Tag Archives: BBC

English not your first language?

It’s happened again. Always does. I go in to a coffee shop I haven’t been in  before and ask for a coffee. At the moment, it’s a decaff cappo. No problem so far.

Barista is all smiles. But wait, I’d like it in a mug please. A wha?

“A mug, m-u-g. Mug.”

You see, though I don’t trouble her with the science bit, the surface area of a mug is smaller than that of a cup so your coffee stays warmer longer.


I know how she’s struggling because I’ve been there myself. Years ago, I spent a year at the School of Peace Studies in Bradford University. In Yorkshire. It was going to be a great year and breezy as a  bird I swanned into the nearest cafe and asked for a coffee. That’s how it was in those days:  you asked for tea or you asked for coffee. And you took what you got. Fine. No problem so far.

The man looked at me, a question mark on his face: “Moog or cuup?”

A straightforward, everyday enquiry except it took a few seconds for me to rearrange the vowels and give  meaning to them. Remember, I’d just arrived up from London, in white dungarees ( yes, that’s how fashion forward I was) and carrying the Guardian under my arm. To say I stuck out would be an understatement.

However, we got the mug business sorted and I had a great year in Bradford but now here I am in Oxford though it could easily be Dublin, Cork, Glasgow or London. But it’s Oxford and the barista has no idea what a mug is. So I go in to English-as-a-foreign-language-teacher mode: “It’s like a cup but without a saucer.”

The barista beams and picks up a saucer.

” No, you don’t actually have a saucer with a mug….Look, it’s sort of like a cup but taller than a cup.”

She beams again and picks up a paper cup which, in my view, is really a mug. A mug without a handle, though so not really a mug. Or is it?

This is  no good. My impromptu English lesson is getting none of us anywhere so I settle for  a sort of lopsided saucer with a cup sitting to one side of it. Not a great way to start the morning.

Last week, it was something else. I was in my regular coffee-shop and the male barista ( why not baristo, by the way?) got the mug thing right but then there was the next step: to carry out, to go, to have here, to take away, to stay?

The man behind me was a university librarian. He’d know.

“Which is it, do you think?”

He smiled and shrugged: “Doesn’t matter as long as he understands what you want.”

Dammit, he’s right. Out go all my ideas about correct English, well-spoken English, good grammar, bad grammar, loan words from France, Italy, America. From America? OMG.

And don’t even mention those journalists – that’s you, BBC –  who think ground ( the solid surface of the earth) and floor (walking surface of a room or vehicle) are interchangeable.

Anyway, that’s today’s rant. Up coming: the apostrophe.  :))))))))





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Have a brilliant idea for a radio programme? Here’s what to do with it:

The Society of Authors (SOA) organised a  session, in London’s Barbican, called From Page to Programme – about turning your book into a radio programme.

  The chair was  Patrick Humphries, a Bob Dylan expert – and prolific broadcaster. The speakers were Jane Ellison commissioning editor for BBC Radio 4,Susan  Marling whose production company is Just Radio and David Prest whose company Whistledown  Productions pitches mainly to Radio 4.

–          The way forward is to target a producer or production company, having sussed out what sort of programmes they do. ( Get the Radio Times for this.) An initial pitch should be about 200 words and should embue the recipient with  an insatiable curiosity to know more. Link your programme to a celebrity, if possible, and tie it in with an anniversary. The BBC loves both, it seems. Come at your story from an angle and begin in the middle. Check out any archives related to your story.Was it covered 50 years ago? Then find the report.Focus on the dark side of an upbeat story.

 Cyril Connolly wrote about the enemy of promise ( the pram in the hall)  but he also pointed the finger at journalism. Susan Marling disagrees. “ Forget you’re writers,” she said. “You need to bend your work.” Hmmm. As a journalist and a writer I thought I did this already but, let’s face it, I could be I’m wrong. Marling was energising, though, and full of practical ideas.

David Prest played a couple of clips from two programmes he produced and talked hard about the amount of work that goes into a pitch eg  checking facts, chasing up audio links and, here’s the rub, having original ideas.

Jane Ellison said that the BBC General Factual Programmes ( that’s her set up) plan a year in advance so start thinking now for 2014.

 What shone through was the huge commitment to and enthusiasm for radio. I came to the Barbican with two ideas I had been incubating and not only did both firm up in the course of the day but a third idea  moved in and took possession of my mind. Now I can think of nothing else.

Below is a list of useful websites:





To email bbc producers:  firstname.lastname@bbc.co.uk

Trade Mag for broadcasters www.broadcastnow.co.uk

The Radio Independent Group represents 2/3 of UK independent broadcasters  www.radioindoes.org


 The Society of Authors will check out contracts for its members. It has done for me in the past and was very helpful on one or two other related matters.




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A few books mentioned at the Blenheim Literary Festival, some on Syria, one on the Duchess of Marlborough

Blenheim Palace Literary Festival

Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, about 10 miles from Oxford, is the ancestral home of the Churchill family. In 1704, John Churchill, a brilliant strategist, defeated the army of Louis XlV at a small town on the Danube, called, in German, Blindheim. In gratitude, Queen Anne built for him the palace known as Blenheim Palace in Woodstock and at the same time made him the first Duke of Marlborough. John Churchill was married to Sarah, an ambitious beauty who became a lady in waiting to Queen Anne and greatly influenced her.

In 1964, the writer Ian Rodger, to whom I was married, was commissioned by the BBC to write a radio play in celebration of the 90th birthday of Winston Churchill. He chose, as his subject, the story of Blenheim. He researched the diaries and papers of Sarah – no Google in those days – and returned home one day triumphant, having unearthed an entry in Sarah’s diary: “My lord returned from the war today and did pleasure me twice in his top boots.”

The Blenheim Palace Literary Festival was held this week (Sept 14th…) One of the speakers at the festival was biographer Anne Somerset whose book, Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion describes how the friendship between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill came to an end, precipitated by Sarah’s claim that the friendship was destroyed by the Queen’s lesbian infatuation with another lady-in-waiting. A book worth reading if you are at all interested in that period.

 I came to Woodstock for the discussion on Syria and before it started, spent a while having a wander round.The notice on the Bear Hotel (where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton stayed when visiting Oxford) filled me in on some more history: around 1100, Woodstock was a favourite place for Henry ll, father of Richard the Lionheart, and it was here that he had meetings with his lover, the fair Rosamunde while still married to the tempestuous Eleanor of Aquitaine ( Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter.)



The Syria session was lively with Eugene Rogan, head of the Middle East Centre at St Anthony’s College, Oxford and author of the wide-ranging The Arabs: A History, Lindsey Hilsum Channel 4 editor of international news and author of Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution, David Aaronovitch writer and commentator, the whole event chaired by Munir Majid, author of 9/11 and the Attack on  Muslims.

My own book, My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria, with an introduction by Eugene Rogan, is about a very complex country and its even more complex peoples. Here’s a link to it:


If you want to know what it’s like to visit an Arab family, hitch a life with some Kurds, ride a bike around Damascus, stay in a one-star hotel, listen to a desert poet, ride a camel, overnight with some desert nomads,fight off a sex-hungry host, spend Christmas 3000 feet up a mountain…. This is the one.

Order from me directly (info@bullstakepress.co.uk) and your signed copy will be posted the same day.

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QEll and Margery Kempe, troublesome woman. My BBC radio play abt her.

Today, Feb 6th, 2012,  Queen Elizabeth ll visited the Norfolk town of King’s Lynn though way back, it was Bishop’s Lynn till the king of the day made it his own.

The mayor of King’s Lynn had a daughter Margery, who married a charming if fairly useless man called John Kempe. After 20 years of marriage and some 14 children, Margery decided there must be more to life than this and off she went. But the only travel destinations considered respectable for women, in 1414, were religious ones so she set off to Jerusalem, walking across Europe to get there. She was gone for two years.

Margery lived to a ripe old age – caring for John when he developed Alzheimers –  and setting off on her travels again after his death. Despite being the mayor’s daughter, Margery could neither read nor write though she dictated her story before she died.

Her nature – stubborn, kind, defiant, courageous, bloody-minded – has always appealed to me and I have written extensively about her and continue to do so.

If you go to my website http://www.maryrussell.info and find Radio, scroll down till you come to The Medieval Hitchiker. There you’ll hear the play I wrote for the BBC but be warned, this is not the end of it….

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