You can find a short Q & A with Nicola Walker, the voice of Annika Stranded, about the series here on the Sweet Talk Productions Facebook Page.
You can find a short Q & A with Nicola Walker, the voice of Annika Stranded, about the series here on the Sweet Talk Productions Facebook Page.
‘In December, 1987, a few weeks before my twenty-fifth birthday, I settled into my seat for my flight to Kingston, Jamaica. As the stewardess smiled and checked my seat belt, I still hadn’t decided if I should embrace my father or kill him.’
So begins Alex Wheatle‘s A Rage Explained. To find out how this conflict resolves you’ll have to listen to the piece. But it isn’t just about father-son dynamics but a wider tale about identity, in which Alex, born and raised in South London, visits Jamaica for the first time. The sights, sounds and smells of that first exposure to the land of so many of his heroes are brilliantly evoked. And reader Anthony Welsh does a fine job in bringing out the mix of wonder, anger and confusion at the heart of the piece.
A Rage Explained was due to broadcast this afternoon, but has since been moved (see below) to accommodate a tribute to the late William Trevor. But it’s already online and available to listen to NOW on the BBC website.
Last week, Alex won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize 2016 for his YA novel Crongton Knights (there’s a good piece about Alex here). But he’s also written adult novels such as East Of Acre Lane and has been a DJ and a performance poet. As such, he is not easily labelled. Neither is this piece: strictly speaking it’s autobiography, but it’s constructed like a well-crafted short story. Or is it ‘creative non-fiction’?.
Personally, I’ve never been that bothered about labels: I would just listen and enjoy.
I’m guessing that lately we’ve all given a little thought to the nature of power.
Some of it – whatever conclusions you’ve drawn – will have focussed not just on global or party politics but sexual politics, too. So you might conclude that Naomi Alderman’s new novel, The Power, couldn’t be more timely. And you’d be right, although to bind this unruly book too tightly to mere events would be to diminish it.
The Power is a historical novel with a difference in that it’s written 5000 years in the future. We meet Roxy, a tough London girl from an underworld family; Tunde, a young Nigerian man who is studying to be a photo-journalist; Allie, a mixed-race girl from Jacksonville whose foster parents use their religion to hide some very dark practices; Margot, an ambitious New England politician and her troubled daughter, Jocelyn.
Their world is much like ours until The Day Of Girls: teenage girls now find they have an electrical power coursing through them – they can harm at will, causing excruciating pain or even death.
This is ‘the power’. And it changes everything.
Beyond this, you’ll have to listen to Book At Bedtime this week and next or read the novel, or better still, do both. Naomi has written an elegant précis on her website and far better to direct you there than regurgitate it clumsily here. Instead, I’m going to say a bit about the challenges of putting The Power on air.
Naomi describes The Power as a piece of ‘feminist science fiction’, which it is, but the first thing to hit us when reading an early proof was that it was a complex and compelling piece of storytelling, for which the old cliché ‘I couldn’t put it down’ was absolutely designed. And it was achieved with a framing device of correspondence between the ‘writer’, Neil Adam Armon (with a letterhead from the Men Writers Association) and another writer, Naomi, who is clearly more established and respected. Neil describes his novel thus: ‘Not quite history, not quite a novel. A sort of ‘novelization’ of what archaeologists agree is the most plausible narrative [… ] I’ve put in some terrifically troubling stuff about Mother Eve . . . but we all know how these things work! Surely no one will be too distressed . . . everyone claims to be an atheist now, anyway. And all the ‘miracles’ really are explicable.’
Who is Mother Eve? You’ll have to listen and/or read to find out.
There were also drawings of archaeological finds from the past. Transcripts of 5000 year old government documents. And a main story told from the points of view of six different characters. Some may describe the narrative as sprawling: I prefer to think of it as multi-dimensional and, as above, ‘unruly’. All the same, it would have been very easy to say ‘I love this book, but I don’t think we can make it work.’
But we couldn’t do that.
So how do you tell this story on radio with only a fifth or sixth of the book to work with? You have to concentrate on the ‘historical novel’: so no Neil, no futuristic Naomi, no drawings (obviously!) nor transcripts. Our version focusses on the stories of Roxy and Allie, with Tunde (the most significant man in the book) often acting as a kind of chorus. Margot and, especially, Jocelyn, have been somewhat short-changed. (This was inevitable, but a pity, as Jocelyn’s story chimes with so many of the pressures of girls/young women – and boys/young men – face today even without electrical powers.)
The next challenge was to find a reader who could not only handle diverse and multiple voices (Nigerian, London, Moldovan, American x 2 …) but Adjoa Andoh has done, I think, a fine job not only with these but in keeping the over-arching, geo-political story together.
Whether our version – and with this book it can only be ‘a version’ – works in its own terms is for the listener to judge.
The Power is both entertaining and wise: so what’s not to like? I’m possibly not a stereotypical man of my age (early fifties) but nevertheless I am one. And I have a fifteen-year-old daughter. Many passages in this book made me look in the mirror and feel uncomfortable in, I hope, a constructive way. I hope that men, many men – not just those who read literary fiction – will encounter this book.
The Power by Naomi Alderman, is on BBC Radio 4, Monday to Friday, 14 – 25 November, 2016. And for 30 days thereafter on BBC iPlayer.
Postscript: One of the scenes we’ve omitted involves Margot reacting in an extraordinary way to a bullying and patronising male opponent in a televised gubernatorial debate. I said in my recent post Why I Don’t Blog Anymore … that some subjects didn’t belong in this space. All the same, and I don’t know the correct answer, I can’t help wondering what would have happened if in any of her debates Hillary Clinton had heard, like Margot did, a voice saying: ‘As it is written. “She cuppeth the lightning in her hand. She commandeth it to strike.”‘ and reacted accordingly …
‘Lightning’ photo credit: Brittany N. Johnson <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/133710332@N03/30089631345″>the bolt behind the trees</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>
I forgot to mention this yesterday. And no, I haven’t sorted my own issues by embracing Satanism. But for Radio 4’s Fright Night, Kim Cattrall will be reading Ira Levin’s cult classic Rosemary’s Baby, abridged, but in one hit (i.e. no episodes, which I found quite difficult to handle!)
I haven’t heard the finished version myself yet – but I did gatecrash a bit of the studio and Kim was holding the tale together superbly. Where appropriate, Karen Rose (producer) has used Christopher Komeda’s film score. I guarantee it will be creepy.
Sleep … well (?)
1. The Explicit F
This, from The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury. It’s the mid-70s. Howard Kirk, radical sociology lecturer, has been savaging the work of a hapless, young-fogeyish undergraduate called Carmody. Carmody has protested to Professor Marvin – head of department – and asked him to re-mark his essays:
“‘You mean you think Carmody’s essays are good?’ asks Howard. ‘No,’ says Professor Marvin, ‘they’re bad and problematic. The trouble is they’re evasive, they don’t meet the tests you’ve set the man. But they also have intelligence, shrewdness, and cultural insight. The problem is to assess the level of the badness of the failure.’ ‘I see no problem,’ says Howard, ‘they’re outright, failing bad.’ ‘I’ve read each one three times, Howard,’ says Marvin. ‘Now markers frequently disagree, and have learned ways of resolving their disagreements. My impression is simply that you’re not using our elegant marking scale, with its plusses and minusses and query plus minusses, with quite the delicacy you might. So I found, reading them, that I often had here the sense of a C, there an intimation even of lower B, where you go for the full punitive weight of the outright and explicit F.'”
Every year, we see a form of this in the early weeks of Strictly, when weak but popular contestants outstay their welcome at the expense of better dancers. Darcey, Len and Bruno may sense a four, possibly a nuanced five. Craig will go for ‘the full punitive weight of the outright and explicit’ two. (To be fair, he has his reasons.) It’s a running gag of the show, and mentioning The History Man every time it happens is a tired running Dad-gag in our household.
Strictly is entertainment, nothing more. But is seems we are ever more ready to reach for our well-thumbed two or scrawl a big red F whenever we engage with the world at large, and in our communications with each other.
This has been a very strange year, with so much to drive us to cart our furniture and granny’s piano to the end of the street to reinforce the barricade. If we climb over the top and explore the neighbouring streets we find much the same thing. Each of these barricades presents us with a simple choice: to man it, or storm it. Not only is this unsurprising, quite often this simple ‘pass or fail’ approach has been the only rational course open to us. So much right now is ‘outright, failing bad,’ and it’s right to call it. Trouble is, the same combative mindset can contaminate all aspects of our thinking. Everything becomes a battleground. We hector and are hectored in our turn and to hell with nuance. Before we know it, we’re demanding on Facebook that anyone who doesn’t agree 100% with our views on Jeremy Corbyn or Bob Dylan or putting the milk in first should unfriend us immediately. These days, when e-texting by whatever means so often replaces talking to someone we can see and hear, nuance is in short supply. We fear it in others, suspicious that it maybe sophistry in disguise. And we fear it in ourselves, reluctant to expose ourselves to charges of ‘deviation’ or worse. But the moment we lose nuance is the moment we lose understanding. And when we lose the will to understand, we stop listening.
What has this to do with not blogging? There have been private pressures, too, but lately I’ve found it difficult to free myself from the real or imagined barricades to dwell on the simple pleasures of radio or long-lost albums by Ralph McTell. I’ve been busy feeling hectored or hectoring in my turn, awarding punitive Fs left, right and centre on social media. And the F doesn’t only stand for fail. In short, I’m as f***ed off as everyone else and I haven’t trusted myself not to carry the feeling into this space.
2. What’s The Point?
When so much around you seems to be ‘outright, failing bad’ why would you waste time writing about smaller things? It’s completely unimportant whether you blog or not, especially when your posts are a) unremarkable and b) read by few. Why add your tuning-fork hum to the background, when others can back themselves with symphony orchestras or Marshall amps?
It’s hard to argue against this.
And in my case, ‘What’s the point?’ is also one of the great ‘Hey Jude’ choruses of depressive illness.
3. ‘Sleeve Notes’
It’s nearly a year since I wrote anything about radio. And like picking up the phone to someone you’ve lost touch with, it gets harder the longer you leave it. Guilt builds up, too. The feeling that to break the silence would be unfair on all the people you didn’t speak about before. However …
As it’s still available on iPlayer, I’m going to encourage you to listen to Agnieszka Dale’s A Happy Nation, read by Daniela Denby-Ashe. And not just because it’s a good radio story.
And in a spirit of redress, here’s a list – alphabetical and not distinguishing between writers, actors and radio professionals – of the talented people I’ve been lucky enough to work with directly, or with whose work I’ve engaged, during ‘the silence’:
Matthew Abbott, Alaa Al-Aswany, Lorraine Ashbourne, Jon Calver, Morven Crumlish, Lucy Durneen, Amir El-Masry, Peter Firth, Polly Frame, Bryony Hannah, Sophie Hannah, Tania Hershman, M.J. Hyland, Shirley Jackson, Rob Jarvis, Sohm Kapila, Martina Laird, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Toby Litt, Alison Macleod, Adnan Mahmutovic, Sinead Matthews, Tim McInnerny, Nafisa Muhtadi, Peter Nicholls, Emerald O’Hanrahan, Ben Pedroche, Claire Powell, Raad Rawi, Farshid Rokey, Karen Rose, Daniel Ryan, Julian Simpson, Holly Slater, The Soundhouse, Anita Sullivan, Thom Tuck, Sarah Tombling, Hannah Vincent and Nicola Walker.
And maybe it’s time to get an additional hat …
This has been a big – some would say ‘breakthrough’ – year for Rebecca. Earlier in the year ‘The Glove Maker’s Numbers’ was shortlisted for the prestigious Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize, and in October she won the PEN International Award For New Voices (for writers under 30) for ‘Moon Dog’. Both tales are in the Clown’s Shoes collection.So what will you hear this week? The series begins on Monday with ‘Bullet Catch’. Set in Vienna in the 1920s, Victor, an expatriate showman, seeks to sex up his cabaret act in the manner that the title suggests. Tuesday and Wednesday are devoted to a two-part version of ‘The Glove Maker’s Numbers’. As a general rule, we don’t like splitting short stories over two programmes, but this one was too good to leave out of the mix. Set in Victorian Britain, Christina – traumatised by the early death of her brother – believes she was spoken to by the Devil and has been confined to a sanatorium. She finds, if not solace exactly, at least an understanding of sorts through mathematics, sometimes conceptually but most often visually in the shapes of the numbers she sees. On Thursday we’re in Warsaw, in 1943 – ‘Matchstick Girls’ is a stark, beautiful tale about two young sisters trying to survive in a city where this is very hard to do. The week concludes with the title story, ‘Clown’s Shoes’: set in a theatre in 1930s Soho and narrated by a reluctant member of a tableau vivant. Lloyd Hutchinson, who reads ‘Bullet Catch’, expertly picks up the darker, obsessional aspects of the story but also captures the showmanship with considerable brio and ‘schving.’ The remaining tales are read by Ruth Gemmell. Suffice to say that Ruth is one of the best readers I’ve worked with, and if you listen this week you’ll probably understand why.
In conversation with Richard Lewis Davies at Saturday’s launch, Rebecca confessed that structure wasn’t her strong point. The knee-jerk response was to agree: after all, the most striking thing about her work is the power of the voices. But on reflection, I don’t think this is entirely true. It’s intuition more than applying ‘rules’, but the internal structures of these stories – the progression of thoughts and emotions – are very secure.
Four of the stories are being broadcast, but there are fifteen in the collection. I hope you will listen and read all of them.
Clown’s Shoes is on Radio 4Extra all week (9-13 November) every day at 11 am and 9pm, and thereafter on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.
A postscript prompted by music. For ‘The Glove Maker’s Numbers’ we used The Song Of The Birds, a traditional Catalan Christmas tune for no good reason beyond liking its mournfulness and its vibrations. I only learned of this beautiful piece last year. Privileged to attend the memorial service for the late, great Deborah Rogers at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, I heard it played on the ‘cello by Steven Isserlis. (So Deb, this one’s for you.) Since her death, the Deborah Rogers Foundation has been set up, including a Writer’s Award of £10,000 for “a first-time writer whose submission demonstrates literary talent and who needs financial support to complete their work.” You’ll have to be good – Deborah was always synonymous with quality – but if you are an emerging writer reading this, click on the links and …
The top/tail/incidental music comes from ‘In The Pines’, performed by British guitarist and folk singer Martin Simpson. Fans of the Leadbelly (and later, Nirvana) classic ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ may recognise it.
Until next time …
Nights Of The Hunter goes out on BBC Radio 4 Sundays 25 October, 1, 8 November 2015 at 7.45 pm.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/35838730@N05/7032269291“>P6210732</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com“>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/“>(license)</a>
Earlier this month some Polish workers called a strike rally – the first of its kind by migrant workers in the UK. Others – opposed to the action – took part in a mass blood donation. There are approximately 700,000 Poles living in the UK, and Polish is now the second most spoken language in England. Both events aimed to highlight the contribution of Poles to British society. Regardless of their perceived success or lack of it – the strike rally was poorly attended – or your views upon them, both events were evidence of a community finding its voice.And voice was the starting point for Angielski, in which each story offers a different take on the experience of Poles in London. The first story, Another Kind Of Man, goes out today on BBC Radio 4. Anya Lipska is best known for her series of crime novels featuring Janusz Kiszka – tough guy/fixer to the Polish community in East London, and young police detective, Natalie Kershaw. The latest, A Devil Under The Skin, was published in June this year. Read by Adam Hypki, Anya’s story also features Kiszka, way back in 2006, lurking outside an East End cemetery. It’s a tale of an older generation of Polish immigrants, with dark roots in Poland during the Jaruzelski era. The setting for Woman Of Your Dreams – read by Natasha Radski – is “a prestigious London hairdressing salon.” Actually, it’s Dorota’s living room in Hounslow, where Angelika sits in the chair having her highlights done and feeling dowdier by the minute as Dorota motormouths about beauty treatments and satellite Polish TV. The writer, A.M. Bakalar, is the first Polish woman to publish a novel in English (Madame Mephisto) since Poland joined the EU in 2004. Born in Poland but now living in London, Agnieszka Dale is an emerging short story writer. Her tale – Fox Season, read by Anamaria Marinca – centres on a Polish family wrestling with identity. The tastes and smells of home remain, but now they co-exist the flavours of a multi-cultural city.
It’s too early to tell whether the likes of Agnieszka and Asia (Bakalar) are in the vanguard of something that evolves into a wider and fully-developed British-Polish written voice. Given the present volatility of our continent, I suspect this may be determined by history yet to be made. In the meantime, let us enjoy (as I hope you will) these three distinctive pieces of storytelling.I’d like to thank Asia, Anya and Agi not only for their stories but for their help and insight when this project was in its earliest stages. (And additional thanks to Anya for introducing me to the fabulous Warsaw Village Band – who provide the soundtrack to these programmes.) Thanks also to Magda Raczyńska at the Polish Cultural Institute. I started this journey in considerable ignorance – I am, I hope, less so now.
[Angielski goes out on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays 28 August, 4 & 11 September 2015, and for 30 days thereafter on iPlayer.]