The Restoration Of Otto Laird

“Otto was a great fan of concrete. He considered it to be among the most beautiful of all materials, and he waged a constant battle against those who believed otherwise.”
 These lines are taken from a novel about a tower block: not a neglected masterpiece of Soviet socialist realism but the debut novel by Nigel Packer, The Restoration Of Otto Laird.
IMG_3320For the last 25 years, elderly architect Otto Laird has lived a secluded life with Anika – his sophisticated, protective second wife – in the Swiss Alps. In his heyday he was regarded as a visionary, an optimistic driving force in a time of post-war reconstruction. But times change. Few people now share Otto’s love of concrete. His landmark building in South London – Marlowe House, a 60s residential tower block – is now scheduled for demolition. As part of a campaign to save it from the wrecking ball, Otto flies to London to make a TV documentary.
But in so doing, Otto returns to everything that made him flee to Switzerland in the first place. It’s the first time he’s set foot in London since his first wife died.
This is also a novel about a marriage. Otto – the brilliant refugee from Vienna who emerged blinking from a cellar in Antwerp not only with a vision of the future but with an old-world European sense of civilisation intact. And Cynthia – the Home Counties beatnik, architect and designer in her own right, with a passion for the natural world. With a personal soundtrack that includes Schubert, Mahler and Sonny Rollins in his head – Otto retraces his personal A to Z of the city and is overwhelmed by memory, much of it painful, as he finds Cynthia everywhere.
The book is shot through with the power of memory and place and the symbiosis between them. We all carry with us our personal, psychic maps of the places we’ve lived in. I’ve lived in London for about 30 years now – so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – but all the same I was struck by how many of Otto’s ‘places’ were also significant to me, or my wife, or both of us. To name but a few: the Oval, RIBA (a favourite lunching spot for Sweet Talkers until they moved the restaurant out of the spacious Florence Hall), the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, the hospital in Queen’s Square and, further afield, the absurdly beautiful city of Nafplio in the Pelopponese.
IMG_3321Given that affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges facing London if it is to remain a city actually populated by its citizens, and thinking also of the brave and resilient young women of the Focus E15 Group, this seems to me a very timely book, too.
So why the pictures of blackberries? You’ll have to listen to Book At Bedtime and/or read the novel to find out.
The Restoration Of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer – read by Allan Corduner and produced by Rosalynd Ward for Sweet Talk Productions – starts on Monday 28 October at 10.45 pm.
Posted in Allan Corduner, BBC, Book at Bedtime, Everyman Cinema, Focus E15, London, Mahler, Nafplio, Nigel Packer, radio, Radio 4, RIBA, Rosalynd Ward, Schubert, Sonny Rollins, storytelling, Sweet Talk, the Oval, The Restoration Of Otto Laird | Leave a comment

Energy For The Nation

For the last few weeks I’ve been abridging our next Book At Bedtime. There’ll be more details nearer to broadcast but for now, let me tell you that it’s called The Restoration Of Otto Laird, it’s written by Nigel Packer and you can find memory and place on every page like the letters in a stick of rock. Oh, and it made me cry once or twice.

So I’ve been on my bum a lot, staring at a screen, and the recent holiday already seems aeons ago. But I’m still feeling the benefit of all that sun and fresh air, and I haven’t yet forgotten that I enjoy walks (as opposed to runs) as an end in themselves.

Here’s one I took, following a meadow-path downriver:

A rowing eight disappears under the town bridge. It must be years since anyone used the fuel-pumps at the old boat station. I leave behind the cricket and rugby fields, the stunted birch trees and the moored pleasure-boats to reach an open meadow.

Things get more rural (and less Jerome K Jerome) in the next field. Pigs are grazing. The cooling towers of Didcot Power Station come into view. I skirt the barley fields on ploughed up footpaths, pass the 15th century Manor House and cross the river at Culham Lock.

Here a meadow-path leads to the remains of a wartime pill-box, to a small weir and then into the next village. Here I stop to rest in All Saints’ churchyard. It’s peaceful and pretty and so English that the old maids beloved of George Orwell and John Major would lycra up and nick bikes from the Olympic team’s Marginal Gains Unit just to cycle faster to Holy Communion. John Major is still with us, of course, but another former prime minister, Herbert Asquith, rests in this churchyard, as does Eric Arthur Blair himself.

Except this isn’t a walk we took. We were in Barcelona first and then went up into the Pyrenees. I haven’t made the short and gentle journey from Abingdon to Sutton Courtenay for nearly thirty years. Some things have changed, probably, and others I’ve misremembered.


See credit at foot of post.

Recently they started blowing up Didcot Power Station. It was a blow to my sense of myself and to begin with made me sad. For Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, it was the Irish Sea; for me, Didcot’s cooling towers were the ‘grey sweet mother’. Only recently did I learn that the power station was a work in progress, still under construction in the 60s and early 70s, and wasn’t the fixed point in a changing world I thought it to be as a child. Visiting home as an undergraduate, the first glimpse from the train window was always special. And the bus from the railway station used to pass close up to the towers, past signs with the slogan ENERGY FOR THE NATION. Even in the early 80s this seemed archaic, a relic of the dying post-war consensus. But enough of that.

IMG_2005The power station aside, it’s a walk that both Orwell and George Bowling – his mouthpiece in Coming Up For Air – might have related to. Prompted by the sight of primroses on a road side,  suburban insurance salesman George Bowling goes ‘missing’ for a few days, escaping to his childhood home, the sleepy Oxfordshire town of Lower Binfield: “… it wasn’t that I wanted to watch my navel. I only wanted to get my nerve back before the bad times begin.”

It’s spring, 1939. Unsurprisingly, Lower Binfield has become a very different place over the last twenty years, and the ‘golden country’ of memory is both tarnished and built-over. George’s last nostalgic reveries are atomised when an RAF bomber on manoeuvres accidentally drops part of its payload on the town.

As a student, I found Coming Up For Air the best of Orwell’s ‘conventional’ novels. It seems much more a period piece now, and while the raps on bombs and rubber-truncheons make for curious reading as a dry run for 1984, it’s all a bit beaten to death with, well, a rubber-truncheon.

For a long time I thought that the gentle walk along my personal stretch of the Thames, from Abingdon to Sutton Courtenay, might be my ‘Lower Binfield’ – the place I might retreat to in preparation for the bad times. There was a time when I imagined retreating there, Bowling-style, to make sense of things if the Cold War was about to turn hot. I’m not sure now. Mountains have enormous appeal -although I still have to press myself against the rocks sometimes to avoid confronting the drop on even the most walker-friendly routes (cf. Angels And Acrophobia, Part Two.) But at least the experience is uncomplicated.

I’ve made several false starts at a post based loosely along these lines over the last eighteen months and no doubt this is all to the good. If I’d written it last year it would surely have been underscored with grief (the death of my father) and/or mid-life gloom or rage (turning fifty). You’ve been reprieved from, among other things, my Proustian encounters with cow-parsley and stinging nettles, and the rediscovery of an album by Ralph McTell. Best of all, you’ve been spared my thoughts on Orwell’s essay Poetry And The Microphone.

IMG_2124I hope, like Mr Bowling, to remember to notice the primroses next spring. As for Didcot Power Station – sentimental attachment to one side – it was no longer useful, having stopped belching and farting goodness-knows-what into the atmosphere to power the grid – sand God knows it wasn’t beautiful. Removing it with a controlled explosion, when there are so many lethal explosions, controlled and uncontrolled, in the big bad world, really is neither here nor there.

But in its widest sense, I do think energy for the nation could be a good idea.


photo credit: <a href=””>Daveybot</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;




Posted in 1984, Abingdon, abridgment, All Saints' Sutton Courtenay, Angels And Acrophobia, Barcelona, BBC, Book at Bedtime, Buck Mulligan, Cold War, Coming Up For Air, Culham Lock, Didcot Power Station, Eric Arthur Blair, George Bowling, George Orwell, Herbert Asquith, Jerome K Jerome, John Major, Lower Binfield, mid life crisis, Nigel Packer, Poetry And The Microphone, Pyrenees, radio, Radio 4, Ralph McTell, Sutton Courtenay, Thames, The Restoration Of Otto Laird, Ulysses, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Run Geezer Run

There’s a first time for everything, and this week I found myself in a ‘running shop’.

On the wall there are shoes of many brands and colours. They are classified: racing, neutral and stability.  I definitely don’t need ‘racing’. The assistant comes over to ask if she can help. I explain that on and off – with plenty of off – I’ve been running/jogging/staggering for about two years. My bog-standard trainers are wearing down and I wonder what might be best for me.

I’m as old and fat as I look, I say.

She smiles, a tad uncertain. OK, she says. She’s a tall girl, leggy. I imagine her kicking on at the bell to shred a quality 1500m field. She wants to assess my feet. She finds me a standard pair of running shoes and leads me to the treadmill.

I’ve never been on a treadmill before and it shows.  She gradually increases the speed and encourages me gently to stay as close to the front as possible. I don’t fall off, thankfully, and walking/jogging becomes a little easier. Trouble is, it’s neither my walk nor my jog – it’s more of an unsteady trot, a prance even, like a Lipizzaner on the day they spiked the water trough with schnapps. When she turns up the speed again I become seriously out of kilter and have to stop.

She looks thoughtful. The treadmill having failed to bring forth the secrets of my feet, she asks me to walk up and down the shop while she squats down and studies my arches. She concludes that my right foot has a tendency to roll inwards and fetches an appropriate range of shoes. As I’m sitting on the bench, lacing and unlacing, she asks what prompted me to take up running. Her tone is friendly, not incredulous.

Oh you know, I say. Fatness. Lack of fitness. Age. A growing sense of mortality …

She gives me that uncertain smile again. I don’t want her to feel uncomfortable so I talk instead about Couch To 5K. And I confide to her that – while I feel better in body and soul for doing it – I don’t actually like running.

After trying on several, I find the pair which gives the best combination of toe-comfort and support for my  flat arches. I wonder if I can carry off lemon-yellow feet.

IMG_3222The next day, I try them out on Tooting Common. Like many joggers I listen to music while I’m on the move and have a ‘running playlist’. Mostly this features very loud guitars to drown out the sound of my breathing, which always makes me feel twice as tired when I hear it. But there are other things, too. The theme from The Killing works well on a cold and foggy morning. Songs from Run Lola Run – where Franka Potente intones her wish to be, among other things, a hunter or forest or starship – used to make me run too fast. (If you’ve seen the film you’ll know that Lola always runs flat out.) Now, I imagine myself as part of the film: a slow, out-of-breath jogger who she burns up in a blur of red hair as she passes on each of her almost-identical runs.

I haven’t been running much lately, so it’s a short route. ‘Skyfall’ comes on as I start the final stretch. The orchestra is epic. Adele’s London l’s are comforting. I don’t feel we’re standing tall and facing it all together, but I could picture her sitting on the bench where I finish, shouting ‘Go on, my son!’ to encourage me. My lungs are working hard now but there’s a little left in my legs. I manage the briefest parody of a sprint finish.

It’s a small start. And I still don’t like running. But at least the shoes are good …

Posted in Adele, Berlin, Couch to 5K, Franka Potente, Lipizzaner, Run Lola Run, running, running shoes, Skyfall, The Killing, Tooting Common, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

And The Message Is? – Vienna, Part 2

IMG_2470Süße Worte, I now know, is the German for sweet talk, or Sweet Talk (although I did like the alternative Haribosprechen offered up by a friend.) Having arrived late, on Tuesday, I followed through the scriptwriters’ dictum by leaving early, on Saturday morning. But my head was still very much in Vienna. So yesterday I processed my sound files (click here to hear a snatch from a walk in the Wurstelprater.) I edited my photos. I curated a selection of my photos and posted them on Facebook. I enjoyed reading and responding to comments on Facebook, accepting friend requests and having mine accepted in turn. Writing here is the last excuse I have not to let go.

'Reading The Short Story': with Tania Hershman, Katherine Orr, Zoe Gilbert and Vanessa Gebbie.

‘How To Read The Short Story': with Tania Hershman, Katherine Orr, Zoe Gilbert and Vanessa Gebbie.

So yes, I had a ball in Vienna. I didn’t contribute much to the conference, a bit like the ‘band member’ who stands at the back in a silly T-shirt, hand-jiving, while others get on with the serious job of writing and playing the songs. But I learned a lot that was new and relearned stuff I should never have forgotten. At Thursday morning’s panel ‘How To Read Short Stories’, Vanessa Gebbie reminded us of the need to give ourselves enough time to read a short story properly, to sip it slowly like a fine single malt and not neck it in one like a shot of vodka. Given that so much of any short story – ‘long’ or flash-sized – remains mute but alive in the ‘white spaces’, this can only be right. But there was plenty of talk during the week of the marketing potential for the short story as a quick, self-contained ‘fiction-hit’ for that short tube ride or time spent in the dentist’s waiting room – so the point is more counter-intuitive than it maybe appears. And when it comes to reading too fast – whether despite or because of what I do – I’m often as guilty as anyone.

In the same session, Tania Hershman – among other things – talked about the value of reading aloud to herself as an aid to self-editing and made some very kind comments about the work we do in radio. If her fine and disturbing flash ‘Like Owls’ – referred to in her talk – comes round for repeat again I’ll be sure to let you know.

IMG_2401I learned that surreal tales from Singapore (by Mei Ching Tan) and Austria (by Günther Kaip) could not only co-exist but reach out to each other and brush fingertips. I discovered Cate Kennedy. I took childish pleasure in riding on trams when I didn’t need to, recorded an U-Bahn journey from beginning to end on my Zoom,  saw a showroom full of Steinways: second-hand, upright or grand. I ate spinach dumplings and chanterelles in cream (though not at the same time), and spent more time in cafés than was strictly necessary. Sadly, my search for Harry Lime ended at the Riesenrad. I discovered that while it’s possible to gain a brief glimpse of the city’s sewers on a ‘Third Man’ walking tour, it’s not possible to criss-cross under the city as they do in the film.

But best of all, I caught up with a few old muckers, introduced myself to a couple of Sweet Talkers for the first time (ridiculous we should do this in Vienna and not the UK) and met some lovely new people. All of them – even though I was clearly a hand-jiving impostor – were generous, inclusive and good craic, too. (Thanks – should any of you happen to read this, you’ll know who you are.)

IMG_2360Surrounded by all that creative energy it was impossible not to come home with some new ideas already simmering. And I guess that must be the same for almost everyone who went to Vienna. For me, it doesn’t matter whether those ideas take form as flash fiction, prose poems, novel constellations, long short stories or even – intake of breath – full-blown novels. As those well-known cultural commentators Pink Fairies once observed about another art form: ‘It’s rock and roll, and the message is: do it.”

And with that, it’s time I got back to work.




Posted in audio recorder, BBC, Cate Kennedy, Do It, Günther Kaip, Harry Lime, International Conference, Like Owls, Mei Ching Tan, Pink Fairies, Prater Gardens, radio, Radio 4, Riesenrad, short stories, Steinway, storytelling, Sweet Talk, Tania Hershman, The Third Man, Uncategorized, Vanessa Gebbie, Vienna, Wurstelprater | 1 Comment

Anyone know the German for Sweet Talk?

image I started drafting this in the Cafe Hawelka this afternoon, taking shelter from the Vienna heat. I hadn’t sat there for twenty-five years, and while its inspirational proprietor, Leopold Hawelka, died a year or two ago, it hadn’t changed in any obvious respect. The newspapers still lie on a table attached to wooden rods and the Brauner and the Strudel taste just as good. It remains, for me, a redoubt of civilisation. I left my Zoom recorder running too to capture all the clinks and clatters and smattering a of German and English.

image Why? I was mitching from the International Conference On The Short Story In English. In the morning I listened to Swedish/Australian author Anna Solding read a haunting tale from her recent ‘novel constellation’ – now that’s a phrase, a good one, I’d never heard before today. And I listened to an interesting discussion about ways of disseminating the short story by, among others, bona fide Sweet Talker Jarred McGinnis. So far my own contribution to this gathering of some of the finest practitioners of the genre has been confined to spilling coffee over Tania Hershman (V. sorry, T, if you’re reading this – you’re not the first victim of my dyspraxic tendencies.)

imageAnd this afternoon I went out and about in the city with my Zoom, trying to capture sounds of Vienna for possible future use. And I got some good stuff I think. The Prater Gardens were particularly fertile territory, with everything from quiet soundscapes of wind-blown trees, cyclists on the path, with beach volleyball  and the occasional tram in the background to the hallucinogenic textures of the fun park. I could have stayed there all afternoon. It occurred to me that sound recording is, or can be, a little like fishing. But more on that anon. Meantime, does anyone know the German for sweet talk?

Posted in Anna Solding, audio recorder, BBC, Brauner, Cafe Hawelka, International Conference, Jarred McGinnis, Prater Gardens, radio, storytelling, Sweet Talk, Tania Hershman, Uncategorized, Vienna | 1 Comment

Motherhood Becomes Her … Sort Of: Annika Stranded Series 2

At the end of series one, Annika Strandhed – the queen of the Oslofjord – was going through the gears on her speedboat and promising her child-in-the-womb a lot of fun. Since then she’s given birth to a little boy, named Tor. And now, after an erratic spell of maternity leave, Detective Annika Strandhed of the Oslo Police is back on the case. And so, although he doesn’t know it yet, is little Tor.

Annika Strandhed, aka Nicola Walker

Annika Strandhed, aka Nicola Walker

I’ll leave you to judge if Annika is permanently altered by motherhood or suffering from temporary bewilderment and broken nights. Certainly, she’s less inclined to accuse a victim’s father than in the previous series, though whether this is because she’s worked through her own father-issues or put them on the back-burner (see bewilderment and broken nights) is anyone’s guess. What hasn’t changed is the brio with which she approaches her work. Annika’s sidekick, police photographer Mikel (who has become one of the great non-speaking radio characters, right up there with Pru Forrest from The Archers or Samantha from I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue) is even more put-upon and long-suffering than before. And, as with Eric Morecambe’s interpretation of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Annika still tends to play out all the right notes of a case, but not necessarily in the right order.

Stranded in the studio - Nicola and Nick

Stranded in the studio – Nicola and Nick

Once again, Nick Walker has created not just a wonderful character but an entire precinct drama in three short stories/mini-plays. And as before Nicola Walker is at the top of her game, to the extent that I suspect that Annika might be playing Nicola, not the other way around.

You can find out how Annika juggles single motherhood and police work by listening to Into The Ice, the first episode of Annika Stranded [Series 2] on BBC Radio 4 at 7.45 pm (BST), Sunday 6 July. And if you’d like to hear a taster of what the three episodes have in store, click here.

Posted in Annika Stranded, Annika Strandhed, BBC, Eric Morecambe, Greig's Piano Concerto, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, Nick Walker, Nicola Walker, Oslo, Oslo Police, Oslofjord, Pru Forrest, radio, Radio 4, Samantha, Scandinavian crime drama, short stories, The Archers, Uncategorized | 4 Comments


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 …


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.


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


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