Learning about women's lives in Uganda. Image: Getty
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One woman's daily round in sub-Saharan Africa

Polly spoke about everything from the lot of women in Uganda (“Some people say there are improvements, but . . .”) to her broken marriage (“He stopped coming home, so I followed him to his place of work . . .”).

A Day in the Life of Polly Apio
BBC World Service

A documentary for the Women Farmers series followed one woman’s daily round in sub-Saharan Africa (21 October). The presenter/ producer, Cecile Wright, spent time with Polly Apio in Uganda, accompanying her to and from a distant well, grinding millet and bedding down in her hut. We opened to the sound of soft snoring followed by a Disneylike catalogue of morning noises: cocks crowing, birds cheeping, the sun and light and air inherent in the sounds potent and optimistic.

On the face of it, the programme idea was simple – just the two women, presenter and subject, talking on the way to the well, Polly quite open and humorous, Wright clearly someone to whom the correct question or most fruitful line of inquiry is obvious, nudging the conversation in directions that made good listening. Except it never felt manipulated. This was an honest chat over a four-kilometre walk, with the speakers growing more physically tired, and with the narrative weaving all over the place in the way that discussions on walks tend to do.

Polly spoke about everything from the lot of women in Uganda (“Some people say there are improvements, but . . .”) to her broken marriage (“He stopped coming home, so I followed him to his place of work . . .”). “Are your sons decent men?” Wright asked. Polly gave a low laugh: “They say to their wives, ‘Don’t tell Mamma or she will harass me!’”

You were increasingly aware that this conversation – the whole programme so far –had been mostly one long, continuous take. Even the unstoppably enquiring Clare Balding on her Radio 4 walk-and-talk show Ramblings has never managed such a protracted exchange. And most programmes wouldn’t allow it anyway – the trend having long been (nervously, maddeningly) to cut in and out. But the gentle intensity of the dialogue here, the faith in its natural rhythms, the many areas meandered over (infidelity, heartbreak, family traditions in Africa) effortlessly reminded us how protean and complex the human personality is.

Polly came alive as though the programme had plucked out her mystery and captured what made her so charming and strong. And then, later, to sleep. “D’you mind my kid snoring?” she asked exhaustedly, from the other side of the hut. Her walking companion just laughed, and shook her head.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution