Presenter: peter white producer: cheryl gabriel



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IN TOUCH

BBC Radio 4
TX: 05.05.09 2040-2100
PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
PRODUCER: CHERYL GABRIEL

White

Good evening. One of the great pleasures of life is doing work that doesn't seem like work at all. Which is why I always enjoy bank holidays before one of our occasional audio book reviews. This time we've taken the theme of history but in its wider sense. Two non fiction books, one fiction and leaping from 16th Century Scotland and France to 19th Century Australia with a little detour through rural Dorset along the way.


I'm joined by one of our regulars - Vidar Hjardeng, who reviews audio books for a number of publications including Vision. He's currently head of diversity with the ITV news group. And we also welcome back Lee Kumutat, who you may recall gave us her take on Britain's attitude to blindness as an Australian coming here to study journalism and maybe planning to settle? Anymore news on that Lee?
Kumutat

Watch this space Peter.


White

Obviously training to be a journalist, as I said, no comment, I think that is.


Let's start though with Vidar, tell us what you've chosen.
Hjardeng

Peter, I have gone for a book, a biography indeed, by one of our best known contemporary biographers - Antonia Fraser. And as many people will know she has written a huge number of books about people in history. And I've gone for her biography of Mary Queen of Scots. And let's just get some atmosphere and go back to the 16th Century.


Clip from biography of Mary Queen of Scots

Music

Mary Queen of Scots. Written by Antonia Fraser, read by Patricia Hodge.


White

Okay that's got us in the mood in 16th Century French drawing rooms or wherever but you've chosen something to give us more of the sense of content.


Hjardeng

Absolutely. Mary Queen of Scots is someone about whom people learn a lot at school and she is one of those characters that I think all of us have heard of in some context or other in history. And Antonia Fraser has brought to life her life through what is a very sympathetic portrayal of what was a very tragic life, lived in Scotland, in France and for about 20 years in captivity in England. And I think if we just listen to the clip we're about to hear that'll put some of that in context.


Clip from biography of Mary Queen of Scots

On the 17th November 1558 Mary Tudor died leaving no children. Her throne was inherited by her half sister Elisabeth, an unmarried woman of 25. Until such time as Elisabeth herself should marry and beget heirs Mary was thus the next heiress to the English throne. But the situation was more complicated. Elisabeth was Henry VIII's daughter by Anne Boleyn. Since Henry's divorce from Katherine of Aragon had never been recognised by the Catholic church Elisabeth was held by Catholics to be illegitimate and thus incapable of succeeding. By this reasoning Mary Stuart should rightly have inherited the throne of Mary Tudor. Immediately Henry II of France caused his daughter-in-law to be proclaimed Queen of England, Ireland and Scotland and the King Dauphine and Queen Dauphiness to assume the royal arms of England in addition to those of France and Scotland. This act was to be flung in Mary's face for the rest of her life.


Hjardeng

And indeed it was and I have always loved the history of Tudor England and Patricia Hodge, I think as you'll agree there, read that beautifully, she reads the whole book beautifully. Interestingly she also reads other books - biographies of Elisabeth I - by David Starkey, so she must be an expert in her own right now about the period of England. But no I think it's really well written, really well read and history can be complicated, it can be boring, it can be taught badly but that was really an example of how absorbing a subject can be. And I think Antonia Fraser rightly deserves a lot of acclaim.


White

As you say it's very complex - all the relationships. Lee, plunged into the intricacies of English and Scottish and French history, how do you take to this?


Kumutat

I had some issues with Mary I'm afraid ...


White

So did Elisabeth.


Kumutat

Mary and I didn't get along quite so well. I did enjoy the reading of it. I found though that there weren't enough colour in it for me and perhaps as a newcomer to England there were some things that I did not understand that needed to be explained, so perhaps the fault is mine, not the book's.


White

And maybe the fault Vidar is the abridgement, to some extent, because there's a lot of stuff to get in there and probably there's quite a lot of explanation that's left out isn't there?


Hjardeng

Yeah that's probably true. And abridgement is one of those perennial themes that we do come back to when we're talking about audio books. The purists, and I think they're probably right, will say well you're missing not getting every word on tape or on CD or whatever it is but then if you're trying to sort of do justice to somebody you probably need a fuller version. That said, for me, the five CDs were a pretty comprehensive portrayal - or gave a pretty comprehensive portrayal of the life of Mary Queen of Scots. And yet you're right, Peter, there are complicated relationships, you've got to have a bit of background about the royal family, the links between them and all the rest of it. I perhaps ought to say that I come at this as someone who studied that period, so to be fair to Lee I don't think it was you, I think it could well have been the fact that you do need that sort of hinter ground and then it perhaps means more to you. But I'm glad you enjoyed the reading.


White

Actually my quarrel was slightly different to Lee's, almost the reverse, I thought there was almost too much colour - there was a lot of clothes - I thought it was a bit of a girly version of history really, you know.


Hjardeng

But that's all about atmosphere, it gives the period though Peter as well, it's not just the sort of who begat whom, it's a ...


White

Well I like the politics, I like who's cutting off who's head and all that stuff.


Kumutat

I quite like the clothes I'm afraid.


White

Did you?
Kumutat

Yes.
White

Alright, so different views on it but as you say beautifully read by one of the great voices of English acting.


Now Lee, perhaps not wholly surprisingly you've chosen a book with a strong Australian theme, tell us about the Potato Factory.
Kumutat

I'm going to start with my criticism of the Potato Factory. It's not really the plot that is the best thing about this book. What happens to the characters in the central storyline is actually, I think, a bit too far fetched, even though the main character - Ikey Solomon - who is known as a swindler, a forger, a fencer and a brothel keeper - did exist and may even have been who Dickens based Fagin on in Oliver Twist but what I really enjoyed in it is its fantastic descriptions and language.


Clip from the Potato Factory

Ikey Solomon was so entirely a Londoner that he was a human part of the great metropolis, a jigsawed brick that fitted into no other place. He was mixed into that mouldy mortar, an ingredient in the slime and smutch of its rat infested dockside hovels and verminous nethacans [phon.]. He was a part of its smogged countenance and the dark cold mannerisms of the ancient city itself. He was contained within the clinging mud and the evil smelling putrilidge [phon.]. Ikey was as natural a part of the chaffering quarrelling humanity who lived in the rookeries among the slaughter houses, cess pools and tanneries as anyone ever borne in the square mile, known to be the heartbeat of London town. Ikey was completely insensitive to his surroundings, his nose not affronted by the miasma which hung like a thin dirty cloud at the level of the rooftops. This effluvium smog rose from the open sewers, known as the Venice of drains, which carried a thick soup of human excrement into the Thames. It mixed with the fumes produced by the fat boilers, fell mongers, glue renderers, tripe scrapers and dog skinners, to mention but a few of the stench makers to make London's atmosphere the foulest smelling place for the congregation of humans on earth. Since infanthood Ikey had grown accustomed to the bloated effluence of the river and the fetidity that pervaded St Giles, Whitechapel, Shoreditch, Spittalfields and the surrounding rookeries.


White

He really goes for it doesn't he.


Kumutat

He really does. Well what's it all about? It's Bryce Courtenay's 19th Century saga of Ikey and his equally villainous wife Hannah and Ikey's mistress, a rather too good to be true woman who innocently gets herself caught up in the underworld, as you do, and did what she had to do to survive. It's the story of each of their entangled lives in London and how it was that they all found themselves on separate passages on convict ships bound for van Diemen's land. And what conditions on those voyages may have been like. It's the story of what happens to them once they arrive in the penal colony and how they manage to each eke out some future for themselves in such a harsh place. I particularly like those descriptions of 19th Century London and think about them often as I find myself in some of the places that he talks about, such as Spittalfields, Whitechapel and Shoreditch.


White

So really in a way you're making a reverse journey - you've come back from Australia where this book ends to see those streets. Have you actually gone into those areas?


Kumutat

I have yes, yes I have. And since I've read The Potato Factory as well and it does make you think yeah - and it is a reverse journey as many Australians make. In fact some of my English friends love to tease me that Australians are all convicts.


White

Well the literature would rather support that, you do seem to quite like writing about it.


Kumutat

Yes but if you think about some of the small misdemeanours that people were sentenced to deportation for does make you shake your head - seven years and no return for a starving child stealing half of a loaf of bread - it brings a whole meaning to the phrase zero tolerance really.


White

Can I just ask you, before I bring Vidar in on this, you obviously are very much taken with the London end of this, what about its portrayal of Australia?


Kumutat

Well as I say it was a harsh life and in fact okay they may not have been criminals but they certainly needed to be hardened or they wouldn't have survived the life in early colonial Australia and many didn't of course. But in fact it talks a lot about the waterfront of Hobart and it does actually quite mirror, in a small version, in a small way, the London dockside underworld which is kind of fascinating as well. It's not a cheery story by any stretch of the imagination. Ikey Solomon is a truly slimy and reprehensible character. He does redeem himself slightly by showing the odd glimpse of a tiny bit of that honour that is meant to exist among thieves and you just can't help feeling a little sorry for him in the end. One of Ikey's talents is his rhetoric and I found that really clever and colourful and it's almost poetic in lots of ways.


White

There's some great words in here - putrilidge we heard there, that's a good word.


Kumutat

It's a great word.


White

Vidar, what did you make of this?


Hjardeng

Well nothing if not graphic is it. It's certainly, you know, for anyone who perhaps doesn't rely on their sight they certainly wouldn't need too much help with their sense of smell, judging by the extract that we had. I thought actually it was very - very compelling. It's very long at 23 hours I have to say ...


White

You need a very long bank holiday weekend.


Hjardeng

It makes Tolstoy look short.


Kumutat

It did take Bryce Courtenay 20 years to write though, so ...


Hjardeng

Ah well that's about an hour a year, okay, in terms of listening. I have to say what I thought was really good about this for me - yeah the story was good and there were some real characters in there but the characterisation through the reading was superb I thought, you know the different characters, the different voices that Humphrey Bower brings out and that actually is another example of where I think audio books come into their own, if you get someone who does it well and they've got to do it well if they're reading for 23 hours I think that really tells a lot and for me that was one of the real plus points.


White

Can I just ask you quite quickly Lee? This was downloaded as a method of getting audio books, for some people that's now a very familiar method, can you just kind of give us a very quick users' guide to this way of reading books?


Kumutat

I happened across this book in an electronic format, so it was on my laptop and I own a little Daisy book player that also plays MP3 files. And all I did was connect my USB to it and copy the book from my laptop to my little MP3 player.


White

Whereas I, being a Luddite, had to have it all copied onto CDs for me - all 24 of them I think. And the reader Humphrey Bower? Vidar's mentioned him. Did you think he did a good job?


Kumutat

I think he did a fantastic job. As we've all said it's quite long, it does get a little bit bogged down and I think he's the one that keeps it going, his voice characterisations were brilliant.


White

Right, thank you very much for that. All the details you will find on our action line, I'll give you the details at the end of the programme.


Now I've cheated very slightly, as presenters are allowed to do, because you could argue that my choice is more literary than historical. Although it incorporates a fascinating look at the contrasting words of the farm labourers of Dorset 150 years ago and the late Victorian literary scene in London, worlds straddled by Thomas Hardy. Now I've always been fascinated by Hardy because he seems such a set of contrasts, one minute he's writing about this world of agricultural labour, then he's meeting head on what were considered by much of the establishment really controversial themes - the emancipation of women, there's quite a lot of sex bubbling below the surface, exploitation of workers and whether there really was a caring god. It's got it all. The book which explores this is Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy - the Time-torn Man, which I think is a really compelling exploration of what made Hardy tick. How from his very humble background he got himself educated, where his ideas came from and how he spread his wings from a quiet village backwater to become in the first two decades of the 20th Century just the grand old man of British novels and poetry. There's a fascinating extract - and it's interesting because you chose London and this is London as well, this is a different picture of London - where Tomalin describes how at 20 he left a secure job in an architect's office in Dorchester and took himself off to the capital, just because he knew that if he wanted to be a writer he needed to see more of the world and the use that he made of that experience.
Clip from Thomas Hardy

Hardy arrived in London in April and remained for five years. He walked till he knew every street and alley west of St Paul's like a born Londoner. He took in exhibitions, galleries, churches, libraries, museums, dance halls, theatres and opera houses. He went several times to hear Dickens read and to hear John Stuart Mill speak on the hustings. And to the House of Commons to listen to Lord Palmerston. When Palmerston died he got tickets for the funeral in Westminster Abbey. He went out to see the illuminations for the wedding of the Prince of Wales and had his waistcoat buttons torn off and his ribs bent in as he struggled to get out of the crush. He enrolled for French classes at King's College. He travelled on the earliest underground railway line at the first opportunity. He offered himself as an extra in a professional stage production and appeared on the stage at the Haymarket. He stood in Rotten Row to watch the rich being driven round in their open carriages during the season. He noticed the tired clerks walking in Oxford Street ...


White

Read there by another highly respected actress - Jill Balcon in this case. So what did you two think? Lee, actually you've been in that neck of the woods quite recently haven't you.


Kumutat

I have been in that neck of the woods. I was really happy that you chose this book because I'm a fan of Thomas Hardy, I've been to visit Thomas Hardy's cottage outside Puddletown in Dorset, which was a fabulous experience and I really enjoyed this book. I think the fact that she describes so well the people that influenced the characters of his books, that actually for me made the lights switch on and go - ah so that's where that came from. So I did really enjoy it.


White

Yeah there are all the characters there. It's very good on his marriages, two of them, his relationships with women, who he didn't marry, he led a very - a pretty hectic inner life as well as an outer life. Vidar, the problem with Hardy is we've had two pretty grim stories and in some ways this third one is because he was a bit of a miserable devil wasn't he.


Hjardeng

He was and some of his books would bear that out - Tess of the D'Urbervilles; Jude the Obscure - they're great novels though. And I tell you what came through for me in this, I had rather forgotten what a great poet he was as well and I think the book opens reminding us of that very fact. And I enjoyed it to learn more about him, the man, the inner man or the time-torn man, as the title actually suggests. And I think the other huge plus for me was another reminder of what an excellent biographer Claire Tomalin is, rather like Antonia Fraser, to bring somebody's life to life, if I may put it like that, on the page or in the spoken word, as we've got it here tonight, I think is a real talent and I found it very absorbing. And Jill Balcon, I'll be honest, when I first started to listen to the reading I wasn't sure and ...


White

Did you think it was a bit slow?


Hjardeng

Yes I did.


White

Yeah, I said - I thought sort of speed up Jill.


Hjardeng

Yeah exactly that and just listening to that clip though I thought she's got it actually right because you take it in, you actually are with him there in London, you can imagine him listening to Dickens, you can imagine him going for his tickets for the Palmerston funeral and all of that. I think you actually take in more when it's read at that sort of speed. And I thought by the end of it I was a convert.


Kumutat

I think if you're reading a lot of it though, all at once, it was a little slow for my tastes as well. But I did really enjoy her reading of it.


White

And yet another abridgement, there's far more than this, and I just wonder - I know we go on and on about abridgements - but did this leave you wanting more or is it - and I feel it's a bit like having a meal and not having quite enough and you've got this empty feeling in your stomach?


Hjardeng

Yeah but you can often say a successful book, like a successful anything, is always when you are wanting more, it's when you're pressing your Daisy machine just to see how much longer there's left to go, that's when you've got to worry, when you've got another sort of three hours or something and you think oh no, not more. Yes I probably was wanting more but then I think that's a sign of its success.


White

Well we're familiar on this programme with ending wanting more but we've run out of time today.


That's it. You can find more details about the books we've talked about and where you can get them from and the formats they're in from our action line - 0800 044 044 - or from the website - bbc.co.uk/radio4/intouch.
From me, Peter White, my guests Lee Kumutat and Vidar Hjardeng. Cheryl Gabriel, the producer, and the team, goodbye.
Directory: rmhttp -> radio4 -> transcripts
transcripts -> Presenter: peter white producer: kathleen griffin
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transcripts -> Presenter: peter white producer: kathleen griffin
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