Caught by the River

Why I Write

Sue Brooks | 7th June 2015


Last week’s BBC radio broadcasts from the Hay-on-Wye festival plus the first time publication of a Roger Deakin essay were a magical celebration of good writing. Sue Brooks tuned in and took flight:

You know how it feels when you read or hear something so light and musical it conjures itself right there in front of your eyes. A stately pleasure-dome, no less, and you want to tell someone, pour it out over the phone or grab their arm and make them listen. So, dear Caught by the River reader, please forgive the compulsion that delivers another installment of stately pleasure-domes. I hope there is something in it for you.

Starting with the Review Section of the Saturday Guardian May 30th. An essay, originally a radio talk, was printed in full. ( courtesy of Five Dials) The listening part of my brain kicked in. I could hear Roger Deakin’s voice. I could see him sitting at the table by the gigantic fireplace thinking “when the household swallows fly away to Africa I get restless.” Then he was standing at the side of the road south of Dieppe with his thumb out, eyeing up the cars for a lift and at the end of the road, falling into the Rhone “fully clothed and wearing an overcoat”. It was the Roger we have all grown to love, telling another adventure story. I have no idea how many words approximate to fifteen minutes of radio time, but just under a full page of newsprint might be about right.

Roger’s piece ( Follow the Swallows ) was written long before The Essay made its debut on Radio 3, but it would have been a perfect contribution. The first of five Essays on subjects of his choice, read in a studio in Bristol perhaps, Roger’s face in front of the microphone, the producer on the other side of the glass, Tim Dee.

Another face introduced The Essay last week. George Orwell, lugubrious beside the bulky black microphone used in the early days of the BBC when he was a Talks Producer for the Eastern Service, beaming propaganda over India. His answer to the question “Why I Write” was published in the Summer edition of Gangrel, a literary magazine. The year was 1946. He was scrupulously and relentlessly honest: “I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write one soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity, what kind of book I want to write.”

The question was taken up again by five writers at the Hay Festival and broadcast in The Essay slot. All well-known names telling the story about why they chose to make their living by the pen, even if at times it was driven, as Orwell described “ by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Fifteen minute performances scripted and read by the authors themselves. One by one, with unique skill, the demons were transformed so that by the end you knew there was nothing in the wide world each writer would rather be doing. Any listener who had ever wrestled with such things, or been tempted by them, would take heart from this. We all have a fascination with words. Why else do we belong to Caught by the River, or turn up at Port Eliot or Portmeirion or Hay-on Wye for that matter?

If you can’t hear them all, listen to Horatio Clare’s eulogy for Mr Bullock, or Daniel Hahn, the translator, on the subtlety of the well-chosen word, or Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales, as she writes her daily journal. I clapped with the audience after each one, alone with iPlayer and the rain beating down on the Velux windows, hoping it was a standing ovation for work of such heart-felt integrity.

Good writing, heard on the radio, is a tonic and an inspiration. It bypasses the eye and reaches deep into our story-telling past. Just fifteen minutes can take you to the gates of Xanadu.

Sue Brooks on Caught by the River.