Ancestral Voices

February 8, 2010

Rather like the Public Lending Right, the BBC is an anachronism, a great British institution which – despite all attempts at reconstruction, modernisation and fumigation – still retains a distinct whiff of Reithian atmosphere. (This refers to BBC radio, of course. What may go on in the alien universe of television is another matter.) Even now, on Radio 3 and 4, the virtues of cultural inclusiveness, palatable education and campaigning journalism, so distrusted by Mrs Thatcher, survive against the odds.

Within this vaguely socialist ethos, literature is still supported, both through official book programmes, and more sporadically. It turns up in unexpected places; poetry creeps onto Woman’s Hour, writers are interviewed on music programmes. Turned on at random, the radio is suddenly loud with Chekhovian women longing for Moscow, or the rhythmic wood-pigeon cooing which turns out to be Yeats reading Innisfree.

Last week, Radio 3’s Composer of the Week was William Walton, so Edith Sitwell intoned Façade, as she quite frequently does. The maniac delights of this must have sent many people, like me, to look again at her work, and marvel.

This week on Radio 4, there will be Vita Sackville-West talking about herself as Orlando; a treasure not so rare as Virginia Woolf on words, but nevertheless a glittering moment. It’s on the repeated From the Ban to the Booker, a two part series on books from Radclyffe Hall’s banned The Well of Loneliness to the multiple Booker nominations of Ali Smith and Sarah Waters. (As well as Ali, Sarah, Jeanette Winterson, Diana Souhami et al, it includes a contribution from me about Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner.)

Contemporary writers have a perhaps surprisingly strong presence on the radio. In the remote future, if the BBC excavates these literary dialogues from the archives, presumably they’ll seem as other-worldly as the period pieces from the mid-twentieth century do now – ancestral voices echoing across the airwaves.

From the Ban to the Booker, BBC Radio 4, Thursday 11th and Friday 12th February 23.30. (Or listen again on


One Response to “Ancestral Voices”

  1. Julie Lydall Says:

    Thanks for the top tip on From the Ban to the Booker programme. Will tune in and feel a bit less like an exile hopefully! Though there’s been masses of Sarah Waters publicity in the norwegian newspapers this week…very impressed with this thinking woman’s blog I must say

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