Woman’s Hour and the human experience of the transcendental

In Books
March 1, 2006

Yesterday was my first ever experience of doing radio. It was live, to 2.7m listeners (they told me this after the fact, which was a blessing) on Woman’s Hour. It’s here, but I haven’t listened to it yet – I fear that if I do I’ll be hyper-critical of my own performance and it’ll put me off when I do public things in the future. I’ll listen to it one day, but not right now.

So, Woman’s Hour. I listen to it all the time and, in my mind I realise that I’d imagined Jenni Murray et al sitting in one of those radio studios you see on the TV. Clinically white, a large desk perhaps with some papers on it, maybe a kitchen off to one side for when they cook recipes on the radio, certainly some indication that This Was Woman’s Hour. I think now that I was also imagining something like the Blue Peter studio – discreet shelves of memorabilia from past items, a poster of the Book of the Week, a shrine to Sue MacGregor garlanded with flowers. But no. Completely wrong.

I arrived early at the BBC – about quarter to nine – and found myself sitting in the waiting area next to Sir Peter Hall. Actually, I didn’t know he was Sir Peter Hall at first. I found myself staring at his face thinking: “your name is Sir Peter something and you direct things, I know it, I know it. What are they? Plays? Films? Operas?” It was only when he muttered his name to the receptionist that I put it together. I suppose, at least I know a Sir Peter when I see one.

After a wait, I was ushered down into the basement, where several charming blonde “BAs” introduced themselves as either Claire or Sophie and offered me tea. I did wonder why they were telling me what degree they had but I discover it means “Broadcasting Assistant”. I quite like it though. Maybe I’ll start introducing myself as “Hi, I’m Naomi, good to meet you, I’m an MA.”

The basement was, well, not glamorous. In fact, the whole place had rather a sixth-form common room air – sofas built for sturdiness; kettle, teabags and polystyrene cups in one corner; slightly stained carpet. And Radio 4 playing in the background. Which did not immediately impress itself upon me.

I had to record a couple of pieces from my novel for the programme, just two short sections they’d chosen already. This was pretty straightforward – I’ve already done a few recordings and I like reading. They put me into the studio which, again, was a surprise. A large room, mostly empty, brown stain on the carpet, slightly ripped green baize table in the centre with four different coloured microphones on it and an enormous ticking clock counting every second. I read each piece through twice and we were done. And then all there was to do was wait.

I had been nervous beforehand, just thinking about live radio. What would happen if I dried? Or forgot what I was going to say? Or said fuck by accident? But “nerves” doesn’t adequately describe what I felt as the minutes ticked by before I was called, though. The first thing was that I heard my own voice coming out of the Radio 4 speaker on the wall. Me. Reading. The thing I’d just recorded half an hour earlier. Preceded by an announcement of the time, and followed by Jenni Murray giving a rundown of “today’s Woman’s Hour”. On the radio. Which I would have been listening to in my house, if I hadn’t been there, about to be. On the radio. Finally, I had understood. All snide thoughts about polystyrene cups and stained carpets slipped away. Live Radio was all that remained.

I am pretty convinced that I wasn’t actually present in my body for most of the next fifteen minutes. I continued to speak to my publicist and the producer, to do useful things like take a drink of water, to chat to the other women waiting on the sturdy sofas. But behind it all there was a little voice in my head screaming “I can’t do this. I can’t remember anything about myself. I’m not sure I even exist. Oh look, here I am floating up toward the ceiling. Look at those ceiling tiles, how interesting that they have ceiling tiles and not paint, I wonder if it’s because of the complicated sound equipment in the studio, why am I thinking about this, why aren’t I thinking about my book, who am I again?”

And then, like all out-of-body experiences, I was ushered into the presence of God. Someone took my elbow and opened a door in front of me, pulled a seat forward and there I was. Sitting in front of a microphone, opposite Jenni Murray. I tell you, I had never before that moment realised that Jenni Murray is a goddess. She is. In older, more sensible days, she would have been worshipped with offerings of corn and oil and interesting-looking shells. She exudes warm, motherly professionalism. She makes all things calm and right. Looking at Jenni Murray I knew that everything was going to be OK. I still couldn’t remember who I was, but that was OK. Jenni Murray would remind me. I didn’t think I would be able to speak, but that was OK. Jenni Murray would cause my lips to open.

And she asked me a question, and there was a green light before my eyes.

The next thing I remember was standing outside the door of the studio watching one of the production engineers close it incredibly slowly, so as not to make any noise while some nice women were talking about the human rights situation in Libya. I literally have no memory of what the goddess asked me, or what I replied. But that’s how it is with the gods. We mortals can’t complain if our minds aren’t strong enough to contain the experience.

There were other things yesterday: an interview with Reuters and a discussion at Jewish Book Week. But nothing was quite so overwhelming as 7 minutes in the presence of Jenni Murray.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *