"I had him in the back of my cab": Goldfarb picked up Philip Roth (or did he?). Photo: Rex/Courtesy Everett Collection
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A writer unbound: driving a New York taxi in the 1970s

Author and one-time cabby Michael Goldfarb recalled how he’d been behind the wheel to pay for acting lessons, studying under Marlon Brando’s dauntless mentor Stella Adler.

The Essay: Trip Sheets
BBC Radio 3

In a marvellous series of monologues about driving a taxi in New York in the 1970s (29 September to 3 October, 10.45pm), author and one-time cabby Michael Goldfarb recalled how he’d been behind the wheel to pay for acting lessons, studying under Marlon Brando’s dauntless mentor Stella Adler. His anecdotes about her slipped down well. (“You’re middle class!” she would cry, witheringly, in lessons. “You’re boring me . . .”) Then came a brief and evocative mention of picking up Philip Roth in 1976: “a tall man on Madison Avenue” who tartly replied to Goldfarb’s “Philip Roth!” with, “No. But I look like I am.”

Roth was 43 at the time and understandably nettlesome. It was his weird fate to have had – on the publication of Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 – sudden and surprising fame, followed immediately by a devastating shit storm. Recognised as a dangerous intelligence, he had to face down self-appointed community-leader blowhards, the sort who might say: “I haven’t read anything Philip Roth has written but I think he is mocking the burden of Jewishness . . .”

Portnoy’s Complaint, ten years later, was almost inconceivably famous, in terms of public engagement with a serious book. The hoopla over Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was a mere Beyoncé to Portnoy’s Sergeant Pepper. People cared about Portnoy and talked about it endlessly but, by the time Goldfarb picked him up that day, Roth was still considered “the pervy Jewish guy who hates his parents” (in reality, he had a relationship with them that most people would envy) or: “The guy who writes about sex and doesn’t like women, right?” What’s amazing is that it took almost until the new millennium, with the publication of Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral, for Roth’s reputation as a serious, engaged and good man – and as the best living novelist in the English language – to be restored.

And still the blowhards exist! Am I being paranoid to suggest that the Nobel committee remains “funny” about Roth? Can he even hope for the long-deserved prize come December? “No. But I look like I am . . .” Just one line on the radio can have you standing at the hob with your wooden spoon suspended for an age.

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 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution