At Last…

Image by victoraf from Pixabay

Ideas often come when you’re not expecting them and that’s just what happened with The Interview Chain. It showed up one winter morning as I stood on the platform of my local station gazing idly at the London-bound commuters on what was turning out to be the first properly chilly day of the year. As they hunched against the drizzle, most of them communed with their phones and a small minority stared vacantly across the track. Here and there, pointy-toed shoes or a bright scarf introduced a touch of drama to the sober woollen coats and beige macs. But despite being such a diverse collection of individuals, no one person stood out—there was nothing overtly remarkable about any of them. 

It’s precisely because railway stations and trains are for the most part predictable places that they provide such seductive material for fiction writers. While solitary travellers sink into temporary private bubbles, and snippets of humdrum conversation pass in and out of focus, things may appear mundane. And yet there’s an ever-present tension between the seen and the unseen and the lives of our fellow travellers may in reality prove to be anything but ordinary. The poet John Koenig came up with the word sonder to describe the realisation that each random passerby has a life that’s as vivid and complex as our own. I stared at a young woman with streaked cyan hair, at a man with a shaved head and an older woman clutching her suitcase handle for support. What mattered to them? What shaped them? What were they proud of? Had they lived enough to have regrets?

I shifted up a gear and started to think about the population of the world and the fact that my fellow travellers were an infinitesimal percentage of the seven billion individuals alive that day. Seven billion—that’s a lot of lives. A lot of stories. 

Real life stories have that extra ingredient that fiction can never have. Escaping into made-up stories and beautiful prose is one kind of pleasure, but watching a film based on fact prompts us to empathise and explore how we ourselves would react in a similar situation. Radio programmes like Desert Island Discs, Last Word, and The Listening Project are popular because they’re about real people’s lives, and are therefore always original and unpredictable. They’re amongst my own favourite listening material and I’d recently been thinking about collecting a few stories myself… especially anything that caused me to step outside my own life and talk to people who could show me a different view of the world. 

….As I stood on the platform shivering and daydreaming, my brain gradually began to do some joined-up thinking. I’d been nosily speculating about my fellow travellers in foreground mode, and hadn’t even been aware that it was gnawing away in background mode. My train arrived and I settled into the dusty carriage with the beginnings of an idea. 

I could do a series of interviews… Then I thought of a twist. I would ask each interviewee to pass me on to someone they admire. That was almost guaranteed to unearth some thought-provoking stories. It would also be intriguing to explore what people admire? Out of the hordes of individuals they will have come across in their life why choose that one? I guessed that qualities like compassion, wisdom, bravery, and professionalism would crop up and I, for one, would welcome some positive stories as an antidote to the ubiquitous world gone bad ones.

By the time I reached the end of my journey two stops down the line, I’d decided to go ahead with what I was now calling the Chain Interview Project as if it were an old friend. I was hoping that its personality would turn out to be interesting, inspiring, connected, informative, and thought-provoking. And if it helped to increase empathy then that would be even better. But none of that could happen until I’d decided where to start. Who was going to be my first interviewee? 

I decided that it would have to be someone I did not already know. That way I was more likely to be led across unfamiliar territory. I had no idea what kind of person would fit this vague description, but over the following months my antennae were directed towards everyone I encountered and I felt confident that when I met the right person, I would know. During this time I chatted keenly to lots of likely candidates without revealing my ulterior motive. At the same time I tried my best not to come across as intrusive or peculiar, although I’m not sure how well I managed that. The upshot was that I had plenty of pleasant conversations but none that grabbed me in the way I wanted. 

It took until the following summer to make a breakthrough. I was invited to a cousin’s thirtieth birthday party aboard a Thames cruiser and it was jam-packed with interesting people. At one stage I thought that a sports journalist might be the one but in the end I wasn’t interested enough in sport to dive in and ask him. 

Photo by Chris Schippers on

Then, as we were on our way back up the river from Greenwich, I sat outside on deck chatting to a young woman whose strong values and unusual creative ideas were intriguing. I was curious to know more and felt she had the magic ingredient I’d been searching for so I plunged in, explaining about the project, and asking if she would agree to be my first link. It was growing dark and most of the light came from the brightly illuminated buildings along the bank and the multicoloured reflections on the water, so I couldn’t see very well. But I could tell enough to know that she was friendly, if a little guarded. And who wouldn’t be when the garrulous middle-aged woman they’re chitchatting with asks out of the blue if they’d agree to take it to another level and do an interview. Fortunately, I had my cousin on hand to vouch for me so with a cautious smile my first interviewee, Kirsti, gave me her email address and we arranged to meet a few weeks later. 

That was how the chain started… 

You’ve just been reading some extracts from the Introduction to The Interview Chain. I’m delighted that it’s being published this week (30th June) by Holland House Books. Available to order here or from WaterstonesHiveWorderyAmazon and all good bookshops!

ISBN: 978-1-910688-58-8

Pass It On

Photo by Ann H on

If I’m in the car at the weekend then I often tune in to Saturday Live on Radio 4—the presenters are cheerful and the theme is loosely about people’s lives so there’s a never-ending supply of interesting and surprising stories. One regular feature gives listeners the chance to thank a stranger who helped them in a moment of need and over the years, I’ve heard stressful tales of runaway caravans, lost keys, confused elderly relatives, empty petrol tanks, and drowning dogs, that have all been happily resolved thanks to an act of kindness. Sometimes I find the stories gripping and other times a bit mundane, but my interest stepped up a level when my cousin Rita was featured on the programme. She’s a teacher and described how she was with a group of pupils on the cruise ship Jupiter in 1988 when a cargo ship crashed into it just outside Piraeus Harbour. She and other teachers worked frantically in the dark to get children to safety as the damaged ship teetered with its stern already underwater. Then after forty minutes and with absolutely no warning, it sank and my cousin found herself in the sea clinging to a passing piece of wood. A schoolgirl joined her there as she spent a terrifying time alternately offering silent thanks to her Dad for making her learn to swim, and being convinced she was about to drown. Things seemed pretty hopeless but then miraculously from out of the dark, a pair of Greek fishermen appeared in a small boat, acting for all the world as though they carried out rescues every day. Thirty years later they were unlikely to be listening to Saturday Live but Rita was still glad to share her gratitude publicly, adding that there’s hardly a day when she doesn’t think of them. 

Gratitude is a natural human emotion and it’s attracted a lot of research attention in recent years as one of the key elements of the positive psychology movement. It’s easy to parody the practise of being grateful as a touchy-feely New Age fad but there’s plenty of solid evidence that it’s good for us because it’s accompanied by a release of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that affect our mood and make us feel happy. And that applies not only when we show gratitude but also when we’re on the receiving end of it. 

Rita found herself in a position where she wanted to thank a couple of strangers and there was no way that she was ever likely to reciprocate and do a good turn for them. I’ve found myself in a different situation in recent years. When I was in a bad state after my divorce there were a number of friends and family members including Rita, who showed great kindness and listened patiently (ever so patiently) when I cried, complained and repeated myself again and again. I think I remembered to say thank you but for a long time these acts of kindness left me feeling indebted and I wasn’t sure what to do to put things right. 

A couple of years ago, I visited Japan and witnessed how indebtedness can be a problem there. Our Airbnb hosts gave us a small parting gift and I felt embarrassed at not having anything to offer in return. But later, as I read more about Japanese culture I realised that gift-giving can set traps for the unwary. If we gave our hosts anything that seemed slightly more special than they gave us then they would feel indebted and might decide to top up their offering. And so the cycle of gifting and indebtedness could potentially become long drawn out and stressful with no-one feeling happy. In the end, while it seemed a bit unfriendly not to have given anything, I was glad that all we could do was bow, thank them and be grateful. 

Photo by Pixabay on

Gradually, I’ve come to terms with the discomfort of indebtedness and accept the well-worn advice that you won’t necessarily be able to thank the person who helped you but that doesn’t matter if you try to pass it on to someone else. So if you’re reading this and happen to be one of the friends or family members who were kind when I needed it, then I want you to know that I try to pay it forward with gratitude. And if and when I do that, then your kind deeds are connected in a chain with people you probably don’t know, and will never know. 

It’s this idea of connections that is at the root of my new book, The Interview Chain. In the process of writing it, I spoke to some fascinating people and each one passed me on to someone that they had been inspired by. In some cases those relationships were life-changing—an actor introduced me to the teacher who gave her the confidence to apply to drama school; a nurse recalled her experiences of volunteering in a Romanian orphanage and passed me on to the family friend who encouraged her to go, and I witnessed the gratitude between a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and the Scottish woman who made it possible for his family to rebuild their lives. 

If you want to read the stories of these people and the others I spoke to during the chain’s 23,000 mile journey across three continents, then there’s not long to wait. The Interview Chain is being published by Holland House Books on 30th June and can be pre-ordered here or from bookshops and online suppliers.