The boy done good

Irreverent Marc Riley runs a music show that's the best in Britain

<strong>Marc Riley's Brain Surg

DJs have been saving my life every night since 1988 or thereabouts, when I first tuned in to John Peel's Radio 1 slot. One of the many things for which Peel is remembered is the way he couldn't play a record by the quixotic Salfordian band the Fall without inserting the word "mighty" into their two-word name.

Marc Riley played bass with "the Mighty Fall" as a teenager - as has half the population of Manchester, he notes in his website biography - and now presents a thrice-weekly show on 6 Music, the BBC's digital music station. 6 Music is meant broadly to cater for those who like "alternative" music (guitar bands, those singer-songwriters who might befuddle the older section of Radio 2's listenership, and so on), but really, it's a station for anyone with what Nick Hornby might call "a half-decent record collection".

Riley's show, cannily named Brain Surgery (his previous show at the station was called Rocket Science), represents 6 Music at its best. It's on three nights a week, though I wish it were seven. It sounds - as music radio should do but hardly ever does - thoroughly unforced, varied, friendly, funny and occasionally startling enough to make you dive for the nearest pen and used bus ticket in order to write down the name of the track that's just been played.

His show on Thursday 7 June sent me flying over the sofa for precisely that reason. It opened with a live session by a group called the Twilight Sad, from Glasgow, whose music was morose and intense but whose members, responding to Riley's manifest niceness, sounded personable and responsible: not qualities generally required of pop stars, but ones which, oddly, make you more likely to remember them.

Riley's gift is to generate a great surplus of goodwill in his "Manky" (a trademark Riley play on words) broom-cupboard studio, and then send that surplus billowing out to his listeners, who, like his guests, respond in kind. He's self-effacing to a fault, always going on about how he should shut up now and play a record. On the same show, Riley was forced to intercept a particularly long track by the US band Built to Spill, but couldn't do it without the caveat: "It all goes a little bit noodly doodly, and then a little bit Spinal Tap, when all the dwarves come out and start dancing round Stonehenge. Don't get me wrong, I love it to bits, but it's still goin' on and there's still a minute and a half to go!"

It's an echo of his old role as Mark Radcliffe's foil, "the Boy Lard", on their decade of shows for Radio 1. Their best programme together was doing the 10pm to midnight shift, when they'd ditch the playlist and intersperse their own favourite records with live spoken-word slots by, among others, Simon Armitage.

On Brain Surgery, Riley is back to playing what he likes, which encompasses fifty years of pop, rock and reggae, with a heavy emphasis on the David Bowie-Lou Reed school of high-concept glam rock and their various antecedents. That means you get Jacques Brel, Nico and Françoise Hardy on the same show as the Hot Puppies (what a name) and Johnny Boy.

He is also a champion of the undeservedly underrated, such as the humanist singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, whose flinty, novelistic records seem to pass most people by. And yet that's what the BBC is for: bringing it all out, letting everyone see or hear the full breadth of culture. It's left to Riley to kick out the playlist (have you listened to Radio 1 recently? I would, if I could stand it for more than five minutes) and let us know what's really out there.

Such as the song "Liquid Lives" by the new act Hadouken!, who, mentioned Riley when he played the tune this past week, formed at Leeds University. The first thought that came into my head was: "Zygmunt Bauman!" It seemed obvious to me that the record's title was an explicit reference to the work of the famed Polish-born, Leeds University-based social theorist. I thought of texting the show to tell Riley of this thrilling connection made between the arts and the sciences, but I suspect he'd use it as an opportunity to put himself down on air (not, significantly, as a chance to enquire whether I'd eaten an encyclopaedia for tea). But that's Riley: generous, inclusive, daft, and currently the provider of the best public service in Britain.

Andrew Billen is away

Pick of the week

Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette
19 June, 10.30pm, Radio 2
Mariella Frostrup on the dirty habit.

US Comics Confidential
21 June, 11.30am, Radio 4
Jonathan Winters kicks off three-part series on American stand-ups.

Angry, Sexy and Working Class
Starts 22 June, 7pm, Radio 2
Christopher Eccleston looks at 1950s and 1960s British cinema.

Don't miss... Meltdown

Jarvis Cocker promises that the music festival he has curated will "rouse you from your slumber, and you're going to love it". In keeping with the former Pulp singer's eclectic tastes, the veteran rockers Motörhead play the opening night, and the 1960s singer-songwriter Melanie will perform her first UK gig in 30 years. The line-up includes Iggy and the Stooges (right), the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Hal Willner's Forest of No Return, a dark reworking of songs from the Disney films.

Runs from 16 June, Southbank Centre, London SE1.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide