Tag Archives: radio

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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Poems My Mother Taught Me, from RTE’s Sunday Miscellany March 16 2012


This is a link to a Sunday Miscellany RTE Programme which has a short piece by me at 0026.53

Hope the link works and that you like the two poems. Here’s the link.


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Poems My Mother Taught Me, from RTE’s Sunday Miscellany March 16 2012

This is a link to a Sunday Miscellany RTE Programme which has a short piece by me at 0026.53

Hope the link works and that you like the two poems. Here’s the link.


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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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The Leningrad Symphony – and Homs.

The Leningrad Symphony and Homs.

Blow the Dust off Your Trumpets ( BTDT) is a Dublin-based, amateur orchestra sponsored by the National Concert Hall. We are about 50 people, playing everything including piano accordion, percussion, strings, woodwind and horns. Have I left anything out? Oh yes – banjo.

On Friday, Feb 3rd, we performed something we had been working on all week – a fifteen minute piece of improvisation based on some ten bars of Shostakovich’s famed Leningrad Symphony No 7 in C major.

Some of us are extremely talented and experienced musicians while some of us are less so. What held us together and pushed us to our limits was the leadership of Paul Rissmann, Creative Advisor to RTE’s National Symphony Orchestra (NSO). We started off in seeming chaos and though Paul assured us it would all be OK on the night those among us of little faith were not so sure. But he was right. We played our piece, it sounded good and the audience applauded. What more could we ask?

Then we left the stage to take our seats in the auditorium to listen to the NSO, conducted with obvious passion by Andrew Litton, perform the Leningrad Symphony: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xlqsXlapK8

This symphony was dedicated to the beleaguered city of Leningrad and here’s why: on Sept 8 1941, Nazi Germany laid siege to Leningrad and continued to do so until the siege was lifted on January 27th 1944. Conditions were so terrible and hungry people so desperate that they stripped wallpaper from the walls to lick off the fish-based paste in order to get some sustenance.

The Leningrad has a special place in my heart as its opening bars are used to introduce my RTE radio documentary The Stars of Death Stood Over Us, about the iconic Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Listen to the programme by going first to www.maryrussell.info  Under Radio, click on The Stars of Death Stood Over Us.

After the performance, I went home tired but satisfied with the week’s work which had been fun as well as very demanding. (I also learned, from Paul, how best to do a D# tremolo on my alto sax!)

When I woke next morning, I heard that the Syrian city of Homs had, throughout the night, suffered a continuous mortar attack by the Syrian army. Reports suggested some 250 people had died, including children.

Later in the day, by a cruel twist of history, Russia vetoed a resolution before the United Nations Security Council, aimed at attempting, by political means, to end the violence in Syria.

Now, when I hear the Leningrad Symphony, I will think not only of that city but also of the people of Homs.

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