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.