Air and Water: Thoughts of a Radio Fellow
I write on air. Always have done. My books are radio programmes, my plots are real people’s lives, my landscapes sounds, and my characters voices. When I look at my home shelves of cassettes and CDs, as authors might look at their novels, plays, poems, and essays, I hear those voices: Mr Fletcher the Poet, recorded during the 1984 Miners’ Strike, remembering the ritual pig-killing in his Leicestershire village in the 1920s; Doris the window cleaner, climbing her ladder to polish and peer through the glass of Golders Green in North London, and so intrigued and moved by what she saw that she converted from Christianity to Judaism; Troy the black delivery man in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, getting lost with his plate of sandwiches, on his journey from the deli to the dining table; an old man in a Barcelona side-street, singing along to a tape-recording of his younger self; and, above all, Alison Waley, widow of Arthur, the great translator from Chinese and Japanese, re-imagining his peaceful death, one brilliant June morning fifty years ago. This last is a two and a half minute prose poem endlessly polished in the telling and built round Arthur’s translation of a sixteenth century Chinese poem, by Feng Meng Lung, which begins:
"Don’t set sail/ Tomorrow the wind may have dropped/ And I shan’t worry about you/ And then you may go"
As Alison tells it, the night before Arthur’s death there had been a tremendous storm in the garden, but now the sun was shining in a clear blue sky and she turned to him and said “Darling the wind has dropped!” And he replied “Then I may go?” And did. Just like that. True or not, it’s a magnificently told tale and reduces the most restive audience to pin-drop silence whenever I play it. Alison’s timing, her pauses, her sense of drama, her Bloomsbury cadences, weave a spell, whether the listeners are schoolchildren or media folk or the Ladies Dining Club of Beaconsfield. As a youngish radio producer I learnt not to edit such a perfectly timed and phrased piece. What she said and how she said it became one. Perfection. Which is why I suppose, I prefer working in the documentary form where the ‘characters’ provide their own music and the text comes out of silence.
I don’t really ‘produce’ any more. It’s hard work and there are plenty of brilliant younger producers around. But I still love finding stories ‘in the air’. Or, as now, ‘on the water’. For nearly a year I’ve been researching and walking the Thames, sometimes with a friend – one of those brilliant younger producers – Alan Hall. The journeys are for a BBC Radio 4 series next year called ‘Thames Crossings’: five short documentaries about the River Thames and me. I’ve lived on three rivers, so far in my life: the Nile, when I was first married and working for the British Council in the Sudan, The Rejang in Borneo when I was a teacher in the early ‘60s, and the Thames which has run through my life like – well, like a river. Childhood holidays near the source and down to Lechlade; University at Oxford; pilgrimages from Wallingford to Ewelme where my sister is buried within 100 yards of Jerome K. Jerome; painterly expeditions to Cookham and down the river to Maidenhead; and the ferry crossing at Marble Hill Park Twickenham where my wife and I owned our first house, began to bring up our daughters, and watched man land on the moon. Five ‘crossings’, five programmes. Not histories, not geographies, not rhapsodic attempts to invoke for the ear what the eye can’t see, but meanderings, eddyings, tributaryings; in other words, following up unexpected developments. Because although there were plenty of possible starting points, some of them literary or artistic: Shelley for the source, Carroll for Oxford, Jerome for Wallingford, Stanley Spencer for Cookham, Walter de La Mare for Marble Hill, Kenneth Grahame for everywhere – and they all flow in or out – each bit of the river took us somewhere else. An old man who hates the thing at Lechlade, a poetic woman lock-keeper at Godstow, Agatha Christie’s poems about the river she died near at Wallingford, Stanley Spencer’s black sheep magician brother in Cookham who drowned in it, a Catalan Thamesophile living in my old house in Marble Hill. And so on. Whether Alan and I can make this river flow, I’m still not sure. But I hope it will, to quote Grahame in Wind in the Willows, "chase, chuckle, grip, gurgle, shake, shiver, glint, gleam, sparkle, rustle, swirl, chatter, and bubble."
My selections from the RSL Library
Two really memorable Monday night live events in the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, Courtauld Institiute, London, and one powerful short story published in the 2012 RSL Review magazine.
1. 4th April 2008. A Celebration of Boris Pasternak. Dimitri Bykov, critic,and poet, a moustachioed brigand of a man who’d been rolling his eyes and reading a book during the earlier speakers, exploded off the platform: “My dear friends, you surely know that Boris loved your England – forgive my language. My wife is Grade One English teacher and she say to me ‘If I teach you 100 years, you still get C minus!” Never mind the grammar. He seemed to come from a more urgent planet, where literature was a matter of life and death. Here are three of his aphorisms:
IF YOU SMELL BURNING FROM A WRITER’S HOUSE, DO NOT CALL THE FIRE BRIGADE
ALL TYRANTS FEAR THE PAST
ART NEVER TRIES TO JOIN TOGETHER; PHILOSPHY ALWAYS DOES
The evening woke and shook me.
2. 20th September 2010, Marilynne Robinson, whose books Gilead and Home I’d just discovered, was as quiet as Dimitri had been noisy but just as riveting. And her thoughts equally radical:
FIRST RATE SCIENCE IS DELIGHTED BY THE UNEXPECTED
I CANNOT TOLERATE BEING A FULL-TIME WRITER; IT’S A KIND OF SELF-CANNIBALISM
WHEN I RE-READ THE GREAT BOOKS OF THE 19TH CENTURY, THE ONE THAT SURPRISED ME MOST WAS DAS KAPITAL. IT’S A MIXTURE OF LUTHER AND DICKENS. KARL MARX GOT A LOT OF THINGS RIGHT BUT MOST MARXISTS HAVEN’T READ HIM
Staggered out of that one as well.
3. The Redemption of Galen Pike the 2011 V.S Prichett prize-winning short story by Carys Davies. This story of brutal murder and rough justice in the American Wild West carried a real punch. As if Mark Twain and Annie Proulx had sat down at a desk together. But an original voice too. I shall be looking out for more from this young writer.