Aasmah Mir on racism, merciless bullying and family trauma

June 16, 2023. Series 7. Episode 67

My guest for this episode is the multi-award-winning broadcaster, journalist and writer Aasmah Mir. Starting her career on Scottish TV, Aasmah has worked on our screens and radios for more than 25years including as co-presenter of Radio 4’s Saturday Live, Radio 5’s Drive show and now as the co-presenter of Times Radio’s Breakfast show.

But beneath Aasmah’s trailblazing success lies a story of resilience and triumph over adversity. As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, Aasmah faced the turbulent challenges of racism, identity crises, and the painful experience of seeing her beloved, severely autistic brother being sectioned. In her teenage years, and facing the trauma of severe bullying, Aasmah almost lost the very voice that would later resonate with millions.

In her moving memoir A Pebble In The Throat, Aasmah unflinchingly details her personal odyssey, interwoven with her mother Almas’ experiences. This joint memoir chronicles a saga spanning five decades and two continents, as Aasmah’s remarkable storytelling captures the essence of resilience, and the unbreakable bonds of family. Astonishingly, she embarked on her book while navigating the challenges of being a single parent following the sudden collapse of her marriage.
My thanks to Aasmah for sharing her astonishing story.


Aasmah’s Crisis Comforts:

1. Fizzy cola bottles. I’m not the sugar fiend that I used to be, but there’s something very comforting about fizzy cola bottle sweets. I always have some of them on hand.
2. Tea. Not just drinking tea, but the act of making tea. So, the little infuser, tea leaves, the best ones from Fortnum and Mason, and I just go through the whole thing – it has always calmed me down.
3. My bed. I just love being in my bed. I love pulling up the covers, it reminds me of being a teenager actually, I used to take comfort then as well. I just feel like I’m on a little island floating away from all my trouble.



Aasmah’s book – A Pebble In The Throat – https://amzn.to/463Q2Eb
Aasmah’s Twitter – https://twitter.com/AasmahMir?s=20

Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682

Host – Andy Coulson
CWC production team: Louise Difford, Ed Isaacs and Jane Sankey
With special thanks to Global


Full episode transcript: 


Aasmah Mir:                      [0:00:00] I mean, I wanted to, I really wanted- I didn’t want to exist, but I didn’t know how to make that happen, and I was too much of a coward really. But you know, there were times when I was- I felt very lonely, you know, I didn’t really have anyone to talk to at home. My mum wasn’t there, it was just my older brother and my dad, and then there was no one talking to me at school.

And I remember just feeling so lonely and thinking, “What is this? If this is life, really what is the point?”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:00:32] Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then please hit subscribe wherever you’re watching or listening, it really helps make sure that these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.

My guest today is the multi-award-winning broadcaster, journalist and writer Aasmah Mir. Starting her career on Scottish TV, Aasmah has worked on our screens and on our radios for over twenty-five years, including as co-presenter of Saturday Live on Radio 4, Radio 5’s Drive show and now as the co-presenter of Times Radio’s Breakfast show.

But behind all this success lies a story of trauma and of resilience. As a young girl, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants who faced crises of racism, identity and loneliness, who dealt with the heartbreak of seeing her severely autistic brother sectioned, and who as a teenager very nearly lost the voice that would later become known to millions.

Aasmah has revealed this story in a moving new memoir, A Pebble In The Throat. In fact it is a joint memoir: the drama of her own childhood brilliantly entwined with that of her mother Almas. A story that as a result spans five decades and two continents. That Aasmah chose to write this remarkable book just as her marriage ended and as she became a single mum to her young daughter is, I am sure, something that we will also discuss.

Aasmah, welcome to Crisis What Crisis.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:02:04] Thank you very much.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:05] How are you doing?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:02:07] When you put it all like that, it’s quite terrifying really. I suppose when you- it’s intense, isn’t it, when you have to summarise someone’s situation. So yes, goodness me.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:20] I hope I got it right.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:02:22] You did, you got it completely right.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:24] Great. I listened to you on Times Radio this morning. A job that you get up for at about three, three-thirty in the morning?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:02:31] Something like that, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:32] A demonstration of your resilience, right there. You obviously have an incredible work ethic, where does that come from, do you think?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:02:43] I think-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:43] What’s the voice telling you to get out of bed every morning?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:02:45] It’s definitely my mum’s. My mum always said to me, “Just get on with it, just do it.” You know when you have a really horrible week ahead of you, for example, and you’re thinking, “Oh no, I can’t believe I’ve got to do this, and that, and I don’t want to do this but I have to do it”? And half of me wants to kind of run away and hide, but then I just remember my mum just working through all this stuff, you know, whatever it might have been.

It might have been something to do with the family, or to do with the business, the family business or whatever, and she would just be like, “Just do one task at a time and get through it. It’s like climbing a ladder. It’s like stepping stones over a lake, you know, you just do one thing at a time, and once you get to the end it will be over and you won’t have to do that ever again. But you can’t not do it, you just can’t not. You can’t give up, never give up.”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:03:39] Tell me about the book and how it came about, the process with your mum. How did you write it together?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:03:47] So the logistics of it were interesting in that I was always going to just write a straight memoir, and then someone actually said, I don’t know if you read the acknowledgement, someone said to me, “Who’d want to read that?” I remember thinking, “That’s quite rude, but I’ll make sure I will write that now.” I’m sure you can all guess who that was.

And then I spoke to my mum about something, I was trying to fact-check a couple of things, and I said, “Mum, it was really difficult because when we were growing up there was quite a lot racism around,” because it was the ‘70s, it was the ‘80s. People were just not familiar with people who were different at that point. It’s different today.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:04:25] That’s a very forgiving attitude, we’ll get onto that.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:04:28] Yes, but I think it’s true though, I really do. I’m less forgiving of people who are racist today.

And she kind of had that look in her eye, it was that slightly like, not quite understanding. And I said, “Well of course you wouldn’t understand, Mum, because you didn’t face racism as a child. You grew up in Pakistan with people who looked like you, you didn’t stick out, and if you did stick out it was only for good reasons because you were Head Girl and you were, you know, chief this and chief that, and all the rest of it.”

And she said, “Well. Let me tell you something, young lady.” And then she started telling me about her domestic set up, and I didn’t know any of this because a lot of that generation, my mum’s seventy-eight, a lot of that generation do not wallow, they do not indulge, they do not, “Poor me, poor me.” They don’t do any of that, they just, “We just got on with it,” you know, and then they forget about it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:05:18] You don’t do a lot of it, we’ll get onto that.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:05:22] I don’t know, other people might disagree with you. But anyway, so then she started telling me about her set up. I don’t want to ruin too much of it obviously because it’s in the book, but she had a difficult domestic set up. So she said to me, “Actually, you know, things were not that stable at home,” whereas I had a very stable home life. I mean, there were issues with my brother but there was no instability, we were all a unit. I had a mum, I had a dad, and you know, that was it. I had one mum and one dad, which was just about enough.

So then I suddenly got this idea of actually, why don’t we do the two together? It was a very long process. I gave her this notebook, I think it was just before lockdown actually, I gave her this notebook and I said, “Mum, can you just- every day can you just write- or maybe every week, just write something about these themes that I’ve given you?”

So one would be food, one would be primary school, one would be secondary school, one would be your home life. One would be sport, because she was really keen on sport, she was an amazing badminton player. “Can you just write that down?” Because I thought if I just do this the normal way she’s just not going to get it, because when I ask my mum stuff she doesn’t answer in the way that an interviewee would, she answers the way that a mother would.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:06:38] Yes.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:06:39] Anyway, so she wrote down all this stuff and then I would phone her up. Because then lockdown came, and I would phone her up and I’d ask her the stuff, and I’d write it down and then I’d make it into something.

Once I’d done it, I would print off that chapter, send it to her by Royal Mail, and she would read it and make little corrections. Because my mum was a primary school teacher so she loves correcting things. And I would say, “Can you just check it for fairness and accuracy?” those good old values, because obviously there’s an entire family and extended family to consider.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:07:11] Of course.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:07:11] And I said, “Mum, you’re the fairest person I know. If you say it’s fair, no one will argue.

And then I’d phone her up and she’d say, “Okay, page two, this bit, change that, that’s not quite right, that’s not quite fair,” and that’s how we did it, down the phone.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:07:24] Did the process, and did the finished product, make you closer to your mum do you think?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:07:31] Well you know what? It should have done, but of course everything coincided with a marriage breakdown, and from that stemmed a really difficult situation with my family actually. My mum I’m incredibly close to, but we actually grew apart slightly, weirdly, post- marriage breakdown and divorce. Not because my parents disapproved of it, they were like absolutely 100% get divorced.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:07:58] Right.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:07:59] It wasn’t that. What it was, was that they- they weren’t very good at dealing with my- I sort of want to say upset, but I’m not even sure that I ever showed any upset because I was just powering though every day, trying to keep everything afloat. So they weren’t very good at discussing with me the kind of emotional fallout of what had happened. They were very good at discussing the practical admin side of things. “Are you going to sell the house? What should you do? Do you need any help? Can we help you with this? Can we help you with that?”

And no one ever sat down and said, “Are you okay?” Maybe I’m glad, because even just hearing that now I’m kind of thinking, “Ah, oh, no I wasn’t okay.”

But anyway, so they didn’t- they were quite-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:08:42] A bit detached?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:08:44] Yes. I was going to say cold, but that’s not fair because my parents are adorable. They were just a bit detached about it all, and I actually into that chasm, that gap of emotion, that dearth of emotion, I became very angry actually. I just remember thinking, “I’m so angry that this thing has happened to me and no one has said to me, ‘Are you okay?’”.

Why was it that it was people on Twitter that were saying this to me, and offering me their spare rooms and their nannies and whatever? You know, it was strangers. Maybe it’s easier for strangers I suppose, isn’t it?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:09:16] It is perhaps, yes.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:09:18] So in a way actually we grew apart while I was writing it. It was really difficult. So we grew apart and then I had to come back and do this, and so I don’t think it did bring us closer, weirdly. I think it would have done in normal circumstances, but to be honest with you I was already so close to my mum, like I would speak to her all the time. If ever I need any advice, I ask her. But not so much anymore, and that’s not just because of the kind of fracture, I think also just because you know, she’s getting older, I don’t want to burden her any more.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:09:53] Yes, yes.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:09:54] So I don’t know, maybe I’m preparing for the inevitable, I don’t know.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:09:57] Well we have this thing, don’t we, where it’s a kind of- it’s the accepted practice that as you get older you must therefore get closer to your parents. That is the way we do it, right?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:10:12] Yes, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:10:12] But that’s- it doesn’t have to be.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:10:15] No.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:10:16] And also, for good reason sometimes it just isn’t that way.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:10:20] Yes. I would say that it’s definitely not the case with my mum because we were already close, but it is with my dad. Because in the book, you know, we have this really tricksy period from about maybe the age of eleven or twelve. The teenage years are horrendous, like I can’t even be in the same room as him. I won’t go into politics, but politically we were completely polar opposites. And you know, I just thought he didn’t the same values and beliefs as I did, and I found that really difficult to reconcile. I think he was very much a typical dad of the ‘80s, a little but unreconstructed, and I found that difficult.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:11:02] Loved his news, though.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:11:05] He was obsessed by the news.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:11:06] Which clearly seeped into the DNA.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:11:09] It must have done. How weird though, because he loved cricket and so I hate cricket now because he used to force us to watch test matches, which were just so boring. And he forced us to watch the news, but yes, that’s weird, I don’t know how that happened.

But we are definitely much closer now. And to be honest, my dad, you know, he apologised to me actually two years ago or so. He just said to me, “I’m really sorry by the way, about how I was when you were a teenager.” And again, I don’t blame him, as I say in the book, you know?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:11:41] After reading the book did he say that?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:11:43] No, it wasn’t after reading the book. He only read the book quite recently, actually. I think it was after the whole divorce thing, and the fact that I didn’t speak to my parents for a while, a few months. It was really, really difficult actually, and there were other members of my family I didn’t speak to for two years. I think that’s what it was. I think he suddenly appreciated that they had let me down, that they hadn’t been there when I really needed them. They’d been there practically but not emotionally.

So he sent me this beautiful letter actually, in his beautiful, very distinctive spidery kind of doctor’s handwriting, that I’ve seen since I was five years old. And that did the trick. Because it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in life, just apologise. Just say sorry, and mean it, and then you can have no excuse not to accept that apology if someone does it from the heart and does it just- it’s a clean apology, it’s not a, “I’m sorry but…” because they’re the worst.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:12:40] Yes. We’ve gone almost to the end of the story. Without wishing to turn this into a therapy session, if we go back to the childhood there are already, as you’re saying that I’m thinking, “Well, is that linked to…?” So let’s tell that story, shall we?

Because I think what the book does brilliantly is capture the sort of sadness of a pretty blissful early childhood as it transforms into something much more complex and painful.

But shall we talk very briefly about those happier days? Because you’re one of four children, your mum and dad come here from Pakistan in the mid ‘60s, and at this stage in your life you describe yourself brilliantly. You know, you’re sort of firing on all cylinders. You describe yourself as, “A relentless show-off, as a young girl always wanting to be the centre of attention.” And this bit I really like: “I existed, and no one could ignore me.” And you were also mischievous, putting itching powder into another girl’s school tights. Thank you, by the way, for the little cultural ‘70s references that I’d somehow erased from- itching powder I had somehow erased, joke shops I’d erased from my memory.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:13:54] Stink bombs.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:13:57] Just give me a sense of those early days of your childhood.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:14:02] I mean, they were blissful. I think the reason that I remember them so clearly is because my dad took loads of photographs and loads of Super 8 films of us, and so we- we haven’t watched them in a while because they’re kind of inaccessible now, but we watched them a lot for other reasons and that reinforces- so it’s not a kind of false memory, it actually happened. And you just see us constantly having birthday parties and friends and relatives and bicycles. We were always on bicycles, we were always outdoors, we were always in the garden playing cricket or whatever it was.

You know, we were all really- I can only speak for myself because obviously my brother and sister are older than me. My younger brother was younger but he was in his own world. I just loved it, you know. Life was amazing, people were really friendly, I had loads of friends. You know, I think at that age children don’t really notice difference, but obviously as they get older they do.

But it was, it was wonderful. You know, my dad was incredibly loud, gregarious, generous. My mum always seemed to be happy. I think-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:07] A successful guy, hard-working, own business, owned and ran a garage, yes.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:15:11] Yes, a petrol station. We are the petrol station family, basically. And then I think obviously my mum was really happy because she realised she’d married a really good man. This was an arranged marriage, she hadn’t seen him, that’s just the way it was back then. And she’d struck gold, you know? She was really lucky, he was a nice guy. He was a generous guy, he was very loving, he was very romantic, and I think my mum was just so happy because that’s what she had- she’d wanted to get away from the unhappy marriage that existed in her own childhood, that of her parents.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:47] And that was as much luck as anything?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:15:50] Totally, yes. Totally luck, although I do think again, that generation just made it work. It’s kind of alien to us, because with all the will in the world you meet someone, you fall in love, of course you want to make it work. But you know, I’m proof that it doesn’t matter how hard you work, it can still fall apart.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:16:08] You were especially close to your younger brother, Imran. You shared a bedroom for the first eight years of his life. He was a boy I think then undiagnosed, obviously because understanding was so much different to what it is now. But undiagnosed with severe autism.

And you were his protector, really. Well, not really, you were his protector. And there are two pretty dark incidents that you write about where you come to his aid. One in the woods near your home. Tell us about that.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:16:40] Ugh, I found this really upsetting to write, actually. So we used to obviously just be packed off, my mum would say, “Here, have some McVitie’s Digestives and off you go,” and so we would. We’d spend the whole day in the woods having a great time, making dens, you know. We might see friends and we’d play with them or whatever.

There was just this one day I was in the woods and there were these older boys. There were always older boys and I was a bit wary of older boys, just because a) they were boys, and b) they were older, and they just felt kind of, I don’t know, physically a little bit more threatening. And they just blocked our way and said, “You can’t go,” or something, “Until you tell us if you eat curry,” or something like that.

And I just remember thinking, because we didn’t really call it curry because it was just food. Obviously we ate everything; we ate curry and we ate fish fingers or beef burgers or whatever. And I just remember thinking, “I don’t understand what they want me to say.” So maybe I was a bit obtuse. Maybe if I’d just said, “Yes, I do eat curry,” they would have let us go.

But you know, they didn’t, and they just kind of, “You can’t go until you’ve said this, you can’t do that.” And the whole time I was just very aware that these were not good people and that I had to make sure that my little brother didn’t do anything that made them realise that he had, as we now know, autism.

And he was always doing stuff, you know. He was always looking at his hands, he’d always be examining his hands very closely, swaying on his feet, and so I just kind of- I think I held his hand or something just to stop him from doing anything because I didn’t want them to notice that.

And then of course he did, he said something random, and then they kind of realised. And they were just very threatening towards him and I thought they were going to do something horrible to him and I didn’t know what it was, and I just remember thinking, “Okay, I’m going to have to either punch them,” which is what I would normally do, I did a lot of hitting and punching. “Or I’m just going to have to distract them in some way.” So I supposed I kind of just put myself in front and said, “Yes, I do eat curry. Yes, my name is Aasmah,” because they were laughing at my name as well.

And that kind of distracted them and broke the spell, and then they started concentrating on me, and I thought, “Excellent, I’ve done that.” But then luckily someone came by at that point and we managed to get away because someone distracted them.

But I just remember thinking in that moment, “I won’t be able to protect him from these people because they’re bigger than me, there’s about three of them,” and I just remember thinking, “I can’t bear that. I just can’t bear it. If you want to do anything to me you can, but not to him because he is special.” That’s the word we used for him, he was special.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:19:27] So there’s obviously just unadulterated bullying there, but obviously with this racist undertone.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:19:33] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:19:34] Had you at that stage- you said there, “I spent a lot of my time punching and hitting.” By that stage the sort of realisation of what the world would actually mean to you as a young Asian girl in Glasgow, had that begun to dawn on you at that stage?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:19:56] I’m not sure that it had. I think I was able to explain a lot of stuff away, like they’re not like everyone else, they’re just horrible boys. Because there were just a few incidents, there weren’t that many. There was another one when my brother was at school and this boy kept on calling him this weird word, which is not even a real word. There was that. But they were quite isolated, and they were balanced out by great friends, great buddies, going round to people’s houses, being invited to people’s houses and going in for dinner, for tea and all the rest of it.

So I don’t think I had absorbed it. Because you’re quite reluctant to absorb that stuff at that age. You’re still very optimistic about humanity and people, and you don’t really believe it. So I don’t think I had at that point, but I think that came later.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:20:44] Let’s talk about that, because things got worse at school. You describe an experience in the classroom when your teacher asks you to explain what it is to be a Muslim to the rest of your class. You describe it, I have to say it’s a brilliant bit of writing but it’s also quite a disturbing bit of writing. You’re kind of there in the classroom feeling for you, and he keeps just making it worse and worse for you.

Tell us what happened, then tell us how you sort of feel about it now. Because it feels like a very important moment, I don’t know.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:21:19] Yes. So there were two moments, they were both in Religious Education which was just, everyone hated RE because it was just so boring. No one really cared about religion maybe the way that they do now they have a more global view of religion. Back then it was just like weird things that people do in the rest of the world, that’s how it felt to kids in the ‘70s, “Why are we learning about this?”

So the first incident was very much about, you know, “We’re doing Islam,” and of course Islam is how you say it but everyone would say, “Izz-lamb.” So, “We’re doing Islam today,” and I would just be like, “Okay,” you know, “Why are we doing this again?” And then he said, “Are there any Muslims in the class?” and I just remember thinking, “Oh, I don’t think there are,” then I suddenly realised that he was looking at me. And he said, “You’re one.”

And I suppose at that point I hadn’t made the connection, it’s really weird these labels that you have for yourself.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:22:13] Because your parents were not devout.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:22:15] No, not devout at all.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:22:17] No Christmas at home, actually.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:22:18] No, but not devout, like they would pick and choose. I would have said to myself- I identified more with the word Pakistani than I did with the word Muslim, because it was more of a cultural thing than a religious thing.

Anyway, so he just kept saying, “Can you tell us?” I don’t think his intentions were malign, I think he was just very, very clumsy. And he didn’t have any kind of duty care towards me because it was the ‘70s or the ‘80s and teachers mostly didn’t really think about things like that. So he was just urging me on, you know. “Can you tell us what they do, what they don’t do?”

And I’m really scrambling about at this point, thinking, “I don’t actually know, no one has told me. So let me just think about my life and what’s different. Okay. I don’t eat pork, I don’t drink alcohol, obviously, I’m a child anyway. I don’t celebrate Christmas.” I’m just flailing about, really. And of course, as you say all these things all the children around you are just looking horrified, like, “How weird are you? Why don’t you eat pig? Why don’t you do this? Why aren’t you allowed boyfriends? Why do some Muslims marry their cousins? Why do men have more than one wife?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, don’t ask me.” I have no idea, no one has explained it to me and I am not the spokesperson for Islam.

But anyway, that was difficult because at that point-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:23:41] How old are you at this point?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:23:43] I would say about eleven, twelve maybe, something like that. I just didn’t really know, you know? Again, I think an eleven year old today would know more about this stuff, I really do feel, because they have the internet and TikTok and all the rest of it. They’d probably know, someone would tell them what it meant. But I didn’t know.

Anyway, then there was another incident and it was the same thing, it was just the same picking away at the same sore. And you know, there was chaos in the classroom, it was uproar, it was a really horrendous school. I just got fed up and I just snapped, and I said something that I shouldn’t have said, and everything basically stemmed from that.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:24:24] So in essence there’s a bully in the classroom, [Goldie 0:24:28] I think his name is. He’s going at you, both as a bully but also as a racist underlying a lot of what he’s saying to you, and you actually have been helping him with his homework.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:24:40] With his homework, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:24:43] And so you tell the teacher that, right?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:24:45] Yes, exactly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:24:45] “Why don’t you have a look at our homework and compare them?”

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:24:49] “I think you’ll find they’re very similar.” I still- I’ll never forget those words, because if I hadn’t said them I think life would have been very different. But it was just that one moment.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:24:57] Do you really- just kind of that’s the moment that you identify as being-?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:25:01] Yes, definitely. Definitely. And I just wish- I had quite a big mouth still at that point and I was very much into defending myself, and I think I was just like, “I’m not having this. If you’re going to do this to me, I’m going to hit back.” But I should have known that the balance of power was not in my favour at this point really.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:21] Yes, but why? You’re a young girl-

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:25:25] He was a bully and he had everyone in his pocket, and if you crossed the bully, that’s really quite a foolish thing to do isn’t it, really?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:33] Risky.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:25:34] Yes, risky.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:36] Tell us what happened.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:25:38] So, he was obviously furious, and the minute the words came out of my mouth I remember thinking, “Oh dear,” or words to that effect, “This is really bad. I’ve crossed the bully, the guy with all the power, he’s not going to make my life easy.” I initially thought he would just beat me up, like physically, because that’s what was happening at that school all the time. I used to see mainly boys hitting other boys, really like- there was always blood on school shirts, people’s noses were always bleeding. And the girls would attack other girls occasionally but it wasn’t as bad as the boys.

But what happened was, this was a Friday I remember, and on the Monday I went into school and I just noticed that no one was talking to me. I thought, “Okay fine, maybe they just think I’m a bit of a grass,” which I had been. But then he told me in no uncertain terms that, “No one is going to speak to you.” And I remember thinking, “Well, that’s not real. How could that happen in the world?”

But that’s what happened. I think I was in- I can’t remember whether it was my first or my second year at secondary school, it might have been my second, I can’t even remember. But there were seven forms or seven classes in each year, it was such a huge school. If you think about that, thirty in each seven, children tend-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:27:01] It’s in Glasgow, give us a sense of the type of school that it was.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:27:04] It was just a massive, ugly, 1960s, huge, just a monolithic, horrible school, really. There’s many schools like that that were not horrible, but that one was. It had a huge catchment area, and obviously so it had kids from all sorts of places. And it was just- people talk about a melting pot, this was a melting pot as well but the melting was not good.

So anyway, no one did speak to me in that class. And then obviously I didn’t know people in other classes so I just kind of kept myself to myself, and this went on for months and it was really lonely. It was really lonely, because secondary school is supposed- I mean, secondary school can be hard but it’s still supposed to be fun. But no one spoke to me for months.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:27:54] It’s an extraordinary thing. When I was reading it you sort of, “How does that happen?” It’s an extraordinary thing. And you know, an entire kind of school, for you the school turning its back on one girl. But actually I suspect it- I was reading it and I was thinking, “Well, that can’t happen these days,” but of course, what you were was cancelled.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:28:20] Yes, I suppose yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:28:22] That’s what happened to you, except they didn’t have the technology to do it. And I suspect actually there’s a version of that happening in plenty of schools, I suspect.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:28:32] Yes, absolutely.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:28:32] And in a way, possibly even more painful.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:28:34] Yes, I’m sure-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:28:35] Because they all live their lives through their phones.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:28:37] Oh absolutely, I’m sure of it. And actually when I think back on it, and people ask me questions like, “Why didn’t you tell the teacher?” Well, the teachers wouldn’t have cared. They wouldn’t have cared and they wouldn’t have done anything. “Why didn’t you tell your parents?” Well, my mum wasn’t there, she was in Pakistan. My dad was just like, you know, he didn’t understand. He was like, “Just punch them.” That was generally what he used to say to me, “Just punch them, or tell them I’ll-” and I’m like, “Dad, that’s not an answer to this,” you know? Or, “Just ignore them.” “Well, I don’t need to ignore them because they’re ignoring me.”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:29:09] Or sticks and stones, I think someone said to you at one stage.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:29:11] Yes, well absolutely. So there was no way out of it, really.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:29:14] Yes. But this isn’t you being blanked by your classmates for a couple of weeks. This is weeks, months, this goes on and on.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:29:22] It goes on until the end of the year. Thankfully, I think this was like maybe spring and it went on into June or July, whenever school broke up. But it felt a lot longer than that, it felt like a year, because it was so silent.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:29:37] And its impact on you was to send you obviously into yourself. And so as I mentioned in the intro, that starts to affect in a pretty visceral way how you behave. You kind of stop talking. I mean, you’re still communicating at home I’m sure, but you can’t go into a shop, you can’t talk to people, you just completely disappear in on yourself.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:30:00] Yes. You just lose your confidence completely because you’re not- you’re out of the habit of talking and interacting with people, so you lose that ability. And then I suppose just all the other stuff perhaps that you’ve been blocking out before about, you know, boys telling you that you smell and you’re ugly, and you know, your skin is dirty, and your blood- what colour is your blood? And just all this stuff that you’ve kind of tried to deflect and explain away, I suppose suddenly you start to believe it in a way, and you think, “Well I’m not really worth- I can’t be worth anything because no one is speaking to me, and maybe they’re right.”

Because I think if you tell someone something every day, subtly or not subtly, maybe sometimes if you’re vulnerable and you’re a child you start to believe it. I mean, it sounds ridiculous now.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:30:49] But it doesn’t sound ridiculous, because the detail of it is terrible. You just skirted over it there, but you know, for any parent listening to this with a teenage daughter or an eleven or twelve year old daughter, if that child came home and said, “Someone scratched my arm with a compass today because they wanted to see whether or not our blood was the same colour.”

Or if they came home from school and said, “We did country dancing at school today,” which is another anecdote from your book, where the boy refuses to touch you. He’ll dance with you, but he won’t touch your hands. Or your child comes home from school and says, “Someone was rubbing my arm today because they wanted to see whether or not they could change the colour of my skin.”

This isn’t sort of superficial stuff. This is- any one of those moments in a child’s life in the modern context now I think, when we’re looking at upbringing in the way that we do, you would see as a pretty significant moment. And you had layer after layer of it.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:31:46] I did, but you know what? It was very common. I’ve done quite a few book signings, and a lot of Asian mostly women but some men as well, of my age, have come up to me and said, “That’s what happened to me.” I sound like I’m bigging myself up here because I’m sure people have written about this, but they’ve said, “I’ve never seen that mundane existence, that everyday almost like a diary-type existence, I’ve never seen it expressed on a page.”

And it was a long time ago, and people are kind of a bit like, “Why are you talking about stuff that happened forty years ago?”

But a lot of them felt like- they started crying actually, it was really awful. And they were just saying, “I kind of wish you hadn’t written it because it’s upset me, but I’m also glad that you have because we’re just expected to forget this stuff and erase it, and actually it did happen and perhaps it makes us understand the situation as it stands today.” In other words that things are so much better.

And I don’t mean to sound ignorant or dismissive of stuff that goes on today, but my god. My god, if I could grow up today I would do it in a heartbeat. I mean, I really would, you know? Social media notwithstanding, I would. Because people know, they understand what I am and who I am, and why I have brown skin. Back then they just didn’t understand, because no one really had sufficiently explained it to them.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:33:17] Mm. Before we started, we had a brief conversation about the memoir writer’s concern about their book being viewed as a kind of exercise in self-pity. And I said to you, which I think is absolutely the case, that your book absolutely walks that line brilliantly.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:33:43] Thank goodness.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:33:43] Because for me there isn’t an ounce of self-pity, and that’s the point really, is that you’re just- it’s factual, right? You’re telling the story of what happened in a very factual way, and although you describe its impact on you, not at any point does it feel like you’re wallowing. Quite the reverse, actually.

And of course, what happens to your life, which we’ll get onto in a minute, is the greatest demonstration of your lack of self-pity. Because I think if you- even then I’m not sure you were wallowing around. Even then I think you were- it read to me as though that girl who wanted to exist when she was tiny was still kind of punching away, really.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:34:26] I suppose so. I mean, I think there’s a moment-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:28] Sorry to interrupt. How do you look at yourself now at that- you must be quite proud of your teenage self. Are you?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:34:38] Proud of my teenage self. What, because I didn’t go under?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:42] Yes.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:34:45] I don’t know. I mean, I wanted to, I really wanted- I didn’t want to exist but I didn’t know how to make that happen, and I was too much of a coward really. But you know, there were times when I was- I felt very lonely, I didn’t really have anyone to talk to at home because my mum wasn’t there, it was just my older brother and my dad. And then there was no one talking to me at school.

I remember just feeling so lonely and thinking, “What is this? If this is life, you know, really what is the point?” But there was just- I think there was a moment, and I think it’s in the book, where I suddenly- maybe a year or two after that incident I just remember thinking, “No, I’m sorry, no. This is not- this can’t be it. I think the problem is you guys, it’s not me. And I can’t wait to get away from you.” I think that’s what it was.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:33] That’s an unbelievable realisation.

We’ll be right back after this.

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[0:36:50] Let’s just explain the other part of what’s going on here, because we’ve discussed school, the bullying, the racism. But you’ve also been separated from your mother at this stage, and the silence at school, as it continues, you’re getting through the days, but your mum has, because of your brother’s difficulties, has decided to go back to Pakistan where she thinks that he’ll have an easier time of it, really.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:37:17] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:37:20] So those two things combined, if you separate them out, even if you break it down as we just did a minute ago into those individual incidents, those are all pretty seismic for a young girl.

You’ve got that pile of stuff though on that side, and then you’ve got being separated from your mother. I mean, it’s quite a thing.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:37:44] It’s a lot. It is a lot when you look back at it now, and I think also my dad-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:37:47] That’s why I ask, you must be proud of yourself.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:37:51] Honestly, I’ve never really thought of that. No, it’s not that I’m not proud, it’s just that- I’m not proud of myself, because I didn’t do much about it. I couldn’t do much about it, I had no control or agency at that age. But I think there was just this moment where I just said to myself, you know, “It’s not always going to be like this. It’s not always going to be like this.” And that’s why I like reading books and listening to stories or watching the news about people who have done things, or moved away, or gone to a different country, reinvented themselves in some way. That really attracted me, and I remember thinking that things can change, this is not going to be my life for the rest of my life, and indeed it wasn’t.

I don’t actually look back and think that, but I don’t know why. I don’t think, “You were rubbish,” but I don’t think-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:38:51] I’m not sure there are that many kids of that age who are starting to think, “Hang on a minute, this isn’t life. I can see beyond this. My life will be different, my life will change.” That’s a pretty mature thought.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:39:01] Maybe. Maybe it just goes back to that thing of being a relentless show-off and wanting to be the centre of attention, all those things. And just thinking, “Hang on a minute. I wanted to do all that, how have I gone so much off course?” Maybe it was just wanting to get back to that, I don’t know. I’m not sure what it was really, because things got very hopeless but I just remember having this realisation that they were wrong and I was, if not right, then I was innocent anyway.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:29] Yes. This podcast at least tries to be useful and tries to kind of pass on practical lessons for people who are going through difficult stuff. So if we just stick with that moment in time for you for a second, what would you say to a girl of your age who has been cancelled for whatever reason, who is now feeling essentially alone and lost? And I think there’s a fair number of them these days because of the technology. What would you say?

Because you found that voice inside yourself, what would you say? What would you guide people towards?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:40:10] You know, it’s very difficult because they are very different actually, the scenarios. Because back then it was just about bullying and self-esteem and that was it. Whereas now it’s much more complicated, and I don’t have any experience of that because my daughter is only seven, thankfully. I’m sure there will be stuff to come.

But I suppose it’s very much about trying to detach yourself from the intensity of these social situations. You know, everyone is in a WhatsApp group and they’re all bullying this one girl, or whatever. Take yourself out from there, tell as many adults as possible. Try to remember that this is a moment, don’t let these things define you, don’t let them just put you on a downward trajectory for the rest of your life because that’s a waste of your life.

And things will get better. Things will be different. They might not be better always, because we’re not all Cinderella, but things will be different. This is one stage, and the next stage is going to be different, and the next stage after that is going to be different. And you do have to go through some crap in life I’m afraid, you do.

And parents who overly protect their children and make sure that they don’t come into contact with any conflict or problems, that’s a really big disservice to your children as well, I think.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:41:32] Let’s pick up the story again. Your mum comes back to Glasgow from Pakistan but you know that she’ll be leaving again, that she’ll go back. And I think I’m right in saying, you sort of essentially beg to go back with her.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:41:45] Absolutely.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:41:47] And that’s exactly what happens. To a very different life there in many ways, and where your skin colour is viewed as different. But now in a very positive way.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:41:58] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:41:59] Just explain that, but also talk to me if you can about the power of perspective. Because it strikes me, listening to the story, that you were going back to a relatively wealthy, middle-class environment, but in very close proximity to poverty that you’d never seen before, which must have provided perspective.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:42:15] Yes. Pakistan was just a whirlwind. I was only there for between six and eight months, but I had been there a few times before. We used to spend Christmases there, which was always a bit weird, but actually living there was odd. There was a lot to get used to. The weather, the food, the people, the language, just everything was different. There was nothing that was the same. TV, music, everything was different, and it was just constantly readjusting to new stuff.

But it was really exciting, and at least it wasn’t that school that I’d escaped, so I was really happy. You could have taken me anywhere and I would have gone, I think. I just wanted to get out of the situation.

So I went to school, I went to a girls’ school there. Obviously all the kids there were pretty affluent. Not off the scale, it wasn’t like Eton or anything like that, it was a middle-class girls’ grammar school. And I really loved it. I didn’t really know what I was doing, because they were all doing weird subjects at different times and they were at different stages. I didn’t do particularly well, the only subject I did particularly well in was English because I’d always been quite good at that. And Creative Writing. That was it, really. The rest of it, I think it was just- I didn’t know what I was doing.

But no one within the school questioned the colour of my skin. Outside the school, like when you went to the market and the bazaar, and you went to relatives’ houses or whatever, they would always comment on your skin colour and be like, “Oh, you’re so lovely and fair.” And I would just think, “What does that even- what does fair mean?” I didn’t know what it meant. And a lot of people would say, “Well, that’s your privilege. You’re very privileged to look the way that you do within Asian society.” But I didn’t know any of that.

I don’t think I ever used it to my advantage, but people would serve you first in shops, people would stare at you, not in a horrible way, it was just curiosity. And I found this a total 180 degree turn to what I had experienced in Glasgow, which had been that people would stare at you but it was- sometimes it was curiosity but most of the time it was hostility.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:44:34] So is this where the kind of realisation of some of the fundamental nonsense of what it is to be a human being comes from?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:44:46] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:44:46] So you’ve gone from a place where you’ve got people scratching your arm with a compass, to being first in the queue in a shop, all based on the colour of your skin.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:44:56] Yes. And the point there is-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:44:57] That’s an astonishing juxtaposition.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:44:58] It is astonishing, and the point is that I don’t want anyone to think, “Oh, white people are bad,” obviously no they’re not. Asian people, there is a thread running through Asian culture and Asian society which is incredibly colourist. I think we all know that, and it’s terrible. Not all Asian people, but you know, there is.

And I don’t like this narrative that you can’t be discriminatory because you’re Asian, or perhaps even if you’re black, because colourism is something that exists. And Asian people, some of them, can be incredibly racist, I think. People will tell me, “No, you can’t be racist.” Well, I think you can.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:42] You return with your mum, you go back initially I think to the hellish school that you’ve described-

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:45:49] Yes, for two months.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:52] For two months, but you survive that and you get on to a new school. And I think when you arrive at that new school, because they think you’ve come straight from Pakistan they are assuming that you don’t have any English or that your English isn’t particularly good, that you’re not especially bright, and that again seems to be a big moment for you. Because that sparks something else in you, doesn’t it?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:46:17] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:18] I’ll show you.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:46:19] Yes. I don’t think that they- that never occurred to me. I wonder if maybe they- I don’t know if you provided CVs back then, or educational records, because I’d obviously come from the hellish school. But maybe they did think, “Hang on a minute, where were you for this six months? Oh, you were in Pakistan.” I don’t know, but anyway, they made a very foolish presumption that I might not be very good at English. Because they put me in this extra English class, and I was like, “Oh fantastic, extra English, that must be because I’m really good at English.” And it was just full of Asian girls, and I remember thinking, “What? This is really mad.” And then I think they realised that I didn’t need to be in that class, so I just left, walked out that day. I remember thinking, “Well, that’s not cool.”

And there were other things that happened where it was kind of presumed that I might be a bit slow, I might be- it’s really weird now to think of it, but back in the ‘80s there was this presumption that if you weren’t a bit smelly and smelled of curry and all the rest of it, that you might be a bit stupid?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:47:22] Mm.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:47:23] Which obviously is not the case now, that perception does not exist now I don’t think. But there was a perception, or presumption, that you might be a bit stupid. And I remember just thinking, “Well, you know what? I’m going to do something about this, because this is something I can control. I can’t control how many friends I have or who wants to be my friend because of whatever, and I’m never going to be Miss Popular, I’m never going to be the head girl, I think we all know that. But one thing I can do,” I suppose to show off maybe, possibly, “Is to be really, really good at my studies.”

It was literally the only thing I could control, so I just got on with my studies and I did really well.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:48:02] How old are you, fifteen, sixteen?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:48:04] Something like that, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:48:05] Okay, so you’re a sixteen year old stoic, then. You’ve worked out at that age, “This is what I’ve got control of, this is what I don’t have control of, so I’m just going to concentrate on all the things that I can properly have an impact on.”

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:48:19] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:48:20] Again, that’s an astonishing realisation.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:48:23] Is it? I don’t know. Surely some teenagers must get to the point-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:48:28] I’m sure some do, perhaps not with everything that’s gone before, I don’t know.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:48:33] I suppose not.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:48:36] So the transformation then begins, and it is remarkable. You become a straight-A student, six A grade Highers as they are in Scotland, and you go from silent, shunned loner to the first Asian girl to be on the Honours Board at your school, your name in gold letters. The first Asian girl, not the last I’m sure.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:49:05] No.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:49:06] You’re the smartest kid in school. I mean, it’s astonishing.

Your book is called A Pebble In The Throat. But isn’t this, and this isn’t my metaphor it’s someone else’s, but isn’t this actually more pebbles in the river? All these little things that you’re doing are slowly getting higher and higher and higher, and then suddenly you break through the surface and you’re sort of breathing clean air, and off you go.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:49:38] Mm.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:49:40] It’s an astonishing thing that happened. But you don’t see it that way, do you?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:49:46] I think I- it was very, very- what’s the word? It was very pleasing and satisfying to prove a lot of people wrong, and to show the way that perhaps, I don’t know, the first Asian footballer showed people that, “Oh, Asians can play football,” many years later, to show that actually Asians could be clever. And you know, that they could get straight As. I did A-levels after that actually as well, because I was just too young to go to university at that point.

But I remember just thinking, “I’m really pleased I’ve done that, because I’ve succeeded at something.” I felt that I’d succeeded at something for the first time in a long time.

The other thing I loved doing was I loved running and I wanted to be the fastest. And I was the fastest I think at primary school, but then when I went to secondary school there were people obviously who were faster than me and I hated that. But I remember thinking, “Okay, what can I be really good at? What can I beat everyone at?” I suppose half of it was about beating people, and the other half of it was about confounding expectations or pulping stereotypes, you know? Because there were a lot of them around back then. I’m sure there still are today, there are different ones. But I just remember just feeling really intoxicated by it, and I wanted to do more of that. But actually it became harder as I-

You go to university and it’s much harder. Much harder, especially when you pick the wrong subject to study.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:25] A bigger pool, right?

There’s still the sadness of your brother in the background, and now obviously a, you know, a growing man. And it becomes impossible really for your mum to deal with his outbursts. One particularly worrying moment I think that involves you, that you mention in the book. He gets sectioned, that is the only choice really for your parents, so that he gets the treatment and the care he needs.

How do you look back now at what again must have been- because we’ve got this transformation happening but then you’ve also got this terrible sadness.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:52:01] Yes. I just remember thinking- I was relieved, I was sad. It was an absolute inevitability that it was going to happen, because we’d just been delaying it I think, because Asian people believe in keeping everything in the family. Again I’m generalising, but I think Asian people of that generation, in the ‘80s, or I think it was about 1990 by then, they don’t believe in putting your grandma or your mother in a home. They don’t believe in any of that stuff. They don’t believe in giving your child to anyone. You deal with it yourself.

But we just couldn’t. We didn’t have an extended family, it was just the six of us, and my mum and dad were running a business, the petrol stations, and they just couldn’t cope. It just became far too much. Obviously he wasn’t on the right medication, if he was on any medication at that point, I don’t even know.

I remember the day actually, and it was just- everything went so quiet after that. And I remember my mum just looked really- she looked kind of broken and relieved at the same time, it was just really, really weird. And I just remember thinking, “Well, this was always going to happen.”

But there was also the sense of failure as well, that we didn’t manage to keep him. And that was horrible, because all of our lives up to that point had been built around him. Everything was built around him, and quite rightly so. And so you take that piece of the scaffolding away, and everything just kind of, I don’t know, it felt really odd. It was a bit like having your leg or your arm removed, because you know, we had always been a six, there had always been four kids, and then-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:53:50] And you had been especially close, the two of you.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:53:53] Yes, because of the age thing. We didn’t have a great relationship, because he was non-verbal.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:53:59] What had happened, Aasmah? You sort of touch on it in the book, but basically because he’s now a grown man, when he had a tantrum, an outburst, he became potentially violent.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:54:11] Yes. Again I can’t remember exactly what happened, but he was always chucking things. There was vases, my mum had loads of glass ornaments, they were all broken, they were all in the bin, everything was broken. Lamps were broken, he just had this anger and it always had to come out. You couldn’t calm him down. Like, if you got angry now I think I- well, I don’t know you that well but I think I’d be able to calm you down. With my brother, it had to come out because of his condition, and because it was untreated and unmedicated at that point.

So when he was throwing objects around he was almost manageable. But when he started to interact with us, like he was driving with my dad once and he lunged at the steering wheel and they almost ended up in a ditch. I think my dad was just so shaken by that, and that was frightening. And then there were some other incidents, I can’t remember them all, I think I’ve tried to forget them actually, especially if they involve my parents in any way.

But then there was this one, I can’t remember, he just started pushing me and then I ended up on the floor, and then I think he was kicking. That was the day when my mum, she just picked up the phone. I felt so guilty. I felt guilty for a long time, but also mixed in with that was- my mum said to me, “If it hadn’t been that, it would have been me, or it would have been you dad, or it would have been someone, you know? Something had to happen.”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:55:31] Your mum writes very movingly about it in the book, because you get both of your perspectives on it.

How is your brother now?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:55:40] So, he is in a much better place, obviously. He was in one particular, quite horrible to us institution for sixteen years or so, and then eventually we managed to get him out. A lot of families have struggled to get their family members out of these places, there’s been quite a few cases of that recently.

And then I think he went through a few different iterations of supported accommodation until he found the right one. But he’s on medication, he lives in a kind of supported accommodation, maybe fifty miles or so away from my parents. He seems to like it, there are no incidents, and he comes- he’s dropped off at my mum and dad’s once a week. I’m not sure that he stays over. He did used to, but I’m not sure that he does, he might just come for dinner I’m not sure. But they make a connection every week, so that’s good.

My parents are happy with that, because you know, my dad is eighty-seven, my mum is seventy-eight, they don’t know how much longer they’re going to be around and they need to have made that transition and those arrangements before they’re not here anymore. So in a way they just feel more at peace about that. They feel prepared.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:56:55] Tell us about the career, and the start of the career in TV. Because TV wasn’t necessarily your plan?

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:57:04] It’s very weird. I mean, I think it’s just a collection of weird occurrences and opening newspapers and seeing adverts.

So I finished my law degree. I did all the stuff, I thought, “Well, I can’t not do anything with my law degree even though I hate it,” so I applied for articles to be a solicitor and I got a job offer from somewhere. Plymouth or somewhere like that, I don’t know. A solicitor’s in Plymouth. I remember thinking, “Do I want to be a solicitor in Plymouth? I don’t think I do. No, I don’t think I do.”

So I rejected that and then I got a place at bar school. I didn’t really know what that was either, but I thought being a barrister was more interesting that being a solicitor. Then you have to go and have these certain amounts of dinners at Inns of Court. So I went to one and I remember thinking, “I’m not doing this. This is so boring, I’m just not doing it. I’m just not going to do it.”

So then I said to my mum, “Okay, I’m not going to do the bar thing either.” And she was just like, “What? What’s happening? Everything is falling apart. You know, you’re supposed to be this really clever person and now you have no job.” I was just like, “I’ll figure something out. Don’t worry, I will figure something out.”

So I went back, I spent the summer just doing whatever it was I was doing, I can’t remember, and then I saw in the paper there was an advert for a graduate trainee at STV, Scottish Television. And my sister already worked in TV, she worked for the BBC. And I just thought- I was just devoid of any ideas, I thought, “That sounds interesting, I’ll apply for that.”

So I applied for that, and six of us got taken on at that point and I was one of them. My first placement was in the newsroom and I was just running scripts and stuff like that, and I thought, “This is really exciting, I really love this.”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:58:45] You fell in love with it.

Aasmah Mir:                      [0:58:47] And then the editor said to me, “Would you want to read the news?” I was like, “No I would not, why would I want to do that? I don’t want people looking at me. I just can’t think of anything worse. No thank you, I’m quite happy doing this. I’m going to the press office next, it’s going to be really interesting.”

And then I think he asked me again, and then someone said to me, “You can’t really say no. If you say no you might be out on your ear,” kind of thing, you know? “You might end up being frozen out because you’ve said no.” And I’m thinking. “Right, okay. Okay, I’ll do it.” And then I did it, and I mean, there’s some footage that STV put out recently actually in conjunction with the book, and it’s horrendous. I was a really bad newsreader. I was really bad. I look terrified, I’m not breathing in the right places, it’s terrible.

But it became a thing, and I wasn’t the only Asian newsreader because Scottish broadcasting is so far ahead of everyone else. Back in the ‘90s there was already an Asian female newsreader, so there were two of us which was pretty amazing. We once presented the flagship evening news programme together, which was pretty phenomenal.

But because I stuck out, whenever I was walking around Glasgow everyone would come up to me and say, “You’re that girl off the TV,” and all the rest of it. And to be honest with you, I didn’t really like that. I found that a bit like, I wanted to be a success in my life but I didn’t want to be looked at. Because I have this, not fear, but I have this discomfort at being looked at, and I think that must stem back to-

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:20] Of course.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:00:21] When I was a kid and I was being looked at for the wrong reasons. So that’s why I like radio.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:25] Yes. And the radio career was pretty swift as a path of success for you. But not without its difficult days. I heard you talk, I think on another podcast, about a moment at the BBC when- which I found remarkable. 2003 I think, when you’re asked to use the P-word in a news report.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:00:54] Oh yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:57] And you question it, and it’s given to someone else to read. It’s still read out. I found that astonishing. 2003.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:01:05] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:01:07] I mean, in and of itself astonishing, but also given the story that we’ve just heard, that must have been really painful.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:01:14] I just remember being really angry and thinking, “Hang on a sec, how-?” And you know what? It was an ‘and finally’ story. It wasn’t even like you know, the MD or whatever-

Andy Coulson:                   [1:01:27] It wasn’t a report of someone using the word.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:01:28] No.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:01:29] It was gratuitous.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:01:31] It was a kind of ‘and finally’ story. I think I remember the story. The story was something like the Home Office or some agency had had to apologise because someone got sent a letter saying, “Dear Mr P-word.” But it had been put at the end of the bulletin, which lessens its seriousness straight away, and I just remember thinking, “I just don’t- I can’t read this out.”

And they were really nice about it, they said, “Okay fine, you don’t want to read it out, not a problem.” But I think I was at 5 Live at that point, and was it overnight or was it a late night bulletin? And so it was read out on Radio 1 and somewhere else. Because I asked, because I knew who was on and I messaged them on the internal system and said, “Did you read this out?” and they were like, “Yes I did, I thought it was a bit weird but I read it out anyway.” And I remember thinking that was amazing.

Anway, so I complained and then I was told by the Head of News that it was fine, that there was nothing wrong with it. And I remember thinking, “What? That’s mad.”

Andy Coulson:                   [1:02:31] Astonishing. Twenty years ago.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:02:33] That is mad, isn’t it? I mean how mad?

Andy Coulson:                   [1:02:35] I was really surprised. I was surprised, because I was expecting you to tell me it was much earlier than 2003.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:02:40] Yes. And the point I made to someone was, “Hang on a sec. If that had been a word beginning with W that rhymes with banker, would you have said that?” And they were like, “No, but that’s a swear word,” and I said, “Well, there you go.” It’s so subjective isn’t it? If it doesn’t affect you then you don’t understand it. How bizarre that one is acceptable but the other is not.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:02:58] Yes. We’ve touched on this already, but the progress that has been made over the last twenty years then in your mind has been extraordinary.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:03:05] Yes, absolutely. I mean, there will be some people who say it’s gone too far, and that you know, every word is policed. Some people do say that, don’t they, not just with race but with heritage. Like for example if you say mixed race, some people prefer dual heritage. Some people don’t mind, some people are fine with mixed race.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:03:30] And with literature as well.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:03:31] Absolutely, yes. And then of course there’s the whole gender issue as well, you know, you have to get people’s pronouns right, or it would be nice if you could get people’s pronouns right.

So language is- maybe policed is not the right word, but it’s definitely scrutinised more than it was back then. And some people will say that it’s gone too far, it’s gone too much the other way, and it’s difficult to have relaxed conversations. But at least we don’t use offensive words any more. There has to be a bare minimum, doesn’t there?

Andy Coulson:                   [1:04:01] For sure. You get married in 2007, we touched on this at the start of the interview. But you make the decision I think not to have kids, but that changes quite late in life for you, relatively late in life, and your daughter arrives. I think she’s eight now, am I right?

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:04:18] She’s almost eight, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:04:19] She’s almost eight. But the marriage doesn’t survive, as you’ve told us, and you divorced I think two years ago. So this crisis of a very, very different kind.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:04:29] Oh yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:04:30] I mean, you see that in the sort of spectrum of crisis that we’ve been discussing, I think you see that as the most sort of visceral. Because it obviously is not just about you.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:04:41] Yes. Definitely the most visceral because I kind of didn’t see it coming. It affected so many different things, it had so many repercussions. Because suddenly you’re kind of on this island and you just see things drifting away from you and you just think, “Oh no, I have to hang onto that. And what about this? And this person is drowning.” And then you suddenly realise, “Well, I can’t really hold this all together. I don’t really know what to do.”

Andy Coulson:                   [1:05:08] And it was an overnight thing. It’s one day you think your life is this, then the next day it’s something else.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:05:13] Yep. It was a very sudden thing, and I suppose- well, I know that I think about it every day. I still am dealing with it, and I do have a lovely therapist, because there was one point where I just thought, “My head is going to explode or something awful is going to happen,” because it was just too much.

Because I was doing a really demanding job at the time, I was one year into Times Radio. I’m getting up at three o’clock, that’s kind of demanding in itself, but then I couldn’t go into work anymore because I couldn’t leave my daughter, because my husband at the time had then left the house. He packed a bag and he left. I just remember thinking, “Okay, what do I do?”

It happened to be Easter, so I took two weeks off and then I was like, “What am I going to do now?” So I think my mum or something, somebody came down for a week, and I thought, “Okay, now what? I’ve run out of options.”

So at that point, after quite a bit of toing and froing I was able to present from home, but I didn’t have a desk, I didn’t have anything, so I had to do it from an ironing board. Quite a horrible one, actually. An ironing board with a computer on top and headphones plugged in, and cushions all around me, and my daughter was sleeping next door. I live in a really small house, tiny violin, two bedrooms, and our bedrooms are right next to each other. I would go on air at six and I’d just be like, “Please don’t come in, please don’t come in, please don’t come in.” Because I still had that fear of appearing unprofessional.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:06:58] Yes.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:06:58] But we kind of know now, because of the pandemic and- it was at the same time as that, there were people working from home, that it doesn’t matter if your children breathe. The world won’t end. But I think as a woman you are very alive to that, because you-

Andy Coulson:                   [1:07:13] You’re more sensitive to it.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:07:15] I think definitely. It’s kind of like, “Oh god, can’t you even control your family life?”

Andy Coulson:                   [1:07:19] There’s a judgement that’s attached to it, yes.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:07:22] Totally. So I did that for I think four, five, six months, and then I had to come to an arrangement with her dad where you know, I think he came in at a certain time and then- I can’t remember actually now, I’ve tried to forget it. But you know, there have been lots of different stages of arrangements with her, and it’s different today to what it was then.

But it’s an absolute mess, really. It’s a mess. And I just think it’s so unfair on her, really. It’s really unfair. But I just don’t know, I had no other option really. For example, if I lived with my mum, I know some single mums who got their mums in because they were able to, perhaps their mums didn’t have their husbands any more or whatever. And that is like the dream, isn’t it? You can just relax and you can do everything you need to do because you know your daughter is with someone trustworthy, reliable, who she loves, part of the family.

But I just didn’t have any options really, and I just rely on a lot of juggling. Not a very satisfactory situation really, you know? But I see it as temporary because I won’t always be-

Andy Coulson:                   [1:08:40] You can see the way forward.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:08:42] Yes, totally. And I won’t always be doing- as much as I love my job, I won’t always be doing that job. And I will be able one day to wake up my daughter in the morning and take her to school. One day soon, hopefully. Not too soon.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:08:56] Your book is essentially a sort of transfer of memories and experiences, the good and the bad as we’ve been discussing, from one generation to another. In fact from your grandmother, not just your mum, who also had her difficulties. She also features in the book.

It’s pretty grown-up stuff, but I think your daughter has read the book, hasn’t she? Because she is a proper bookworm. So after so much silence in your life, your view clearly is that the answer lies in talking or writing, perhaps as we are right now, in chatting about this stuff.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:09:37] Yes. My parents were very different to how I am, and obviously there were two of them so there’s value in that, you can argue. Whereas my daughter has me and then separately she has her dad. And I don’t know what’s best or what’s worse, I have no idea. But I always try to talk things through with her. What happened today at school? How did that make you feel? How can we change that? I constantly talk through stuff with her, because that didn’t really happen to me. But I understand why it didn’t happen to me because our experiences were different.

But in terms of reading the book, I definitely wouldn’t want her to read the book because I think it’s too upsetting for her and too grown up for her. But I did give her an earlier draft, and I said, “Use the back of it,” because she’s always wasting paper. And then she said to me about six months later, “I read it all.” And I was like, “Really? Are you sure about that?” And she said, “Yeah. Some of it was quite boring.” “Okay, thanks very much.”

Andy Coulson:                   [1:10:37] There’s your quote for the book.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:10:40] Some of it was quite boring. Presumably the bits that were not about me, I suppose. I don’t know. She obviously likes hearing about me when I was a kid, but perhaps not so much about something that was going on in 1950. I don’t know, really.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:10:55] Well look, what an amazing thing. Because there will be a day when she sits and she does read it again properly in the right context. And what I would say, and I suspect anyone listening to this would agree, is what an amazing thing to have done, you know, for her. But also I think for anyone, as we’ve touched on in this conversation, for anyone who kind of is facing among many other things the difficulties that you faced. I think it’s a real guiding light for young girls who will find themselves in those kinds of situations.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:11:28] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:11:39] So, congratulations on the book.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:11:31] Thank you, thank you. It does feel like an achievement, I have to say. It does, it really does.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:11:35] It shouldn’t just feel like an achievement, it is an achievement. A massive one.

Thank you for this conversation, thanks for talking to us. I really appreciate it. I’m going to ask you though for your Crisis Comforts, just before we finish. So three things that you rely on in the tough days, tough times. It can’t be another person. What would you choose?

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:12:00] Fizzy cola bottles, I like them. I don’t know if you’ve noticed in the book there’s a lot about food, there’s a lot about sweets.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:12:09] Yes indeed, yes.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:12:13] And I’m not the sugar fiend that I used to be, but there’s something very comforting about fizzy cola bottles. So I always have some of them on hand and they just make me- I don’t know, they calm me down a little bit, really. Bizarrely. That’s a very specific food thing.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:12:29] Okay.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:12:31] This is really boring, but it really helps me, is tea. Not just drinking tea, but the act of making tea. Because I live in London where the water is disgusting and the tea tastes terrible. So what I’ve done over the last couple of years when everything has been in crisis mode has been to get all the paraphernalia. So the little infuser, tea leaves, the best ones from Fortnum and Mason, and just go through the whole thing. And then drink a really intensely flavoured cup of tea. That has always calmed me down. And it reminds me of my mum as well, who was always like, “I’m gasping for a cup of tea,” and I never used to really understand that, but now I do.

And then the last thing, I just love being in my bed. That calms me. Even in the middle of the day. And I spend a lot of time in my bed because I’m always so tired.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:13:26] For someone who has to get out of it at three o’clock in the morning.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:13:29] I know, maybe that’s what it is. I just love being in my bed. I just love pulling up the covers, and I’ve got a really lovely bed with an amazing mattress. I spent loads of money on this mattress and it’s money well spent. Pulling up the covers, it reminds me of being a teenager actually, I used to take comfort then as well. And I just feel like I’m on a little island floating away from all my trouble.

I don’t go there to hide, I go there to reset. And I do it a lot, I do it every single day actually, that’s my calming- some people smoke a cigarette, some people have a drink, some people have cola bottles. But that actually is the thing that I do most days, and I couldn’t do without it.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:14:09] Amazing. I asked you to be specific, you were very specific.

Amazing, thanks for this conversation Aasmah, I really appreciate it.

Aasmah Mir:                      [1:14:16] Thank you very much.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:14:18] If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please do give us a rating and a review, it really helps. And if you hit ‘subscribe’ wherever you download your podcasts from you will find loads more useful Crisis conversations. You can follow us on Instagram and TikTok, and you can watch the full episodes on YouTube. Just search for Crisis What Crisis podcast. You can also find full transcripts of this and every episode on our website, crisiswhatcrisis.com

Thanks again for joining us.