Tag Archives: Ian Rodger

Why hurry when you can dawdle: A bike ride to Woodstock..

Cycling to Woodstock

Left Oxford about 9am and cycled to Woodstock  – either 10 or 12 miles away depending on which signposts you go by.

It’s a glorious ride along a cycle track all the way. Through the village of Yarnton but bypassing Bladon where Winston Churchill is buried.

A warm day brought up the scent from the over grown verges heady with feverfew and all the other wild flowers whose names I should know but don’t. Oxfordshire County Council is to be praised for holding back on the weedkiller and simply cutting back the verges where absolutely necessary. There were times when the wild grasses were six feet high.


Bliss. Brought back the memory of another great bike ride  – from Skibereen to Bantry.

Woodstock is best known for its stately home, Blenheim Palace, dwelling of the Duke of Marlborough.

Ian’s play about John Churchill, the first Duke richly rewarded for winning the battle of Blenheim records an entry from the diary of John’s wife: “ My lord returned from the wars today and did pleasure me twice in his top boots.” My favourite quote.

I had toast and a marvellous cup of coffee in Harriet’s Tea Rooms – Bewleys, you’ll notice.


And read the Observer while sitting in the sun before taking a stroll round the town.


This is an affluent place


which may explain the notice in one shop telling me that I must spend £14 if I want to use my plastic card. Reassuring to find a Coop there though.

The almshouses look fine though I did wonder who qualifies to live in them nowadays.


This is a bike ride that could be done in 90 mins but what’s the point in  hurrying? Dawdling Imagebrings its own rewards.



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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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Literary gossip No 3. The writer, the curtain and the poet’s wife





 You could say it was on the way to Holyhead, give or take a deviation or two. When we got there, we located the house overlooking the estuary of the Taf river though there was really nothing much to it – an abandoned place that people nowadays would die for. A  hideaway for a would-be poet.  “We’ve got this place in Wales,” they’d say. “Nothing  much,  just a couple of rooms. Miles from anywhere. And the locals are so friendly.”

 But it wasn’t like that at all. We peered through the grimey windows of the nearby “writing shed” and saw cups and saucers on the table, a few bits of furniture, a tea towel on the back of a chair, the detritus of a life governed by a perennial shortage of money. Married to a writer I knew all about that.

We walked through the cemetery looking for the grave. Hard to find at first and then, there it was, the little marker facing back to front but with his name on it: Dylan Thomas.

 He’d been drinking in a bar in Manhattan and had collapsed into a coma. Four days later, on November 9, 1953, he died, aged 39. His wife Caitlin was with him.

 Some time after visiting Laugharne – where Dylan and Caitlin lived for the last four years of Dylan’s life – Ian and I  returned to our own house in Buckinghamshire, where H.A.L Craig –  Harry to his friends – came for a working visit.

 Harry was born in County Cork but brought up in Limerick, in his father’s vicarage. After attending Trinity College, Dublin,  he worked for a while co-editing The Bell, alongside Sean O Faolain after which he moved to London.

Both he and Ian were passionate about radio and both wrote for the now defunct BBC Third Programme as well as for the then Manchester Guardian.

Hung about with small children, nappies and the job of keeping a log fire going in an Elizabethan cottage devoid of central heating, to have someone like Harry visit was akin to entertaining a glitzy visitor from another planet. He brought talk of London and Rome – to where he eventually  moved to work in the film industry. And he brought  gossip. Ian did that too, of course. By far his best was about an actor in one of his radio plays who, when he was resting, earned a bit on the side capering around in the nip with a feather up his arse for the entertainment of some Londoner he knew who got his kicks from this sort of thing and paid handsomely for it.

Living the dream, I was, with these stories. In our village (2000 on the voting list) with a Co-op shop, a Post Office, a garage, three pubs and twice that many chapels and churches, hearing such tales was like drinking nectar from the chalice of the gods.

 One afternoon, while our guest was taking his ease by the ingle-nook fireplace, the phone rang and I answered it.  “Hairy Craig,” demanded the American voice at the other end and I swooned. A film director surely, a Hollywood producer, Anthony Quinn  even. ( Quinn had starred in two of Harry’s films.) I never found out who though because once off the phone, Harry embarked on his own bit of gossip.

