Two geezers down the pub, the faulty tape deck and other tales
Sunday, October 6
ON Sunday afternoons I like to punctuate my routine with an armchair session of Radio 4’s Poetry Please. Inverting the morning for the afternoon, swapping the armchair for canteen seating on the Hibernian, and substituting Mike Hurst, Charlotte Howard, Shaughan Seymour and Angharad Jones for Roger McGough, I enjoyed a maiden voyage into this riparian poetry recital. One of Roger’s poems made the line-up anyway. With an 11am sailing there would be plenty of time to catch up on him later that afternoon.
This was poetry reading in genteel company, light in tone, and as one listener put it a “nicely familiar” playlist with one or two surprises. The four players worked hard on each given strophe and accents were generally persuasive — Liverpudlian and American — save perhaps the Rastafarian Brummy required for Benjamin Zephania’s What If.
Nancy Diamonds, curator of this poetry collection, had mashed it up nicely for us with Montaigne and Shakespeare blushed up against Stevie Smith’s Conviction and Wendy Cope’s The New Regime. The poetry was interspersed with blasts from Weird Things People Say In Bookshops by Jen Campbell, such as: “This Kindle thing then. Are the books on that hardback or softback?’
An entertaining afternoon.
RACHEL JOHNSON’s talk started precariously as she explained that the empty chair next to her on stage was for the Guardian women’s editor who had taken a wrong turn and was running late. The audience stifled their giggles.
Soldiering on, Rachel flicked though her slides without an interviewer. Sadly some slides had black stripes through them and were unrecognisable — more apologies, more giggles.
Winter Games, Johnson’s latest novel, took three years to research and write. She enthused about the wonderful ladies she interviewed who had been living as debutantes in Germany during the late Thirties. This became another giggle moment, as due to faulty recording equipment, the scores of upper-class ladies in nursing homes had to be re-interviewed again and again.
Johnson skipped lightly through a dark subject matter as she flicked through a fascinating array of slides, one depicting Hitler surrounded by “pure blood” English girls. She explained that “willful blindness syndrome” of the upper classes in those days was normal for the time.
One lady interviewee, Margaret Budd, danced with Hitler during the winter games of 1936 and was the subject of a Radio 4 interview, Dancing With The Devil. Enthusing about this fabulous audio piece she pressed the button, but alas! no sound came from the audio machine.
“Help! Henley Literary Festival!” she cried. However she managed to hold it together and was eventually joined by the apologetic Guardian journalist.
Johnson was in the same primary school class as David Millband in Primrose Hill and is known in London as Boris’ sister. She’s even the muse of an up-and-coming West End play which tells of her tempestuous relationship with Mrs Budworth, proprietor of The Lady and is based on her best selling book, The Diary Of A Lady.
An entertaining lady at that — and not a jolly hockey stick in sight.
Saturday, October 5
LIZ JONES is the Marmite of women’s journalism — you either love her or loathe her. Her confessional style of column writing in the Mail on Sunday knows no bounds, and if you regularly read her it’s difficult not to have preconceived opinions of her.
She has talked about every aspect of her love life and had public fallings-outs with her family and friends, Holly Willoughby and even pop superstar Rihanna.
But appearing in conversation with author and ex-colleague Lucy Cavendish in front of a packed house at the Kenton, Liz Jones was a revelation. She was surprisingly warm and funny, self-deprecating and clearly terribly nervous. Where was the harridan whose ridiculous self-centred posturing regularly starts my Sunday mornings?
There are glimpses of her. Digs at her ex-husband. A mention of her family sponging off her. A comment about how people don’t appreciate deafness is a valid disability and thus give her abuse when she parks in disabled parking spaces — followed by a sheepish shrug when Cavendish’s questioning finally makes her admit she doesn’t actually have a disabled parking permit.
There’s also a slightly defensive reaction to the complaints of people in her life who she has written about: “If you don’t want it written about, don’t do it. I don’t think writing about it is the crime, I think it’s the action. It’s not revenge exactly, but you can get your own back in print in a way.”
But in spite of all of that, I came away liking Liz Jones. She cheerfully admits she regrets everything in her life, says Thora Hird could play her in a biopic and blushes when women start calling out from the audience with advice about whether it’s too soon to think about marrying her new boyfriend, David.She finishes by saying: “I don’t want to be liked. I’m not used to being liked.”
On the basis of her columns, which lack humour and the sense that she’s poking fun at herself, you can understand why she isn’t. But for one evening in Henley she was flavour of the month, and deservedly so.