In this episode of 'The Books That Made Me', Ben Keene (Co-founder of Rebel Book Club) talks to Ciaran Thapar about 3 nonfiction books that have had a massive impact on him to date, including the writers and storytellers who inspired the way he shaped 'Cut Short', his debut nonfiction title that tells the stories of four men at 'the sharp end the UK's youth violence epidemic'.
Ciaran also reflects on the book that 'felt like talking to his late grandparents', by allowing him to dive deep into the history surrounding his cultural heritage, whilst also exposing crucial gaps in the British education system.
Ciaran Thapar is a writer, youth worker and education consultant based in London. He has experience volunteering and working across secondary schools, youth services and the criminal justice system. His youth and education work focuses on preventing social exclusion and violence amongst young people who face systemic disadvantage.
He is the Founder of RoadWorks LDN, a community interest organisation which supports young people to tell stories through music and writing workshops. As a regular contributor to the Guardian, British GQ and others, Ciaran writes longform profiles, narrative nonfiction stories and investigative features about themes like social justice, urban inequality, British-Punjabi identity and London music culture.
He teaches 'Writing for Social Impact' at City University and holds an MSc in Political Theory from the London School of Economics.
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[00:00:00] "In no uncertain terms, this book completely changed my life. Reading it, I remember hearing a quote one time, I think it was from a lecturer at uni who said, 'you'll be lucky in your life if you come across five books that truly changed who you are as a person.' And I feel like this is certainly one of those and nothing else really comes close to it."
[00:00:34] Hello and welcome to "The Books That Made Me," a brand new podcast from Rebel Book Club. Today we are meeting Ciaran Thapar, who is the author of "Cut Short: Why We're Failing Our Youth and How to Fix It."
Ciaran is a writer, youth worker, and education consultant based in London, and we actually met Ciaran at another Rebel Book Club event where we were talking about grime culture. He has great insight into what is going on in our cities with youth culture and the problems that surround it and how we can solve some of these things. His choices of the books that have shaped and made him as a human, as a writer, are absolutely fascinating. Enjoy this conversation.
It's great to reconnect again after chatting with you a couple of years ago when we were reading Stormzy's book, "Rise Up." For those of us that met you then, we got to know you as a youth worker, an education consultant, a teacher, about how to write for social impact, and a journalist in many different ways. But since then, you've published your debut nonfiction book "Cut Short," a true story spanning five years about young life and youth violence in South London. The paperback is about to kick off and it's probably out there whilst you're listening to this podcast. Annie Mac, who we enjoyed listening to the other day chatting with you, said 'it's the most important book a Londoner could read this year,' which is high praise indeed.
So, for those that haven't come across you and your book, Ciaran, tell us a little bit about "Cut Short" and the impact it's having.
[00:02:09] Thank you for having me. It's great to be here. So, I wrote Cut Short off the back of a five-year period in which I became a youth worker in South London. I worked in schools, prisons, youth services, various charities. I also wrote journalism alongside those roles and tried to sort of document what I was doing on the ground, in terms of my work with young people in different spaces, but also some of the social problems I was identifying. I guess the good work being done by lots of different people across London to try and solve those problems and can't.
It’s the culmination of realising and identifying a lot of the problems going wrong, in particular systemically that affect young people. Then, yeah, trying to capture a lot of the solutions as well. So it's a sort of, uh, a book about my experiences. It's a memoir, but it's also a book that tries to tell a story that's compelling and teaches the reader about problems and solutions.
[00:03:14] And, tell us maybe about one of the stories in the book. Cause obviously, you zoom in on a few different, uh, stories, but one that, um, that sort of stands out at the moment?
[00:03:24] It's a story that spans five years. I guess you could call me one of the main characters. And then there are, uh, four other characters. There are lots of different people in the book who are sort of interviewed, who feature in it in its pages, but there are four, um, men who, uh, my journey alongside them is that, I guess the spine of the book in terms of its narrative.
There is Carl, Demetri, and Jhemar, who are three young men that I worked with. They go from being ages 12, 13, or 14 to being 18, 19, and 20 in the book. So they grow up essentially from childhood to adulthood. Uh, and then there's Tony, who runs, he's like a mentor to myself, and he runs a community centre in Brixton where I sort of, um, am shown the ropes of youth work and where I meet a couple of the characters.
To pick one of them, I guess Jhemar's probably, probably the main, uh, most celebrated character in the book in terms of both his personal journey throughout the book. He's the first young person I started working with as a volunteer that then led me to sort of become passionate about working in education. I met him when he was 12. He's now 20 years old and the book concludes with him as an 18-year-old sort of standing on stage, triumphantly starting to rap and talk about his journey. But halfway through the book, he loses his older brother Michael to a stabbing. And so the book sort of follows his journey growing up, navigating South London at school and coming across challenges, but ultimately overcoming them, which I guess is in my view, probably the most triumphant part of the whole book, which is, yeah, Jhemar's sort of thread, but all three characters. All three young men are doing brilliantly, and their stories feature throughout.
[00:05:12] It's brilliant. And this sort of skill of using human stories to tell the bigger picture as well as all the statistics and data and everything is something we know in our community really hooks in readers. Where did this sort of writing journey come from for you? What led you to becoming an expert in telling stories for change?
[00:05:37] It's difficult to identify where it began. But, if I had to pick a moment, it was, I mean, just as I was identifying as a writer and thinking that that was something that I wanted to do to express myself when I was at university, when I was about 20, at 19/20, I started writing a diary to sort of cope with my mental health.
And that turned into a bit of an addiction where I would just spill my thoughts onto the page. And that, that then kind of went into a blog, and then the blog went into writing a few bits of journalism and then it kind of took off from there. But it basically meant that when I became a youth worker, you know, I was noticing all these different things happening, and then I would go home at the end of the day and writing my diary about injustice, about things I was noticing, and I guess, having that space to process everything was really important.
And it, yeah, it kind of all came from that practice that, that personal practice that I had. I never really intended to be a writer per se or an author, but I guess it just happened because I was passionate about it. And since that period, I've tried to be really focused about not just journalism or writing or being an author, but really trying to marry the impact I'm having on the ground in my youth work and my education work with the writing.
So that's why I'm sort of teaching a lot of writing now. Kind of that's the ultimate goal is to empower young people to be able to tell their own stories and charities to be able to communicate their impact. So yeah, it's kind of a marriage of lots of different things, but it's ultimately where I see my impact on the ground as a youth worker. It's quite similar to my writing impact.
[00:07:18] Yeah. And, and it's interesting to hear you talk about how it became an important habit for your own mental health early on in your life, but also, you know, now using it as a powerful weapon to change society and inspire others. So switching from the habit of writing to reading, we've asked you to choose, or pick out three from what I imagine is a big pile of non-fiction books that have shaped you as a person. So, perhaps you can tell us about the first book that you've listed that had a big impact on you when you read it and, and what changed as a result of reading the book?
[00:08:00] Sure. So, the book I'm gonna start with, which is probably the most formative in terms of both chronology. Cause I read it when I was like 21, 22. And I think it accompanied my practice of starting to write a diary back then really well was, 'The Hero of Thousand Faces' by Joseph Campbell. And in, no, not uncertain terms, this book completely changed my life.
Reading it, you know, I remember hearing a quote one time, I think it was from a lecturer at uni, who said, "you'll be lucky in your life if you come across five books that truly changed who you are as a person." And I feel like this is certainly one of those. And nothing else really comes close to it, but the reason for that is there's a lot - I mean, I could talk about it for hours, but I think the fundamental thing is that it was a book that helped me understand stories and study them in a really interesting way.
Intellectually, it also kind of doubles up as a way of understanding life and what humans want from it. I just found it more helpful than just reading a self-help book or a more explicit non-fiction book that might tell you certain philosophical ideas explicitly. I think the way that Joseph Campbell weaves together all these different pieces of research, mythologies, and stories from across the world at different times in human history ultimately presents this model that he calls The Hero's Journey. I find it very persuasive and actually helpful for myself as a person.
[00:09:40] It's brilliant that you, you sort of came across it at that stage in your, you know, relatively young in your life and also how it shaped you. For me, it's uh, I sort of dipped in and out of it over the years and keep coming back to it like, like in conversations like this, and it sort of reminds me.
The fact, you know, it's as powerful on sort of the understanding of, as you say, human nature and, and what makes us as a species is like reading, you know, all the Shakespeare plays combined and at the same time it's like a handbook for action and storytelling, right? So it's, it's sort of a double whammy.
What's, uh, so what happened once you read it? What did it really help you with? And for those that, those that have like, have never heard of A Hero with a Thousand Faces, tell us that sort of the basic principles of the book.
[00:10:25] Sure. So Joseph Campbell was a comparative mythologist, and The Hero of a Thousand Faces is considered to be his magnum opus. It's considered to be his most defining work that he wrote. I believe the year was 1949 - give or take a year. And so the book is a kind of reflection of its times as well. I think it, you know, I'm sure there'll be lots of updates were he to be alive in 2022...
But he'd spent a whole career travelling around the world, studying tribal rituals, religions, mythologies, rights of passage. He compiled all these different findings and realizations together into this book, which kind of pivots around this concept of the hero's journey.
The Hero's Journey is this cycle that the hero of a story goes through, where they go through a number of stages that Joseph Campbell outlines in the book. He essentially presents that as the fundamental structure of stories that humans have created over millennia, as a way of surviving. Actually, yes. It kind of presents storytelling as a model of survival. So we tell stories to survive.
[00:11:48] That's what separates us from the others, right, is the ability to communicate beyond that group around the fire, isn't it? And tell those stories and they get passed on through myths and legends.
[00:11:58] Exactly. So that's kind of what it's about, the gist of it. And yeah, it really just, it really just, I think I was in a, you know, you go through these periods in life where you are more receptive to new ideas maybe. And I think at the time I was really searching for structure. I was searching for some meaning in, you know, trying to think about what I wanted to do in my career. And when I read it, it, yeah, it just really clicked and you start to realise actually that it's... it helped me to realise that stories are absolutely everywhere.
Like we experience hundreds in a day, whether we realise it or not. And if not stories, then sort of like different symbolic experiences that actually do mean something and, and, and it empowered me to think about how I could create better structures in my own life to start living more meaningfully and be more fulfilled. And I think one of those things was to sort of take seriously the idea of becoming a writer to myself.
[00:15:25] A hundred percent.
[00:15:30] So it turns out you don't just need to be a published author to have had books change your life. We see this happen every month at Rebel Book Club, and we're also seeing our members reading habits shift as well towards listening to more books to fit around their busy digital lives on the move. So when we found out about a new audiobook service called xigxag, we were excited to give it a try.
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[00:16:46] So, it's a big first book here, what are you gonna follow it up with?
What's your second book?
[00:16:55] So second book is The Corner by David Simon. Which is, I've got, I've got the books here, the, these, well, the first two, uh, it's a big chunky one. And actually holding it and seeing how chunky it is now. Um, when I read it, yeah, it, it was, it was a big, chunky book to get completely immersed in. Um, David Simon and Ed Burns are the writers, but David Simon's kind of considered the main, uh, the main man behind it. They're also the people that created The Wire, the television series, which is, you know, like lots of people's - my favourite.
Um, and it was a really, again, another really defining, um, story to experience. So having watched the show several times all the way through, um, I then read this book The Corner, and actually I had quite limited expectation at the start of reading it, of like, how much more can this actually show me, you know. He's done this amazing job of creating The Wire subsequent to this book. Um, the book was written first... How much can this show me? And actually it was a really good, it's really testament to the power of books compared to television cause you do just get a completely different take on it. You know, I think you get, you get, uh, in particular what stands out, like the, the, the, the way that he gets in the minds of the characters, you really hear their internal dialogues and, and they're all very different characters, like all coming from different walks of life and different places, all centering around this one corner in Baltimore.
Um, just stylistically as well. I think it really inspired me. It, it was really influential on the way I wrote Cut Short, cause it's basically like an interplay between this pulling, like zooming in on these super detailed, um, micro interactions between different members of the community and what they're thinking and feeling and then zooming all the way out and sort of making. You know? Yes. Essentially being a social commentator about American, um, society. So using that interplay between the micro and the macro, he, I think he did it amazingly. Yeah. It just stayed with me a lot. It stayed with me a lot reading that. So that's the second book.
[00:19:03] Within the context of Cut Short, it makes so much sense why this book played a big part in your life. And obviously it was written quite a while ago in the late nineties, I think, but what, how much of it was the, um, was the way that it was put together as a story about that community in Baltimore versus what was going on, the actual context of the life there and the comparison with what you were experiencing in London? Or was it a mix of the two?
[00:19:38] Yeah, I think it's definitely a mix of the two stylistically. You know what I was saying just now about the macro and micro, um, that what I found is - and, and I applied this again stylistically to Cut Short - is that if you present a really compelling moving, emotionally drawing story, then you can sort of hook the reader onto your journey and the reader through this story that they have to know what's happened happens next, because they care so much about the characters and they care so much about like this narrative taking place.
Obviously as you go on the journey, you can then break off into little bits of statistics and research and sociology and, and because the readers so like, you know, I, I was well-meaning and, you know, a young curious reader when I read the book. Um, and I feel like, you know, I was interested in all the statistics as well, but, but without a doubt, you get through parts of the book because you're so dying to find out what happens next and therefore you, it's much easier to process and contextualise those stats and those things that he's, he tells you about the war and drugs, about policing, about like the experience of, of racism in communities. Like a lot of the analysis that he, that David Simon and Ed Burns put into the corner, I feel like is easy together for the reader because you're so into the story and that stylistically is a thing I try to apply to Cut Short in every sentence I wrote.
Um, you know, as you read, Cut Short. You, you, I hope are immersed or you care about these young men who are navigating this really difficult world, um, that is often just invisible to most people. But then as, as I go writing the book, you, you know, I break away into my own analysis as a youth worker, but also interviews with other experts as well. So that style was a main thing.
And then without a doubt. Yeah. You know, just the idea of like, I guess social commentary in the city. That is a general headline for both books. There's, there's obviously a lot of comparison. Um, but London's very different to Baltimore, I guess. So that's also worth saying.
[00:21:39] Yeah. Which is why we need cut short. And your mission, um, have you ever connected with the authors or the community around The Wire and, and The Corner?
[00:21:46] I haven't, but would love to, uh, would love to get a copy to David Simon. Um, in particular, uh, I don't really know. I think like I've put a minimal amount of effort into like... I gave up basically. Cause I was like, how am I supposed to get hold of this guy? But I think at one point in my career, like that's the kinda bucket, bucket list idea is try and get him a copy of Cut Short at some point over the coming years. I dunno how I'd go about doing that.
[00:22:12] David and Edward, if you subscribe to the Rebel Book Club podcast, let us know. Yeah. We'll connect you. But it's really a good reminder to us that the approach, especially the style, as well as the context to non-fiction writing. We talk about it a lot like creative non-fiction. And we know in our community that the books that are story-driven, human story first... Um, and then society, context, data, tools for change, etc. second, or built on the top of it, are more impactful. Rather than pure or pure sort of data-driven academic stuff.
So it's an obvious lesson, but it's a good reminder to authors and readers out there of what works. So thank you for introducing The Corner to us and then, and then your third book, Ciaran, what are you going for?
[00:23:00] So the third book I don't have here, um, which in itself is a commentary on my interest in it, which is the fact that I've lent it out to family members. And that's 'Partition Voices' by Kavita Puri.
Um, and that is a book I read actually in 2020, late 2020 when I finished Cut Short and I was seeking just a sort of, uh, a new direction of reading. But also I was just personally interested in trying to read more on the partition of India. I'm half Indian, my dad's Punjabi. And my grandparents and my, yeah, my dad and his brothers moved to London and settled in Southall in West London in the sixties like many Punjabis did.
Um, and, uh, this is another thing I can talk about for hours, but essentially the headline is that there are a lot of Punjabis, there's a lot of Indians who, especially in the diaspora, who have not had access to the conversations that we should have had access to about actually what happened during partition and independence. Um, and so I was going through this period of, yeah, like thinking on my, my next book, thinking on what I could turn my attention to in terms of my writing Also, yeah, just trying to understand a bit of personal history and family history. Um, and so I turned to Partition Voices by Kavita Puri and uh, it has shaped my life ever since, if I'm completely honest.
Behind the scenes, I read that book and it was, it was, it was like talking to my late grandparents who I never got to talk to about Partition. They passed when I was younger and I was too young to have any context for that. And it was kind of like having a conversation with them.
You know, there are lots of elderly people that Kavita interviews and gets their experiences of what it was like and it sparked off this two-year journey. Now I, well, it was, you know, uh, a 20-month journey, however, and now I'm sat here with another book proposal nearly, you know, nearly ready, which is about the legacy of Partition in London. And so that's, that's sort of, yeah, it's defined a lot of my writing life since then and I'm really grateful to Kavita for that.
[00:25:15] Wow. It really has, and talk about books have an impact. This one is huge for you and, um, for those that maybe don't have the story or background as you, what's what, why does this book matter to people beyond that community?
[00:25:32] Good question. So yeah, I would honestly encourage anyone to read it, but I think that there's a particular, I'm gonna say responsibility actually. If you're a curious person that enjoys nonfiction books, and you live in Britain, you live in the UK. Reading Partition Voices and there are, there are other books like it that will give you similar sort of access to this history...
But we were not, I certainly wasn't, most people were not told or taught anything about Partition, the Indian independence, beyond that maybe that there was a big independence movement for several decades that was led by Mahatma Gandhi and then it was successful and it was all fun games after. Um, that's the kind of narrative that people maybe have on a simple level. But, uh, really understanding the sheer scale of what happened. And there were lots of different reasons for it being as bloody and as tragic as it ended up being. You know, it's estimated 1-2 million people died. Over 10 million people displaced.
It's considered one of the biggest displacements of people in the shortest amount of time in human history. It's never happened on that scale again. Um, A massive, massive contributor to what happened was the British elite and decision making taking place in Westminster and in Buckingham Palace even, you know, this was still a time when the UK's colonial presence around the world was disintegrating, but still super influential.
And they were, you know, all the decisions being made of how to sort of hold onto India in the buildup to independence in 1947. That was a very, very, uh, a time that is super important, that is barely recognised now in history books, uh, in terms of school, in terms of just mainstream storytelling.
And so I would just encourage people to, yeah, to read it as an access point into that period. Um, and actually it's contributed in so many ways to the way the British life is now, not just in terms of the presence of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis in the UK, but also our language, our food, our, like, so many different things.
And also understanding some of the context between the madness of the madness going on in India right now. You know, un understanding religions over there, it's important for that too. So it's just, it's, it's an accent. I feel like it's a good gateway into understanding quite a vast subject. You know, it's, it's, it fills in certain, certain historical, um, what I think is, is lacking from historical storytelling mostly.
[00:28:11] Yeah and when you've got people like mainstream media, journalists like Jeremy Vine saying it changed the way I see the world. You can see how accessible it is. And I guess it's part of this new wave of non-fiction that we're seeing, like Sathnam Sanghera's 'Empireland' and others that are helping decolonize, uh, British history a little bit, and hopefully moving into the curriculum for the next generation.
I'm curious, Ciaran, as we come to the end of this conversation about how you manage, you come across as a sort of obviously hyper-curious and mission-driven person, but how do you stay calm as you discover these stories, both on the streets of London that is so painful and unfair, but also in recent history in your cultural heritage through stories like Partition Voices. How do you manage all that pain and anger and use it as such a positive force?
[00:29:12] That's a good question. I don't think I've been asked that before. Well, I think I always feel a responsibility to say I don't always stay calm, and just being honest about it. It's not been easy, you know, writing a book like Cut Short in particular. I feel like I've just about recovered from it, you know, in terms of what it took out of me. I'm very proud of it. But yeah, if not staying calm, getting through it and feeling a sense of completion and peace now that I do. Having pride over the fact that it came out last year, but having a general interest in injustice and retaining that and staying true to that.
I think it's just having a healthy balance of everything really, and seeing the higher purpose of it. So on the balance side of things, always making sure that I treat my writing kind of now like I did when I first picked up the pen to write my diary when I was 20. It's like, it's a therapy. And honouring that and treating that with that respect and having that safe space to really open up and do that. And having good editors, you know, good other writers to talk to about that. Like treating that as a genuine life practice that I uphold every day. That's just one thing I try and do.
And seeing the higher purpose of things as well. I think now with Cut Short, I'm starting to see it rippling out into society. I'm going into schools and prisons and delivering workshops on it and hearing other youth workers and other teachers who have read it and found it useful to spark conversations in their own work and make them think about new ways of doing things and whatever. Like actually seeing that impact that writing can have, that's what keeps me going. There's nothing more fulfilling than that to me. So I guess that's another way of, if not staying calm, certainly staying level-headed and like, this is actually very important, so I need to keep going.
[00:31:16] It's such a great reminder to us. And it's great to hear Ciaran that there's another book in the work. So focusing on the legacy of Partition of India in London, in the culture and the city of London. What's the timeline on that? How's it all going?
[00:31:35] There's a lot to go. Um, and even that, you know, little tagline that I've just given you is likely to sort of alter a bit, but, um, it's essentially I'm completing the proposal now. I'm aiming to... I'm aiming to basically submit that proposal and get some sort of arrangement for me, writing a book within the next year / six months is probably the ideal, but might be unrealistic.
Um, and yeah, part of that is... the challenge is trying to take something that is so epic and massive and spans, you know, nearly a century, uh, and try and tell that in a compelling way that roots it in my family history in, in something that is spilling out across the world. Like there's, there's stories all across the world of what happened in partition, um, but how, how does that manifest in London?
Uh, how can I be, how can I be true to the story and the complexity of it, but also still honour the fact that, you know, I'm half white British and that that's an important aspect of the story and how do I make sense of that... So it's just, there's just a lot to unpack basically. So I reckon about six months I'll be ready, but yeah, excited - I'm really excited.
[00:32:52] Well I think with, uh, I think with your, you know, going back to A Hero with a Thousand Faces with that practice template and of course your first round with Cut Short and the stories that you told with that, I'm sure you'll lead with your own personal... start with your family story and spill out from there. It's exciting to hear.
Um, but yeah, for those who are, uh, discovering Ciaran's work, uh, um, for the first time listening to this, um, go out and grab a copy of Cut Short why we're failing our youth and how to fix it.
Um, I've just ordered while we've been talking Partition Voices because it sounds like such a brilliant piece of, of history storytelling that, that I don't know enough about. So thank you for introducing me to that, Ciaran, and thanks for sharing the books that have shaped you as a person so far. They were brilliant choices and, um, yeah, good luck with the paperback launch.
[00:33:41] Thank you very much for having me. Yeah, it's been a pleasure. Um, and yeah, enjoy, enjoy all the reading that is to come.