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How Sarah Brown got nerdy about podcasting

She’s lived in No 10 Downing Street and travelled the world as a charity campaigner. Now she’s getting behind a microphone.

It was an iconic moment in British politics: on the morning of 11 May 2010, after five days of uncertainty and coalition negotiations, Gordon Brown resigned as the UK’s prime minister. He concluded his statement by thanking his wife Sarah “for her unwavering support and her love, and for her own service to our country”. Then the couple opened the famous black door of No 10 Downing Street to bring their two young sons out to join them. Hand in hand, the Brown family posed for photographs, before walking away down the road where cars waited to take them away, out of the public eye.

Since Labour’s election victory in 1997 until this departure 13 years later, Sarah Brown occupied the rarefied, ill-defined role of political spouse. First as the partner of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and then from 2007 of the Prime Minister, she worked on the world stage – both supporting her husband and running the charity she founded in 2002, now known as Theirworld. She is also well known as an early and enthusiastic adopter of social media, joining Twitter in March 2009 and making news later that year when she overtook Stephen Fry as Britain’s “highest profile Twitter user”.

Given her facility with digital media, perhaps it isn’t that surprising that Brown is a keen podcast listener. When we spoke over the phone, she told me that she “dips in and out of an awful lot of things”. She started off with audio interviews that charities she was interested in posted on their websites, but once she had a podcast app on her phone her tastes broadened considerably. “At the beginning it was probably things like Mystery Show or Guilty Feminist, or listening to all of Serial,” she said. She also likes The Urbanist, and uses the BBC’s podcasts to keep up with radio shows she doesn’t get time to listen to live, like Desert Island Discs or Graham Norton on Radio 2.

Probably her favourite podcast, she says, is Stuart Goldsmith’s The Comedian’s Comedian, in which Goldsmith, himself a stand-up, interviews a fellow comedian about how and why they work as they do. “Even though that's not necessarily my subject area or where I have any expertise, I just find that deep conversation with someone about the way they work really interesting and it really works on a podcast format,” Brown said.

To fit her listening into her busy life, Brown – like most of us – uses podcasts to keep her company while she does other things. “I think the way I listen is mostly either walking or when doing something around the house. . . When I was in the States [on a recent extended trip], I tried using podcasts for running, and it wasn’t very successful. Music is definitely better for running, but podcasts work for long walks or chore-type things around the house.”

Recently, Brown made the transition from podcast listener to podcaster herself. At the beginning of November, she launched her own show, Better Angels. It’s an interview show that focuses on activism and campaigning, with an emphasis on practical actions that can bring about social change.

“I think we're all quite overwhelmed by the darkness of news and big events, and in 2016 that feels even bigger than ever,” she told me. “I feel there's a strong appetite for good news and good stories, and to my mind there’s a huge number of people – both well-known people and people who are quietly doing their own thing – who have extraordinary stories to tell. I'm interested in why they do it, and how they get to do it, and what the outcomes are.”

From her listening to shows like Serial and Untold: The Daniel Morgan Murder that have a strong series arc, Brown realised that she wanted the opposite for her podcast. “I wanted to make sure each episode stood on its own,” she said. “Even though you would like people to listen to each episode, I wanted to create something that could start anywhere, so you could enter it for anything that interests you.”

Initially, she thought she wanted the show to be long interviews with particular individuals. Her guests so far have included the former First Lady of South Africa and widow of Nelson Mandela Graça Machel, the comedian David Baddiel and the economist Larry Summers, and the topics covered include getting started with activism, finding inspiration and the power of laughter.

However, once she began recording the conversations, she realised that she could do more than just publish the interviews on their own. “There were quite strong themes emerging [in each interview],” she said. “You realise that each episode is going to have three, four, five, six different voices in it, and that you need to develop a kind of narrative arc for each episode.”

When I asked Brown why she felt that a podcast was the best vehicle for what she wanted to do, as opposed to doing a high-profile media interview or making a series for an established broadcaster like the BBC, she explained that the decision had its origins in her use of Twitter, and her struggle to overcome her fear of public speaking.

“If I look at my own history, I was very happy to run a business, or be involved in a charity, but I was never a public face of it,” she explained. “With a time in government, I realised that I had my own voice, and that I could do useful things if I used it.

“It’s fairly well documented that I had a pretty torrid time learning how to speak publicly. During the time in government I used Twitter. . . I understood that I had quite a public face, and you have a responsibility to share and be transparent about what you're doing, but I wasn't sure that I could navigate my way at that time through the British media.”

Twitter enabled Brown to get her statements out directly, without mediation and on her own schedule. The media could then pick them up and report them, but she was in control of the message. It was a similar realisation that made her realise the potential of podcasting as a way of communicating her ideas directly to interested listeners. “I'm not going to be able to run around and make television programmes all day long,” she says. “And I wanted to make something that can capture other people's voices.”

As Brown described her process for making Better Angels, I realised that she means just what she says about wanting to be personally involved in what she puts out. Perhaps surprisingly for a public figure of her stature, she does a lot of the work herself.

“I've started with a Tascam recorder and a couple of really nice microphones that I can take around myself and set up myself,” she explained. “Then it's very easy for me to just download the interview and stick it onto a computer, listen to it and decided what bits I want to include.”

She has editing help to put the show together, and records her introductions and narration at a studio in Edinburgh she borrows from the People’s Postcode Lottery charity. “As long as someone sets me up in the corner, it's amazingly easy,” she said.

Like many podcasters, the desire for more and better recording equipment has already hit her. “I'm getting quite nerdy about it,” she said. “I'm coveting the next microphone and the next bit of soundproofing.”

Six episodes of Better Angels are completed, and Brown is already thinking about the next six, and the six after that. Her dream guests, she told me, would be Tina Fey and Amy Poehler “because they're quite astute about social change at the same time as being really excellent comedians” and the new UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who takes office on 1 January. “I don't know if I'll get him but I'll certainly try,” she said.

Perhaps the assumption will be that a podcast by the wife of a former Prime Minister will be a short-lived publicity exercise, but Better Angels is much more than that. Brown is a sympathetic and confident interviewer, and the theme of her show – that progressive social change is possible if you work hard and strategically towards it – could hardly be more relevant at the moment. She has excellent contacts from her time in Downing Street, and says that so far when she asks people to be on her podcast, “nobody says no”.

As for how long she will keep going with it, Brown told me that she has no intention of stopping any time soon. “I've got a list of a hundred ideas – whether I will get to a hundred episodes I don't know, but I might.”

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here

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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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