When I first started work in London, in an office in Surrey St, if it was raining I would take a short cut from Kingsway to the Strand by ducking through Bush House; through the fancy main door on the midpoint of Aldwych, down the stairs and out through the back door onto the Strand. It didn’t cut that much time off the journey, but it afforded a bit of shelter, and made me feel like a new ‘secret things’ about my new city.
This week it was an entirely different experience to enter the building, involving queuing outside, having my name ticked off a list, my bag inspected, wearing a special badge around my neck and walking through a metal detector before being escorted down the stairs and across a courtyard and down more stairs.
A lot has changed in the intervening years: Aldwych Tube station is now used only as a set for movies and pop videos and, these days, we expect to be challenged and searched before entering any building, and it is fair to assume that the BBC is more vulnerable than most institutions to the headline seeking trouble maker.
Experience sharp moments of insight into the huge changes that I’ve stopped noticing, it was comforting to also see that some things have the potential to be universal: that people will want to gather together to talk about books.
I was part of the audience for a recording of Radio4 Book Club. About two dozen people gathered together in a small studio in the basement of Bush House. We sat facing Jim Naughtie and the author Ross Raisin, who were either side of a coffee table over which two microphones were angled like awkward birds.
There was no mistaking that this was a radio programme, and not to be seen by anyone else. The coffee table was chipped and marked, the chairs were the sort that would grace a church hall, the walls were fawn and padded, the illumination was fluorescent strips, technicians at banks of controls were visible through a glass partition and Jim was tie-less in shirt sleeves, a set of earphones clamped to his head.
I often wake up to Jim Naughtie’s voice on the Radio 4 Today programme, it’s a voice that is part of the radio listening psyche. I know it belongs to a person, but it usually has a magic disembodied character to it; it has a force and an authority. In person, it’s a quiet voice, presumably modulated by years of experience to be the perfect voice for radio. He didn’t raise it to quell the hubbub of pre-show chatter; throughout he spoke quite softly, either used to being listened to, or happy to carry on whether people are listening or not.
Everything about the proceedings was informal. In advance, we had been asked to submit questions, but this was more to make sure that we were prepared with some, rather than to pre select which would be asked. The first person was picked out and briefed, but after that it was open to anyone to ask anything they liked, by raising their hand and attracting the attention of the man with the wandering mic on a long stick.
It’s all glued together with Jim’s quiet authority and relevant interjections at suitable intervals. He acknowledges that he may look silly with the headphones on, and that it can be a bit ridiculous to have to repeat the same introductions several times trying out different intonations, but he’s not self concious about having to do it, so we all sat there in silence watching a professional at work.
I liked the calmness of it all, especially when in a break to deal with a crackling microphone the author pointed out that in his introduction, Jim had awarded him with prized he’d not won. A quick redraft, and off they were rolling again.
We were discussing ‘God’s Own Country’ by Ross Raisin, a book I warmed to during the discussion. Ross Raisin has a lot of charm, and he engaged with every question and gave thoughtful answers, especially to a small group of teenagers who had come as part of a school trip.
I was disappointed not to ask a question. I was primed and ready to go until I had a coughing fit; and there is nothing worse than trying not to cough when you need to; it makes it all so much worse. In my panic, I missed a couple of questions which I think may have covered some of the topics I was interested in, and I didn’t want to repeat a point, and then it took a while to recover my composure…..
They recorded much more than they will need, so I will be listening keenly when it’s broadcast to hear how they fashion the programme out of the raw material.
I’ll let you know the transmission date when I know; it’s likely to be April or May next year. I’m working on a review of the book too.