Meet one of the most formidable radio presenters in the countryside

Ten minutes into the programme it was evident that the people of Mountsorrel in Leicestershire were exceptional.

Open Country
Radio 4

The first programme in a new series of Open Country (31 October, 3pm) (“featuring the people and wildlife that shape the landscape of Britain”) did everything that fans would recognise: started off boring and ended up with us completely in thrall to the presenter, Helen Mark.

As usual, Mark was exceedingly bossy and had people scuttling about making things appear immediately before her. “I’m on the way with Steve Cramp,” she declared in her firm, Borders-meets-Ulster accent (I believe she has worked in both places), taking her seat in a little carriage travelling along a mile stretch of 1860s railway track in Leicestershire originally built to remove quarried stone, which over the past seven years has been renovated by local volunteers. “I think I get to blow the horn, don’t I? [clearly this was rhetorical] Let’s Go!” Steve could do little but comply and for a time we heard nothing but chugging.

“Oh it’s a very throbbing little carriage!” cried Mark. (That’s another brilliant thing about her. Who else could say this without a hint of innuendo?) “Let’s stop at this bridge,” suggests Steve after a while, having banged on a little tediously about the local council (“Unfortunately, RVP didn’t get planning permission, so . . .”) A drop in temperature. “Why do you want to stop at the bridge?” challenged Mark. “Oh . . .” gulped Steve, who forgot why. Mark always gets her man. Later she met Kevin, a volunteer who travels from Paris once a month to help cut back briars and clear track (yes, I thought it sounded weird too, Helen). “It’s an investment!” he blustered. “In you, in the railway, or what?”

Ah, Mark! I remember once, in a programme about Hastings, she rounded Nancy Drewishly on a fishmonger called Arthur, needling him about the species he had been selling that week. “Plaice, sole, grey mullet, shad . . .” His voice was increasingly small, thrown by this inexplicably intense middle-aged brunette in a navy fleece standing uninvited at his counter. “Shad?” Mark narrowed her eyes. “It’s between a herring and a sea bass,” appealed Arthur. You definitely want Mark inside your tent pissing out.

Ten minutes into the programme it was evident that the people of Mountsorrel in Leicestershire were exceptional. Local cancer sufferers thought nothing of going at thorn tangles along the track with garden shears just days after chemotherapy. Twitchers stood about noting the resurgent cuckoo.

Having eaten a restorative plum from a volunteer’s basket, Mark was chugged further down the track, halting the carriage to talk to two little girls gravely building no less than a hedgehog hut. One couldn’t help thinking of Tilda Swinton in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe leaning from her fur-swaddled snowmobile to interrogate a small party of forest creatures feasting on delicious food brought to them by Father Christmas. What on earth were they doing there? “We want to learn old stuff,” explained the children. “You know – what kids did when their mums and dads were younger!” Mark paused, but then nodded and swept on her marvellous way.

A steam locomotive of the The Great Central Railway passes by fields in Leicester. 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 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem