Chesham-based writer, broadcaster and music aficionado. Co-author of the book 'Closing Ranks' and producer of the BBC radio documentaries 'Black and Blue' and 'The Syrians and the Kindertransport', amongst other things.
I’ve been involved in radio in one form or other since 1999. Using audio in storytelling is one of my great passions and I love creating features that use both a subject’s voice and sounds from their world to weave a compelling narrative.
Music is another big passion of mine and I’ve been a music journalist and DJ since the 1990s. I’ve also produced and presented several music shows.
The Syrians and the Kindertransport
First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 16 August 2019, this half-hour documentary takes a ‘then and now’ look at the refugee experience in Britain, as seen through the eyes of two Syrian men who arrived here in 2016 and two elderly Jewish women who came here as children 80 years earlier. The Daily Mail described it as “moving and humbling”; the Spectator said it was “thought-provoking”. You can hear it here.
The Chiltern Voice World Music Show
Since 2018, I’ve been hosting this two-hour show which is broadcast every Sunday evening from 6pm to 8pm on Chiltern Voice Radio. If you love African and Latin music – or are curious to discover music from other parts of the world – why not join me?
Sounds of Africa (Lufthansa Radio)
Between 2007 and 2014, I produced an in-flight radio programme for Lufthansa Airlines: a specialist programme showcasing African music. Many of the biggest names in African music were guests on the programme – such as Seun Kuti, profiled in this feature here.
In 2006, I won the Jerusalem Radio Award for 9/11Stories – a series of short audio features in which New Yorkers spoke about their experiences during the terrorist attack on the world Trade Centre on 11 September 2001.
From backstage at Africa Oye 2018, Manchester-based broadcaster (and good friend) Geli Berg and I got to interview the Ghanaian reggae singer and activist Rocky Dawuni. Here’s the interview, with tracks from Rocky’s 2015 album, Branches of the Same Tree – the album that won him the accolade of being the first Ghanaian artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award.
The weather may not have been as pleasant as it could have (I should’ve known the heatwave wouldn’t last; this is England, after all), but that didn’t stop Africa Oyé 2018 from being one of the best ones I’ve attended – either as a reviewer or as a guest DJ.
I do enjoy wandering about Sefton Park (especially when the weather’s good – but we’ll say no more about that), and the opportunity to spin a few tunes for the assembled masses is always welcome. I had a great time on Saturday interviewing the Ghanaian singer and activist Rocky Dawuni and the Senegalese singer Marema.
My DJ set on the Sunday afternoon was one of the most personal sets I’ve ever played. Having realised a few weeks earlier that I would be DJing on Father’s Day (my first Father’s Day without a father), I’d decided to turn my DJ set into a tribute to my dad.
I kicked off the set with an old favourite of Dad’s: ‘Joromi’ by the legendary Nigerian guitarist Sir Victor Uwaifo. Later on, I played a track called ‘Harmony’ by rapper/beatboxer/playwright Homecut (aka Testament), taken from his album No Freedom Without Sacrifice. Over a nice Highlife rhythm (the kind Dad really liked back in the day), Testament tells the story of his life growing up with a Ghanaian mother and an English father. His parents never categorised their offspring as ‘mixed race’; instead they described them as being ‘harmony’. Being in an interracial marriage myself, whenever I hear this song, I like to think that one day, it’ll be my kids writing poetry about their upbringing and sharing it with the world. Also, the song namechecks ET Mensah, who was one of Dad’s favourite artists. I think he would have liked that. With ‘Joromi’ representing the past and ‘Harmony’ the future, we had a little ‘circle of life’ thing going.
Next on the DJ stage was my good friend Geli Berg, aka DJ Mayeva. She turned the “awww” factor up to 11 during her set by introducing my wife Karen and I as “a lovely couple whose wedding I played at last year” and dedicated a song to us. Suddenly it felt really sunny.
In between doing interviews, taking pictures and, of course, DJing, I did manage to catch a few of the live sets. Orchestre Poly Rhythmo were brilliant, all dressed in red and white, they crossed genres seamlessly and vibed really well with each other. Sona Jobarteh on Saturday was cool too, wielding her massive kora like Thor’s hammer. Kasai Masai’s soukous grooves got everyone dancing. And Sunday’s headliners, Inner Circle, were out of this world. I can’t think of a single reggae song that was popular in the 90s which didn’t find its way into their set in some form. An awesome live act – but then they have been doing this for 50 years.
And that was my Africa Oyé 2018. See you in Liverpool next year…
I’ve been at the decks again. Like salsa music? Well, then – click on the button and enjoy an hour-long mixtape of salsa tunes lovingly hand-picked by my good self. I’d say “relax”, but this is salsa music we’re talking about…
Last night, I did something I haven’t done in a while: I got the decks out and did a spot of DJing just for fun.
Life’s kind of got in the way of me playing music these past few months, so it was good to get back into that space again. If you’ve seen me DJ, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for unusual covers of old hits – the more ‘out there’ the better. My just-for-me DJ set ended up being a covers set, which I recorded and have uploaded onto Mixcloud for your listening pleasure (sharing the love). If you fancy hearing Britney Spears done ska style, Lenny Kravitz get the samba treatment, or Curtis Mayfield and James Brown in Arabic, just give this link a click…
A few days ago, I made my second appearance at Paris Lit Up: a cool, slightly anarchic, gathering of poets, writers and assorted other creative types (mostly English-speaking ones) who spend Thursday evenings reading – or otherwise performing – to each other in a bar called Culture Rapide.
The first time I went, I read War, Blood Diamonds, and Now the Ebola Virus – a piece I wrote for the Greenbelt Festival’s website in 2014. This time round, I decided to share some more thoughts on the experiences of a Sierra Leonean living overseas. And so I wrote a piece specially for Paris Lit Up, which I titled the Trials of the JC. Here it is:
Weird things happen to a Sierra Leonean on re-entry after spending any amount of time in the First World. For starters, nobody seems to want to converse with you in the native languages any more. The number of times I’ve gone into a shop in Freetown, and ended up yelling at the shopkeeper – “Man, ah beg – talk Krio to me! PLEASE – NO MORE ENGLISH!!”
You walk along the street, minding your business, enjoying the heat, and you notice someone giving you a friendly smile. You smile back – I mean, it would be rude not to. So he says hello. “Yay! I’ve made a new friend!” you think to yourself. So you say hello back… and then he replies with: “Dollar or pounds?” They never say “Euro”. Missing a trick there, if you ask me…
Encounters like this happen every time you set foot out of your door. Eventually you realise what’s happened: You, my friend, have become a JC.
Yes – a JC. That’s the special name the locals in Sierra Leone have for me and my kind.
JC. Just Come. Just two letters, but they carry a lot of weight. To be fair, everyone from overseas who comes to Sierra Leone is a JC. But the word takes on a whole extra level of meaning when it’s applied to people like me. People who have Sierra Leone in our blood, but clearly haven’t lived here for a very long time – or maybe never lived here at all. Your JC status becomes apparent the moment you step off the plane at Lungi Airport. Now that I have a nice green passport – dual citizenship rocks – I don’t get the dirty looks at immigration any more. But I’m still expected to tip folks for smiling at me.
But the real fun begins when you hit the mainland and start to mingle. There was this one time my two uncles took me to a nightclub. They waited until we were seated round a table, a thousand watts of Afrobeats blasting in our ears, and then one of them pulled me to one side and said: “Oh, George – the rule here is that the JCs buy the drinks for the homebased.”
Ah, lovely. If your ‘homebased’ ass came to London, I’d consider you a guest and I’d buy drinks for you. Now you’re telling me that I’M the guest and I have to buy drinks for the host?!?
It always amazes me how quickly people can tell that you’re a JC. Alright, maybe we do give ourselves away when we get into a taxi and put the seatbelt on. And walking about supping from a bottle of Evian you just bought from a supermarket; nobody else does that. I can see that now. But even when you don’t do any of those things, the locals can still pick you out from a mile away. Them’s some mad skills there.
To be fair, those skills aren’t restricted to Sierra Leoneans. I can recall sitting on a beach in Gambia once, and having an unsolicited conversation with one of those fly guys who comb Gambia’s beaches looking for tourists to hook up with:
“So, you’re from England, yeah?”
“No, I’m from Sierra Leone.”
“Yes, but what part of England are you from?”
HOW THE HELL DOES HE KNOW – AND WHY WON’T HE GIVE UP!!
At first, I resented being called a JC. “How dare you!” I used to think. “How dare you belittle a huge, formative chunk of my life? I may not have been born here, but I came here as a child and left here as a man. I haven’t ‘just come’; this is my home too!”
I’m not sure I went through all seven stages of grief, but I can definitely say that I’ve moved on from anger and have arrived at acceptance. I now hold my head up and say my name is George, and I’m a JC. JC and proud.
But even though I accept that I’m a JC, I’m not buying the drinks when we go to a club. It’s the principle. I’m your guest, for God’s sake…
You may have noticed that the little blue square on the side of the page (the one under “Novel-writing madness”) says zero. And you may be wondering why. After all, for the past seven years, the number has risen steadily throughout November – and the final figure proudly displayed for a year.
Well, there’s a simple explanation: I didn’t do NaNoWriMo this year. I didn’t start and then give up; I just didn’t do it. I did write stuff, but there were just too many other things going on for me to focus on NaNoWriMo as I have in previous years. So even though I did do some work on a novel during November, I couldn’t honestly call it “doing NaNoWriMo”. Besides, it’s common practice in some professions to have a sabbatical once every seven years, so let’s think of 2016 as my NaNo sabbatical year.
To all my mates who did do NaNoWriMo: well done – especially if you did hit 50k. And to everyone who’s said to me this year, “I’m going to do that nano thing you’re always going on about”: they always said I’d be a bad influence…
(Only kidding. Seriously, I feel really chuffed to know that I’ve inspired someone to do something creative, so thank you)
“Cancer shouldn’t be a death sentence. It isn’t a death sentence in the West; why should it be one in Sierra Leone?”
Who’s asking? Her name’s Cremelda Pratt, and she’s the founder of Thinking Pink: an NGO dedicated to fighting breast cancer in Sierra Leone.
A Business Administration graduate with a major in Marketing, Cremelda lived in the USA and worked for the Federal National Mortgage Association (‘Fannie Mae’) until a trip home for a holiday in 2008 set her on a new path.
“I’d travelled via Accra,” she recalls. “I noticed that there was a lot of breast cancer awareness in Ghana, just as there was back in the US. But when I arrived in Sierra Leone, there was nothing. And yet I knew that friends of mine had died from breast cancer.”
In 2012, Thinking Pink’s office opened in Freetown’s city centre. In its first two years, some 3,000 women (and a handful of men) walked through their doors. More than half of them had some form of breast cancer.
“We saw girls as young as 12 and 13 with lumps,” Cremelda says. “A 21-year-old had a mastectomy with no reconstructive surgery. Losing a breast is a big deal. And dealing with that with no reconstructive surgery or even a mastectomy bra is devastating. I’d see the tears every day, and I’d cry with them.”
And then Ebola hit. “Breast cancer basically got ignored during the Ebola outbreak,” Cremelda says. “Early detection became late detection; late detection became death. Since the outbreak ended, we’ve been seeing three to five people a day. We’ve noticed a surge amongst younger women; we’re seeing a lot of college students. A lot of teenagers too.
“I want to see a day when we have a dedicated cancer hospital, rather than the current situation where we only have one mammogram in the whole country, no oncologists, and cancer patients are in general wards in our main hospitals. We want to see palliative care happen too. Why should women suffer and die worthlessly? If we had a palliative care centre, at least people would have their dignity up until death.”
The challenges Thinking Pink faces are enormous. When I first met Cremelda (in 2014, in the very early days of the Ebola outbreak), Thinking Pink had a staff of five – including a patient liaison officer who was a breast cancer survivor herself. They’re now down to three. “I’ve had to drop people because there aren’t enough funds to pay wages,” she says, “and I’ve dipped too deeply into my widow’s mite. Without help to sustain the foundation, we might have to close doors. I could go back to the US, but where would these women go? We trust that things will turn around – but it’s on all of us. In Sierra Leone, women make up 51 percent of the population. We’ll keep knocking on doors, and hope that someday soon, somebody will hear us.”
I’ve just got back home from my first windsurfing session for this season – my first time on a board since last October. It was an ideal day to do it; so warm and sunny we didn’t need wetsuits, and a wind that varied from “just right for a beginner wanting some light practice” to “Help! I’m arm-wrestling with my sail – and it’s winning!”
Now in my third year of doing this, all the things I struggled to grasp in previous years are beginning to fall in place: upwind, downwind, tacking, gybing, steering properly and maintaining hold of the board. I’m doing much longer runs than before (my instructor Martin says), and staying on the board longer – though I did fall in twice today. One of those falls was EPIC. It was also a great laugh – and proved that those swimming sessions have paid off!
My confidence on the water is getting better, although that initial reticence to go on the water in the first place is still there (maybe that’s just something one has to live with). But hey, the instructor says I’m improving, and he’s going to draw up a few courses for me to tackle over my next few visits. Then I can get a few signatures in my log book and start working properly towards a certificate or two.
I’ve written before about things windsurfing has taught me about life. Today’s big lesson was this:
“There’s no such thing as stationary.”
Last year, I used to take a lot of breaks mid-sail. I’d run for a bit, then drop the sail and sit on the board for a while before starting again. Yes, I needed a breather. But the downside of that is that by the time I decided to get started again, I’d have drifted off somewhere I didn’t want to be. Because this is the way with stopping things: everything and everyone else around you is moving on (and in this case, the water is moving on and carrying you along with it). Even when there are loads of you staying still, time is still moving on. Yes, there’s a time for rest. But maybe – just maybe – that time isn’t when you’re on a board floating on a lake.
But if today’s session is anything to go by, my strength on the water is building up and those breaks are getting fewer. That’s not too shabby…
November 2014 has been and gone; another stress-filled November in which I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).
I won (again – yay me!), but I’d be the first to admit that this year it was a struggle. But I have learnt a few imortant lessons from the experience – the main one being that I am not a ‘pantser’.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ins and outs of NaNoWriMo, you’ve probably looked at the last word in that previous paragraph and wondered if I’m on something. I’m not (although as a writer, I reserve the right to make words up when I feel like it). In NaNoWriMo-speak, there are two types of writers: Planners and Pantsers. Planners have a clearly thought-out idea, have sketched out a few characters, and have some idea of the plot of their story is going to go. They’re prepared, basically (the level of preparation may vary from one to the other).
Pantsers, on the other hand, don’t have time for all that. They rock up to this thing on Day 1 with nothing prepared in advance; they face the blank page/screen, and fly by the seat of their pants (hence the name).
After three years of going into NaNoWriMo with an idea kind of thought out in advance, I decided this year to see how the ‘blank canvas’ experience felt. Even the title of my novel alluded to this blankness (I named it The Person Who Did a Thing – backhanded tribute to my favourite Swedish authors, Jonas Jonasson and the late Stieg Larsson, whose book titles can all be reduced to that).
So far, so vague- I mean good. I started off well; I aimed to do two thousand words a day, and for the first week, I pretty much succeeded. But then I missed a couple of days and things started to unravel. Nothing much was happening with my characters, and it wasn’t until I decided to switch from telling the story in the third person and made it a first person narrative instead that words started to flow slightly more easily.
Again, the social/community side to NaNoWriMo helped me stay on track at the hardest times. I went to as many of the ‘write-ins’ as I could (usually in a Costa near Oxford Circus) and to the ‘Literary Lock-in’ – an all-nighter at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. That really helped. Writing from 7pm to 7am in a small bookshop with about 40 other people sounds daunting. But by the end of it, I’d done 6,000-plus words and was on track once again. I finally hit the 50K target on the very last day.
At the end of a gruelling NaNoWriMo, I now have two characters (plus half a dozen anciliary ones), tons of mostly self-reflective musings on anything and everythng, and a few ideas that could make a few decent short stories at the very least. So nothing’s been wasted.
What next? Well, after a short break, my plan is to pick up Refugees & Renegades (the novel I won NaNo with in 2011) and give it that long-overdue rewrite and edit. Of all the characters I’ve created so far, Braima, Ed and Alvaro y la Familia Montes are the ones I feel closest to (probably because of the amount of time I’ve spent with them). It’s time to finish their story and get it out. Once that’s done, it’ll be either Yebu and Yasminka (last year’s winning ladies) or the two Bens (from the year before). Either way, there’ll be at least one manuscript done by the time NaNoWriMo 2015 rolls round – and I’ll probably use that time to rewrite one of the other two.