Ciaran Thapar // Senser Story
This week we’re introducing Ciaran Thapar; a youth worker, writer and commentator based in South London.
Read his about his creative journey below and if you’re curious, read his latest article for the BBC “Knife crime: What happened to Michael?” here.
Kick off your interview by saying hello.
How’s it going? I’m Ciaran, I’m a youth worker in London by trade, but I write to express myself and make sense of the world around me.
I’m obsessed with music, especially rap, so I write about that, too. I guess that’s my expertise: understanding how underground rap evolves in London specifically, because I think music is a fascinating way of hearing voices that are otherwise ignored by the rest of the society, and gaining raw, organic access to human stories.
We want to know what you’re up to in the real world.
The virtues of being both a youth worker and writer means I get to blend the two to create my most unique and resonant professional work. This alchemy is manifest in different ways.
As a youth worker I use my ability to create authentic dialogues with people I meet, from local rappers to policymakers and educators, and combine it with my writing platform to showcase voices, stories, realities and injustices that exist in hidden pockets of London. I’ve done this many times in my journalism, but this piece for i-D magazine about the characters trying to combat youth violence is perhaps my richest yet.
Inversely, I use my obsession with words – reading, analysing and writing them – to energise my youth and charity work: sparking debates and discussions with young people using music lyrics, for example, or giving talks to organisations about how to use written word and storytelling to amplify societal impact. In other words, I’m fundamentally interested in people.
Through the combination of youth-work and writing I do two things: constantly seek to refine my understanding about people and society; and become effective at constructively impacting people and society – especially those who are disempowered or excluded from mainstream discourse.
You can see all my writing and youth work experience listed on my website.
Give us a peek into your favourite working environment. What does your working process look like and how do you use this space to be productive?
In terms of delivering youth or community work I enjoy working with small groups of (young) people who maybe haven’t found their voice yet, or lack confidence, or are disruptive.
Inspiring group discussion, bringing about the empowerment that comes from sharing one’s ideas in a group, and the benefits of learning to take part in a forward-moving dialogue, drives what I do. I love helping young people to tell their stories, especially when those stories have involved resilience and injustice, and have been hidden from view, because I believe storytelling is a form of survival.
As long as you’re in control of your own story, you survive, and you’re powerful.
In terms of writing, I enjoy views. My balcony and my dining room window looks out onto the London skyline and I feel like having this in my periphery whilst I write about the city’s social ecosystem, its heroes and villains and sounds and injustices, helps me contextualise my arguments and analyses. What’s more, I am very visual and descriptive in my writing, so having a calm space and a decent viewpoint from which to reflect and think is important to me. As an alumnus I spend a lot of time at the London School of Economics library as it’s a great space to work and I can really get into my zone there.
Where and when do you have your best ideas and most creative moments?
I walk around my local area a lot, listening to music. It feeds my understanding of the urban environment and helps me absorb music culture, and the voices in the music, in a unique way. I have typically had all of my greatest realisations whilst walking around London or sat on public transport with my headphones on. I grew up in the suburbs of London and used to get a long train to and from school every day. So I think this tendency stems from the daily routine of whizzing by growing urban infrastructure on a bus or train whilst navigating adolescence, and coming to see music as a coping mechanism for change.
I am also half-Indian and have a strong passion for all types of Indian food, which I’d genuinely consider a hobby! So I often cycle down to Tooting, further south of the city from where I live, to grab authentic north and south Indian food and relive the amazing food of my late grandmother: food basically keeps me connected to my roots.
Finally, my newest hobby is taking myself off to a local jazz bar, in Loughborough Junction, Brixton, where my book and much of my writing is actually set, to write or drink beer with friends. The bar has live jazz every night and the creative, relaxed atmosphere suits me perfectly.
Tell us about someone who helped you get you where you are today or someone who inspires you and why?
My Mum and Dad raised me in the most supportive yet free way: allowing me to be myself but giving me the critical tools to stay focused and work hard. They’re definitely my heroes, because both of them naturally look after people – they met in a hospital, Mum was a nurse, Dad is a community doctor – and I feel strongly that we need more of that in the world.
I wouldn’t be anywhere near the freedom of fulfilment that I get from my work now without my girlfriend Yasmin, who I met at university, and has been a constant source of support and inspiration for me; always willing to challenge me but also compliment my sense of identity and motivation to do good in the world, which she shares and upholds in her own work.
Then otherwise Ira, my mentor at the community centre I volunteer at: he’s welcomed me into the local community and taught me so much about life there, and how to interact in new spaces.
Finally I’m inspired by different writers I read, or even am lucky enough to know, who I take inspiration from as people and thinkers: David Simon (creator of The Wire!), Dan Hancox, Salman Rushdie, Gary Younge, Ta Nehisi Coates. Fearless, original, insanely bright individuals who can shift the world with their pens.
Where are you ‘from’… We’d love to know about the area you live and why you chose this place?
I am based in Brixton, south London. I grew-up in the south-western suburbs of London so this area of the inner-city was never too far from home growing up. It’s central, enough to be connected to the rest of the city, and fascinating as an urban center in flux: it’s gentrified and trendy, yet still drastically impoverished in pockets, and I try to spend equal amounts of my time in both of these two worlds which seem to coexist here. I am writing a book about my local community centre, which I have written a lot about in my journalism, and where I volunteer as a mentor for teenagers. The book will explore how I’ve learned to straddle the different social worlds this part of London has within it.
Can you tell us something that you love about it? Can you recommend us a great place to visit if we’re in the area?
I love how much is going on in every square metre of space. There is so much history between every set of walls, pavements and buildings: distant history in the past, sure, but also modern history in the day-to-day experience of normal people. It’s fascinating that I can walk down a road near here and associate it with my own memories but other people will have completely different psycho-geographical associations with the same strip of land. It just means there is this bottomless pit of urban experience to track and make sense of in my writing.
I love visiting The Junction, the jazz bar I mention above, in Loughborough Junction, because it has live jazz every night. In terms of food though, I’d probably either go to Zeret Kitchen, an amazing Ethiopian restaurant in Camberwell, or Silk Road, probably one of the most famous Chinese places in the whole city to be honest, or finally Negril on Brixton Hill: which serves authentic, hearty plates of Jamaican food. If you want good Indian food though, you have to travel down to Tooting, as that’s the nearest diaspora settlement: go to Dawat for north Indian, Punjabi food, and Dosa n Chutney for south Indian/Sri Lankan food!
How does your area inspire your work?
My area is my work. I constantly study it in my writing and my youth work. Understanding all layers of local life, whether that be which new restaurants or opportunities to socialise arise, the social politics of gentrification, or even news from my community centre about how the local music scene is evolving. These things all fascinate me. They drive my creative and social practice. My interest in people and the city and how everyone fits together, or doesn’t fit together, is by far most concentrated in this plot of land south of the river: Brixton, Kennington, Camberwell, Loughborough Junction.
Sometimes I go to other parts of London and genuinely can’t wait to get back here because I think over the last few years I have made a conscious effort to feel embedded in my local community, which isn’t easy to do in modern London. People are so segregated and I like to think I am a connecting point for different worlds or world views. That applies to both the way I conduct myself as a person and how I represent people around me in my writing.
And lastly a quick fire round…
Do you have any advice for someone working in the same sector / interest as you hoping to make it?
Your network really is your net worth. Email people, DM people, go for coffees, ask for favours, be willing to do stuff because it is the right thing, which will help the right people, not just because you’re getting money. None of these things are always easy without the privilege of a stable income or work experience. But if you’re relentlessly putting yourself out there without caring too much what people think, within reason, and you stick to what you believe and are passionate about, stuff starts to happen the way you want it to. In 2018 the fact you can do so much to earn and impact the world from a computer is also something that everyone should be using to their advantage, as long as they stay grounded in human experience, too.
Your must read…
Your must listen…
I might as well educate readers on London music right now. There is no body of work this year, for me, which shows that UK drill music – an otherwise demonised, dismissed genre of rap – has legs as a growing subcultural force, more than Headie One’s ‘The One Two’. It won’t be for everyone, but to ignore it would be to ignore an entire generation of young Londoners: the city’s future.
Your favourite newsletter(s)…
I am obsessed with reading long-form journalism. So The Guardian long-read section, and the New Yorker, too. I want to get my writing in the latter, somehow, before I turn 30…
What decision or event was a turning point in your life?
There are two.
a) starting a diary whilst suffering from depression. I wrote a page of thoughts every day for a year. It became an addiction to help me make sense of the world, and it made me fearless as a writer. It made me see writing as a form of therapy and a force for good.
b) signing up to mentor a teenage boy during my masters at LSE. I loved it, and realised I was good at it, and then considered a job in education and youth work. The rest is history: I still mentor the same boy, or young man I should say, and he’s one of the most inspiring people I know. I now view mentoring as one of my main strengths.
Also published on Medium.