Voice recognition

Introducing the Writers at Warwick Audio Archive

Last week, Warwick University's Writers at Warwick Audio Archive went live. Containing more than 200 recordings of poets, critics, playwrights, journalists, novelists, academics and musicians reading from, and answering questions about, their work, it represents the digital realisation of over 30 years of collaboration and conversation. Researchers will be able to listen to, say, a 1979 recording of Allen Ginsberg (reading with Peter Orlovsky and Tom Pickard at the young Warwick Arts Centre), or a 1975 recording of Seamus Heaney, a mere ten years into his career.

All but a very small number of the archive recordings can be accessed by anybody free of charge (provided they are used for educational or research purposes only). And more than a few of them will be of particular interest to New Statesman readers. Take the list of "Red Reads: 50 Books That Will Change Your Life" that we compiled over the summer: recordings (in some cases, multiple) of Linton Kwesi Johnson (number 11 on the list), Tony Harrison (number 22) and Jonathan Coe (number 49) reading and in conversation are all available for listening.

Some of their comments are, inevitably, as entertaining as they are illuminating. Here's Harrison, for example, talking in 1999 about reconciling Greek myth with his own dialect:

You'll find in Prometheus the central character is an ex-miner, an ex-shop steward, an inveterate smoker who has emphysema but still smokes 70 a day -- you'll find that he speaks Yorkshire all the way through. He has big speeches -- becomes identified with the great Promethean hero -- but he speaks Yorkshire all the way through. Whereas the representative of the gods, who's like a Peter Mandelson of Zeus, speaks very RP.

And here's Coe discussing the extent to which some of the odious Winshaws in his novel What a Carve Up! are based on real-life individuals:

One of my favourite characters -- although I hate all of these figures and have them killed off in various unpleasant ways towards the end -- one of my favourite characters is the tabloid journalist, whose name is Hilary. People often ask me who she's based on -- it's very dangerous to give an answer to that question really. There's no disclaimer at the beginning of this book saying that "all the characters in this book are fictitious" and that "any resemblance to any person living or dead is coincidental" -- but she's a compound, really, of people who will be familiar to you if, for some perverse reason of your own, you take the Sunday Express or the Sun or something like this. She's also a novelist, Hilary, because of course no tabloid columnist these days' career is complete unless they've knocked off some novel and sold it for a six-figure sum to some cynical publisher.

What else will New Statesman readers be especially drawn to? Germaine Greer interviewing her namesake, Griffin-slaying Bonnie, reveals a great deal about a figure not many people were too familiar with before that Question Time (not least Greer's and Greer's occasionally slightly sickening admiration for one another and the "great deal" they see themselves as having in common). Potentially most recommendable of all, though, are the performances (and that really is the only way to describe them) of the New Statesman columnist Will Self in 2002 and 2007. Here he is responding to a question about, of all things, the perineum:

Perineum? What, the area between the base of the testicles and the anus? Or between the vagina and the anus of a woman. Aren't we all fascinated with that? I mean, it's just that some people don't know the name for it. And more fool them. It seems to me that -- well, you could just as well as saying the "perennial issue" say the "perineum issue" is, well, really at the base of it all. I mean, when Eliot writes, "Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base,/Sweeney knows the temperament of women/And wipes the suds around his face," I think that Eliot is thinking: perineum. I think Alain de Botton, the contemporary popular philosopher, I can never hear his name without thinking: perineum. But that's just me. Or maybe it isn't.

 

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Fasting and Feasting: the eccentric life of food writer Patience Gray

Journalist Adam Federman clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. 

It is hard, these days, to open a food magazine or a news­paper’s colour supplement without finding an article extolling the charm of foraging. So fashionable has the Instagram-friendly pursuit become that the botanist James Wong recently  wrote of his alarm at finding pictures of food – often published on blogs proclaiming the evils of sugar, gluten and dairy – prettily decorated with flowers of extreme toxicity: narcissus, catharanthus, lantana and rhododendron.

The food writer Patience Gray loved narcissi, whose springtime appearance on Naxos she described in her 1989 account of a year spent on the Greek island, Ring Doves and Snakes; but she would have known better than to use them as a garnish. Her passionate interest in foraged and seasonal food, which began during her wartime years spent in a primitive cottage in Sussex, where she pursued a scholarly interest in edible fungi, developed over the many decades during which she lived with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, in some of the remotest parts of the Mediterranean.

On Naxos, in Carrara in Tuscany and for the last three decades of their life together at Spigolizzi, a masseria (farmhouse) in Apulia, Gray and Mommens found a way of life still governed by the elemental rhythms of sowing and growing, feasting and fasting – rhythms they adopted and incorporated into the practice of their work. “Métier” was a talismanic term for Gray.

“It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values,” she wrote in Honey from a Weed (1986), her evocative fusion of memoir and cookbook. “As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished.”

Patience was one of a formidable cohort of female writer-cooks whose celebrations of food in muscular, elegant prose sprang from the privations of the Second World War. A contemporary of Elizabeth David, M F K Fisher and Julia Child, she wrote just three cookery books, only two of which were published in her lifetime: the bestselling Plats du Jour (1957), co-written with Primrose Boyd and warily subtitled “Foreign Food”, and the eclectic Honey from a Weed. The Centaur’s Kitchen, a book of Mediterranean recipes written in 1964 for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel shipping line, was posthumously published in 2005. She also wrote two wayward volumes of memoir: Ring Doves and Snakes and Work Adventures Childhood Dreams (1999).

Despite this comparative reticence (she wrote bitterly in Work Adventures Childhood Dreams of her mother, whom she accused of valuing only published work: “But Patience, is there anything you have written that is actually in print?”), the publication of Honey from a Weed turned her into a celebrity, and the austere household at Spigolizzi, devoid of electricity, telephone or sanitation, became a place of pilgrimage for such keen food fanciers as Paul Levy (the co-author of The Official Foodie Handbook) and the late Derek Cooper of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. As her biographer, Adam Federman, remarks, “A full account of her remarkable life is long overdue.”

Gray divided her adult life into two parts: before 1962, when she began living with Norman Mommens, and after. On either side of that meeting her life was eventful. Of her upper-middle-class upbringing she wrote, “I have listened to other people’s accounts of their happy childhoods with sadness mingled with disbelief.”

Educated at Queen’s College in London (where Unity Mitford was a contemporary) and the London School of Economics, she worked for the designer F H K Henrion on the agricultural and country pavilions at the Festival of Britain, and had three children by Thomas Gray, an elusive  married “artist-designer” whose name she took.

Having left him, she won a competition to become the women’s editor of the Observer. Sacked after three years (by the paper’s new features editor George Seddon, under whom things “became dull, more serious”), she “began a different and more creative life”, sharing and recording the ancient traditions of seasonal food production and preparation of the communities among which she occupied an ambiguous position as both participant and observer until her death in 2005, aged 87.

Federman – a journalist, academic and “former line cook, bread baker and pastry chef” – clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. While Gray possessed the sharp observing eye, selective memory and comic timing of an instinctive writer, Federman is dogged and respectful.

His book is dutifully strewn with the names of Gray’s wide acquaintance, but he lacks the gift of characterisation and conveys little impression of their personalities. Even Gray, so vivid a presence in her own books, seems oddly muted in Federman’s portrait (though he gives a lively account of her exhilaratingly awful behaviour at her daughter’s wedding).

For admirers of Patience Gray’s remarkable prescience in anticipating what has become known as the “Slow Food” movement, Federman’s exhaustively detailed biography will be a valuable resource. But for those who long for a flavour of her personality – as pungent and earthy as the dishes she recorded – it is best read with a copy of Honey from a Weed to hand. 

Fasting and Feasting: the Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
Adam Federman
Chelsea Green, 384pp, £20

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder