Unexploded

IMG_2112… She raised the tin. McDougalls Self-Raising Flour. The lid was difficult to prise off. Had Geoffrey hammered it shut? Her nails couldn’t manage it, and the spade was too large. She slipped back into the shuttered gloom of the kitchen. The cutlery tray lay on the sideboard. A butter knife popped the lid.

Twenty ten-pound notes.

No revolver. And no photo either, unless it was tucked inside the Lloyds’ envelope. She slid her nail under the flap and stared.

At the bottom, two small green capsules gleamed like bullets.

The fishing boats are bullet-marked and back from Dunkirk. Brighton is braced for the Wehrmacht to land on its beaches at any moment. Should this happen, Evelyn Beaumont’s husband Geoffrey plans to escort his bank’s assets to an off-shore place of safety, quite possibly abandoning his wife and son to German occupation. As a precaution, he has buried a tin for Evelyn – containing money, mostly – under a shrub in the gardens outside their home in Park Crescent. In the dead of night, spade in hand, Evelyn makes her startling discovery.

This is only the end of the beginning …

Geoffrey combines his duties at the bank with the role of Superintendent of the internment camp for enemy aliens at Brighton racecourse. Evelyn combines her wife-and-mother tasks  with home front activities with the WI – all the while weighed down with a growing sense of helplessness and fear. Geoffrey’s revelation of his plan plunges their marriage into crisis.

The arrival in their lives of Otto Gottlieb, German Jew, enemy alien and ‘degenerate’ artist will have an irrevocable effect on both of them

Other members of the cast include Philip - Geoffrey and Evelyn’s son. Philip’s domineering pal, Orson. Leah: in Warsaw, a pianist; in Brighton, a prostitute. And Brighton itself – since this novel has as sure a sense of place as any I’ve read in a long time. (My Brighton-based colleagues have loved the finer details of location and period.)

There are also walk-on parts for the Bishop of Chichester, Virginia Woolf and a tortoise called Clarence.

If you want to know how they all link up and what happens to them you’ll have to read Alison MacLeod‘s book and listen to Book At Bedtime over the next fortnight.

Unexploded was published last autumn to very positive reviews (of which Viv Groskop’s piece in the Observer is but one) and made the long list for the Man Booker prize in 2013. It’s as elegant in construction as Park Crescent itself, and has more than cyanide pills lurking with menace under its topsoil: English anti-Semitism; betrayal; the psychological damage of war. Love, in this novel, is potentially as dangerous as any UXB.

And it’s more intricately plotted that it might first appear, as I discovered to my cost when abridging it for radio. We had to lose about 75,000 words, so to get the full historical experience of Brighton at war (well-researched, lightly-worn) you should turn to the book. What remains is an intense and moving story of what happens to people’s relationships when placed under extreme pressure. Emma Fielding brings all her expertise to the reading. All her characterisations are good, but I particularly like her rendering of Otto. It may also be a while before you can listen to a certain piece of music without thinking of this story …

Alison09(ForWebUse)

Alison MacLeod [photo by Halifax Headshots Photography]

I first came across Alison’s work a few years ago when, unable to sleep, I heard Tim Pigott-Smith reading ‘The Heart Of Denis Noble’ (shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2011) at some odd time of day or night. The following year, a tale about the Tottenham riots, ‘Solo, A Cappella’, sliced through the Sunday night airwaves as if Radio 4 had been hijacked by a rooftop pirate station. In both stories, Alison works with the energy generated by slapping the need for story-telling and solid facts very hard together.

To some extent this is true of Unexploded, too. Only this time it works with all the colour and scale of a church mural.

Unexploded is Radio 4′s Book At Bedtime, 10.45pm, Monday to Friday, 31 March to 11 April, 2014.

 

Posted in 'The Heart Of Denis Noble', A Cappella, abridgment, Alison MacLeod, anti-Semitism, BBC, BBC NSSA 2011, Bishop of Chichester, Book at Bedtime, Brighton, brighton racecourse, Dunkirk, Emma Fielding, Man Booker Prize 2013, Park Crescent, radio, Radio 4, short stories, The Observer, Tim Pigott-Smith, Tottenham, Uncategorized, Unexploded, UXB, Virginia Woolf, Viv Groskop, Wehrmacht, Where Were You ... | Leave a comment

Anti-Clockwise: Time by Olga Grushin

“ … I found a small alarm clock with square black numbers and a picture of a tiny butterfly in the middle of its round face, I took it.

“The hands didn’t move at first, but my mother said you just had to wind it; only when she did, I saw that it was broken, because the second hand ran backward, and if you stared at the clock long enough to notice, so did the minute hand.”

I’ve nicked this extract from ‘A Family Visit’, the first of three stories from Time by Olga Grushin, starting on Sunday evening on Radio 4. Because time, in the world of these stories, does indeed go backwards. Not in a Slaughterhouse Five or Time’s Arrow sort of way but as we experience it, in which the present moment is like a small clearing in a never-ending birch forest of memory. Characters turn back to retrace their steps or simply get lost in the trees. The past is relived, reassessed or, in one case, simply reinvented.

IMG_2103‘A Family Visit’ (TX 23 March) is a pain-filled, classic homecoming tale about the tensions between the ‘one who left’ and those that remained. The story is told from the viewpoint of a boy, half-American, visiting Russia when his mother returns to sort out her late father’s estate. He watches her face the recriminations of her siblings and an especially venal sister-in-law. It’s a challenge for the reader, a first person narrative by a young man not so much looking back at his younger self as re-inhabiting it, and there is a range of ages and accents to characterise. It took a while, before recording, to calibrate the accents of Americans, ‘Russian-Americans’ and Russians. But Joshua McGuire (you may have seen him as Isaac in The Hour) navigates the story with great sensitivity and skill.

IMG_2105The late father or grandfather is still very much alive in ‘Father Time’ (TX 30 March). Professor Lebedev dozes off in a concert hall while listening to a Rachmaninov piano concerto, after which things begin to go wrong and get very, very strange. I don’t want to give too much of  this dreamlike tale away, but suffice to say the Professor encounters some alarming characters, including a skeletal pianist and a man with a clock that goes backwards. David Warner narrates: you can find all of humanity and time itself in that wonderful, weathered voice.

 

So what might be contained in Elena's bag? [Photo by Olga Grushin]

So what might be contained in Elena’s bag? [Photo by Olga Grushin]

Ruth Gemmell reads the last of the three, ‘A Bagful Of Stories’ (TX 6 April), with her customary grace. The story starts in 1945 with Elena and her young son (the Professor) fighting their way to a provincial railway station to take the train back to Moscow after an unhappy wartime evacuation at her in-laws.  But she leaves one of her bags behind on the platform. Only Elena knows what the bag really contained, but she learns quickly how to turn her loss into an opportunity, of sorts.

I first encountered Olga Grushin’s work randomly, in my local bookshop, when a book with a line illustration of Red Square on the cover called The Dream Life of Sukhanov shouted ‘Buy me.’ I’m so glad I did. A second novel The Concert Ticket (or The Line, in the US) came out in 2010, at about the same time as we were recording Olga’s first story for radio ‘The Homecoming’. Listening back, this sounds very much like a prototype for all three stories in Time. Two years ago, we were lucky enough to produce The Dream Of Sukhanov for Book At Bedtime. It’s one of the most rewarding novels I’ve worked on, and certainly the most difficult to abridge.

olga grushin, rusko americka spisovatelka,praha 18.6.2011

Olga Grushin, by Karel Cudlin

Olga moved to the United States in 1989, becoming the first Russian to enrol and complete an American college programme. Much was made of this at the time, and you can read Olga’s own take on it in an Observer piece called ‘Once Upon A Life’. But while you can take the girl out of Russia, you can’t take Russia out of the girl: only someone on diminutive-name terms with the greats of the Russian tradition could write like this.

These are special stories, I think, so I’m asking you to surrender fifteen minutes of your time for three Sundays in a row. Sure, they’re melancholy, and often sad, but wise and beautiful, too. And you may find, paradoxically, that they give you back more time than you gave up to listen to them.

Posted in A Bagful Of Stories, A Family Visit, abridgment, Book at Bedtime, David Warner, Father Time, Joshua McGuire, Olga Grushin, Once Upon A Life, Rachmaninov, radio, Radio 4, Ruth Gemmell, short stories, Slaughterhouse Five, The Concert Ticket, The Dream Life Of Sukhanov, The Homecoming, The Hour, The Line, The Observer, Time, Time's Arrow, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Again, for The Time Being …

The last series of The Time Being took us to London’s Bankside for booze and stalking, to rural Surrey where a woman gave birth to a llama, and to a dog track in Wales. The next two programmes, starting on Friday, are listed as a new series, but they really belong with the previous three radio debuts.

Closer

IMG_2078_2So where next? Rome, as it happens. Closer’, a stylish tale by C.D. Rose, is set in 1977, during the anni di piombo (‘Years Of Lead’). This is the time of terrorist groups such as Lotta Continua, Prima Linea and – probably best known - Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), who would later kidnap and murder former prime minister Aldo Moro. What is an ordinary young woman doing waiting outside the home of a prominent lawyer? You’ll have to listen to find out. Bryony Hannah’s reading – a trans-European rail journey away from Call The Midwife - is expertly judged, and gives away nothing until it needs to.

Spells For Love

IMG_2081The second tale takes us to the north of England and goes out the following Friday (31 January). ‘Spells For Love’ is a mother and daughter story of love, loss and white magic by Melissa Lee-Houghton. (And more, but again, you’ll have to listen.) Some of you may – and more of you should – be familiar with Melissa’s poetry, and her recent collection, Beautiful Girlshas just been recommended by The Poetry Book Society. ‘Spells For Love’ is an unsettling tale in which love, like fire, needs to be handled with extreme care. Ruth Gemmell inhabits the story completely in her reading, and characterises both Sybil (mother) and Lucia (daughter) with great tenderness.

Coming Soon From Geezerinhat …

It’s a busy time, with programmes featuring the work of Alison Moore, Olga Grushin, Lynne Truss, Adam Marek and Alison MacLeod all hitting the airwaves in March. I hope to write about some or indeed all of them in due course. And at long last a more ‘authored’ geezer-piece exists, albeit in note form. Until then, thanks for reading, and happy listening.

Posted in Adam Marek, Aldo Moro, Alison MacLeod, Alison Moore, anni di piombo, BBC, Beautiful Girls, Brigate Rosse, Bryony Hannah, C.D. Rose, Call The Midwife, London, Lotta Continua, Love In The Time Of Llamas, Lynne Truss, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Olga Grushin, Prima Linea, radio, Radio 4, Rome, Ruth Gemmell, short stories, Spells For Love, The Time Being, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Secrecy

The other week, in Nuremburg, I was drifting about the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, as you do. I wasn’t at all thinking about work (✓good) until the sight of something in a glass case brought me up short. Inside was a small anatomical figure, about six inches long: a pregnant woman, carved in ivory, with a detachable abdomen to reveal the foetus and inner workings. Next to it – since in the midst of life we are in death – was  a coffin-shaped carrying box. It didn’t take much of a leap to land back in a world from which I’d only recently escaped – 17th century Florence and the work of Sicilian sculptor Gaetano Zummo (1656 – 1701), the central character in Rupert Thomson’s novel, Secrecy.

Compared to the ivory-turner of the Nuremburg piece – Stephan Zick (1639 – 1715) – Zummo thought that little bit bigger. He worked in wax, his figures were sometimes life-size, and he aspired not only to anatomical precision but to artistic composition, too. Whoever commissioned Zick did so, presumably, with education in mind. In Secrecy, Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, pays Zummo to make a wax figure – life-size and very secret – that is both more and less than educational.

IMG_1866Florence at this time is in the grip of moral repression. Everyone nurses potentially damaging secrets. Rumours can be just as dangerous, and the Medici court is a seriously bad place in which to be exposed. Zummo has travelled through Italy over the years to keep one step ahead of his own past. And Faustina, an apothecary’s daughter and Zummo’s mysterious lover, carries the most dangerous secret of all. In the background, waiting for Zummo to slip up, is Stufa, a deeply sinister Dominican monk. The drama is played out in a finely recreated Florence of beauty and menace where, if you take the backstreets, you’ll never be more that six feet from a stiletto.

Secrecy came out in March to considerable and deserved applause (click here for the Guardian’s review) and I was a little surprised not to see it on the Man Booker long  list. The radio version starts 26 August at 10.45 pm on Radio 4.

IMG_1867With so many layers of concealment and hidden meanings to tackle, this was without doubt the trickiest book I’ve attempted to abridge, so I was glad to have producer Ros Ward’s forensic eye going over the scripts. The story is told by Zummo as if recounted to Marguerite-Louise d’Orléans, long-estranged wife of the Grand Duke, with prologue and epilogue voiced by Marguerite-Louise herself. Owen Teale does a fine job not only to drive the narrative and characterise the assorted cast, but to give Zummo himself passion and humanity, without which, in our much-shortened version, he might seem just a tad creepy. If I had to pick a favourite episode, it would be the last, in which Owen brings Zummo’s tale to its dramatic end, before Greta Scacchi, superb as Marguerite-Louise, gives the story a last, beautiful twist.

Listen to and enjoy this tale of love, concealment, art and just a little murder. And then, if you haven’t already, please read the book.

Posted in anatomical waxworks, BBC, Book at Bedtime, Cosimo III, Florence, Gaetano Zummo, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Greta Scacchi, Marguerite-Louise d'Orléans, Medici, Nuremburg, Owen Teale, radio, Radio 4, Rosalynd Ward, Stephan Zick, storytelling, The Guardian, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cries Of London

I first saw Katy Darby at the Betsey Trotwood pub, helping launch of the Overheard story collection early in the year. In between filming the event, she found time to read a story of her own – in plausible Peckham accent and dialect – called ‘The Door In The Wall’. Inspiration and profound disappointment collide in this tale, set in a classroom and in a secretish passage beneath. It’s a London story, and equally, Katy’s brace of historical tales for Radio 4, the first of which on Sunday at 7.45 pm, are both as London as yellow clay.

Some of you will know Katy as the driving force behind the monthly live reading event Liars’ League. Or as the author of The Unpierced Heart (originally published as The Whores’ Asylum) which came out last year. But Cries Of London is her radio debut.

IMG_1449The first story, ‘The Tyburn Jig’, is set in 1774, and follows a young groom Fred’s journey from Newgate Prison to his terminal destination at the gallows, as seen through the eyes of Sarah, his soon-to-be widow. Beyond that, I shan’t give anything away. Reader Hattie Morahan doesn’t give too much away, either, until the time is right, keeping the narrative ‘above the surface’ while betrayal, sex and murder flow underground like the River Fleet.

IMG_1446Matthew Hathersedge, the character in the second tale, aspires to something more elevated than Sarah. ‘On Apollonian Shores’ has a Regency flavour. Hathersedge – not-very-good poet and even worse suicide – is disappointed by life. He longs for the critical acclaim – and doubtless the house – once accorded to “that Cockney upstart Keats” but finds neither forthcoming. Will fate take a hand? You’ll have to listen as David Bamber steers you through the mess of Hathersedge’s life.

Production is always a ‘horse for courses’ affair, and for Cries Of London we’ve gone for a traditional ‘unplugged’ approach. Nothing between the listener and Katy’s energetic and witty storytelling and Hattie and David’s classy interpretations. Although the stories are introduced with the help of a familiar tune from the church bells of St Clement Danes …

And you can read Katy’s much livelier account of the process here.

Posted in BBC, Cries Of London, David Bamber, Hattie Morahan, Katy Darby, Keats House, Liar's League, London, On Apollonian Shores, Overheard, radio, Radio 4, Salt Publishing, short stories, St Clement Danes, The Door In The Wall, The Tyburn Jig, The Unpierced Heart, The Whores' Asylum | Leave a comment

‘One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six!’: Seven Types Of Roadrunner

One Friday, in October 2006, I was skimming the music pages of The Guardian. I was already ‘old’ by then and had never been cool, so it felt like a form of tourism. But then I came across a column entitled ‘Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll!”. It was a piece about a song, well-written. Better still, the song in question was old, wonderful and ever-so-slightly odd. It celebrated youth and freedom on a solo night drive in “Massachusetts when it’s late at night,” on a long and, on the face of it, unglamorous ring road: Route 128. The song was ‘Roadrunner’ by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and the columnist was Laura Barton.

The next year, Laura followed this up with a personal account of her pilgrimage to Route 128. And now, appropriately, we have the radio version, Roadrunner, going out on Radio 4 this Sunday at 7.45 p.m.

Better you should read Laura’s articles than have me paraphrase them here  (click on the links above). Equally, I don’t want to give away too much about the radio story because I hope you’ll listen. All I’ll say is that it gives voice to the Road, Route 128, itself: “I was built to inspire a song. A love song for a road, for a car, for music and the modern world. A song about about going faster miles an hour. With the radio on.”

Seven Types Of Roadrunner

IMG_1440However, there is nothing to stop you listening to the song immediately. There are a number of versions of ‘Roadrunner’, many of them by Jonathan Richman himself. Here are just seven.

The first, by the original Modern Lovers lineup, was recorded in 1972 and produced by John Cale of the Velvet Underground, but wasn’t released until four years later. It’s not my favourite, but it rocks hard and there’s a keyboard solo by (I’m guessing) Jerry Harrison, later of Talking Heads. This is probably the most accessible version for someone new to the song.

IMG_1441The stripped down ‘Roadrunner (Once)’ by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers was a UK hit in the summer of 1977.  I prefer it, partly because it allows more of Richman’s quirkiness to come through but mostly because it allows me some nostalgia. Fourteen and introverted, I would sit at the top of the house of an evening “with the radio on, for company.” Radio Luxembourg (208) on a small tranny, to be precise. Now and then, Donna Summer feeling love, or Fleetwood Mac dreaming or The Brotherhood of Man (ahem) doing whatever with Angelo would be interrupted by something more interesting. The Stranglers. The Sex Pistols. And also this guy playing a song – mostly on two chords – about going faster miles an hour. He sang quietly about how exciting it was at night with the pine trees in the dark and how cold it was. The woo and whee of imperfect MW reception filled the gaps in the sound and seemed to punctuate the phrases with question marks.

‘Roadrunner’ is very easy to play and very difficult to capture. To my mind, no cover has managed it. The Sex Pistols’ version is a non-starter, mostly because Sid Vicious doesn’t know the words, but it does convey the simple hypnotic pleasure of bashing out the same chords over and over again. Joan Jett’s is too processed for my taste and sounds like PA music at a gig before the support band come on. Greg Kihn finds some of the “spirit of old 1956″ but little of the song’s strangeness. From that point of view, Yo La Tengo’s version may be closest in spirit to the original.

You’re better off staying with Jonathan Richman. Laura writes at length about ‘Roadrunner (Thrice)’. And it’s a joy. Because of its length (over eight minutes) the drive turns into an epic journey. There is a sense of space, of time passing, and the extended soliloquy on being alone makes you wonder if there’s just a hint of whistling in the dark beneath the apparent joie de vivre. History doesn’t relate whether William Empson had views on ‘Roadrunner’ – and I apologise for using the ‘Seven Types’ so frivolously – but I think he might have found some ambiguities here.

“We’re gonna drive them home, you guys.”

IMG_1442And so back to the Road. It’s a lot to expect of an actor to characterise 58 miles of tarmac, but John Schwab‘s reading is assured and lived-in, and captures both the spirit and the rhythms of Laura’s writing. If Route 128 could really speak, it would sound like John.

I hope you enjoy it.

“Bye bye.”

Posted in BBC, Greg Kihn, Jerry Harrison, Joan Jett, John Cale, John Schwab, Jonathan Richman, Laura Barton, radio, Radio 4, Radio Luxembourg, Roadrunner, Route 128, short stories, storytelling, Talking Heads, The Guardian, The Modern Lovers, The Sex Pistols, Uncategorized, Velvet Underground, William Empson, Yo La Tengo | Leave a comment

LATIDO: a radio heartbeat

“Often, Steven sat in the middle of the children, looking out on the blue of the rippling, writhing ocean and the peninsula of palm trees that stretched into it a few miles down. He felt the beat of his own heart in his chest and it seemed to play into the rhythm of the water in front of him. That heartbeat, and the faint electrical current that fuzzed steadily beneath his eyes, making him slightly queasy; that was the soundtrack of Mexico for him.”

This passage is taken from ‘Latido One’, the first in a set of three stories by writer and artist Louise Stern, written specially for Radio 4. For me, it encapsulates what the series is about. Latido (Spanish for heartbeat) goes out on consecutive Fridays at 3.45 pm – and available on iPlayer thereafter – starting on Friday, 12 July.*

I first worked with Louise last year when she contributed ‘The Electric Box’ – a brooding piece in which tensions surface at a Fourth of July family barbecue – for our series Where Were You … She’d been on the air before, a few stories from her first collection Chattering went out in 2010, but this was her first bespoke work for radio. It was only afterwards that we felt this wasn’t entirely mainstream. Why? Louise is a fine writer, period: but she happens to be deaf from birth.

We wanted to do more, and met up several times last summer and autumn. At this stage, we hadn’t so much established a concept or a writer’s brief as come up with areas of exploration. Namely, the internalised ‘soundtrack’ of the profoundly deaf, and Louise’s personal passion for Mexico.

Your beating heart

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Louise and Omar with a paz vela or sailfish. A good visual aid to Latido II. © Lisa Marie Young.

This was the easy bit, of course. Louise then wintered in Mexico and got on with the hard bit of conceiving and writing the thing. The result is Latido. All three stories are set in a Mexican village and each one features a deaf central character. The heartbeat leitmotif reprises in all three tales. And none of it gets in the way of some very good storytelling. In ‘Latido One’, a deaf foreigner gets on the wrong side of the one man in the village who will not accept him. ‘Two’ takes us onto the ocean with a deaf member of a fishing crew. ‘Three’ starts out as a ‘quiet’ observational, atmospheric piece, only to turn into a story of sexual betrayal and revenge.

As a writer, Louise has a natural sensuality, an ability to zoom in on her subjects like a child in the garden with a magnifying glass and, above all, a sense of ‘otherness’ that we were keen to replicate in the recording studio. Louise Brealey (known to some of you as ‘Molly’ in Sherlock) reads all three stories and gives us this, I think. Sadly, Louise (Stern) won’t hear the stories, but she did come to the recording with her long-time interpreter Oliver Pouliot and gave us many useful steers during the day.

Sound and silence go hand in hand, of course, and we had one or two ideas for post-production. There are moments of soundscape throughout the series – in ‘One’ Louise has effectively written one in the opening pages – and the noises come from a variety of sources. There’s music by Chavela Vargas and J.J. Cale; effects from sound-man Jon Calver’s library and some wild-track recorded in ‘Louise’s village’ in Mexico by Sophie Pierozzi. And then there’s ‘the heartbeat’ – occurring at varying speeds under moments of particular excitement or stress in the characters – that Jon has ‘felt’ like a jazz virtuoso.

Cum On Feel The Noize

IMG_1389Ultimately, all radio programmes have to work on a variety of devices, and I hope you enjoy Latido whether you listen on DAB, mobile, TV, vintage portable Roberts on long wave or a 1940s wireless where the Home Service is west of Hilversum on the dial. But, if you happen to be able to listen through big speakers, crank it up loud and put your hand against one. Mostly, you’ll feel the lovely vibrations of Louise Brealey’s voice, but keep it there for long enough and, at certain times, you’ll feel the latido, the heartbeat, too.

* A transcript of each programme will be published on the Radio 4 website directly after broadcast.

Posted in BBC, Chattering, Chavela Vargas, deaf writing, deafness, Hilversum, J.J. Cale, Latido, Louise Brealey, Louise Stern, Mexico, Oliver Pouliot, paz vela, radio, Radio 4, sailfish, Sherlock, short stories, Sophie Pierozzi, storytelling, The Electric Box, Uncategorized, Where Were You ... | Leave a comment

For The Time Being …

The sixth season of The Time Beingthe showcase for ‘new voices’, started on Radio 4 last Sunday evening (19 May). The three stories go out on consecutive Sundays and are available on iPlayer for a week thereafter.

It’s the end of a process that began with 220-plus stories that needed to be read. And to reduce them to three posed a number of challenges. We used very good sources to amplify the call for submissions so the general standard was quite high. This was a good thing, but it meant no shortcuts were available. True, a a few stories were clearly unusable – if only because the sender had ignored our guidelines and criteria – but leaving those aside, none were poor enough to discard after the first paragraph. Every tale deserved a fair hearing.

Then there is the need to maintain the reader’s morale. One of the most interesting things about finding material for each series is to see what themes are preoccupying writers at a given time. Trouble is, if those preoccupations are dark, and you’ve read six or seven tales of similar bleakness in a row, however well told, it can get you down a little. If you sent a story for the series and you’re reading this, let me stress that I’m not having a go at you, as you didn’t write with this particular scenario in mind. It’s just an occupational hazard of the job – my problem, not yours.

Voice is all

Because we issue a set of guidelines and criteria for the submissions, it makes The Time Being sound like a ‘competition’ or prize like the V.S. Pritchett, or Bridport, or Mrs. Joyful (For Rafia Work – of blessed memory.) It isn’t. Ultimately we choose stories that we particularly like and think will work well on air. It so happens that all three stories we’ve recorded this time are first person narratives, but that’s accident, not design. Dramatic monologues can work (but be careful, they are tricky to pull off successfully), so can ‘conventional’ third person omniscience. In the end, what we look for most is voice: the sense that this story, whatever its rough edges, could only be written by this particular writer, and no one else.

Greyhound Blur © Lisa Osborne

Greyhound Blur © Lisa Osborne

Having said that, there aren’t many rough edges on what I think is a very accomplished set. No spoilers – because I’d rather you listen – but Marathon, by Claire Powell, tells the story of an alcohol-driven extra-marital affair (from the mistress’s point of view) that goes very, very sour when her lover decides to get fit. Llama Sutra, by Melanie Whipman, is even stranger than the title suggests, and even this preview clip - Love In The Time Of Llamas – doesn’t give away quite how strange it is. Rebecca F. John’s The Dog Track tells the story of an unusual and lonely young woman who finds herself alone at the greyhound races, weighing up a matter of life and death. As chance would have it, I was at the dogs at Wimbledon Stadium the day after we recorded the story. We went as a family and enjoyed it hugely, and there were a lot of groups and ‘birthday party’ gatherings there having fun, too. But it did strike me as a very lonely place to be by yourself.

New voices for new voices

I like ‘studio day’: so often it seems more like play than work. It helps that I’m part of a very good and lovely team. And, because each reader brings something with them you might not expect, it’s a collaborative effort. You never end up with a mere ‘aural reproduction’ of the words on the page. And to add to the three writers making their radio debuts, two of the readers were letting their voices loose for the first time on Radio 4. Camilla Marie Beeput, who brings such surprise and warmth to Llama Sutra, is a relative newcomer, for the moment – though not for very much longer – best known for doing the crossword with Yoda in the Vodaphone ad. (Sorry, Camilla!) More surprisingly – for such a good and established screen actress - Marathon is Lorraine Pilkington’s first Radio 4 appearance. If you listen to the story, and hear her beautifully calibrated rendering of the ‘other woman’, who goes from sexy to sad to ever-so-slightly sinister in the space of thirteen minutes, you can only ask: why haven’t you done this before?  Similarly, if you listen to Rakie Ayola inhabit a very complex character so completely in The Dog Track, I defy you not to want to hear her more often.

Geezer voices, ever singing …

Speaking of voices, I’m aware that my most recent posts have been driven by ‘events’, and that my own voice, or my blog voice anyway – never strong – has lately been little more than a bat squeak. For the few select fans of more random and pointless geezerposts – I hope to remedy this as soon as headspace permits.

That’s all, for the time being …

Posted in BBC, Camilla Marie Beeput, Claire Powell, Llama Sutra, Lorraine Pilkington, Love In The Time Of Llamas, Marathon, Melanie Whipman, Mrs Joyful Prize For Rafia Work, radio, Radio 4, Rakie Ayola, Rebecca F. John, short stories, The Dog Track, The Time Being, Uncategorized, Wimbledon Stadium | Leave a comment

The Middlesteins: FOOD Is The Food Of Love

Disclaimer: the food in ‘The Middlesteins’ is often better than this.

And much else besides.

So, we have two siblings, Benny and Robin, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. Benny is married to Rachelle, who is the sort of daughter-in-law many Jewish families would love to have. They have twins, Josh and Emily, preparing for their b’nai mitzvah. Benny tries to be a good husband and father, a still point in a turning world – though he needs a joint after work to help him. His sister Robin has a galactico-sized talent for anger and unhappiness and she likes a glass of wine, or several. In the past, Benny has worried about Robin. But not any more. He has bigger worries now: his father Richard, and in particular, his mother, Edie.

Edie was a lawyer for thirty-five years. Now, she’s a big woman with a big personality and not enough to do. And the trouble is, she’s getting bigger. She weighs in at near on 350 pounds. She’s about to have a stent put in one leg to match the stent put in the other leg six months ago. She has diabetes. There are dark murmurings at the hospital about bypass surgery.

Edie, it seems, is eating herself to death. And after nearly forty years of marriage, Richard has walked out on her.

Who are these guys? They are The Middlesteins, now published in the UK and coming to BBC Radio 4 next week (click here for the programme link). I won’t say much more so as to keep the surprise – this astute review from The Independent gives more background, if you want it – but it’s not giving away too much to say that this wonderful novel is built around food. Food is everywhere, from Edie’s reckless and continual pit-stops in burger bars to the Chinese restaurant where she finds friendship, love and a limitless menu. The fate of the family is discussed over meals at home or in restaurants. Robin attends a seder at her boyfriend’s parents house and leaves with an (unwanted) tupperware container of leftover brisket. The b’nai mitzvah features that ultimate status symbol, a chocolate fountain. As Edie’s parents conclude in the opening chapter: “Food was made of love, and love was made of food.” Edie’s tragedy is that she takes refuge in this thought and runs with it way, way too far.

Jami Attenberg, by Michael Sharkey

This is Jami Attenberg‘s fourth book and her first to be published in the UK, following two previous novels - The Kept Man and The Melting Season – and a collection of stories, Instant Love. Until now, she was little-known over here, but I suspect this has changed forever.

In a previous post (Reader’s Block), I said I was lucky enough so far to have only worked on books that I loved. This applies with additional sweet’n’sour to The Middlesteins. It’s a sad and bitter book in some ways, but underscored with heart, and it’s very, very funny. While some might describe them as dysfunctional, for me the Middlesteins are just flawed, messy and sometimes confused like the rest of us. And even though my job is finished, I find myself still worrying about them.

For the adaptation we had to lose, unfortunately, most of the chapters that deal with Edie’s back story. And one of the challenges in paring down the text was the number of long sentences with parenthetical ‘asides’. These can be an abridger’s friend – often they can be cut without losing too much that’s important in an episode. But not in this case. We’d have lost too much of the book’s flavour, those moments of ‘more-thoughts-than-I can-get-out-of-my-head-at-once’ that spit and crackle like a steak dropped into hot oil. But having decided to keep them, this posed a fresh challenge in the studio. If you read them too slowly the listener will lose track of the thread. They have to taken quickly, so that it sounds as if they burst out of your head that very moment. But reader Tracy-Ann Oberman and producer Karen Rose were more than up for it. And not only do they keep the narrative pulsing, Tracy-Ann’s characterisations (and there are a lot of them) are a delight.

IMG_0956I hope you enjoy our ‘low-calorie’ radio version (told in 20,000 of the book’s 67,000 words) but equally I hope you will go on to read The Middlesteins in it’s full, unexpurgated, sodium-and-sauce-drenched glory.

Until next time, eat and feed each other with love, but please do so (more or less) responsibly …

Posted in abridgment, BBC, Book at Bedtime, food, Instant Love, Jami Attenberg, Karen Rose, radio, Radio 4, storytelling, The Independent, The Kept Man, The Melting Season, The Middlesteins, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Annika Stranded – postscript

And if you listened, I hope you fell in love with Annika too. Should you like to hear an earlier Nick & Nicola Walker collaboration, here’s the link to the radio play Lifecoach, as promised: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00s2w24.

Enjoy!

Posted in Annika Stranded, Lifecoach, Nick Walker, Nicola Walker, Radio 4 | Leave a comment