Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Storms, Tea and Tempests


Off then to Broadcasting House to record “A Good Read” for BBC Radio 4. It was my first time entering the hallowed portal since its rather wonderful facelift and I must confess to being impressed by the changes. On the rare occasions that I walk northwards from Oxford Circus, bound for the home of Auntie Beeb, it always gives me a frisson of excitement to look up and see the building’s ocean liner shape and Eric Gill’s wonderful rendering of Ariel and Prospero from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ above the entrance. This time I found myself involuntarily stiffening the sinews and straightening my back, as if on parade. Had I been wearing a tie, I would no doubt have fiddled with it while shooting my shirt-cuffs as I entered. I was, I realised, quite nervous.

As I waited in the imposingly marbled reception area to be collected and ushered into broadcasting's bosom, I sat reading Ariel, the in-house newspaper, unsurprisingly full of opinions and perspectives on the decision not to broadcast the DEC’s Gaza appeal. Whilst believing Mark Thompson to be wrong on this occasion – surely a humanitarian crisis of such proportions deserves a humanitarian response irrespective of the political causes and ramifications; a duty to aid the relief of human suffering trumps the responsibility of broadcasting impartiality in the poker game of realpolitik – I am not without sympathy and admiration for the decision he has taken and his belief in it.

I think John Humphries put it perfectly on the Today programme on Monday when in response to Thompson’s point that “because of the BBC’s coverage (people) will be aware of the suffering and if they choose to make a contribution to the appeal of course they will be able to” he said, “ Isn’t that a bit hypocritical. We’re perfectly happy for people to support this appeal but we want to keep our own hands clean.”

Of course the argument that not to broadcast the appeal will hinder the DEC’s ability to get its message across is to my mind no longer valid, as the news coverage of the debate has given them more air –time than they might otherwise have been granted. Perhaps Mark Thompson has played a far smarter hand than he’s thus far been credited for, getting the humanitarian message across as a news story and thereby meeting the aims of the DEC’s appeal whilst not opening the BBC up to charges of partiality. Clever fellow.

Whilst this storm was raging, as evidenced by the ranks of police vans outside, there was an air of calm in the studio where the ever-wonderful Kate Mosse was hosting the first programme of a new series of “A Good Read”. My co-guest was Victoria Derbyshire who’s voice will be familiar to listeners to Radio 5 Live. I shan’t ruin the show before it’s broadcast on the 10th of February at 4:30 p.m. (GMT), but I will say that it was a great deal of fun, the three books sparked some lively discussion and the half an hour flew by. In fact we recorded to 28 minutes so what you will hear will be as close to an unedited version of what we did as it’s possible to get. Oddly enough, BBC studio tea seems also to have undergone some improvement in tandem with the architectural updates.

I’m now fully focused  on the interview for the Literary Festival Artistic Director post, which is taking place next Tuesday. I have so many ideas, but which are the good ones? It's the perennial 'separating wheat from chaff' problem.

Let us hope that the good ship BBC soon finds that the tempestuous seas it is currently navigating give way to calmer waters and that a tenable ceasefire in Gaza will allow the aid agencies to carry out the much needed work they are so very good at.





Sunday, 25 January 2009

Anthems and Titles.

In an effort to stop speaking in fluent IKEA (see post below) I’ve spent some of the weekend learning by heart the South African national anthem in Xhosa. My new year’s resolution, such as it was, being a promise to myself to learn an anthem a month for the year and Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa) having always had a huge effect on me since it was the battle hymn of the ANC during the apartheid era.

I think my mother or father must have had it on cassette at one point when I was a child and along with albums of ‘Missa Luba’ and William Byrd’s masses, it sparked a life-long love of a cappella singing. When Sir Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Cry Freedom’ came out in 1987 I remember being profoundly moved by its use in the funeral sequence when it was sung by such massed, beautiful voices that my heart soared and my closed eyes wept at the pure emotion of it. Never was this truer than when Nelson Mandela decreed in 1994 that it would be one of the two official anthems of the Republic, the other being the previous, sole anthem ‘Die Stem’ (The Call of South Africa).

On Mandela’s arrival in the UK as President for the first time, I remember being saddened and embarrassed that I didn’t know the words and could only hum along to the tune. It’s a good feeling to finally complete a challenge that I should have set myself many years ago and as I write this I can’t think why I haven’t done it before. The task for February will be the Star Spangled Banner, which I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never even thought of learning.

There are many versions of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, my choice was the Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which I am proud to announce that I can now sing from start to finish. Even with the Xhosa click in the third verse. I’ve never had a party piece before. You have all been warned.

I’m off to read Koestler and Swarup, the former’s ‘Scum of the Earth’ for the first time, the latter for the third having originally read a book called ‘Q&A’, in order to interview the delightful Vikas Swarup. His book has just been republished under the title “Slumdog Millionaire”. I can’t think why.



Friday, 23 January 2009

Fort Myers, Fortitude and Forebearance.

An extraordinary week has rendered me blogless for the last 7 days for which I apologise.

I am suffering from a strange form of culture shock having last Thursday been asked by a dear friend for assistance. This entailed an all expenses paid trip to parts foreign, always a lovely invitation to receive and yet more so when the most one has travelled in the last 6 months has been on foot to Mortlake’s only supermarket for bread and beans. The sole fly in this ointment was the lack of a valid passport. Undaunted, said friend organised and paid for a passport renewal, proving beyond any doubt that the Passport Office can be hugely efficient as long as one has internet access, all the relevant documents, a spare day, £120 or thereabouts and a good friend to make it all so.

Thus it was that 24 hours later, me armed with said brand new passport, we were whisked through immigration at Heathrow into the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class lounge to await the flight. Truly whisked. With no queues. We barely stopped moving from our arrival at the terminal until we were ushered to a quiet, private section of the lounge and presented with menus for everything from breakfast to wines to haircuts. Suitably fed and watered (but in my case untrimmed) we boarded the aircraft and made that most indulgent and expensive of turns, the one that goes left through the cabin door, the one that takes you to a large plush, leather seat-cum-bed, the one that provides you with a charming member of the cabin crew to stow your bag, hang your jacket, plump your cushion and serve you another glass of whatever you fancy. The one that gives you a duvet and a ‘snooze pack’, the one that make you feel like a rock star on Christmas morning.

I know, I know, it’s just travel, but in this case never was the phrase “it’s better to travel than to arrive” more true. Especially when you arrive in Miami. Actually that’s a tad unfair on Miami, which is a fun place to be especially when you’re greeted with warm weather (72 degrees in old money), warm smiles from everyone you talk to and a hot convertible Mustang to drive. Hog heaven for a rock star manqué who loved Miami Vice all those years ago.

I shan’t bore you with details but the task we were there to achieve was the furnishing of my pal’s house near Fort Myers, bought on a whim when the $/£ exchange rate was more favourable than at present, only once visited in the 9 months since purchase and devoid of any furniture prior to his family visiting it in a fortnight’s time. We had three days to turn it from a shell into a home that his family might enjoy, no small task when his wife is the creative director of a well-known high street chain, famed for the originality of its stock for which she is responsible.

We went to IKEA, we’re men, what did you expect? In fact we spent 6 hours there and did the whole thing, beds, sofas, tables, cupboards, lamps, towels and linens. The staff at the store - which is bigger than the village I grew up in – had never seen such a purchase. 17 huge trolleys, $15,000 and more cardboard boxes than London’s South Bank homeless could have mustered through the entire1980’s. 200 miles and three hours later we arrived at the house, set in a new, gated complex, and were soon joined by a huge truck bearing the flatpack fruits of our labours. The next 24 hours were a flurry of curses, Allen keys and three very helpful guys from Puerto Rico who segued seamlessly from truck driving to furniture construction – bless you Jo, Ed and Carlos, you know who you are.

Not only did we get the job done, but managed do so in time to watch the inauguration of the 44th President, sitting on comfortable sofas (Ektorp, for those of you fluent in IKEA) and with the TV bought, installed, functioning and sitting proudly in it’s media cabinet (Expedit) before a much need afternoon snooze on fresh new beds (Malm bases (birch), Sultan mattresses (foam))

I write this now back in Mortlake, with cold air blasting through the gaps in the window frame, the sky dark and wondering if I merely imagined it all. Did I really barrel down Alligator Alley in a convertible Mustang with the sun on my face and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Me and Julio down by the schoolyard” on the radio? Did my friend and I really have a delightful lunch of blackened mahi-mahi at Gramma Dot’s in the harbour of the island of Sanibel? Did we really make the life-altering discovery that you can buy packs of ‘Jelly Belly' jelly beans that only have the delicious sour fruit flavours? Did we really watch Barak Husein Obama become President of the USA and feel a frisson of change in the air as we shed quiet tears and gulped the lumps in our throats?

Like Obama we started our journey with a “Yes we can” attitude. He was able to say “Yes we did” and so were we.

A final note. On returning to Mortlake there was a letter for me. It seems that the literary festival to which I applied for the post of artistic director liked my application enough to call me for interview in two weeks time. Keep ‘em crossed for me, for I’m beginning to believe, in the matter of getting a job that I want, that I will enjoy and that will allow me to make a difference, that yes, I too can. Now that's culture shock.



Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A muted celebration foretold.

As I stare redundantly out of my window at a dank and fog-shrouded Mortlake, my mind has been wandering paths as diverse as the end of the Bush era, the gloomy economic news, what it means for authors, publishers and booksellers, whether I will soon be re-employed, what the hell I’m going to do if I’m not and realising that if I am successful in my bid to find work my reaction now will differ from what it might have been six months ago.

Then I would have leapt around, called family and friends, bought drinks for the whole of SW14 and been positively ‘Tiggerish’ with joy and relief. Such a reaction would have seemed entirely appropriate, to me at least, marking the end of a period of personal hardship, doubt and worry. But now things have changed.

As the effects of the credit crunch bite ever harder, as the dire daily news is of the closure of yet more businesses, the redundancies of many more tens of thousands reliant on their earnings to feed, clothe and house their families and of the cautious savers already suffering pension fund meltdown and bank failure now also caught in a punishing interest rate trap, such effusive celebratory jinks seem entirely unwarranted.

A couple of days ago I was e-chatting with a friend who works in the press and learned that she is worried about her job. She is a fine writer; kind and thoughtful, professional and conscientious. She holds a post of some responsibility and is soon to find out whether she is to be a casualty of an imminent cull.

Another friend, an author whose works have garnered glorious reviews but whose sales require her to work, tells me that she is moving from Yorkshire to Rome, her publisher unable to take her latest work for lack of ‘paperback support’, the NGO for whom she copy writes having quartered her pay and the language schools in her local city having no vacancies. She is hopeful that in the eternal city there may be more demand for her as a teacher and as she supports her young daughter single-handedly I am hopeful for her.

Even closer to home, my friend, in whose home I have been gratefully billeted for many months during my own period of unemployment, is feeling the pinch as she struggles to pay the mortgage, bring up her son without the benefit of assistance from his absent father and start a new company despite increasing concerns for the chances of success.

Such tales serve to illustrate the hidden trials faced by good people, hard-working and solid characters in the stories that don’t make headlines, and make me wonder just how much fear, how much quiet desperation stalks this land. As I write this there is much discussion on the radio about the fate of graduates in a fast-shrinking job market. It is a hard time already and I fear that worse is yet to come.

If then I am fortunate enough to be successful in my endeavours, I may well raise a glass; I might make a few telephone calls. But they will be less in raucous celebration than in relief. Quiet, grateful and utter relief. If I am fortunate.




Tuesday, 13 January 2009


In a recent conversation I found myself making outrageous claims for Britain’s publishing industry in order to prop up an argument about national artistry and inventiveness.

The starting point for the debate was the different pronunciations of the word ‘patent’ and my understanding that “pat–tent” is the licence to make or sell an invention whereas “pay-tent” is the shiny leather. This led to a dimly remembered fact that, until only recently, Britain led the world in patents issued, a ‘fact’ that I regret to inform failed to withstand closer scrutiny.

I went on to say that Britain led the world in publishing more new titles per year than any other country, a bold claim that I thought I ought to check. What I found was interesting, as it seems UNESCO monitors national publishing output as an indicator of standards of living and education and publishes a list of their findings.

Of the 79 countries for which they have figures, Niger comes 79th having published 5 books in 1995, the last year for which numbers are available, whereas Eritrea broke the three digit barrier with 106 published books (1993). Towards the other end of the table things hot up. In 1996 France published 34,766 books, barely more than the Netherlands' 34,067, which seems odd given the disparity in the size of their populations while the Russian Federation published over ten thousand fewer new titles than Spain’s 46,330 which seems yet odder. I also read that Egypt published 2,215 new titles in 1995, which made me wonder if there is a library at Alexandria – I’m sure there must be. Oh to be the librarian! – and how large the building has to be in this modern era.

At the top of the table are two countries for which publishing output for 2005 is listed. One published no fewer than 206,000 new titles, the other 172,000. And yes, the United Kingdom tops the table, leading the world with new titles. For those with an interest in such things, the UK’s publishing sector is the second largest in Europe, employs some 167,000 people and represents 0.6% of the working population. The result of this labour in 2008 was 236.9 million books published making the trade worth £1.77bn

It is the second time Britain has overtaken the USA in twenty years, the last being in 2001, and in 2005-6 our new titles numbers increased by no less than 28% while US output contracted by 18%. It will be interesting to see if the election of a highly literate new president will affect this trend, whether a ‘professor’ President will inspire new authors and publishing companies more than the previous incumbent’s word-mangling ways managed.

Given Britain’s extraordinary literary production per capita, I now wonder why we haven’t participated in another UNESCO programme, that of World Book Capital City. Aimed at ‘promoting books and fostering reading’, previous holders have included Madrid, Bogota, Antwerp, Montreal and last year Amsterdam. Surely London would make a fine World Book Capital City before the much-vaunted ‘death of the book’ occurs in a rising tide of Kindles and other ‘readers’. I foresee a sort of Reading Olympics; serried ranks of spectators watching authors compete in such events as the 1000 word sprint and reading the high-speed output on giant screens, the multi-clausal jump in which authors have to maintain syntactical accuracy for as long as possible in a sentence peppered with subjects and predicates before returning to the original theme.

In fact this is such a good idea that I’ll stop there and give it some proper thought. Hell, it’s such a good idea I may patent it. Or even publish.




A schwa by any other name.

January 13th  2009

Ruth has emailed me and made it all clear. It seems that ‘PAD-el’, or ‘Paddle’ was how her Father pronounced their family name and as Ruth writes, “since Kirsty said she wanted to pronounce it that way I thought who am I to say her nay?” 

It strikes me as an act of generosity to allow someone to pronounce one’s own name as they see fit, or at least it did until I read the comment by Palash Dave on the mysteries of the schwa and realised the error of my ways. Thank you Ruth and indeed, Palash. I apologise to Kirsty Young for even questioning her pronunciation.



Monday, 12 January 2009

What's in a name?

A morning of correspondence has raised an interesting point.

Further to my mention of Ruth Padel on Desert Island Discs, I’ve been asked if her name was mispronounced throughout the show. The show’s presenter, Kirsty Young, pronounced Ruth’s surname as “Paddle” which I must confess did strike me as odd at the time but I was so enjoying the programme I forced myself to ignore it. I’ve always put the stress on the second syllable, Pad-EL rather than PAD-el and assume that I do so having once asked Ruth how she herself pronounces her name.

When I was interviewing authors on a daily basis, the issue of names and how to say them was a near constant concern. We have all suppressed that mild irritation when someone gets our own wrong, I’m sure, and I’ve always found it embarrassing to find out after the event that I’ve been causing someone else to inwardly cringe. Rather simplistically I took the view that if in doubt then asking was the simplest solution. It paid dividends when having read “Half of a Yellow Sun” I wanted to record a show with the author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who was kind enough to repeat her name a couple of times until I got it right. I’m convinced that a number of publishing publicists only ever took my calls because I could say their names correctly, the fantastic Sue Amaradivakara not least among them. 

Following this tried and tested method I’ve emailed Ruth for the definitive answer and will report back.



News, views and interviews.

January 12th 2009

Well it’s been a week since I tendered my application for the artistic director post for a literary festival and so far nothing heard. Not a surprise as I assume that they’ve been inundated with hopefuls. I certainly hope so, it’s a good festival and it deserves the luxury of selecting from a wide range of applicants.

Extended unemployment plays havoc with one’s self-confidence and I’m in a strange gloaming, nervous that I won’t be called for an interview and yet more so that I might. It’s been a good few years since I’ve had to formally apply for a job and to be honest I worry that I’ve lost the skill, if I ever had it. It’s also a very long time since I had to attend a job interview so if any of you have current tips do let me know. Perhaps you’ll also keep your fingers crossed for me as I really want this job, would relish the challenge and believe that I could be of benefit to the festival.

Silence in that particular area can be set against an unexpected invitation from another for an altogether different sort of interview. I’ve received an email from a production assistant at BBC Radio 4 inviting me to be a guest on “A Good Read”.  It’s a programme I listen to and enjoy greatly and Kate Mosse, the hugely successful author of Labyrinth and Sepulchre, is hosting this season’s run. Actually I can’t quite believe that I’ve been invited, it’s such an honour.

I know Kate well and admire her enormously having interviewed her for radio on a number of occasions, both in her authorial capacity and also as the co-founder and honorary director of the Orange Prize for Fiction that has done so much for fiction by women from around the world. I feel strangely uncomfortable stating that line ‘fiction by women’, to me it seems so redundant these days, but that’s what the prize was set up for and with a roster of winners which includes Valerie Martin, Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Rose Tremain to name but a selection, it has really achieved what it set out to do and is very much a force for good. Perhaps one day, when I’ve grown up, I’ll get to be a male judge if they ever have such a thing. (I’m forty-six years old as I write that line, there’s time aplenty!)

It will be odd to be on the other side of the desk, I’m not at all sure that my experience as a broadcast interviewer will make me a good interviewee. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest not. Still, off I will go, proudly to Broadcasting House on the 27th of this month to discuss my views on my chosen ‘good read’ and those of Kate Mosse and the other  - as yet unknown – guest.

What’s my choice? You’ll have to wait and see. A couple of my first thoughts were covered by earlier guests so while choosing a shortlist of three was relatively easy, the process of deciding on one is proving engagingly tough. I’m veering toward the small but perfectly formed so it may not be a full-blown, pocket-bursting, brick of a novel. It will be a damn good read though, that I promise.

So there we have it, a former interviewer turned interviewee now waiting for one interview while being interviewed in another interview by a former interviewee turned interviewer. Enjoy the views.



Sunday, 11 January 2009

Word Worlds and Desert Island Discs

January 11th 2009

BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs held a treat in store today, as the guest of honour was my friend Ruth Padel, Charles Darwin’s great, great granddaughter, a hugely admired poet and a rightly much-mentioned name in the search for Britain's next Poet Laureate.

Whilst her choice of discs illustrated a profound love and understanding of music from string quartets to blues, what was most interesting was her ability to use the interview format of the show to create beautifully evoked 'word worlds'.

In a brief 45 minutes Ruth took listeners from the forests of Siberia where she was in search for the fast-disappearing Siberian tiger to the lush jungles of Sumatra in pursuit of another feline sub-species. These experiences were part of her research for "Tigers in Red Weather", a very personal travelogue, published in 2002, that encompasses the science of conservation, natural history, myth and poetry that was to my mind that rarest of books, an instant classic of enduring appeal. Her comment on the irony that her forebear wrote of the great explosion of species and just four generations later she is now writing of the appalling reduction in them tore straight to the heart of the issue.

She then took us to another world entirely and re-created in miraculously few words a mid twentieth century country home of her childhood where wood walks alone with a dog, unkempt mazey hedges and a book-laden school room were conjured for the listener, taking us back to a time when such issues as our treatment of the planet and its inhabitants had yet to impress themselves on our conscience.

I am getting to an age where people I know or have known are appearing more frequently on Desert Island Discs. Another recent example was the delightful Professor A.C. Grayling, reader in Philosophy at London University's Birkbeck College and one of the most graceful, kind and evolved men I know. During his edition he utterly altered the perception I had of the duration of life by saying: 

"that the human life-span is fewer than a thousand months - and with our time so limited, it is incumbent upon us all to use it thoughtfully and well."

It is perhaps not surprising to learn that his ethos is to take philosophy out of the ivory towers and into people's homes as a tool to help us live richer and more fulfilling lives of thought and consideration.

Grayling's choice of luxury to take to the imagined desert isle of the programme was a good piano. Padel's was a herd of deer that to my mind seemed wonderfully in keeping with her love of the natural world. Sadly her choice was disallowed - luxuries are supposed to provide no aid to survival - and so she settled on pencils and paper.

There are many good poets, both men and women, whose names are being mentioned as potential successors to Andrew Motion, the current and highly successful Poet Laureate. All of them would certainly bring much to the post. I harbour a hope that those whose unenviable task it is to make the choice will select a woman for the first time and that that woman will be Ruth Padel. She would be a timely choice for the post in a world where our connections with and abuses of the planet are becoming ever more critical and I like to imagine that she would take her pencils and paper to some of Britain's own desert islands and so create more word worlds for us to enjoy. But that's just my opinion. You could of course listen to BBC Radio 4 at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday the 27th Jan when Ruth will be presenting a four-part show "Darwin my ancestor" and form your own opinion. I hope you do.



Thursday, 8 January 2009

In the beginning.

January 8th 2009

A year ago, to the very day, I was rendered unemployed by the failure of the delightful company that for eight years had been my work place. My colleagues and I had worked hard at either the broadcasting end of publishing or the publishing end of broadcasting, we could never quite determine which, but it mattered not as we loved books, we loved what we did and happily so did many of the kind people who consumed our endeavours.

The intervening 12 months has been, as you might imagine, defined by the search for work, failure to find any and beset by all the dull, contingent difficulties that such worklessness bestows. During this time a dark, blank lethargy overcame me, borne out of the sense of loss, grief even, for the role and responsibilities that had defined my life every day of every week for the previous eight years. I mourned for my 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, hassled, pressured, but no less adored job. Less post-traumatic stress syndrome, more post stress trauma syndrome. I had become a statistic, an unlucky pawn of history. But that was last year and last year is over so this year it’s all going to be very different. Or so I hope.

There are encouraging signs that re-employment may be nigh. Possibly as the Literary Editor of a weekly magazine of some history and repute, possibly as the Artistic Director of a Literary Festival of less history but equal repute. Either way it will be good to be back amongst the bookish and bright, the wordy and wise.

This blog then will follow my path back to an office. Along the way we will pass by authors I know and have known, books I am reading and have read, books you might like, books you might not. We may from time to time meander from the path to look at such objets d’interet as the blue plaques on the walls of London houses to notable trees that catch my eye, we may discuss concepts from the origins of the feral parakeets that abound in the Royal Parks to whether Morris Dancing should be rebranded as Britain’s only martial art.

So then welcome all and enjoy this occasional biblioblog with bells on.