Don't know what to say (2 of 3)

[ …continued ]

On the last page, I left you at the door of the mosque, and thinking about Joe Simpson and his father.

It was quite a long one. Because what I’m writing about here is very important.

As important as it gets.

But there’s quite a bit more. You might want to get a cup of tea…

I’ll wait here… :-)



Ready? Then let me tell you what happened at the mosque…

We wandered over. There was a bit of suspicion: what were these two white guys doing? I introduced myself, said I was from the Financial Times. I left him to introduce himself.

He said he was a councillor…

See what he left out? :-)

And they invited us inside.

We looked around a little, noticed all the shoes on the floor, people washing their hands and faces…

Then we left.

Not exactly a Hollywood ending. He didn’t tear up his BNP membership card. “The Asians” didn’t carry him down the street on their shoulders…

And that’s OK. It was good to see him, nodding modestly and smiling, as he was treated like a guest by these people he’d despised.

I don’t know exactly what he made of it, but I’m pretty sure it had some kind of impact.

The thing I want to draw your attention to is this: conversations like that don’t just happen.

They have to be engineered.

Which reminds me of one of my heroes, Studs Terkel.

Terkel was a legendary journalist who used to talk to ordinary people on the street, on buses – anywhere – to capture stories that would otherwise never be heard.

Terkel, on a bus

I’m a big fan. If you get the chance, you should read Terkel’s book Working, about the extraordinary experiences people have, just doing ordinary jobs.

The best version of the book is the one that was turned into a comic. I’m a big fan of comics, too…

But I’ll tell you about that another time.

The key thing is, he found out the reality of people’s lives by the simple means of talking to them…

Giving them a chance to be heard…

It takes skill, to launch into that kind of conversation.

I mean, just imagine starting a chat with somebody on a bus. Getting out your microphone…

While they’re thinking: Who is this character? How can I escape?!!

If you haven’t done it before, you might need help.

But Terkel did it a lot. He had practice.

As a result, the people who talked to him tended to feel pretty good about it afterwards.

They’d got something off their chest – something they probably didn’t often get the chance to say.

I know myself how powerful that is, because I once spent just five minutes talking to somebody about something, and those five minutes changed my life.

Just five!

I’ll tell you about it some time.

But right now, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with you…

I’m coming to that. It’ll soon be clear.

This is my friend Dr David Bramwell.

He’s a an author and musician, and a very funny guy. He used to be a school teacher, running a regular cabaret near his home in Brighton, and doing odd bits of broadcast for BBC Radio 4. Eventually, he became so successful at all those other things, he jacked in the teaching.

BUT… some time ago, David was dumped by his girlfriend.

She said she was leaving him for somebody “younger… and more mature”.


David’s response was to set off round the world looking for Utopian communities.

Not everybody would do that. But David is David. Stay with me.

He liked much of what he found in these unusual communities. But each one, in its own way, was flawed.

So after a long journey, he came home again.

And he found that, while he’d been away, his own neighbourhood in Brighton had been part of a Utopian experiment.

He was sorry to have missed it. But he did his best to bring it back again…

This video explains. It’s a short excerpt from a longer talk. Watch it now:

4 mins, 26 seconds

I hope you enjoyed it.

If you did, I strongly recommend David’s book.

David’s discovery, on his doorstep in Brighton, gives a hint as to how we can ALL do something to get out of the little bubbles we find ourselves trapped in…

…the gender bubbles, faith bubbles, bubbles of group-think…

Have conversations that bring people together…

But I’m not an idiot. It won’t be easy, because people will resist. Like I did, back in that drama class.

After all, Brighton’s “muesli mountain” (where David lives) is quite unusual. Other places might need a different approach.

But it’s worth trying, isn’t it?

Because despite all the vaunted connection made possible by digital devices, many people today feel horribly disconnected.


And not just in “communities”.

It’s even like that in the offices where we work all day.

Recently, I went back to one of the newspapers where I worked a decade ago. I was chilled to see how quiet it was.

Instead of people shouting into telephones, nobody was talking.

They were all just plugged into the matrix… earphones in, fingers flying quietly over keyboards.

So for people in offices too, conversations won’t just HAPPEN.

They need to be engineered.

If it’s done with skill, it might get boys talking with girls…

Fathers with sons…

White people with Asian people…

… and so on.

But I know what you’re thinking:

I’m cheering you on, but I don’t have time to be part of a conversation revolution.

So what if I tell you it can take less time than you have spent on this page…

Might that help?

On the final page, I’ll tell you how.

You’ll love it. At least, I think you will. If you’ve ever felt awkward in conversation yourself, and wished that people in general were better at talking to each other.

But before you go there, I want to clear something up:

Most of the examples I’ve given so far have been about men.

The truth is that pretty well everything I’ve said can also be said about women.

Women can be just as shy, uptight and indeed open and generous. I might even give you some examples…

More soon.