Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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