Caught by the River

Radio magic

Sue Brooks | 6th November 2021

Sue Brooks spends a happy half hour in the aural company of Paul Farley, as he explores the connection between poets and birds.

Have you ever wondered how radio programmes are made – the whole process from idea to broadcast ? I sometimes catch myself daydreaming about putting one together, or even a short series, using the BBC archives. What a joy that could be. Out of curiosity, I’ve developed a habit of looking at the credits – the Producer especially. That’s how I came across Tim Dee all those years ago. Programmes to look forward to, which wouldn’t disappoint and could be heard again with even more intense pleasure. 

Fast forward to October 10th this year. It’s mid afternoon on a Sunday – usually a quiet time on Radio 4 – and I’m scrolling through the schedule.


Paul Farley looks at the vital connection between poets and birds.

That was it. The space for the credits and other information was blank. I’m absurdly excited about this and try to find out more. Nothing turns up and I wonder if it’s a left- over from The Echo Chamber ( Presenter – Paul Farley, Producer – Tim Dee ), a weekly slot on Radio 4 showcasing contemporary poets. A brilliant series, but it finished around 2018. This felt different.

I listen. And listen again. What is that strange music and the ghostly echo, sometimes a woman, sometimes a much older man, behind Paul Farley’s scouse? 

even those at home anywhere could find themselves lost when a snipe breaks cover on a trackless bog and flies away in the autumn dusk

We’re back on dry land, sitting in a bird hide overlooking Morecambe Bay and Paul is reminiscing about the first time he saw a snipe as a teenager and was taken by its arsiness, the spikiness of it – like post-punk music. I can hear him saying those words as I write – the earthiness of the drawn out vowels and the hard edge of the consonants; a bit niche, he says, SniPe are a bit niche.

Why are there so few poems about snipe? Because they live in places where we don’t choose to go – the anklesphere. Perhaps a word familiar to John Clare who was at home in such places, or one coined by Paul Farley. Perfect for the swampy, tussocky world of a fugitive. There’s the music again, and the echo:

when we’re minding our own business, crossing a blank marsh at dusk, the snipe flies off and leaves us in two minds and in a new landscape.

Something is happening here and it feels disturbing. But in the next moment the radio presenter is hosing down his legs after getting stuck in the mud, seriously off-piste in Morecambe Bay. He drives south to the Wirral and Burton Mere, hoping for one more chance of an encounter. He’s definitely getting closer. The light is fading, the echoes are stronger and more insistant, the music is mixed with the drumming of tail feathers and the alarm calls of the bird when flushed. IT HAPPENS and Seamus Heaney’s voice fills the room with his marvellous poem ‘The Backward Look.’ It brings tears to my eyes.

At the end of the long day, lying in bed, Paul leaves us with thoughts of all the wild animals in their burrows and the birds in their roosts and how a bird like a snipe can seem impossible, fabulous, with its long obselete bill and tremelo tail, as if it were a creature in a book of vanished species that was once, rumoured, to exist.   

The voice drops to a whisper for the last few words.

It stays in my mind for days. As far as I know, Paul Farley has never written a poem about the snipe. Thirty minutes of radio and the resources of technology have created something otherwise: mysterious, unknowable and quite magical. Is this poetry in the making? I have no idea whether it was a live broadcast on October 10 2021, or resurrected from the Archive. The only reason it matters, is that if you want to listen, you need to tune in before November 15th, or it might disappear forever.