French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Arles Photography Festival in 1994. Photo: Getty
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The Essay: Finish the Bottle on Radio 3

In week of short monologues about being up close with well-known artists, Martin Gayford recalls a stressful ecounter with Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The Essay: Finish the Bottle
BBC Radio 3

During a week of short monologues about being up close with well-known artists (24-28 March, 10.45pm), the critic Martin Gayford amusingly described a stressful encounter with the then 93-year-old Henri Cartier-Bresson. Taking out a tape recorder, Gayford was poised to press record when HCB boomed that he did not approve of having his words captured by a mechanical device (“To the best questions there is no answer!”). Since Gayford had been charged to conduct a major interview for a national newspaper, this development was a disaster. But he fished out a pen and notebook and managed, with his “scrawls”, to quote the photographer on exotic irrationalism, his nanny from Wolverhampton and the Russian Revolution.

“There is only one thing,” HCB told him. “The glance. It’s a joy. It’s an orgasm. You can teach everything except sensitivity and sensuality. Can you imagine a professor of sensitivity at the Sorbonne?” Your reviewer was impressed. Gayford’s note-taking skills must have been exemplary. I once conducted an interview with Oliver Stone, which – let’s put it down to nerves – I convinced myself that I could do in shorthand. As the director spoke in a low, meandering voice, I filled the pages of my notebook with enormous swirls, as though these were an obscure but ingenious form of notation. At the time, the loops made sense – but when I came to write it all up, it was like trying to decipher cave markings.

Martin Gayford is possibly the one person on earth who would have been able to make something of them. His skill with reconstructed speech is deeply mysterious. In his memoir about sitting for Lucian Freud, Man with a Blue Scarf, Gayford quotes the painter chapter and verse and yet couldn’t possibly have been sitting there for seven months with a pen and paper (Freud objected to a mere move of the leg), or surreptitiously changing batteries on a hidden tape recorder. Yet Freud’s easel-talk in that book reads just right, never more so than when he slams Rossetti as “the nearest painting gets to bad breath”. How does Gayford do it? Is he the ultimate mimic? Does he have a kind of photographic memory? Either way, it’s a skill as unique as most things his subjects have to say.

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 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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