Aspiring to Inspire: A Feminist Beauty Queen?

When you think “beauty queen” a stereotype springs to mind – its generally of perfectly preened women with no greater goal than seizing a winner’s tiara.
Harleen Sidhu’s resume looks more like that of a woman who will go on to change the world – she holds two degrees, writes poetry in Punjabi and English, teaches English at a secondary school and comes from a background of voluntary work. She is not your all-garden pageant princess. She has fought to overcome anxiety and her mantra “‘get up, dress up, show up and never give up’ has been key to putting herself forward to be crowned Miss Birmingham 2017.

But Harleen’s prize will not be the crown, rather this feminist hopes that she can seize the opportunity the competition represents to help others and to inspire.

“Having led a life where I have witnessed the pressures and turmoil women have to face, particularly within my own South Asian community,” she says. “I feel that I can relate and understand the sheer fear of women unable to pursue their own dreams or express their opinion in society.

“I am hoping that my journey as a Miss Birmingham Finalist and my work for the charity “Beauty with a Purpose” inspires other young girls and women that they should not feel chained or pressured into doing something they don’t wish to do, but in fact doing something they think they couldn’t do by pushing themselves and taking that one step. Women are incredible and history has shown us this time and time again.”

This is something ingrained in Harleen by her own inspiration – her Mum.

She adds: “Seeing her struggles and working with her to move forward in our lives has been the driving force for where I stand today.”

Harleen hopes that the Miss Birmingham competition will mean the beginning of much more, with an eye to the future of bringing together her passions of community service and lifelong learning through plans for her own organisation to support adult learners.

She adds: “I aspire to inspire. Making a difference to someone’s life through gaining a new set of skills or confidence to put their opinion across is not something we can put a price on. These skills that we cannot see seem unrealistic or even impossible to some who have no confidence left, or have been through a negative experience that has taken ‘the right to learn new things’ away from them.”

* The Miss Birmingham 2017 finals take place at the Burlington Hotel in Birmingham on Sunday, May 21 2017. To vote for Harleen text MISSBIRMINGHAM11 to 63333. Texts cost 50p plus the standard network rate and proceeds go tot he charity Beauty With A Purpose.

Poetry: Grief Stalks Me

I’m having to run at the moment. I’ve made a commitment, despite being awful at it. The only bonus and problem is that it gives me time to think. The thinking generated this:

I run, 

Grief stalks me in the trees, 

Camouflaged against the leaf line,

Hits my heart with dart.

I drop,

Paralysed and stymied 

Gasping for air 

Reaching for memory.

I get up, 

And run again, 

She still lurks within the bowed branches,

Waits for me to pass through shade, her arrows steadied and waiting.

I run, Grief stalks me.

Life, With Intent: Mini Break Chic

So this month I joined my husband-to-be on his work trip to Malmö. Just a couple of days for an adventure into Scandinavia promised to be a fun and novel experience.

No flash dash around the High Street for me – just a super frugal £18.28 splurge in the local charity shops meant I was kitted out for all eventualities.
Top tip for travelers – Sweden in April is ridiculously cold. Don’t believe the reassuring weather app – the wind off the sea into Malmö freezes you to the bone.
Nonetheless I prefer to travel in a dress – jeans involve belts which have to be removed and metal rivets which set off alarms. I found this great DKNYC dress for just £6 in the Helen & Douglas House shop. It’s a dry clean only – but I knotted my courage and threw it in the washing machine on a delicates wash – it worked out fine as I remembered to reshape while wet.

I traveled comfortably in this great summer dress, wrapped up in a cream M & S coat bought for me from Oxfam a few months earlier and wearing my trusty Kors leather sandals (I refer you back to my pieces on Ethical 366: Style Me In Seconds and #Ethical366: The May Edit – Shoe Spectacular). I even accessorised with three gorgeous glass bead Shaard bracelets, also from the Helen & Douglas House store, on a 3 for £2.50 deal.

But the cold, Scandinavian air (paired with some odd looks from the locals at my bare legs) became too much so I had to nip to a coffee house toilets to change into my jeans.

Jeans are always a great fall back and, having broken the zip on my favourite skinny jeans I’d picked up these blue rag & bone jeans, a snip at just £2.99 in The British Heart Foundation shop before my trip. I also slipped on a sheer butterfly print Wallis blouse, bought for £4 from Helen & Douglas House. Thankfully I also had a pair of Melissa flats, with heart detail, donated to me by my kind and dear friend Isla.

The second and final day I teamed the jeans with a white Cotton Traders shirt which I’d bought from the British Heart Foundation for just £2.79, an easy match for a smart casual look.

• Why not challenge yourself to a mini-break charity shop trip? I’d love to see the results – share them with me via the comments, Twitter or Facebook!

Life, With Intent: Striving to live a better life

I don’t think I can be alone in thinking that, surely, it can be better than this?

I’m finding that this way of being of a cycle of production and consumption is proving unfulfilling. The idea of being a mindless consumer drone being spoonfed fashion, food trends and culture is now as unappealing as it can be. The idea of being both a resource and a market, on top of being indentured to institutions through debt, is dehumanising and gross.

Surely it can be better than this?

Each time I look at the recycling box, my heart becomes a little heavy. I can see that our consumption alone is weighing down the world with pointless packaging. There is always a cardboard box or sleeve, always plastic film and often a plastic tray. I have a friend who works in the recycling world and she tells me that dark coloured plastics cannot be recycled because the machines in use simply don’t see it. Think on to how many foodstuffs now come to you from the supermarket which are laid enticingly across a black or brown plastic tray. All this stuff to sell us just fresh produce.

Surely it can be better than this?

In exploring Ethical clothing through the Ethical 366 project I found that there was so much more to the supply chain in clothing – clearly the mass production of anything comes with the same compromises in ethics to allow for quantity. I don’t think though it is acceptable that, in producing clothes, children might die or places in the world will be scarred by mass production.

Surely it can be better than this?

Being in a world where large corporations make life altering and ending decisions, snowballing political movements sweeping events before them and where change feels remote it is so very easy to feel small within it.

Sometimes though, the mere act of trying to live a better life, to seek and tell the truth and to accept that, yes, I have room to improve can be a basis of revolution. Having conversations with people around us, in public, challenging wrongdoing and lies can be more revolutionary than political involvement.

Time for me and my family to start our own revolution of living a way in which our good intent is lived out in our choices.

Painting the Concrete

Recently I went with my partner to visit one of the poorest areas in Sweden for his work. Ramels Väg in Rosengård is full of high rise appartments which are interspersed with works of public art – something that it has in common with many British housing projects. We also discovered a shrine to a boy who was murdered there just a week and a half before.

This poem was inspired by my visit. 

Paint the concrete many colours

Draw murals from the grey

Place art between the high rises

Insert beauty where you may.

There are figures here not bronzed into eternity

There are bodies of people here, not works

There are no colours which can beautify

Tarmac and playgrounds painted in red.

Bringing Change: Hope Means Action

Imagine walking a half marathon every day, just to have the water to drink…
So in my last Bringing change post – New Growth – I’d identified that I wanted to turn the promise of Hope into change and to make my loss to be a trigger for bringing good into the world.
The problem with me is that I never like to do things by halves, so I’ve already thrown myself into fundraising for various charities. One of these is so closely tied to my work that I cannot speak about it here. The other is a fabulous cause which I have supported in the past and that my readers have kindly kicked in donations to back up my fundraising zeal.

CARE International UK’s Walk In Her Shoes captured my imagination last year because of its energy in bringing water sources closer to communities in poverty stricken areas – specifically aiming to take the distances out of the water supply so women and girls spend less time walking to fetch water and could spend more time in school to advance themselves and their communities.

Each morning in south Ethiopia, 14-year-old Ayanna rises before dawn to walk 11 kilometres to fetch water for her family. She walks with others to the well because of the threat of hyenas and foxes, who have attacked children from her kabele (village) before. Water is vital to support the family and their livestock, so the walk must be done. Once there the women and children work together to fill their 20 litre jerry cans, before bringing the heavy load back home, a three-hour-effort, to filter it through scarves. The water is not clean and can often contain leeches.

“I have been collecting the water since I was nine years old,” Ayanna says.

She dreams of becoming a teacher, but she has little time for school and her journey ‘makes me tired’ she says.
She repeats her journey in the afternoon and only when Ayanna arrives home at 4pm, having walked more than half a marathon, can she have her second and final meal of the day, anshirro, a milky maize mix, 11 hours since she breakfasted on the same thing. She has been awake for approximately 17 hours and is exhausted. “I would like time to play,” she says, but even if there was time, she’d be too tired. “There is always a feeling of pain,” she states simply. Fatigue and pain have become her closest companions.   

The idea behind “Walk In Her Shoes” is to take the load off of children like Ayanna – by walking 10,000 steps a day to raise money to pay for clean and safe water closer to the communities who need it most. CARE International also work to provide separate latrine facilities in schools for boys and girls so that another obstacle to girl’s education can be swept away.

Last year I raised £190 for the charity by completing a total of 75,044 – I hope to smash both these totals this year (whilst running two miles a day for another matter). I hope you can get behind my efforts to support this cause via my JustGiving site.

Ethical 366: The End of an Ethical Year

It has been a big year – not just because of the extra leap year day!

Since I started my quest to clean up my clothing act in February 2016, life has brought me a whole basket of goodies – dealing with loss, love and the world has proven to be more time consuming than the time I had to give. Writing was one of the things that had to fall by the wayside, but my drive to improve the ethics of my shopping did not.

In exploring the world of clothes manufacture and the murky and complex supply chain of many mass produced fabrics, I came to see that almost all brands struggle to be able to even definitively state that new clothes had not been made in a way that was harmful to the environment or made with child or slave labour. It was obvious to me that, with the new knowledge I had gained, fast fashion would no longer work for me and I needed to be more conscientious in my fashion choices.

Sticking to my budget of £26 each month, in line with the national average spend on clothing, I’ve found charity shops to be the best way of keeping in style within a budget. Charity shops have proven an absolute cornucopia of goodies to support a better way of dealing with fashion on my own terms – re-using fast fashion and giving something back to the world.

I’ve found that less money and more conscious shopping can mean better quality, greater consideration of wardrobe and braver attitudes to a “dry clean only label”. If you go to most charity shops you’ll find a lot of label items, usually having landed there because their owners don’t want to face taking the item to a dry-cleaners but cannot bear to bin it. This has been to my benefit and I’ve found Ralph Lauren, DKNYC and L.K. Bennett and many other brands I’d never be able to afford new and in a variety of luxurious fabrics. A word to the wise – wool must be treated with respect – silk and other fabrics you can be a bit cavalier with but not wool!

I’ve learned that you should think carefully in buying any piece as to what you will use it for and whether or not certain low quality fabrics are worth it even when your outlay is just a few pounds – note to the discerning shopper – if it is made of silky polyester it is probably not going to make it through more than a handful of day-to-day wears without a tear or two.
Even though the year of the Ethical 366 is over I have no plans to abandon a more considered and ethical approach to shopping. I’m not sure for a start I could return to the overwhelming High Street, with its lack of diversity and overwhelming ranges of clothes of questionable provenance (at best). The whole project has left me with a need to make more change in my own and my family’s life and to seek out a way that limits the impact on others and the world around me.

So, with that in mind, I’ll still be writing about my charity shop and ethical clothing goodies, and will also explore ethical cosmetics, cleaning products, ways of working, community projects and, frankly, any fantastic things which help me to embrace my approach to living a more sustainable and conscientious life – look out for the upcoming Life, With Intent series starting soon!

• Have you followed the progress of the #Ethical366 project? Has it inspired you to change in any way? Would you change the way you shop? Please let me know….

Poetry: Dragon

This was a piece of poetry submitted an published for issue 2 of Audacity – the full publication can be found here


You fell from me 

I held you 

So small and of the other side 

I fought the urge to swallow you whole 

To become serpent devouring serpent 

To reabsorb you so together we became, as one, 

A dragon 

Instead I let you go 

Dropped you. 

Shattered, I howled and flushed

Creative Democracy: Put One Word In Front Of The Other

“When people ask I say ‘I just wrote a book about spaceships…”

Thomas Heasman-Hunt might well minimise the achievement of his debut novel “Legacy”. A mere fraction of the 50,000 words he wrote each month over a prolific two years, working by the mantra: “I just put one word in front of the other and see what happens”, Legacy is just a fragment in a universe of imagination

Cutting his teeth online, first in the gaming community before establishing his own original writing and developing a blog to showcase short stories, the novel has been a natural progression for Thomas’s work. But the author isn’t blasé about his “book about spaceships” out of arrogance, rather out of the world in which he moves.

“A lot of people are writing books,” he adds. “But also there’s a lot of people who aren’t. Because everyone seems to have a novel out it seems like it’s not a remarkable thing to do – but it is still a notable thing to do. My family and friends have been impressed – it will be interesting to see what they make of it.”

Despite his drive to create a huge body of work, which he plans to mine and massage into further books, Thomas does not create prose simply for the sake of it. Each and every word has to work for its place in his stories and his novel.

“You have got to do right by your characters and have to have them be familiar in their own worlds,” he elaborates. “But you have to pick and choose what you share in the story. There has to be a conservation of detail – if it isn’t important to the narrative then I don’t go into it.”

Born out of a need for an exclusive fresh tale for a self-published collection of short stories from his blog, Legacy ultimately took on a life of its own. It sprung from a Twitter discussion with Emily Benet, starting life as a short story with the heroine of Legacy, Emily Ajax, named for her.

Thomas, 32, describes Legacy as “a fun to read swashbuckling adventure” but the work offers so much more – a heady mixture of strong female leads, with explosive action and human drama in a plausible backdrop of deep space.

“I write in a very visual way,” he explains. “I have a very clear idea of the scene as it sits but I have no idea of what the characters are going to say in the situation until they say it. It is like I have them in front of a camera and I ask them to do that part of the story. It means there is a natural progression through the scene rather than a pre-meditated decision as to how it will unfold. I don’t do any writing until I come to do the writing – if I plan and write backs stories I will just kill it.”

The technology and science woven into the story carries a heavy sense of plausibility and insight into the physics at work. Thomas attributes this to his year-and-a-half of Physics study completed at Aberystwyth, before he switched his degree to English, as well as drawing on inspiration from “hard” science fiction writers including Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke.

Thomas says: “A lot is made of in Legacy about how counter intuitive space is,” Thomas adds. “Although these are people whose civilisation revolves around space travel there is still some sort of primal part of them who can’t get their head around the realities of space – they are still human no matter however long they have been in space. When they are not jetting between stars they are still beholden to physical realities of the universe.”

Legacy has a cast of heavyweight female characters – from Captain Emily Ajax to the earnest Jilly to the darker Reeve. Thomas found these women, not by a conscious decision to emphasise on female empowerment, rather through the narrative possibilities presented by avoiding clichéd male-centred storylines.

Thomas explains: “The Father-Son trope has been resolved in story telling and to me the idea of a woman inheriting the legacy of her father was much more interesting.”
He adds: “The characters are not drawn from anywhere or from anyone. They very much exist on their own terms. Writing is to a certain extent putting yourself on a page, but these characters are very much who they are.”

The Legacy universe isn’t just bound by a single book and the fierce characters and stunning worlds are already lined up for future novels – the sequel is already finished and ready for publication. 

Thomas is tight-lipped about where the story goes from Legacy but lets slip with a smile: “There’s more about politics and more strangeness. Things get much more serious and the stakes get ratcheted up a notch.”

⭐️Legacy, published by Cynefin Road, is available internationally via or for order via any local bookshop, hardback edition is priced £18.99 or eBook at £5.99 

Five per cent of all profits from the sale of “LEGACY” will be donated to Cambridge Women’s Aid, which supports women and children affected by Domestic Abuse and offers refuge places to women and children fleeing domestic violence.

Bringing Change: New Growth

With all loss begins a new timeline. It’s not on the same trajectory as the one you were previously on. Everything has changed. The path behind you has been swept away, certainty is gone and what lies ahead is cold and unfamiliar. Grief is the sensation as you look down this dark and forbidding route and it burns.
When I wrote Hopes and Wishes I was still processing what had happened. I was looking down this new path, with its pain and its desolation, realising that what we had planned was gone. The writing of it became part of the catharsis I needed, to get through the worst part of the mourning.
What came after was spring.
From the moment I pushed the publish button, I started to receive little messages in bottles, or at least in various messaging apps.
The messages in the bottles were sometimes thoughts of shared grief, of the comfort of kindness that is drawn from experience, the sweetness of understanding. Sometimes they were carefully considered consolations. Sometimes even they were just the inconsolable thoughts of not being able to articulate the level of support and care intended. Suddenly I – we – didn’t feel alone in our grief, others had been here too and they were talking.
With each message the world, which had been rendered small by our private grief, expanded and grew large once more. It was a world where change and development are possible. A world in which not all wishes are granted in the way they are hoped for. Sometimes the wish grants the lesson needed, not the gain hoped. This is the reality of this world.
My boy managed to get us an allotment and together we have started work on digging, preparing the earth and making ready beds. The house is now full of trays of seedlings, tools and chitting seed potatoes. Thoughts are turned to planning crops and considering equipment. There is no dwelling on the past here.

In my need to make change I’ve scanned around for ways to put good things out into the world – as a result we now have another child to support through World Vision – a little girl in Uganda – we want to bring her hope in a way we cannot for our Hope. I’m also looking at ways to do some good closer to home – I will update you as soon as I do.
Now it is clear that the shoots of new growth are springing forth for me. Life never stops moving, neither should we.