 He’d been in Laugharne to work on a programme with Dylan Thomas and as the two chatted, Harry glanced over Thomas’s shoulder in time to see the  curtain which divided the kitchen from the main room,  being pulled back to reveal Caitlin Thomas in all her naked glory. Dylan, oblivious to his wife’s display, continued talking – and drinking – while his guest just about managed to do the same.  

I pondered on what it would be like to be the sort of woman who  might rip off her clothes when a guest came calling.

Then, having pondered, I left the room to make the supper, set the table and put the children to bed.


NOTE: In  October 2014, to mark the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas,  the BBC will show a biopic which looks at the last few weeks in his life. The script is by Andrew Davies, the screen writer who gave us House of Cards.

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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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A little bit of literary gossip (2)

A little bit of literary gossip (2)

Some years ago, I picked up, in a secondhand bookshop in Dublin, Richard Branson’s autobiography. It was only when I got it home that I found he had written in it, thanking the recipient for all his help. I later gave it to my son but still wonder how it had found its way into a secondhand bookshop in Dublin. Did the recipient lose it in a house move, throw it away, maybe gave it to someone? I’m still working on that one.

Then, round about the same time, I stumbled on a book by writer John Wain, called The Travelling Woman. Being a travel writer, I found the title intriguing and bought it. The following week, I found another Wain book, The Contenders.

I knew John when he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford – and both before and after when he wasn’t Professor of Poetry. His novel, Hurry On Down, had been a great success and together with Ian and  myself, John and his Welsh wife, Eirian, had some good times but often paid the price next morning. Our children, theirs and ours – there were three Wain boys – were more or less the same age and no doubt felt an affinity towards each other since both lots had problem writers as parents. Or maybe that should read simply problem parents.

In my secondhand copy of The Contenders is a dedication which reads: “Mary’s other copy. 1962. Love between the covers.” And at the bottom of the page is written:

“John xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx” Twenty four kisses. (I’ve counted them.)

It’s an interesting dedication since, in 1962, John had been married to Eirian for two years.

The Contenders lives on my bookshelf beside yet another book by John, this time a collection of his poems called Open Country. When he visited us in Brill, in Buckinghamshire, I asked him to write in my copy. Here’s what he wrote:  “Mary’s copy. All good wishes John 1987 at Brill.” Divided by 25 years, the thin, sparse handwriting is the same in both books.  To two Marys, one I know and one I don’t know. Did John have an affair with the mysterious Mary in 1962? Who was she and how did the copy end up in a secondhand bookshop in Dublin?

John later wandered from the marriage bed and round about that time, Eirian came to a party in my house and went through my bookshelves turning all John’s books to the wall. It had the feeling of a curse.

He subsequently returned to the marital home and having a drink with him in the King’s Arms in Oxford, I asked him why he had gone back. “I couldn’t bear to see Eirian so unhappy,” he said. And he had made her unhappy. That I knew because she’d told me.

Eirian died in 1988 and the following year, John remarried.

“Well, there’s a surprise,” I said to him.

“You know,” he replied, “I can spend a whole morning trying to decide will I go to London by train or by bus but I took only a minute to decide to get married again.”

In my copy of Open Country, he also made one or two annotations. “Silly mistake corrected by author JW) he wrote. He knew, by doing so, he was adding to the value of the book. But I won’t be selling, not even to an American University.

John died five years into his third marriage.

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A little bit of literary gossip ( 1)

A little bit of literary gossip (1)


Back in the days, when writer Ian Rodger was living in Cornwall, he was told by his publisher Hutchinson, that another of their writers was living nearby and that he should drop by. Publishers, in those days, cared about their writers and liked to put them in touch with each other.

In due course, Ian did indeed drop by and found the author’s husband acting as host. “What’s your wife’s book like?” Ian asked. “Any good?”

“No” replied the husband, “but it’ll sell.”

And indeed it did. The man was writer Ernie Gebler, his wife was Edna O’Brien and the book was The Country Girls.

Gebler himself published a blockbuster about the Mayflower, entitled The Plymouth Adventure and  which was made into a film. The book itself sold 5 million copies. Ernie’s marriage to Edna lasted some ten years and ended in divorce.

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