by Jude Rogers
Very early this coming Sunday morning, and very late on Sunday night, I will be doing something unusual. I will be speaking to you.
Turn on Radio 4 at 6.05am or 11.30pm, and you will find me sitting close to the microphone, presenting an episode of Something Understood, Radio 4’s weekly half-hourly tour of an unusual subject. Two thirds of the programmes are religious or spiritual, but I’m in the secular camp, exploring the human desire to run away or disappear through music, prose and poetry.
The name of my episode – which may ring bells for some Caught By The River readers – is called Vanishing Point. It takes ideas behind the columns I wrote for the site a few years ago, ideas I’m working up into a larger project, in a very different direction.
Writing for radio is a strange new thing for me. It has an odd magic to it, quite unlike the everyday act of getting a few simple words down. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s all about sound. It’s about the weight of words, the half-rhymes, the gentle drop of a consonant, the roundness of a vowel, the way a syllable arrives, stays for a second, then falls away, gone. This is writing to be read out loud in your own voice, not to be offered up on the page or the screen for the internal voices of others. It is also language as it used to be, before pens and paper and mechanical keys, writing to be heard, and not seen.
It is writing to be fitted around a much larger soundscape, too. My episode traces the motives behind our desires to flee things, in moments of quiet contemplation, fear, or intoxicant-fuelled escape routes. I add poetry by DH Lawrence to the mix, and prose by John Updike and Virginia Woolf, plus music by Radiohead, Grouper, Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell…and in the middle of all this, I have to be there in the listener’s ear. A central presence. Willing you – hello you – to consider all these options.
It’s terrifying, in a way, but it’s wonderful too. It’s like playing God.
Next Tuesday, I also have a story on Radio 4’s Short Cuts show, one which has forced me think about the power of voices even more acutely. I talk about a C90 cassette that has been in a drawer of mine for years, of my father, and me, and my then-baby brother, and my mum. The experience of hearing words uttered thirty years ago is such a thrilling thing – photographs are so static by comparison, films too rosily nostalgic. But a voice, creeping out of a speaker, with no context, no form, a ghost made of soundwaves, so ambiguous, but so real…
…it makes you focus.
You tune in.
You become hyper-aware of every dynamic.
Every nuance of speech.
Every second of silence.
It’s like nothing else.
We all have powerful relationships with the sounds of other humans through the singers we love. But a spoken voice – with its weighted words, half-rhymes, consonants, vowels, syllables, gone – can get under the skin deeply too. Radio writing makes you realise the charge that sounds really have, how they work, what they do – and where they can go.