found some money. It was the tiniest sprinkling of pixie dust sent from the heavens.

Life and my new job took over and, to my shame, I haven’t touched the manuscript since that meeting last December, so the podcasts have taken a back seat. That was until I was invited back as a guest speaker at an annual library event celebrating the contribution young volunteers make to library projects. I shared my experiences of volunteering overseas, as well as extracts from my dusty manuscript, and the brilliant response from the audience, as well as the kindness, humour and support of the library staff reminded me why I started this project in the first place. My daily mantra is: I will finish those podcasts and get them recorded. So now I have a second wind, and I hope it helps me finish what I started. Of course, the real moral of this story is how pixies are so very generous with their dust and how they never lose faith in you.

"Can you say something inspiring?" said the lovely lady from the library.

town hall2.jpg

"Can you say something inspiring?" said the lovely lady from the library. "Er...inspiring? Er..."

"Yes! You know, about your volunteering experience, and your library project and how it's helped your career?"

"Er...I'll do my best." And here it is, an edited version of my 20 minute keynote speech at an event celebrating the achievements of young volunteers who have helped Kirklees libraries in recent weeks:

Can I start by saying what a great thing it is that you’ve done by volunteering at the library. Volunteering can be hard. I know, I’ve done it. You give your time, your energy, your passion for the subject and your skills to an organisation who, in this case, really couldn’t have done that particular thing without you. Sometimes, in the chaos of the day, it feels as if you get very little recognition in return, but that’s only if you end up volunteering in a company that doesn’t really understand what you can bring to an organisation, or how best to nurture you. I happen to think that you’ve hit the jackpot by volunteering at the library, but then I’m biased.

I’m also quite loyal to the ethos of volunteering because, if I’m honest, it was the making of me. I was 27 years old when I applied to volunteer overseas, which might seem a million miles away from where you are now, but who’s to say you won’t do the same in years to come? I ended up spending almost 4 years living and working overseas in the international development sector, and it has led me down a very rewarding path. So although volunteering can be hard and full of challenges (especially if you do it for a long time) I’ll say this, you only need to put a few hours in for it to become a powerful driving force for change in your life.

People say it’s useful to put volunteering on your CV, and yes, they’re right, but it’s not just about ‘getting that job on your CV.’ Reducing your volunteering experience down to 'just a job' means that you forget to acknowledge how it gives you confidence, how you've learned about the workings of an organisation (if you’re paying attention and not on Facebook that is) and about organisational politics, and how you've learned make new connections and expand your network – all of this matters because when organisations are looking for someone unique and committed, they’ll think of you. They’ll think of that volunteer who turned up on time, made an effort, spoke to people with a smile, asked questions, and was interested. They will think of you.

I love a captive audience

What you’ve shown in taking part in this scheme is commitment, not just to the library service and the people you’ve worked with, but to everyone you’ve invited to be here with you tonight. You’ve shown what you’re made of to your wider circle of family and friends. And it doesn’t matter that no one else you know does this kind of thing, what matters is that you do, and the fact that you’ve made an effort makes a difference. It’s made a difference to the children you’ve worked with to see that people of all ages remain enthusiastic about books, about reading, and about being part of this unique public service.

I said earlier that I think you’ve hit the jackpot volunteering for the library service, and that’s not just because they seem to have a limitless supply of tea, biscuits and cakes, but because you’re in the perfect place to research ideas for the type of careers you want to pursue in life. So my advice to you is don’t limit yourself to one thing. This public institution, this unique, chaotic and slightly smelly building is a one-stop shop for advice and knowledge. There are things here at your fingertips that could lead you down several fruitful paths in life, if you know where to look. And if you don’t know where to look, trust me, a librarian can find you anything you need to know.

I didn’t realise just how far librarians go to make sure people get the information that they need until I started working here as a writer in residence, making me part of this brilliant institution. Incidentally, my writing residency was a voluntary activity. I’m a writer and researcher by profession, and this was just a small project that I wanted to do for myself. Two years later, and I’m still engrossed in it. It’s led to work from more clients, opportunities like this to meet like-minded people and speak about the library service, a blog series, a series of podcasts on the way, and me becoming a regular volunteer news reader on the KR Talking News. It’s also led to me feeling part of the local community, which is important.

In short, I’ve created my own opportunities through volunteering, and that’s my advice and my wish for you too – that you create your own opportunities. Don’t wait for your ideal jobs to be advertised. Use this institution to discover what you really want in life. The access you have to free literature will give you ideas about how to live your life, about options you may not have considered or may feel out of reach, about the bravery and stubbornness of generations before, and about how you can carve out your own successful future.

So, congratulations on successfully completing your volunteering placements here at the library. You’ve all earned this evening of recognition. I hope to see your faces around the library in the future and thanks for listening.

A small, excited audience with Jhumpa Lahiri

You could feel the excitement contained in the tiny 8th floor lobby at Broadcasting House. Thirty of us had gathered to listen to the Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri – a woman whose short stories are so powerful and evocative that you believe she is writing about your own life – being interviewed by Harriett Gilbert for the World Book Club. The experience taught me one thing: be careful about putting someone on a pedestal. Harriett Gilbert was a delight; animated and gracious and sporting a very cool tie. It’s a shame that her warmth wasn’t matched by her interviewee. It’s not unusual to read about Jhumpa Lahiri being reserved or distant and luckily this doesn’t take away from her exceptional talent and maturity as a writer (and she's only human, after all). In spite of her coolness in demeanour, there is a genuine depth in her explanations. She spoke of writing about profound shifts and of growth and loss, nodding once again to her two favourite authors William Trevor (she is nourished by his short stories) and Flannery O’Connor. Writing for Jhumpa Lahiri is seldom an intellectual process, but rather intuitive. In the interview she describes vividly how she inhabited Ruma’s father (in Unaccustomed Earth) and wanted to know and write his side of the story.

The questions from the audience were great, but she neatly sidestepped any real discussion on why she writes primarily about wealthy, academic migrant experiences, and not about the skilled, educated migrants who end up ‘driving taxis and cleaning’. I guess she’s earned the privilege of never really having to justify what she chooses to write about, as her writing is no longer ‘young’. What’s clear is that she understands her craft, not the craft of writing and owns it wholeheartedly and unapologetically. Such is the conviction of a seasoned award-winning writer – listen for yourself.

Danny Bhoy's boutique gig, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Oct 2012

“Wow, this is intimate. More of a workshop. A boutique gig,” said the smiley, gangly comedian as he sauntered onto the stage. True enough, this wasn’t the sell out crowd that he’s used to, but then “Tuesday’s always a bad day for comedy.” We first saw Danny Bhoy 11 years ago, at his first Edinburgh Fringe show, where he made us laugh until our stomachs ached. He even made himself laugh, a sign that he really enjoys what he does. Since then, his success in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America shows that he hasn’t rested on his laurels, but used the ticks and foibles of these cultures to form the bedrock of his polished performances.

This tour is a departure from what he’s done before. In this, his Dear Epson tour (specially prepared for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe), he draws on the comedic well of ‘letters to corporations that have pissed you off.’ The letters are clever, and there’s a loose storyline that connects them, but his strongest material is still his observational comedy based on his upbringing and Scottish culture.

He’s amiable, with a gentle and subtle delivery, and an easy patter with his audience. And he hasn’t aged one bit; he still has a boyish, handsome face. The gaggle of Asian girls behind us were clearly trying to catch his attention with crap heckles. “I like these hit and run heckles,” he said, not realising that it was their attempt at flirting. A lucky escape for Bhoy.

Seen But Seldom Heard need you!

Last month, I wrote about how the Paralympians left us breathless with awe. Now, a group aided by Bournemouth University has used the Paralympic themes of Courage, Determination, Inspiration and Equality as jumping off points for Seen But Seldom Heard. This project uses poetry to explore the experience of disability and aspiration amongst a group of teenagers with disabilities. They are in the midst of producing a documentary, but have released this taster and want your comments to help edit the full documentary, which should be out by the end of the year. The Paralympic themes provide a solid foundation for the teenagers to voice their experiences without fear or judgement, and to express what they would like to see changed in society. Judging by the taster, the project has given space for some powerful messages to come to the fore already. At 3.46 minutes into the video, there is a beautiful shot of someone writing their poem and the words, half concealed, hint at something raw and untapped bubbling underneath. But if you want the full power of raw emotion, watch this young poet perform My Name is Jagdev Singh.

As Jonny Fluffypunk, one of the performance poets working with the group, says, “It’s beautiful what human beings can do regardless of perceived setbacks.”

Please forward this link to anyone you know in broadcasting, and help give this documentary the mainstream coverage it deserves.

The Library Book (published by Profile Books in support of The Reading Agency)

Confession: when I read the press release about The Library Book last year, I approached Profile Books on a whim, hoping they would be interested in including extracts of my Living Library research as an ‘epilogue.’ I knew I was living in la-la-land just clicking the SEND button, but to quote my brilliant mum ‘if you not ask, then you won’t be getting...” I got my quickest rejection to date: 3 minutes for a ‘no thank you and good luck’ (I posted an extract here instead, and found out last month that it got a readership of over 3500). So, when The Library Book finally made it to the shelves of my local library, I couldn’t wait to review it. The library, of course, had to jump through hoops to get it: justify the spend on this book, approve the spend, order it, receive the order, catalogue it, ring me to tell me it’s arrived, put it somewhere for me to pick up. This process took 4 months. Good grief, I could have handmade a copy in that time. But I have it now, and it was worth the wait.

The book consists of memoir, essays and extracts of novels. Many are testimonies to what the libraries have given the authors, whilst others present fictional worlds, or form the backdrop to pivotal events. As with any collection of writing, some contributions are more engaging than others. The standout piece for me was by Bella Bathurst, simply because I recognise so much of what she writes about in the libraries that I visited during my residency. She gathers stories from librarians and patrons (which no other contributor does) to bring the modern public library to life. My other favourites include Zadie Smith, whose account of the library as a ‘gateway’ for her entire family is beautifully written and gathers pace to question the concept of Big Society. Caitlin Moran too provides a similar argument with lightless. Anita Anand and Hardeep Singh Kohli offer engaging insights into the immigrant experience (again, I can relate to this), and Val McDermid’s reliance on libraries as a writer echoes my own. Fictional work by Julian Barnes and Kate Mosse are superb, and Susan Hill’s memory of accidently meeting E.M. Forster and T.S. Elliott is spellbinding (I think I held my breath for the last two paragraphs). Robin Turner’s interview with Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers provides a much needed departure from some of the more clichéd appreciations of libraries (and is tightly written), and Karin Slaughter’s call to action makes for a sharp conclusion.

For all the weightiness of the subject matter, it is a light read. I clearly have my favourites, and there’s enough in this slim volume for you to discover your own. You get the gist, this is a book worth reading.

Book review: Get Her Off The Pitch! by Lynne Truss

For four years, Lynne Truss was a sports writer for The Times. Plucked from her comfort zone of writing theatre reviews, she launched into the worlds of boxing, tennis, golf and football. Navigating each world brought its own particular tensions, and she recalls her experiences with an enthusiasm that eventually ebbed away. As she moves through her four year journey, her exhaustion becomes palpable, and her stoicism against the cold-shouldering of colleagues is admirable. I’m guessing that the temptation to punch the gits who made her life miserable must have been ever-present. It’s a touching tribute to an important part of her life. She says goodbye to this part of her career with a sentiment one would reserve for an ex-boyfriend who was tolerated for too long and turned out to be a pain in the arse. When she leaves sports writing, she is free again.

It is told with humour and she becomes more open about her frustrations as she continues her narrative through the different events she covered. Chapters are peppered with detailed statistics on sporting particulars, and her rants about Alan Shearer and the football fraternity are priceless.

It’s worth picking up this book just to scrutinise the cover photo of Truss with Lineker (that’s Gary, in case you didn’t know). Funny, frank, and a good holiday read.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Fact: I was given this book as a present.

Fact: I don’t know what they were thinking.

Fact: The book is too big to fit into my handbag.

She began reading the first chapter, her eyes skimming over the name Robert Langdon. Great, now I’m always going to think of Tom Hanks whenever this name comes up.

She sighed, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before a mind-bending plot would reveal itself in the form of clichés, italicised thought processes, short chapters and blatant hooks.

It won’t take long to finish this.

On the first evening, huge chunks of plot fell off the page, which she saw coming even before she had finished reading each chapter; the tattooed stranger, the Masons, the weird science lab. Is this guy for real? Oh good, Justified is on tele now...

On the second evening, as the tattooed stranger went berserk, and Robert Langdon was conveniently beset by claustrophobia that set in motion a fairly predictable plot twist, something was beginning to form in her mind. It’s like the book is trying to tell me something. As she cleaned her fishtank, searching for The Truth, she spotted a cipher hidden under the pebbles:

What could this mean?

As she read on, Tom Hanks’ face spiralled into view and the truth of what she was holding in her hands became clear: A Ron Howard film wasn’t far off.

In another blinding flash, she saw the future. There was a not-so-secret, unremitting formula binding the 500 pages, and this formula would continue to be exploited as long as there were enough trees on the planet to print the books. On and on she ploughed, through wave upon wave of set phrases and bad story-telling. How many trees were felled for this?

As she embarked on the final chapter, she realised that she would never get those hours back.

I have been duped.

Book review: The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

Hmmm, I’m not sure about this one. Charles Unwin is a clerk in a detective agency. When a lead investigator goes missing, Unwin finds himself leading the search. He is aided by the Manual of Detection, with the mysterious ‘Chapter 18’ missing and a sprinkling of characters who are clearly moulded from the detective genre. Some are sly and secretive, others are henchman or masterminds. What will our hero do? So far, intriguing. The story shows promise – who doesn’t like a good mystery? – but when Unwin starts to delve into the darker recesses of his surroundings, the story begins to dip, the pace becomes a little choppy, and the hard work put into making the beginning so strong begins to unravel somewhat. That said, the writing deftly weaves the characters’ charming little quirks, and the city they inhabit, into a surreal landscape, and then again into an eerie dreamscape. Better as a novella? Possibly. Odd, surreal and intriguing in equal measure.

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

For five years Kirpal Singh (Kip) worked as a chef for the General, based in Kashmir. Fourteen years after handing in his notice, he is asked by the General to be the chef at his daughter’s wedding. Both Kip and the General are cautious at this invitation, having not spoken since Kip’s sudden departure. The long train journey to Kashmir gives Kip a chance to relive the events that have haunted him since his time in the hills. The reader is shown young Kip’s slow awakening to the political landscape, his father’s legacy as a military man, and the motivations of people around him. The imagery and language, however, are that of a dying man; sparse and without sentiment. His thoughts come across as somewhat stilted and cold, often giving him a desolate frame of mind. Regret and guilt surface in his recollections. Nevertheless, the backdrop of conflict in Kashmir is strongly evoked, as are the tastes and smells of Kip’s banquets, and his relationship with his mentor Kishen. On some level, the journey to Kashmir is a chance for closure (or not) with people from his past, but ultimately, Chef is a novel about secrets that “trouble our bones.”

Gifted by Nikita Lalwani

If you are a second generation Indian, the mantra that is the undercurrent of this novel will be familiar: get an education (top grades only), get a job (doctor, lawyer, accountant), get married (to who we say), and do your family proud (no back chat to your parents). With this mantra come other, familiar emotions: conflict over trying to fit into more one than one culture, and the disappointment that this type of shape-shifting brings. Gifted is a novel about Rumika Vasi, and her journey, from the ages of 5 to 15, as a maths prodigy forced to study for early entry into Oxford University. The result is the story about expectations, both shared and mismatched. Rumi is as conflicted as any child of immigrant parents, and her parents ensure that her expectations remain tethered to their own; she simply isn’t allowed a childhood.

In her teenage years, Rumi expects that her superior maths skills will eventually allow her to leave her oppressive surroundings, whilst her parents, particularly her gloomy father, expect her to study hard to fulfil her potential, irrespective of the effect this may have in later years. Add the hormones, rage and wilfulness of a teenage girl into this mix, and the consequences of such rigid expectations lead the family to breaking point, derailed by events that are often tinged with sadness.

Distractions for Rumi come in the shape of boys, and although they are fleeting, they leave important imprints that propel the plot. Rumi eventually inhabits an adult world, but it becomes woefully apparent that she lacks the social skills to make this work to her advantage. Her tender age is all the more apparent in a university setting full of young adults with access to a social life and all that that brings.

The conflicts and tensions between Rumi and her parents are played out with empathy and precision. Indeed, the entire novel is written with an economy of language normally reserved for short stories; tightly woven, pitch perfect and full of surprises.

‘Watching Tagore’ selected for publication

As part of its celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, sampad launched an international writing competition: Inspired by Tagore. My entry ‘Watching Tagore’ was one of the winning entries and will be published in a commemorative book. I’m even more thrilled because I wrote this short piece on my 40th birthday at the Victoria and Albert Museum, whilst watching a photo montage about Tagore's life, and here's a slightly edited version of the winning entry:

Watching Tagore: At the end of the slim, clay-coloured gallery, I reach a television screen that is showing photos of Tagore on a loop. Although taken largely from when he was very much the elder statesman, there is the occasional picture of him as a younger man, and it is these rare pictures that are the most compelling. They show a man with a strong jaw line; a genetic trait that lay hidden behind his coarse, white beard in later years. In some pictures, his hair is cropped short and thick with curls, a reminder that he grew into the sage-like vision in a full length kurta coupled with long, untamed hair. As he gets older his face ages, but his skin never slackens nor loses its sheen. In one shot, he sports a short, dark beard, and wears a tweed-looking suit making him look like a European professor.

As these photos click through his lifecycle, there is one feature that remains a constant: his eyes. They are unwavering in strength and supremely confident. When they stare at the camera, they are the only things you see. When they look into the distance, they are dense with thought. Some photos are grainier and softer in focus than others, which only lends to the intensity of the man, making everything around him almost insignificant in light of his “inner essence.” It’s fitting that a man who liked the human face for its intensity was also the subject of such commanding portraits.

In each of these photos there is nothing about the environment from which he took inspiration, nothing of his workmanship until you rouse yourself from the screen to circle the room. Dotted around the dark walls are paintings new to an English audience. They appear, on reflection, to be about the man himself. Some are mesmerising, fluid and peaceful, others brooding and earthy in tone.

As I reach the wall that separates the gallery from the rest of the museum, I turn once more to the screen at the end of the room. At that moment, a visitor takes a flash photo of the screen and his face is lost in a blistering white star, but his eyes – electric and potent – penetrate nonetheless.

Buy now from Amazon

Buy now from Amazon

3 Unwritten Rules I Think You Should Know About Using Your Library (It Wasn’t Like This In My Day)

At Hudderfield Library last Saturday, we celebrated World Book Night two days early and during the day. Here's an edited version of my reading, taken from The Living Library: If you think back to when you went to the library as children, you’d be forgiven for thinking that libraries have changed beyond recognition. The buildings remain the same – big and imposing, or small and intimate. And perhaps the decor remains the same, with yellow, peeling walls coupled with a familiar smell that lingers. Yet all of this is largely cosmetic. Visiting the library is different now, and it’s different because the rules of using your library have changed. By rules, I don’t mean the number of forms you have to fill in, or how to book yourself time on the computer, I mean the Unwritten Rules. So, to help you make sense of these rules, I’ve put together a list of things I think you should know, helpfully titled: 3 Unwritten Rules I Think You Should Know About Using Your Library (It Wasn’t Like This In My Day).

Rule No1: pretend to be silent without actually being silent. Remember when libraries used to be sanctuaries, places of quiet reverence where the hushed tones and the sleepy atmosphere helped cure your insomnia? (Going to the reference section of Leeds Library is like drinking a warm cup of milk before going to bed.) Remember when you daren’t breathe for fear that just the sound of your breath would make heads turn? And not just any head turn – no – what really frightened you was turning the head of the librarian, making her eyes bulge out of her head in disapproval. Then you’d suffer the humiliation of being told to SHUSH; a simple sound that held so much power and brought so much shame. Remember the sanctuary of it all? Libraries are still sanctuaries, but now they come with a cloud of white noise, what I like to call ‘non-silence’ silence, that wasn’t there 20 years ago. This includes, and is not limited to, sounds of the tap-tap-tapping of keyboards, mobile phones buzzing, and entire conversations happening for what seems like hours on end. The noise is endless, but it’s an unwritten rule now that being silent actually means having a conversation. So now you know that next time you visit the library, the rule is: pretend to be silent without actually being silent.

Rule No2: make sure you have the right equipment for visiting your local library. The only thing I needed to bring with me to my library as a child was a 10p piece in case of emergencies. On the odd day, I’d have a pencil case. But now you need a bit more if you’re to make the most of your visit. The right accoutrements will make your visit to the library much more efficient. You’ll need 4 things in particular: 1. A phone. Why would you need a phone I hear you ask? Well, you have to pretend to be silent don’t you? And what better way to do this than shout ‘I’m in the library, I can’t talk now’ and then just have your conversation anyway? 2. Bags, assorted. Bags are good for hiding things in, and for putting other bags inside them. You can kid yourself, and others, by thinking you’ll need a bag for putting your library books in, but really you need them for the third thing, which is... 3. Food. You definitely need food for the library, preferably something that involves licking your fingers clean. And that’ll just make you thirsty, so the final thing you need is... 4. A drink. The slurpy kind that comes in ‘super-size me’ buckets. Fluorescent colours are best if you want lots of attention and enjoy the sound of pensioners tutting through their dentures.

So, that’s your accoutrements sorted.

It’s not just what you bring to the library that is subject to rules. It’s also what you use it for, which brings me to the third and final rule:

Rule No3: don’t bother with books, there’s better things to be getting on with. As a child, I used the library to read mysteries about missing pets and to play on the cushions in the children’s library. As a teenager, I used it as place to do my homework in peace, and to complete my university applications in private, so I tend to recognise this in others when I see patrons making use of the library in similar ways. But what else do you use the library for?

It appears that some people think that it’s perfectly acceptable, romantic even, to meet at the library for clandestine love trysts. I didn’t know where to look whenever I accidently stumbled on an amorous couple. There’s some serious smooching going on amongst the stacks. On one occasion, I even saw a box of Milk Tray being presented to a girl by her suitor, and she started cooing at him and fluttering her eyelashes. Poor girl, I thought, Milk Tray... I hope for her sake he’s managed to upgrade to the vastly superior Thorntons range.

What I also saw was that people use the library as a port in a storm, and there’s more about that in the book. So, these are the unwritten rules, for now at least:

Rule No1: pretend to be silent without actually being silent.

Rule No2: make sure you have the right equipment for visiting your local library.

Rule No3: don’t bother with books, there’s better things to be getting on with.

The aim of these rules isn’t to mystify, they’re just there to help you make sense of a diminishing world. Don’t let the changes happening to your library put you off using them, just make use of your library while you can.

Book review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

When Rhoda Janzen is left ‘broke and broken’ after her husband leaves her for a man he met on Gay.com, and in the same week suffers serious injuries in a car accident, she retreats to her Mennonite family for a taste of the familiar. What follows is not a misery memoir, although it could have quite easily trodden that path given the circumstances, but a funny and frank account of what it takes to begin the healing process, and the value of finding your roots again. Her descriptions of married life are often painful, such as when her husband’s lover rings their house at midnight, and she ends up leaving their marital bed to sob in their guest room, but her openness gives us an insight into why we stay in unequal relationships for so long, and how love really can be blind.

Amongst the fog of hurt and disappointment, there is a tenderness that radiates from her family and friends, particularly her mother, Mary. Her grounded nature remains the shining beacon that begins to move Rhoda out of the ‘dark waters’ to somewhere safe, where she is free to be herself again. She uses her cultural heritage to good comic effect without compromising the dignity and faith of her family and the Mennonite community.

There is also a sense that this book played a cathartic role in Rhoda’s physical and mental healing. Readers going through a similarly tough divorce may find that her musings resonate, and if nothing else, no other book will have the capacity to make you laugh about hysterectomies.