Radio Archive

The song of the ol’ gray dawg

In “Cash on the Barrelhead”, a Louvin Brothers song  he recorded for his album Grievous Angel, Gram Parsons (the man who invented country rock) sings of a bus driver reminding him that “this ol’ gray dawg gets paid to run”. Greyhound, though, is still one of the cheapest forms of long-distance transport in the US, which is why it’s the choice of what Doug Levitt calls “people on the margins”. Levitt, who describes himself as a former foreign correspondent and “downwardly-mobile” singer songwriter, has clocked up 120,000 miles riding Greyhounds across the United States over the past 12 years, on an odyssey inspired by Woody Guthrie. In The Greyhound Diaries, for the BBC World Service, he trades stories with passengers he meets along the way, and turns some of theirs into songs. 

Westward Ho!

My elder grandson’s on half-term break. I’ve been spending the days with him and my wife going to and from harbours and beaches along the high-hedged roads of Devon, and the evenings on slightly wider highways on the other side of the Atlantic. No teleportation involved; I just tune in at night to Laura Barton’s American Road Trip on Radio 4 Extra. In a grand audio outing, she heads from New York to LA, combining reflections and reminiscences on her own Stateside journeys with well-chosen excerpts from the radio archives and readings from the works of writers including Jonathan Raban, Joan Didion and Sam Shepard.  It’s a three-hour trip, but an endlessly diverting one, and there are plenty of places where you can pull in for a break along the way…

On the Waveney, with Gaw and Deakin

In his debut The Pull of the River (Elliott and Thompson), which I’m just dipping into, Matt Gaw acknowledges that his own journey on Britain’s waterways was partly prompted by one made by Roger Deakin in 2005 on the River Waveney, which became an audio diary for Radio 4, Cigarette on the Waveney (Cigarette being Deakin’s canoe, which was named after one used on the canals of Belgium and northern France in 1876 by Robert Louis Stevenson and his friend Sir Walter Grindlay). Deakin’s programme, as Gaw points out, has recently become available again via the BBC iPlayer. And Gaw’s canoe, built by his friend and fellow traveller James? It’s called the Pipe.

Palin and the Victorian ship that went to the Poles

Michael Palin’s Erebus (Hutchinson), the stirring story of a Victorian ship that went to the Poles, is currently Book of the Week on Radio 4. You can read my review of it — which appeared at the weekend in The Daily Telegraphhere on Deskbound Traveller.

Back to the deserts

William Atkins’ The Immeasurable World: Travels in Desert Places was reviewed in The Observer last weekend by Sara Wheeler. The author has also been interviewed by Radio National in Australia — which seemed keener to draw him out on recent happenings in the Sonoran Desert, on the US-Mexico border, than on British nuclear tests in Maralinga in South Australia, which also feature in his book.

Stagg, Goodwin and the long walk

Guy Stagg’s The Crossway (Picador), about his walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem in the hope of mending himself after mental illness, is currently Book of the Week on Radio 4. The author will be in conversation with Jason Goodwin — traveller, historian and creator of the Ottoman sleuth Yashim — at the Marylebone branch of Daunt Books, in London, next Thursday (June 28). They’ll have more than a little in common: Goodwin walked from Poland’s Baltic coast to Istanbul for his portrait of Central Europe, On Foot to the Golden Horn.

Atkins swaps the damp for the dry

For his first book, The Moor, which was short-listed for the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright Prize, William Atkins travelled along the wet backbone of England. For his latest, The Immeasurable World  (Faber), he heads into deserts — including the Sonoran, between Mexico and the United States, where the Trump administration has been following its “zero-tolerance” policy against undocumented migrants. There he spent time both with a group that is helping migrants and with a border patrol officer.

  Atkins was on Start the Week  with Andrew Marr on Radio 4 on Monday, and he will be speaking at the Wealden Literary Festival, in Biddenden, Kent, on June 30.  You can read a brief (600 words or so) extract from his new book on the website of one of my favourite London bookshops, Foyles, and a longer piece he wrote, while working on the book, on the website of Granta magazine.

Lawrence Wright talks Texas

Contributors to the Book Review podcast of The New York Times include Julian Barnes, on his latest novel, and Lawrence Wright, talking about his portrait of the Lone Star State, God Save Texas.

Woods, reservoirs and radio

Publishers had to submit entries by the end of last week for the £5,000 Wainwright Prize, which is named after the great fell walker and is for the best book of travel, nature or outdoors writing focused on the United Kingdom. I’m assuming Doubleday has entered the latest from the writer and farmer John Lewis-Stempel, The Wood, which came out earlier this month and in which he records the natural daily life and historical times of a wood in Herefordshire. Or perhaps it has entered Lewis-Stempel’s The Secret Life of the Owl, which came out last October. Or maybe it has entered both. That wouldn’t be a first. Lewis-Stempel is prolific as well as talented. Having won the Wainwright Prize in 2015 for Meadowland, he not only took it again in 2017 with Where Poppies Blow (a study of the relationship between soldiers and nature in the First World War) but also had a second book on the short list: The Running Hare. The Wood is currently Book of the Week on Radio 4.

  Also starting on Radio 4 tonight, in the Book at Bedtime slot, is Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13.

Back to North Korea

Only 5,000 people a year visit “the hermit kingdom” of North Korea. Among them has been the radio producer Sarah Jane Hall, who first went in 2004, when, she says, it was hard to imagine the political temperature could get any higher. Since then, of course, the leaders of the United States and North Korea have been threatening each other with nuclear weapons. In Archive on 4: Travels in North Korea, which was broadcast on Saturday evening and is now available on the BBC iPlayer, Hall asks: “Is it easier to go to war with a country we don’t understand?” She mingles her own experience of North Korea with those of recent visitors to the country, including tour leaders and their customers, a diplomat, a film-maker and the broadcaster Andy Kershaw. What did they see and do, and what did they learn?