The unexpected ups and downs of radio presenting in the Highlands

One time I switched on to Two Lochs Radio to find a lady in despair looking at a ruined pie dish. “I don’t know what to suggest, Glenys,” said one of the station’s 38 volunteer presenters. “But I definitely think you should take it back. Pyrex is supposed

Sunday Brunch With Mike
Two Lochs Radio, 106
and 106.6FM

“It’s such a dire day at the moment, it’s unbelievable. I imagine you’re going to stay in but if you’re still in your PJs, remember it’s actually probably not the time you thought it was.”

DJ Mike is manning Two Lochs Radio at 11am on clocks-back Sunday, with the St Jude’s Day storm brewing. He squints, Magoo-like, at the darkening loch. “Has anyone thought about my quiz yet?” On the community broadcaster for the Wester Ross area in the Highlands, Mike gets unnecessarily anxious about feedback or requests.

Undirected, his music can range bewilderingly from rap to “The Ballad of Frank Spencer” but there is little doubting his tact. “Nobody’s come in with an answer yet,” he says, transmitting with great delicacy only a millisecond of umbrage. “So here are the questions again: what 2002 novel by Alice Sebold is the story of a teenage girl who after being murdered watches from heaven as her family and friends struggle to move on with their lives, while she comes to terms with her own death? And, the Aberdeen terrier is better known as what kind of dog?” I suck my pencil. This is absolutely my kind of quiz.

TLR is ten years old this month. Now followed by over 2,000 listeners in the region and several hundred online across the world, it forever conveys a sense that all fences can be mended with a cup of instant around the table, while also remaining a very serious little operation, running all the necessary local notices and magnificently inclusive updates concerning the various trials of its listeners. One time I switched on to find a lady in despair looking at a ruined pie dish. “I don’t know what to suggest, Glenys,” said one of the station’s 38 volunteer presenters. “But I definitely think you should take it back. Pyrex is supposed to be unbreakable.”

At last, a text to the studio! It’s Doreen, requesting “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”. Mike pauses. One senses that: a) he knows Doreen and everyone at Doreen’s house, and that this presents a major problem because b) he is keenly aware the lyrics to “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” are written to sound sad but are in fact unconscionably violent and bitter (“You hardly talk to me when I walk through the door at the end of the day/you just roll over and turn out the light”).

Bringing Barbra Streisand – she of the terrifyingly manicured nails – into a marital dispute? Now that is violent. Mike blanches. “Dennis,” he says quietly, cutting to the chase. “I think the message is very, very clear. You’re going to have get your finger out and get some flowers.”

The best of broadcasting from the Scottish highlands. Image: Getty

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 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear