Thursday, 22 December 2016

Your Bonus Questions Are....

It's an amazing experience being on an iconic show like the BBC's University Challenge. I was honoured to be asked, but also terrified I'd look like a complete ignoramus. Luckily my team-mates were awesome - a biological science expert, an acoustics and engineering professor, and a broadcaster who turned out to be a walking encyclopaedia. 

Arriving at the studios in Salford, we were put in the green room with other competitors. They were filming four matches that day, and we were all under strict orders not to reveal the results before they were broadcast. There were a few familiar faces there: indeed the captain of the team we were due to play was a former colleague of mine, whom I'd worked with at ITV News. Small world.

The atmosphere is all very jolly with just a tiny undercurrent of rivalry. After all, this was a Christmas special. It was supposed to be fun, not cut-throat. Taking our seats on the set was a surreal experience. We all got to pose with unflappable host Jeremy Paxman in front of an enthusiastic audience. We practised using our buzzers, and I made sure our mascot, Ollie Bear, was front and centre. All very relaxed. Then the cameras started rolling.

As the opposing team introduced themselves, my Kent colleagues and I exchanged uneasy glances. Sussex were fielding a top journalist, a comedienne, a major academic and a QC. Between them, they had some serious brainpower.

But we needn't have worried. 

My team mates turned out to have a wealth of knowledge, everything from fossils to computer systems to Belgian musicians to war poets. (For my part, and rather less intellectually, I managed to supply answers on Batman, Hollywood actors, and the Two Ronnies).

Yes, we got one or two wrong. I will forever kick myself over failing to recognise the breastbone of a turkey. But we nailed it. And I don't mind revealing we got one of the highest scores ever on Christmas University Challenge.

So I leave you with good wishes and good cheer, and wish you all a very happy Christmas. May 2017 be a fantastic year for all.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Winners and Losers

The US presidential election has been a long journey. And on November 9th, I had to explain to my daughter how a man labelled as racist, misogynistic and politically inexperienced got to be the leader of the free world.

In the interests of balance, I also had to explain why so many people disliked and distrusted his opponent too. My daughter was bewildered as to how these two ended up as America's choice for the next president. Join the club, love.

But it's (hopefully) taught us two things.

1) The polls aren't always right. Remember Brexit.

2) There is a huge swathe of people out there who feel disenfranchised, forgotten, ignored, and badly done by. They believe the current Administration has failed them and they've made their voices known. They want change. The trouble is, some communities (Muslim, LGBT, Hispanic) fear the change may be for the worse.

Trump has promised to be a president for ALL people. For those of us watching from the outside, we can only hope that's true.


Christmas is just weeks away. Anyone with OCD like myself will already have written their lists and started their shopping. My husband is more laid back, which usually means he has a last minute scramble to buy presents. We always have a battle over when the tree goes up. My daughter starts clamouring for it come mid-November. My husband would be happy to leave it till Christmas Eve. So we compromise - sometime around December 10th, the Ghosh household will be bedecked with bows of holly. 

If you're looking for a unique present this year which will do some good and has more meaning, do check out the Alternative Gift Shop at Build Africa. This is the charity I'm a patron of, and the gifts are really cool. You can buy much-needed items for villages in Africa and donate them in someone's name. That person will get a beautiful postcard recognising their contribution and telling them what it means. Just 5.00GBP buys soap for a child;  17.00GBP buys honey bees for an African farmer; and if you can stretch to 70.00GBP, you get to help educate a girl! And that really is an amazing gift.


Visit the website at and make a difference this Christmas. Now, unashamed plug over, time to get back to scrutinising another long-running election contest with hilarious competitors. Yes, X-Factor, I'm talking about you. 

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Starter For Ten

It's been a while since my last blog. Apologies - it's a combination of being too busy and, when I do have time, too lazy. But here I am again, and it's been a weird month of ups and downs.

The Ups - several publishers have now read my manuscript, encouraged by my hard-working agent Piers, and all of them have enjoyed it. Just to fill you in, I've written a YA supernatural novel about an Indian teenage girl who discovers her mother belongs to an ancient demon-slaying organisation. The story has its roots in Hindu mythology, which was a big part of my childhood.

One publisher wrote "I thought the concept for this one was brilliant and I'm always keen to bring a broader range of cultural influences to the list". Another wrote "Shiulie is clearly a gifted writer with such a natural YA voice that flows wonderfully and pulled me into the story immediately".

The Downs - the first publisher already had several YA authors on their books and didn't require any more. The second decided they wanted a contemporary story, not a paranormal one. My agent got a 'thanks but no thanks' in each case.
I confess I'm only able to tell you this after spending some time wallowing in self pity. Rejection is hard to take, especially when you've spent the best part of a year honing what you think is a great adventure, only to be told no-one wants to publish it. But now I look at their comments and I realise my style of writing isn't the problem, in fact the publishers like that a lot. They just want a different story. So I can either quit - or start again. Back to the drawing board.

An interesting email in my inbox this week. "I am the assistant producer of the television series 'University Challenge'...... Would you be interested in taking part in the Christmas special?" For those who don't know, University Challenge is a formidable BBC quiz show where teams from universities compete to answer questions like "in cytogenetics, what term describes the entire chromosomal complement of a cell which may be observed during mitotic metaphase?"  (Feel free to have a stab at the answer in the comments section below!)  

At first I thought it might be a hoax. But on closer investigation it turned out to be true - I was being asked to be on a panel of four representing the University of Kent. Now, my first inclination was to refuse. This quiz is hard - I mean, really, really tough. It's a sure-fire way of revealing just how desperately ignorant I am of anything not involving Middle East politics.

Jeremy Paxman, University Challenge host
But then I thought, what the hell. Looking like an idiot on national telly can't possibly feel worse than having your precious manuscript turned down by publishers. So I said yes.

Filming is in a couple of weeks. I am yet to speak to my fellow team mates, and I have no idea how to prepare, other than trying to memorise all the key dates in British history over the past 200 years.

But maybe I'll get lucky - maybe quiz master Jeremy Paxman will ask me all about about the Arab Spring. I'll let you know how it goes in my next update.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Coups and Gaffes

Interesting times at TRTWorld. The Turkish Radio and Television company is based in Ankara and Istanbul but in its wisdom has hired me to launch its London operation. This is now duly underway - if you have any interest in seeing what an English-speaking Turkish channel looks and sounds like, check out trtworld,com/live - it can only be watched online as it currently only broadcasts in Turkey.

Except it very nearly ended altogether a few weeks ago, when army rebels launched a coup attempt in Turkey. Armed men swarmed into the TRT headquarters in Ankara, held up my colleagues at gun-point and forced a fellow anchor to read a statement on air claiming they had taken control of the country.

As I said, interesting times.

Of course we now know the coup failed, and Turkish president Reccep Tayyipp Erdogan is busily and thoroughly cleansing every part of Turkey of those connected to the coup plotters. But as the situation unfolded, it was very unsettling to know my colleagues were going through this experience. Thankfully no-one was hurt.

Do you know who this man is? No, neither did I until recently. This is the Libertarian party's US presidential nominee, Gary Johnson. A man who made headlines with an astonishing gaffe during a live TV interview in which he asked the question "What is Aleppo?"

The MSNBC anchor gaped in disbelief and stuttered "You're kidding!" to which the hapless Mr Johnson replied, "No."

Needless to say, this quickly started trending on social media worldwide as #WhatIsAleppo, and Johnson is now doing some fancy footwork to limit the damage. Meanwhile his media advisor is off somewhere having a breakdown.

Johnson broke one of the cardinal rules of media training - something my company Aero Productions Ltd teaches to company directors and anyone else who has to deal with the media. And that is: Always Be Prepared. 

When you're asked to do an interview, you will almost certainly not be given the questions in advance. As a journalist, I know how much reporters hate doing that. But it's fine to ask what ground the interview will cover. And even if you're caught on the hop, a good media trainer will coach you on how to answer unexpected questions. Even better, you'll be taught how to deal with subjects you're genuinely unsure about. With practice, you'll be able to flip a question to your advantage, and look cool and polished while you do it.

My rates are very reasonable Mr Johnson, and I do like Washington at this time of year!

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Paws for Thought

Hong Kong vet administers stem cell treatment

A busy couple of weeks. First, I was sent off to Hong Kong for ITN to film a piece about a new stem cell trial on dogs with osteoathritis. It never ceases to amaze me how expats living in hot and humid countries always seem to have big hairy pets. Still, it was sad to see them limping around because of their degenerating joints (the pets, not the expats), so it was good to do a report on pioneering company VetCell Therapeutics Asia, which sees stem cell therapy as the solution. 

My cameraman Mark (pictured above) filmed Swiss Mountain dog Roxie being injected directly into her hip joints. We'll know around September if stem cell therapy can cause cartilage and tissue to re-grow. It's already proved useful in human treatments, so fingers crossed it has the same effect on poor old Roxie.

I've also been asked to help Turkish broadcaster TRT World set up their London studio. Their news bulletins are not yet live from London, and when they are, they'll only be seen in Turkey. But it's an interesting project, and the new studio in Oxford Circus looks fab, as you can see below. TRT hopes to broadcast bulletins from there in a couple of weeks.

But by far the saddest job of this week was covering the murder of MP Jo Cox for ITV News. Jo was shot and stabbed outside her constituency surgery in West Yorkshire. It's a shocking story, and has inevitably led to a lot of debate about the motives of the killer, whether it was linked to the EU referendum (Jo was campaigning for the Remain camp) and how her death will affect the vote. But at the heart of it all is a tragic story of a vivacious, hard-working young mum who was cruelly taken from her friends and family.

I was at a memorial event held for Jo in Batley, part of her constituency. It was humbling to see how many lives she'd touched and how loved she was by everyone there, whatever their politics or religion. Again and again, people described her as caring, kind, compassionate, committed. I found myself thinking that if any of us could leave half the mark she did at the end of our lives, we should count ourselves lucky. 

And on that sombre note, I will just say Happy Father's Day to all you dads out there. May you never run out of socks and ties. 

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Back To The Future

Reporting from Washington DC circa 2005 ITV News

Almost ten years since I left the ITV Newsroom, I walked back in. It's always slightly disorientating when you return to a place where you spent so many formative years, like going back to school.You marvel at how much has stayed the same, as well as how much has changed. 

A lot of the people I knew are still there, which is lovely. So many familiar, friendly faces, it felt like coming home. And within hours, I was doing a report for News At Ten with very few pictures and an overworked producer. So that's the same then. 

The technology has changed though. Reporters are now expected to be able to edit their own pieces - in other words, to physically cut pictures and sound, weaving in special effects and graphics where necessary. I try not to be a Luddite. No-one wants to end up like their grannies, for whom the TV remote control is still the height of technology.  So I'm happy to embrace new skills and learn how to operate Avid and Newscutter. But fair warning, ITV News bosses - I am very, very slow. Also my OCD kicks in, making it impossible for me to stop tinkering until I'm completely happy with an edit. There is a very real risk I will miss a deadline if left to my own devices. (Unless my punctuality OCD cancels out my perfectionism OCD. Let's not put it to the test.)

Speaking of technology, I gave a talk to Journalism graduates last week. They were studying at Teesside University, which was kind enough to give me an Honorary Degree several years ago. I am always keen to encourage the future guardians of truth, justice, and a free press so I attended their Journalism Awards evening and talked about how vastly the industry had changed. When I started out as a reporter back in 1990, I had a notepad and a pen. If I was really lucky, I had a pen that worked. Social media? That was everyone gathered round the telly on a Saturday night. 

The students I met in Middlesbrough are light years from that. They all seem to have YouTube channels or websites or a gazillion followers. They all blog and vlog and tweet. I came away feeling both impressed and exhausted by their energy.

 I wouldn't normally post a photo without asking everyone's permission, but since they've all already tweeted about it I suppose there's no problem. The future of journalism is in safe hands. If any of you has offspring keen to get into this mad business, I do recommend the media and journalism courses at Teesside University. 

By the way, if anyone under 20 is reading this, could you please enlighten me about Snapchat? I totally get Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc but the point of that yellow ghost thingy which is erased after a few seconds is lost on me. I have the uncomfortable feeling I sound like my mum. 

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Head In The Clouds

Meet our Skyjib X4. Looks like something out of a sci-fi film, doesn't it? This is my new business partner - along with my husband, Simon. To be fair, the one is rarely seen without the other. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I say. So together we are now running a fabulous aerial filming company called Aero Productions Ltd. If you pop along to our website  you will see the kind of films we make.

I say 'we' but it's actually my husband who does the flying. While I was working in the desert all those months sans famille he was busy qualifying as a drone pilot with full accreditation from the Civil Aviation Authority. It all sounded like far too much fun for him to be having on his own, so I am now a co-Director of his company. Poor man.

Running a small business has really opened my eyes to the challenges for entrepreneurs in this country. The tax system for one. According to a Sunday Times investigation, six out of ten of Britain's biggest companies paid zero corporation tax in 2014. We'd barely registered at Companies House when we started getting stern warnings about about corporation tax through our door! Still, I'm sure it won't be a problem when we've made our first million.

So, what do Aero Productions do? We make amazing films using the best technology. We can offer aerial footage, inspiring photography and anything you require from short web videos to full-blown high-quality professional films to stun your competitors into submission. We also do media training, from handling friendly interviews to controlling the fall-out from an unfortunate incident. 

On top of all that, I'm also freelancing as a reporter. Viewers in the UK should start to see me popping up on ITV News every now and then. Got to keep my hand in. Reporters are only as good as their last story. It will be good to work with my former colleagues again: correspondents like Juliet Bremner, Paul Davies, Chris Choi. Anchors like Mark Austin and Mary Nightingale. Sorry to name-drop but I'm very happy to be back among them.

And last but not least, I am still honing my YA novel. It is now in the final stages of drafting. My agent, the fantastic London-based Sheil Land Associates, has said it is very nearly ready to be sent out to potential publishers. It just needs one more tweak. It's been like having a baby really. Lots of preparation and nervous waiting. To continue the analogy, I'm still in labour but hopefully the end game is in sight. 

So, company director, freelance reporter, nearly-author. Hmm. I may be rather busy in the forseeable....!

Sunday, 10 April 2016

A Little Perspective

So I had lunch with a Hollywood film-maker the other day. As you do. Michael Singh is the Director of the epic Valentino's Ghost, a documentary looking at the portrayal of Arabs on film and in the media, and questioning whether the stereotyping of Muslims rises from the 'special relationship' between the US and Israel.

First released in 2012, it was re-released last year and includes heavyweight interviews with the likes of Robert Fisk, Gore Vidal, Anthony Shadid and Niall Ferguson among others. And a teeny tiny snippet of yours truly, to chronicle the rise of Aljazeera and other Middle East media trying to balance the anti-Arab ideology.

Whatever your take, and it's a difficult issue with the insidious shadow of ISIS now lurking everywhere, it's a fascinating tale. From the 1920's romantic hero (as played by Rudolph Valentino) to the hook-nosed embodiment of evil, the way Arabs and Muslims are portrayed on film, radio, TV and even cartoons has changed radically. (Remember Disney's Aladdin? The opening song features these lyrics: "Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face, it's barbaric, but hey, it's home." These lines were later changed.) 

The documentary seeks to question why these images persist,and how it links back to US foreign policy, but it's had a tough sell. 

It received a standing ovation in Venice, played successfully in Amsterdam, headlined at the Doha Tribeca film festival and was shown in several art-house venues in the US. But a wider US audience has been hard to come by - in one instance Michael was told it was "too politically hard-edged", in another "it would alienate their Jewish membership."

Michael is philosophical. He says the US like their documentaries safe, and that's the way to make money. But if you step out on a limb, like he has done, it is way more thrilling. You just need to have a tough skin. 

He's already working on his next documentary. I'm sure it will cause just as many ripples. Watch this space.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Happy Returns

There's a great hoax doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment. It's a good one because it rings true - but it's not. It's a fake news report about a mother who sends invitations to her son's seventh birthday party, and includes the caveat that gifts must be worth a minimum of £50 because "I'm tired of buying nice presents for his friends and getting happy meal gifts in return!"

It's a spoof, of course. I was thinking about this because my daughter is turning thirteen. Thirteen! How did that happen? One minute they're chewing on a dummy, the next they're chewing you out for forgetting to wash their favourite shirt.

I've decided this is the last birthday party I'm ever organising for her. Trying to get her to decide how she wanted to celebrate was a monumental task. I presented several ideas, the response to which ranged from "Ugh," to "So-and-so's already done that," to a contemptuous raising of the eyebrows. Finally, my daughter graciously accepted my suggestion of a 'Pamper Party'.

There are various companies that will organise a pamper party for you in your own home. They vary widely in cost, but they do the same kind of thing; face masks, mani-pedis, nail art, head massage and make-up. The company I've hired is also bringing spa robes and a non-alcoholic cocktail fountain. They sound very efficient, and I have high hopes that while the girls are getting their nails done, I can spend the entire two hours upstairs in my bedroom with Netflix and a glass of wine.

The curious thing is how regulated birthday parties are becoming. The company I've hired, for instance, insists that all parents complete an online waiver  before they will carry out any treatments. I suppose this is to absolve them of responsibility if one of the kids goes into anaphylactic shock from the face cream. But it's not the first time I've been asked to sign a parental waiver for a birthday party. It seems this kind of red tape is becoming the norm.

Then there's the question of party gifts. I absolutely HATE party bags. I know they're seen as a nice gesture, and many parents do them as a thank you to the children who've come to their parties. But why? Are we really so achingly polite that we have to organise, host, cater and pay for a party, and then feel obliged to present gifts to people just for turning up? It's barking mad. So I don't do party bags.

But I'm far too much of a wimp to just brazen it out completely and send the kids home empty-handed. So I cheat, and buy them a single chocolate rabbit or small chocolate egg. Not a party gift, you see, but an Easter gift.

Next year I might add a caveat of my own to my daughter's birthday invitations. No presents required for the birthday girl. But her mother likes bath salts and oatmeal cookies.

Well, it's worth a try.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Tired Of Caring?

Seeing the images of riot police clearing away tents in so-called Jungle City made me think. How must those families have felt, having fled war and tyranny, only to end up in some miserable tent in the winter? Unable to go forward or back, desperately trying to reassure their children that everything was going to be okay, wondering what would become of them, and then suddenly finding themselves facing helmeted security officers tearing down their makeshift homes? Any parent would shudder at this scenario, suddenly being alone and helpless, with nowhere to go and no safety for their kids. And what they've left behind - endless bombardment, starvation, the terror of ISIS - doesn't bear thinking about.

But here's the thing. You talk about it long enough, think about it long enough, you start to lose compassion. In the TV News business, we call it 'care fatigue'. There's only so much sympathy you can have for the sad tide of refugees fleeing the Syrian War before you start switching the channel to another rerun of Friends

The problem is that this whole thing is unprecedented. Of course, all right-minded people want to help people in their hour of need. And Europe, by and large, has a good track record in giving aid and succour. But when the numbers become alarmingly huge, when there seems no end to the human wave arriving on her shores, even decent people start asking their governments 'what is being done about this?'

The answer appears to be, stop them getting to Europe in the first place. A solution anyone can see is too simplistic. The only way to stop people leaving Syria is to make Syria a place they want to stay. 

That's why the international community has to work harder to make the ceasefire stick. That's why all sides have to support the political transition that was part of the negotiated deal last December. Of course, the main superpowers US and Russia are both deeply suspicious of each other. But if they were the ones dealing with the unprecedented numbers of migrants, the Syrian War would very possibly be over by now (cynical hack alert). In the meantime, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that this is a human tragedy, and the vast majority of these people are deserving of our compassion.

On the subject of caring, I've found myself involved with two charities this week. Both are hoping for more publicity for their causes, and both are extremely worthwhile. The first is the charity of which I am a Patron, and have been for some time. Build Africa ( is working on a project in an area in Kenya badly hit by Al Shabab. The group has successfully ruined the local tourist economy, leaving hotels empty. With no jobs, many young women and girls are leaving school to go into prostitution to make ends meet. It's a grim tale, but one which can be ended through initiatives improving education and entrepreneurial skills.  

The second is a grass-roots project in Bangladesh to save the Bengal Tiger. ( Originally, ecology experts thought there were 400 of them left in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, now they've revised that to a mere 100. They could disappear altogether, and all because stupid people think tiger bones can cure illnesses or make your willy large. I'm talking to you, Mr Chinese Idiot. Tiger populations have been massacred because of demand from China. Get with the program: tigers cannot cure rheumatism or meningitis or malaria. Making wine out of powdered tiger bone will not help your ulcers or your erection. It merely confirms what a complete and utter moron you are. Sorry if this isn't politically correct, but then killing tigers isn't morally, ethically or environmentally correct.

So there you have it. Migrants, forced prostitution and tigers. My list of what we should be caring about. What are the causes close to your heart?

Saturday, 13 February 2016

It's That Time Again

Ah, it is almost upon us. February 14th. Valentine's Day. This has got to be THE most annoying day of the year for single folk. Frankly, it's pretty annoying for the rest of us too. Unless you've just started a new relationship and you're in the first pink flush of love, the pressure to 'do something romantic' is counter-productive.

So my husband and I are doing it differently. We are having our romantic evening tonight - a day early. That way, we can relax and roll our eyes at couples going out for over-priced meals or exchanging completely inappropriate gifts such as lingerie (which, gentlemen, we know damn well isn't really a gift for us, but for you.)

My husband has got it right this year. He hasn't bought me a present - instead, he asked me to pick a recipe out of our million-and-one recipe books, and he's going to cook it. I chose a dozen oysters to start, and roast duck to follow. And if he's lucky, his just desserts will come later.

To be honest, we both need a romantic evening. The last few weeks have been full on stressful, largely due to the issue of education. We have to select our daughter's next school, the one where she will do her GCSEs. It shouldn't be a tough choice, you can't swing a cat in Buckinghamshire without hitting a great school. But sadly, we are perennially indecisive parents.

 Our conversations of late have gone like this: This school's closer, but this school's got new science labs! Look, this school does polo as an extra-curricular activity! Polo! But this school has an Observatory! And this one's just won an award for its food! 

Which to choose?

I've even written out pro-and-con lists, but we STILL can't decide. So we have rather cruelly made her do four sets of entrance exams, thinking that would whittle the choices down. They haven't. Turns out our daughter is brainy (clearly from her mother's side) and she's won places at all of them. Darn. Back to the pros and cons list.

Of course the unspoken fear is that we can't actually afford any of these schools, and six months down the line we'll have to pull her out and stick her in a comprehensive where she'll get beaten up for saying 'barth' instead of bath. 

Anyway. Enough stress. Romantic evening beckons. Is that the pop of a champagne cork I hear?

You lot enjoy your Valentine's Day tomorrow. Mine's starting now! :)

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Going It Alone

cartoon from
Cartoon by Dave Walker.

I've now been home from Doha for two months. It's been a great two months. I think, if I wasn't careful, I could quite grow to like the days where the most stressful decision I have to make is what to cook for dinner. 

But alas, that time is ending. I am a worker at heart, and I have to turn my mind to more important things. In other words, making a living. 

It's a big change for me, being self-employed. In Doha, every expat is only there because they're working for a company, or belong to the family of someone who's working for a company. You can't live there otherwise. And for those of us going in as highly-paid professionals - the bankers, the oil executives, the journalists, the doctors, the lawyers, the professors - it's a ticket to a lifestyle we wouldn't otherwise have. Big houses, big cars, big salaries, weekends by the pool, evenings at top restaurants like Nobu and Hakkasan, it was undoubtedly the best fun I've ever had. And although we lamented the lack of 'culture' in the early days, even that was  a thriving scene by the time I left. Museums, opera, theatre, film festivals, all were on offer. Even Kevin Spacey did a stint here with his Richard III. What's not to like?

There are only two reasons you leave a place like that. Either you get fired, or you start to feel you've got everything you need out of the experience and somehow, 'real life' is passing you by. The first option wasn't so common until recently. I've met people in Doha who've been doing the same job for ten, twenty years. But the plummeting oil prices have taken their toll and Qatar, a country dependent on energy prices for its wealth, has been forced to make cut-backs. Cue a stream of ex-employees heading back home.

For me, it was the second reason, coupled with the fact that  I missed my daughter who was going to school in Britain. Yes, there were secondary schools in Doha, but I was fussy. And now, here I am, facing a future where I am my own boss.

So, let me introduce you to the new me. My first and best-known expertise is in the art of reading out loud on the telly, and I'm pretty good at it, even when things are going bat-shit crazy in the studio. But I am now also a Freelance Reporter (or at least, I will be if next week's meeting goes well); a Corporate Video Producer (hey, if you run a business, I can make you a fabulous company promo for a very reasonable price) and a Media Trainer (want to learn how to deal with those pesky journalists? I'm your girl.) 

And this, of course, is the key difference with being self-employed - you have to sell yourself in a way you never have to do when someone else is your boss. It's fun, and a little bit scary.

I am also a writer, with aspirations of becoming a published author. My manuscript is still with my agent, who is no doubt putting big red lines through some of it even as we speak. As I wait to hear from him, I have been very disciplined about writing other things. Your creativity is like any other skill - you have to keep it honed. To this end, I have entered four short story competitions this week. I am waiting to hear on three of them, but I am proud to say I came 4th in one of them. It was a 'fast fiction' competition - that is, you go online and are given three titles to choose from (which you haven't seen until that moment) and you have exactly 30 minutes to come up with a story, write it and submit it. If you miss the deadline, tough. It's sort of like an open mic tryout for writers, and takes place every Saturday. 

Give it a go:

Here was my 4th placed entry - it was written in around 22 minutes, so please excuse the lack of finesse. I hope you like it. 

Blown Away
He stood in front of the ticket desk, checking his watch every five minutes. She said she would be here - she couldn't have changed her mind, could she?
He watched the planes take off and land through the windows, smiling slightly as he remembered last night. She had been like an animal, holding him as if she'd never let him go.
"I'm leaving Richard," she'd breathed. "I'm going to do as you ask. Tomorrow, you and me, on that plane. A new life."
The fact that all this was taking place in Richard's bedroom had made it all the sweeter. He smiled grimly. He'd hated Richard for years, ever since they had been at public school together. Richard had made his life a misery. Now he'd taken Richard's wife, and very soon, Richard's money.
Payback is a bitch, he thought.
He had waited until his lover had finished showering, then helped her pack.
"Got everything?" he asked, as she glanced around the vast marital bedroom for the last time. "Mobile? Passport?"
She nodded. "Go on downstairs then, sweetheart," he told her. "I'll just grab my car keys." He waited till she headed down to the kitchen, then severed the gas pipe into the ornamental fireplace. A little extra present for Richard, he thought. His nemesis would come home that night, to a gas-filled building. He'd flick on the light switch, maybe even light one of his infernal cigarettes.... and when his lovely widow remarried in a few months time, his money would go with her. She really was attractive, the man mused. But she would be doubly so, as a rich widow.
"I have to go to the office to tie up a few loose ends," she told him at the front door. "You go home and grab your suitcase, I'll meet you at the airport. I can't wait, my darling."
But he had been waiting an hour now, and there was no sign of her. His mobile phone rang.
"I'm so sorry I'm late," she said, breathless, as if she'd been running. "I was on my way to the airport when realized I'd left my damn glasses on the bedside table. You know I'm as blind as a bat without them. I'm here now, I won't be a sec...."
He tried to shout down the phone, to stop her, to tell her to forget her glasses. But it was too late. He heard the sound of an explosion, rendered distant and tinny through his phone's speaker. Carefully, he pressed 'end call'. He looked at his mobile thoughtfully.
What a pity, he thought. He'd really quite liked her. Oh well, better luck next time.
He turned to the girl at the ticket desk.
"Just the one flight now, please," he told her, smiling his charming smile. "It seems my girlfriend isn't going to make it after all."


Saturday, 23 January 2016

Different Strokes

Since coming back to the UK from Doha, there are a number of things I've had to get to grips with. Some are obvious - like the weather. In the Gulf, we have around five or six days a year where rain falls. Everyone goes nuts and rushes outside, chuckling manically as they get soaked. Religious leaders even hold special prayers to call for more rain. I think it's fair to say this doesn't  happen in Britain, particularly if you're one of the unfortunates who watched their entire household drift down the high street a few weeks back.

Then there's the traffic. Drivers in the UK are a pretty genteel lot. Yes, occasionally there will be the rude cut-in or the unexpected pull-out. But on the whole, British drivers are considerate. In Doha, bad driving seems to be a matter of pride. People turning left from the right hand lane. People gaily shooting out of side roads with not so much as a glance. People parking half way round a roundabout. People parking on the roundabout. Hey, it's a handy bit of empty space, right?

But some things are taking a bit of getting used to. Here's my top three:

1. Recycling

Now, recycling is a good thing. But it just doesn't happen on a regular basis in the Gulf. You get used to chucking your bottles in with your food waste, your plastic with your cans. Someone would make a fortune if they set up a recycling company in Qatar. When I got back home, it took a good few weeks to get into the mindset. My sister, the recycling queen, went spare because I kept forgetting to separate out the rubbish. She, of course, efficiently puts everything into the correct bins. And my goodness, what a lot of bins there are. Green, blue, black, paper bin, food bin - where on earth do all these go if you don't have a back yard? But praise where praise is due - the local council does a great job.

2. Drinking

In Qatar, there are only two places to drink. In the bar of a five star hotel, or at home. An expat's most prized possession is the liquor licence. This enables them to go to the only alcohol warehouse in the country and buy enough booze to floor a battalion. Back in the UK, alcohol is readily available in corner shops, supermarkets and every high street bar. And this is a problem. Don't get me wrong - I'm a journalist. As a profession we are among the heaviest drinkers you're ever likely to meet. And yes, the bar at the Four Seasons in Doha was often full of people rather worse for wear. But I just can't get used to seeing inebriated people drinking Stella on trains, or weaving down the road chugging Bacardi Breezers, or passed out in bus shelters. It's something that never happens in Qatar because of the zero tolerance to alcohol in public. And you know what? I kind of like that.

Okay, I'll admit it. In Qatar, I was spoiled. I had a lovely lady called Hiwot, who lived in the house and cleaned and ironed for me and my family. Before her was Venus, and before her, Janet. All three women were paid well above the average wage for their services, we gave them days off and sick pay, and flew them home once a year for a long holiday. We taught Janet how to use a computer, Venus how to ride a bike, and Hiwot how to swim. In short, they were part of the family. It sickens me that many people in the Gulf do not treat their staff with kindness and respect. It is a matter of pride to me that Hiwot, Janet and Venus all, to this day, keep in touch and send me their news. God, I miss their ironing skills.

It has been an adjustment leaving the expat family and coming home to my real family. But the biggest adjustment is yet to come. Next time - life in self-employment.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

To Tweet Or Not To Tweet

I am a bit hit and miss on social media. I do Twitter and Facebook, and I'm on Linked In. But I don't do Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat or any of the others. I first joined Twitter to keep an eye on what was happening in the 2009 Iran election. I was anchoring live news shows from Qatar and needed the information, but there were very few reporters on the ground. Social media was one of the best ways of of keeping across the action. 

But I was using Twitter passively, not actively, which is why I ended up with the Twitter name 'hackhound' (an amalgamation of news hack and news hound). I didn't think then that I'd be using it as much as I do now. Six years later, I have nearly three thousand followers, which isn't earth shattering, but does mean I can't change my Twitter name without losing them all. So 'hackhound' it stays.

And is it useful? According to some analysts, it's invaluable. Especially if, like me, you're trying a change of career. An online presence is practically mandatory for aspiring authors. Obviously it wasn't always thus; imagine going up to William Shakespeare and telling him his work was okay but what you really need, Bill, is a blog. Or asking my favourite childhood author, Enid Blyton, to tweet about her latest Famous Five adventure. These days there'd probably be an online vote about the characters; "Click here if you think Anne is too wet." (Apologies, that reference will mean nothing to anybody under 45.)

And yet there are plenty of naysayers who believe social media is ruining our lives - making us (ironically) less sociable, reducing our attention spans, inducing feelings of anxiety and depression related to our online activity, affecting our brains and disrupting sleep patterns. It may even be contributing to fewer books being read - which is a disaster for those of us hoping to sell a few at some point!

And yet as a journalist, I can't let go of the fact that social media allows us to exchange information instantaneously.One incident during the aforementioned Iran election demonstrates that perfectly - the shooting of female protester Neda Agha Soltan, whose death was captured on a smart-phone and transmitted all over the internet. Tough luck, Tehran. You can't keep anything quiet these days.

So my mission, should I choose to accept it, is to adjust my thinking. I can't just use Twitter and Facebook to keep up with the latest news or do a quiz on how much of the eighties I remember - I have to actively use these platforms as marketing tools.

After all, it's a social world out there.

Content on (Sean R. Nicholson) / CC BY-ND 3.0

Saturday, 16 January 2016

You Win Some, You Lose Some

It's a terrible shame what's happened to Aljazeera America. Slated for closure in a few short weeks, it means some 800 of my former colleagues, decent journalists all, are now facing unemployment. Some are my friends.

AJAM had its faults, sure. But its heart was good and its goal was pure - to being a more international news agenda to the US. Sadly, one of the main problems it had to contend with was its name. Apparently an Arab moniker is unacceptable to many Americans. We had hoped our faith in human tolerance would pay off, but we were sadly disappointed. To a good section of the public, Aljazeera still equals Terrorist TV. It's an entrenched opinion that will take years of effort to make a dent in - a luxury Aljazeera America now doesn't have.

I firmly believe entrenched opinions are the barrier to progress. You only have to look as far as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to see that. Hell, you only have to look as far as my mum. For years she refused to get broadband internet, because she was convinced 'internet burglars' would steal her valuables.

"But mum," I said, "you don't have online banking, you've never shopped online, you don't even have a credit card." It was no use. For years when we visited her, we had to put up with that unbearable screech as the dial-up connected. Then wait ten years for email to load, trying not to throw things at the computer in frustration. Mum wouldn't even scan anything to send to us in Doha. We had to buy her a fax machine.

She has actually now invested in broadband. Not so that she could Skype me and and her precious grand-daughter while we were abroad, mind. She had a much more pressing reason. She discovered Netflix.

But she is still very cautious about any kind of new technology, which I uncharitably put down to her getting on a bit. "You're too old, mum," I told her. I should have remembered what goes around, comes around.

 I have been trying to get 'down with the kids' lately, because the main character in my book is a 15-year old girl. I have taken to stalking my daughter as she's on her phone, trying to get a feel for the language of youth. When I was 15, if we thought someone was stupid, we called them 'wally', or 'berk', or 'div'. I asked my darling daughter what she and her friends called stupid people. "We call them 'stupid'", she said, looking at me as if I was mad. What about terms like 'bae' and 'on fleek', I asked. What do they mean?

My daughter told me in no uncertain terms never to use words like that again. "You're too old, mum," she said. See, what goes around comes around.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Back Again

Welcome to my new blog! I felt I had to do something productive, as it's now been eight weeks since I threw in my job at Aljazeera English in Qatar and flew home.

Let's just say that again, because I still can't quite believe it - I quit my tax-free salary in the sun as an international news anchor, and came home to the wet, cold UK as an unemployed hack.

That look you're giving me right there is how my husband greeted the news. Thankfully Simon is pretty stoic. He's a program editor and runs his own drone footage company called Aeroproductions, which is helping keep us afloat. Or aloft, ha ha.

I had a lot of fun living in the Middle East. I had a fabulous circle of friends which included ex-BBC presenter Darren Jordon, and ex-CNN presenter Adrian Finighan. I was ex-ITV News. We were like the who's who of presenters who've disappeared off domestic TV screens in the past 10 years. If you ever wonder where that familiar face has gone, he/she is probably in Qatar, lured by the pull of the big bucks at Aljazeera. And don't criticise, because it's a great place to work. The international news coverage is second to none, everyone can afford live-in nannies, and crime is virtually non-existent.

Yes, I am aware of the disparities with the other expats, the ones referred to as 'migrant workers' (as if, somehow, we weren't). But I will come onto that another time. I just want to impress on you how grand life is for western expats living in the Gulf.

So why did I give it all up?

The simplest reason of all. I wanted to do something else.

For the longest time I have wanted to write books, and finally, finally, I have a full manuscript and, that Holy Grail all aspiring writers search for, a literary agent. My novel is a supernatural story for older kids, or YA as my agent calls it. That's Young Adult, which apparently starts at 13. I have my doubts - my daughter is 12, and she's nowhere near mature enough to be on the edge of Young Adulthood. But who am I to argue?

I know things may get tough and I will have to start freelancing in some capacity or we could all starve to death in leafy Buckinghamshire. That would be awkward. What on earth would the neighbours say?!

But right now I'm concentrating on the book. The next step is the hardest. I have a fabulous agent, but now I need a publisher who can see the promise in my work, and the books yet to come.

I am, for the moment, OK. More than OK. I'm happy to be doing something I want to do.

As Oscar Wilde once said, "To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all." So I've taken the plunge, and I'll keep you posted.