Audio: Book Talk — Background to the Broadcasts |
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Book Talk — Background to the Broadcasts

For an article about Peter Porter reprinted in my book The Meaning of Recognition (2005), I wrote the following note about the radio programmes we have spent the last few years recording together in London for transmission in Australia, where they have by now, gratifyingly, become part of the radio landscape. Each of the series has a separate link.


At the Melbourne Festival in 2000 Peter Porter and I went on stage to do nothing for an hour except talk together about literature. The unscripted dialogue attracted a gratifying amount of approbation, much of it centred on the fact that we had done a lot of quoting from memory. To the blushing surprise of us both, to quote from memory was hailed as a rare and daunting display of skill from the exotic past, like scrimshaw, wampum and the ability to measure distance in miles instead of kilometres. The dialogue between literati was itself regarded as an unusual form — which, indeed, in the non-English speaking countries it is, although in Germany and France it is common, and in a country like Argentina it is a staple (Borges and Sabato said some of their best things while talking to each other). In the age of the interview and the profile, two question-and-answer forms that have been worked to death, Porter and James found themselves in the delicious position of having started something new. The word of mouth got out from Melbourne and the media moved in.

Radio really counts in Australia — the publishers would rather have their writers on radio than on television — so we had good reason to be pleased when the ABC invited us to try the same dialogue form from a radio studio. The distinguished arts producer Jill Kitson pressed the buttons in Melbourne when Porter and I went into the ABC’s studio in London for our first series of six dialogues. The programmes went to air in Australia as soon as post-production had been completed in Melbourne (post-production consisted mainly of toning down my heavy breathing) and they worked well enough on the national network for Jill Kitson to commission another series, which was duly followed, in the course of time, by a couple more, to a grand total of 24 programmes, with, we hope, more to come. In the pub after each recording session, we try to make it a rule not to talk away the material for the next one, but the rule is hard to keep. Most writers, when they talk to each other at all, talk about sex, money, physical ailments, and the unending perfidy of their literary enemies. Porter and I talk about those things too, but we have always enjoyed talking about the arts, and the chance to do so on the air has been very welcome. With an uncharacteristic stroke of acumen, I retained the webcasting rights, and all the dialogues can be heard in the audio section of, together with, in the video section, a television dialogue we recorded in my living room. (Viewers are free to decide whether faces add anything to voices: I think, in this case, on the whole, not.)

Like many of the best things in life, this broadcasting partnership happened by accident, and was followed up more through self-indulgence than through altruism. But every writer cherishes the dream of setting the young on fire, even if only by a cigarette butt tossed casually over the shoulder, and when we meet young people who say that they were inspired by what we said to rush off and read the books we were talking about, we can congratulate ourselves for all those guilty hours when, the last two left after a long lunch, we went on arguing about everything we knew. He knows more than I do, but if I live long enough I might catch up; and that’s the way some of the young Australian writers feel about both of us, or so they say. Not that you can trust them 2.54 centimetres. We’re agreed on that.