Radio Archive

Songs for rattling on the rails

“Música original patagónica” on La Trochita — the Old Patagonian Express — in Argentina. © MICHAEL KERR

The venue for next weekend’s BBC Six Music Festival in London is the Roundhouse in Camden Town, which, before it offered a stage to everyone from Pink Floyd to David Bowie, was an engine shed for the London & North Western Railway. That’s what prompted Guy Garvey to go for a train theme on his show for Six Radio yesterday, drawing on music from artists from Oscar Peterson (Night Train) to Vashti Bunyan (Train Song), by way of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys (Ben Dewberry’s Final Run).

  Many of his selections were new to me, and they prompted me to dig out a playlist I compiled myself, including a few suggestions from colleagues, when I published my first anthology of train journeys, Last  Call for the Dining Car, in 2009. That playlist is no longer accessible online, so I’ve made a new one on Spotify, adding a few songs I’ve come across since or couldn’t access first time around.

  Railroad lines and trains in the United States figure often, though Crosby, Stills & Nash (Marrakesh Express), Little Feat (New Delhi Freight Train) and Rickie Lee Jones (Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking) do range a bit farther afield. Then there’s Robyn Hitchcock’s I Often Dream of Trains, which couldn’t be more British: “I dream of them constantly, heading for Paradise… or Basingstoke, or Reading.”

  Two songs on the playlist are from what you might call travelin’ albums. One of those albums is Shine A Light, for which Billy Bragg and Joe Henry recorded on the move — on trains, on platforms and in old station halls. Their version of Rock Island Line*, for example, was recorded in the Great Hall at Union Station in Chicago; Waiting for a Train comes from Room 414 in the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. Jimmie Rodgers, “the Singing Brakeman”, who is most closely associated with the song, set up home at the Gunter in 1930. Six years later, Robert Johnson made his first recordings there — in Room 414. 

  The other album is from Laura Cantrell: Trains and Boats and Planes. A celebration of life on the road? Not entirely: Big Wheel spells out the demands of the peripatetic life; several songs, including the title track (by Burt Bacharach and Hal David), are about the pain of separation; on Train of Life she’s “tired of sittin’ on the side track watchin’ the main line run”.

*Bragg presented an excellent programme for BBC Four, Rock Island Line: The Song That Made Britain Rock. First screened in April last year, it’s now available again for a while on the BBC iPlayer.

‘Surfacing’ on Radio 4

I didn’t have time to mention it here before it started, but Book of the Week on Radio 4 is Kathleen Jamie’s deeply layered Surfacing (Sort Of Books), which was one of my books of 2019. Jamie and another poet, Denise Riley, were guests recently on an episode of Ian McMillan’s The Verb on Radio 3, musing on the writing of “deep time”; you can still hear that on the BBC website.

  On February 14, incidentally, McMillan will be interviewing Jan Morris, who “looks back over a career in writing that has spanned seven decades and explains what it is that keeps her returning to her writing desk every day at the age of 91”. A second volume of Morris’s diaries, Thinking Again, is due to be published by Faber in March.

Wind rewound

A BBC 4 film Richard Alwyn made of Tim Dee, birdwatcher and radio producer, trying to catch the sound of “pure” wind is back on the BBC iPlayer. It’s still as good as it was last time I mentioned it.

Jamie and company on ‘writing deep time’

Kathleen Jamie, with another poet, Denise Riley, contributed to a recent episode of Ian McMillan’s The Verb on Radio 3, on “the writing of deep time”. The episode, which can be downloaded from the BBC site, featured both Jamie’s new essay collection, Surfacing, and some of her poems.

‘The Fens’ on Radio 4

The Fens, a new portrait of the marshy, low-lying landscape of eastern England by the archaeologist Francis Pryor (Head of Zeus, £9.99), is to be Book of the Week on Radio 4, starting next Monday morning. The BBC site had few details when I checked, but the publisher’s blurb says: 

Inland from the Wash, on England’s eastern cost, crisscrossed by substantial rivers and punctuated by soaring church spires, are the low-lying, marshy and mysterious Fens. Formed by marine and freshwater flooding, and historically wealthy owing to the fertility of their soils, the Fens of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire are one of the most distinctive, neglected and extraordinary regions of England.

Francis Pryor has the most intimate of connections with this landscape. For some forty years he has dug its soils as a working archaeologist – making ground-breaking discoveries about the nature of prehistoric settlement in the area – and raising sheep in the flower-growing country between Spalding and Wisbech. In The Fens, he counterpoints the history of the Fenland landscape and its transformation – from Bronze age field systems to Iron Age hillforts; from the rise of prosperous towns such as King’s Lynn, Ely and Cambridge to the ambitious drainage projects that created the Old and New Bedford Rivers – with the story of his own discovery of it as an archaeologist.

Transport from tedium

How do you survive the tedium of painting stair rails and door architraves? In between listening to music, I’ve been catching up with recent episodes of The Verb, Radio 3’s excellent programme on language and literature –“poetry, prose, discussion and ideas that would otherwise fall between the cracks”, as Ian McMillan, the genial presenter,  puts it. In one, McMillan and his guests followed the example of Paul Simon and walked off to look for “America” —  taking a deep dive into the word and what it means. In another, they explored how rivers have inspired prose, poetry and song.

‘Underland’ Book of the Week on Radio 4 from today

Book of the Week on Radio 4 from 9.45 this morning is Robert Macfarlane’s latest, Underland (which Hamish Hamilton publishes on Thursday), in which he drops into deep, dark and narrow places, and in the process broadens our notions of what constitutes landscape.

Journey to the top of the world

Physical location on a map; faraway place in our imagination: both those aspects of the North Pole feature in The Top of the World, a BBC World Service programme first broadcast yesterday morning. Joining Bridget Kendall are Felicity Aston, the explorer, author and former climate scientist; Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and co-author of the forthcoming book The Arctic: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press); and Michael Bravo (see earlier post).

Border-crossing bard

Every day, hundreds of people take the train between Belfast and Dublin, or vice versa, and never notice they have crossed a border. Where are they heading, and why, and how will their journeys and lives be affected if that border becomes  a land frontier between the United Kingdom and Europe? Those are questions addressed by the poet Leontia Flynn in Crossing the Border, a programme for Radio 4.

Truss on travel

In a series of three programmes for the “One to One” slot on Radio 4, Lynne Truss is looking at travel and what we get out of it. Well, what other people get out of it, because although she’s done a lot of it in 25 years as a writer, she hates it. In the first programme, aired on Tuesday, she talked to Geoff Dyer, a writer who does like to travel, but whom I associate more with genre-hopping than border-crossing. Dyer’s had his disappointments, particularly with literary and artistic pilgrimages, but the natural world rarely lets him down, and he firmly shares the view of Annie Dillard that “We are here on the planet only once, and we might as well get a feel for the place.” Coincidentally, in a week when we have been remembering the end of the First World War, he says that one of the places that has most moved and inspired him is the battlefield of the Somme. 

In forthcoming episodes, Truss meets Jillian Moody, who crossed the world in a campervan with her husband and three young daughters, and takes a walk on the Old Way in East Sussex with Will Parsons, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust.