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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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