First, a shameless note to say that I have a new collection due from Carcanet in March 2016. So if you would like a cheap and cheerful reader for 2016, have a microphone, and can be reached from Cheltenham by public transport, I would be delighted to come. I don’t do workshops, but do rehearse readings very thoroughly, keep to time religiously, and am always glad to talk to audiences afterwards. Do feel free to contact me, without obligation, via the Contact Page on this website, which sends messages straight to my current email.
I am reading in Oxford, at the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Walton Street, on October 31 (Hallowe’en!). The evening starts at 6 p m and ends about 9 p m. There’s a great selection of other readers, including Claire Crowther, Anne-Marie Fyfe and Mimi Khalvati. And an open mic!
Open Doors: BBC 6 Music This blog is being written – though not posted – in the week of my birthday. So, in the faint after-haze of chocolate and idleness, I decided to babble happily, about a source of comfort and inspiration: my favourite radio station. My family’s love affair with radio began in 1936, when my father, aged ten, listened to the Abdication speech in a shepherd’s cottage, on a massive, brand-new set. (As a Republican, who thinks that a royal life with the paparazzi may be a particularly gleaming circle of Hell, I live in hope of a repeat performance.)
Why don’t I watch television? This has much to do with a man called Keith, who, in his spare time, renovated and sold second-hand televisions. I asked Keith if he had a good one. Keith said he’d let me know. That was in 1977. Keith wasn’t noted for speed. But I was driving unusually fast, when, almost thirty years later, I slipped out of our family business (normally only deserted in case of fire or death) and headed into the desert of Cheltenham’s retail parks, (normally avoided, by me, like the plague, not least for their terrifying traffic).
Having avoided speed humps, cornering vans, and actually killing anyone, I reached the counter and gasped to the assistant ‘Do you sell digital radios?’ I only master the technology I really want. I have never learnt to text. But I wanted to hear an independent spoken word station – called Oneword. It played snatches of Wordsworth and entire Poe stories (slightly more frightening than the retail park). I thought it might venture into new poetry. It did – until it died and was replaced by birdsong. But by then, I had flicked through my manual, pressed the small radio’s buttons, and found a whole new world of songs: the station which is now BBC 6 Music.
A few years later, the BBC decided that it would help its finances by sweeping away 6 Music, to share birdsong oblivion with Oneword. But its listeners (including me) wrote to the Director General and to the newspapers, clamoured on social media and finally contributed hard cash to plead for the station on advertising boards by the front doors of BBC offices. We saved 6 Music.
Why? Imagine that you are young, in the 60s or 70s, or that you have a young family, in the 80s and 90s. Funds are limited. Music comes on LPs or CDs. They are expensive. You twiddle the dial. You hear a few, well-known names. You hear the burble of bright vacuous pop (especially after the invention of the manufactured band. Step forward, the Spice Girls!) Somewhere, you are sure, there is new music worth exploring. But how can you find it? After Madness (whom I loved) I gave up. I went off to Radio 3 and worked my way through the operas of Mozart, Schubert song cycles, and excellent, but very late programmes on world music and folk.
Then 6 Music arrived. It was like having a wise friend with infinite patience and a houseful of music. Here was black humour from Morrissey, tender stories from Elbow, joyful lust from James. This music reached me in a dark tunnel of family illness. The strength and weakness of much of the pop music I knew was its focus upon (usually youthful) love and sex. But Guy Garvey’s songs also ranged through childhood and male friendship. James’ ‘Sit Down’ once astonished me in a supermarket aisle, as it spoke to the lame and shy by the baked beans (and to me) Those who feel the breath of sadness Sit down next to me Those who find they’re touched by madness Sit down next to me Those who find themselves ridiculous Sit down next to me…. Of course it needs the depth, the drops, the lilts and life of its tune. If you don’t know ‘Sit Down’, do seek it out. It is only twenty-five years old – I never claim to be up to date.
But 6 Music did bring to me, freshly, the songs of a young Sheffield group called The Arctic Monkeys. I think Alex Turner’s dark love song based on pub names – ‘Cornerstone’ – is an English classic. It also brought David Bowie’s recent CD. ‘The Next Day’. One track ‘Where are We Now?’ describes re-visiting a now re-united Berlin: ‘walking the dead…’ Bowie has said that melody is the defining quality of English music, which he particularly tried to bring to his own songs. It is the unashamed sweetness of the melody, and the aged fragility of Bowie’s voice, which pierces me whenever I hear him sing the title phrase of ‘Where are We Now?’ It has a sadness so intense that it is close to ecstasy. Time stops
. A warning about BBC 6 Music! This station is a serious absorber of time. If you begin to listen, you will linger in doorways, on sofas, on your way to pay bills, or to leave for your job, all because you have to hear the end of the song, or to catch the name of the singer. Already, I have been here too long. Tea is uncooked, papers unsorted. Right. Let me rush you through my days with 6 Music, followed by occasional highlights… As I get up early, I start with Chris Hawkins, in the grey, or glow, before 7 a.m. Chris, at that hour, is considerately quiet, keen, but never strident, attentive to listeners, and produces some astonishing music. He was as appreciative as his listeners when a young singer, Lucy Rose, sang a love song, exquisitely, live, before most of the nation had reached for its alarm clock. For 6 Music, with its many live sessions, is a station to restore your faith in performance, in music, and in art itself. Chris is also a favourite of mine (and the cat’s) for reasons which I will reveal later.
At seven, Shaun Keaveny tumbles on to the airwaves. I have been listening to Shaun (originally in the small hours) since I first acquired that digital radio. There are DJs who are (still) slick, mid-Atlantic, timed to the second, glacially insincere. Then there are DJs who leave their breakfast, leaking butter, on the sofa, who arrive rain-soaked on a bike, and who (noisily) lose their place in their sheaves of emails. That is Shaun. He has a passion for Led Zeppelin and is frequently, ruefully, funny. His art is to seem to be us, on air, with almost-spilt coffee and a cornucopia of good music.
Life prevents me hearing much of Lauren Laverne’s show, on at 10. But the little I have heard includes listeners’ choice of tracks, which often hit shared pulses of pleasure (or deeper memories). One reason, I believe, why 6 Music listeners campaigned for this station is that it was theirs: open to almost immediate suggestions, comments and contributions. This is very new in radio. Despite the views of a very vocal section of listeners, I think Radio 3 also benefits from such openness. I hope that BBC management will hold its nerve and keep Radio 3’s door ajar for at least part of the day. Not least due to the Horse,
I don’t usually return to 6 Music until between 4 and 7, to hear Steve Lamacq. Steve is notable for his respectful rapport with his listeners – and for his encyclopedic knowledge of music, going back decades to his youth as a music journalist and talent-spotter. Ignorantly, I admire. Enjoyably, I learn. Marc Riley, who follows at 7 p m, is linked in my mind to the cooking of multiple vegetables and to live sessions so good that a family member, usually indifferent to music, once froze, plate in hand, to ask ‘Who is that?’ Answer: Jesca Hoop. She, and Marc’s programme, are therefore highly recommended. 9 p m to midnight in our house can involve anything from toothpaste to late night bookkeeping (and cat fights). Amongst the fluoride and the flying fur, Gideon Coe presides, calmly, with unpredictable and good music, often to a theme, with interesting input from listeners far more awake than I am.
That’s the weekday cycle. At the weekend, Mary Anne Hobbs is there from 7 a m, with a quiet, infectious passion for music and thought. This brings unexpected contributors, such as the composer Howard Goodall to the microphone. She introduces some of my favourite music in the week, and justifies this station’s name. It is a music station. You may hear Stuart Maconie playing early John Cage, or Tom Robinson interviewing my favourite folk duo, Show of Hands. 6 Music is unafraid of folk music. It ran special programmes over Easter, which introduced me to the delicate songs of Molly Drake (Nick’s mother, a moving and fearless songwriter).
Another warning! Listening to 6 Music can prove expensive… Cerys Matthews on Sunday mornings (10 a m to 1 p m) opens up a box of wildly varied music: blues, folk, old, new. Even the briefest extract deserves eavesdropping. Iggy Pop bestrides Friday evening, from 7 to 9 p m. Ferociously intelligent (and funny) he has just played music from the 50s, 40s, brand-new groups, and enticing songs in several languages, while I typed today, mind happily torn. I should dedicate this ramshackle piece to Iggy, without whom it would have been finished MUCH SOONER. Guy Garvey is now at home on 6 Music on Sunday afternoons, at 2 p m. Alas, I usually miss him each week, due to the Horse. But I recommend him warmly, for humour, insight and excellent taste in music. I am, of course, entirely uninfluenced by the fact that he once played a song I suggested…
Finally, good reader or listener, trust me. I had decided to write this blog BEFORE a recent email from the cat and me to Chris Hawkins. Chris had asked his listeners why they were up before 7 a m, listening to him and fine music. I had expected to hear messages from farmers and bakers, patient and essential. I did. But the bonnet maker surprised me. Then the cat and I decided to explain our own early morning sessions in the front room’s first sun by sending Chris a short poem. Chris not only read it on air (very well, at that giddily early hour). He then sent me a kind email saying that there had been ‘a lovely response’ from listeners. Of course, reader, I am incorruptible. Chris was already on my list of the unmissable. The cat concurs. Cerys Matthews, too, enthusiastically includes poetry in her programmes. Adam Horovitz appeared there in May, Liz Berry and her excellent publisher in June.
One of 6 Music’s most appealing qualities is its openness to all kinds of material – including poetry. I have thought for a long time that music is poetry’s natural ally, and that its deserved popularity in Britain could embrace the odd poem, too. Kate Tempest, rightly admired both by musicians and poets, has encouraged me in this belief. So has BBC 6 Music, a station which has opened many doors. Do help keep them open by listening – and contributing. How? Just ask your cat…
Finally, here is a poem, which should be in my new book, next March, and draws upon another time-devouring passion. As you will see, I would be safer staying indoors with 6 Music!
What is in the jug? A shoot of holly
shockingly green, though drought now stunts the tree.
Roses of the pink of a thumbnai
l where good blood quietly throbs. Geraniums,
crumpled, brilliant, soaring out of water,
all sprigs which I have sliced off by mistake
in careless gardening. Now they thrive for days,
which, left in noon’s heat, would not last an hour,
things done in error, the odd corners
of our lives, which flower and flower.
Published in PN Review