Literary festival programme is released. Get very excited. Go through programme highlighting events I want to attend. Realise is nearly entire programme. Try and shortlist.
Realise some shortlisted events clash. Gnash teeth. Attempt to perform impossible calculus of scheduling: desire to see famous people, desire to support book industry colleagues, desire to learn something new, desire to follow a friend’s recommendation, desire to hear an author speak who lives in a country I’ve never been to, desire to lie at the feet of an author whose work I love.
Argue about money. Argue with self, with bank balance, with own budget as a self-employed person, with The World in which we expect writing for the web to be free and in which consequently reviewers are not paid. Gratefully accept commission from BooksellersNZ to review festival in exchange for media pass (free tickets!) and maybe an honorarium paid in book tokens. Feel v lucky to have got this gig. Agree to pay own travel costs. Worry that the costs involved are among the many factors that mean that the audience for this literary festival will mostly comprise middle-aged, middle-class white women. Start to calculate years until I too join this demographic. Come up with number less than ten. Pine for lost youth, etc.
Negotiate with editor which events I will review. Immediately forget lessons learned from past experience re. how much my brain can take in per day, how many hours sleep I need in order to function, etc. Wildly over-promise. Editor kindly sets reasonable schedule. Compromise is reached.
Festival begins! Carefully pack bag with as little as possible in order to leave room for books. Wrongly think will not rue lack of snacks. Turn up bright and early with computer (previously was notebook and pen, but have upgraded, huzzah!). Inevitable tussle with wifi. Expound angrily and at length about how reliable, free wifi is a 21st-century human right. Shake fist at “the Cloud” (which I envisage as being stuck to the ceiling of whichever room I’m in & occasionally twinkling). Universe ignores me. Wifi continues elusive. First coffee of day.
Bathe soul in glorious festival of literature and ideas. Become extremely over-stimulated. Realness of art intensifies. Imagination goes into hyperdrive. Safely develop spontaneous fan crushes on international authors (Kim Thuy, Terry Castle, Atul Gawande, Miranda July, Carol Ann Duffy, Jim Al-Khalili). Awkwardly develop fan crushes on NZ-based authors who shall remain nameless. (Inevitably bump into them at other events. Try to be cool. Fail so, so hard.) Buy books. Get books signed. Spend whole time in signing queue crafting perfect conversation in head. Fail to deliver any of those lines. Swoon with fangirlish delight when Sandi Toksvig says she does the News Quiz just for me, and when Mallory Ortberg compliments my laptop case. Note to self: ask future festival organisers to supply fainting couches near signing tables.
Write reviews. Attempt to communicate swirl of impressions, ideas, thoughts, quotes and criticism in mere words. Gnash teeth at inability of own writing to convey magic of author’s presence and wisdom. Give it my best shot. Worry about responsibility as feminist critic (too feminist? not feminist enough? wrong kind of feminism?). Send to editor. Start next review (gnash, write, send, etc). Feverishly post to social media. Festival hashtag invades dreams.
Occasionally come across the odd lemon. Immediately start performing risk assessment of writing honest review. Weigh up likely impact on own professional career vs journalistic moral code vs likelihood of hurt feelings. Massively second-guess own critical response. Sometimes decide to play it safe (in which case, reproach self for lack of integrity), other times decide to poke my head above the parapet (in which case, reproach self for being mean, other person is only human, etc). Gnash teeth. Try to weather backlash as best I can.
Enjoy being part of booky crowd. Constantly bump into people I know. V difficult to get across room to eg. take loo break or purchase vital nutrition due to aforementioned bumping. Laugh at folly of trying to have proper conversations with people in festival environment. Occasionally manage to put face to name and shake hand of person I’ve been following on Twitter / working with via email / belong to same Facebook group as. Blithely promise to catch up later. Break all promises.
Lose all sense of time. Forget world outside of festival. Intense cycle of listening, recording, considering and reporting becomes new normal. Develop detailed stratagems re. where best to sit in theatre, most efficient way of getting inter-session coffee, lunch place with shortest queues that sells food can eat with one hand while live-Tweeting with other. Develop dreamy exhaustion akin to jet lag. Feel happy and alive and grateful to be in Aotearoa at this particular place and time. Heap well-deserved praise upon festival organisers. Worry they aren’t getting paid enough to keep doing it. Redo from start next time.
Bletchley Park – and the stories of the women who worked there during World War Two – is of keen personal interest to me. My Gran, Irene, was one of those women. She took the Official Secrets Act very seriously, and never told me much about it. So I jumped at the chance to read Tessa Dunlop’s book The Bletchley Girls and learn more.
Bletchley Park has undergone an extraordinary conversion over the past decades, from top-secret code-breaking factory to globally acknowledged key player in both the second world war and the development of the computer. Nowadays we all know about Enigma, the genius of Alan Turing, and how the German codes were broken and the war won: Bletchley Park has taken its rightful place in history.
What is still less well known is that a large proportion of those who worked at Bletchley were women. Dunlop sets out to explore this in her new book, The Bletchley Girls: War, Secrecy, Love and Loss: The Women of Bletchley Park Tell Their Story. In it, she interviews 13 women who worked at Bletchley during the war, and combines their stories together, working chronologically from the late thirties to the mid forties, and beyond.
My Gran – born Irene Rose Mary Roblou in London in 1920 – was a decoder at Bletchley Park from May 1942 to September 1943. When she joined, she was a young woman with an incomplete secondary school education, already a war widow, and away from home for the first time. Her name then was then Irene Macdonald. She had met Alec MacDonald (Mac) before the war at The Shipbuilding Conference (the professional association of shipbuilders), where they both worked. It was on Grosvenor Place, overlooking Buckingham Palace garden, and Gran claimed she occasionally saw Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret there.
Irene (right) with her parents in their London flat, circa 1940. No known copyright restrictions.
Irene and Mac fell in love as teenagers. Gran wrote: “We went dancing … attended the odd cinema and concert, although Mac adored jazz as well [as did my grandfather] – I discovered The Melodymaker and somebody named Jack Teagarden! We tried playing tennis but he was so good he knocked my racquet out of my hand. But we had fun in the open-air swimming pool. He insisted I read all [of] Somerset Maugham.” They became engaged in (I think) 1940. “We were walking across Hyde Park when he began to describe where he would like to take me on our honeymoon in Trinidad, but that honeymoon would have to wait until the war was over. I said I couldn’t go on my honeymoon without a proposal. He said ‘I’m not askin’ ya, I’m tellin’ ya.’ I said I wasn’t going to be the only girl on honeymoon without a proposal. So he said ‘Will you marry me’ and I said ‘Yes please’.”
Mac and Irene were married on 17 January 1942 at Christ Church, Woburn Square, London. Gran wrote: “After the reception at the Berners Hotel, we went to a tea dance at Hatchetts in Piccadilly where Stephane Grappelli was playing, and caught the train to Torquay the next day for our English honeymoon!” Ten days later, Mac was shipped out as part of the Fleet Air Arm. On 12 February, his ship was attacked by German aircraft in the Mediterranean and a piece of shrapnel went into his head. He was the only one on the ship to die. He was 21.
Irene and Mac on their wedding day, 17 January 1942. No known copyright restrictions.
I only learned about Mac’s existence a few years ago, when my Gran was still alive, and I was living in England. If he hadn’t died, Gran wouldn’t have married my grandfather, Leslie Victor Heritage (Bill); she wouldn’t have given birth to my father, and I wouldn’t exist. It is a strange and uneasy debt. Seeking to better understand this, I made a special trip to Malta in 2007, to visit his gravestone. I found it in a tiny cemetery not far from Mdina, dusty white stone warmed by the sun. I sat there, sweating uncomfortably in the jaw-dropping Maltese heat, and tried to wrap my head around the fact that I live in part because he was killed.
Most of what I know about Mac I have learned from a “A Wartime Love Story”, a brief memoir Gran typed out to accompany the deposit of her first wedding dress into the collections of the Imperial War Museum. He was born in Trinidad in 1920, elder of two sons of a Scottish father and Irish mother, Mabel. He was sent to school in England when he was a boy, during which time his father died. He doesn’t seem to have seen his mother and brother again until, by chance, he was sent to Trinidad for flying training by the Fleet Air Arm in 1941. Mac’s relationship with his mother was very strained. He and my Gran became engaged when they were 19, but Gran writes: “Mac was a proud man and said he wasn’t going to ask his mother’s permission to get married, so we would have to wait until we were 21.” I can’t help but wonder why he felt that way – and think, if they had married earlier, would they have had children? How different our family would have been.
Mac looking at a photo of Gran, probably 1941. No known copyright restrictions.
Mac was very much on my mind as I read The Bletchley Girls, as well as Gran. I like to think he would have been proud of her, doing important war work – except that he probably wouldn’t have known. One of the extraordinary legacies of Bletchley Park is how well the secrets were kept, and by just how many people, for decades. Don’t be misled by the recent film The Imitation Game: Bletchley was staffed by thousands (rather than an elite team of a few), and housed dozens or even hundreds of enormous, clunky decoding machines (not just one) – which, incidentally, were not built by Alan Turing, but were instead designed and engineered by another British genius, Tommy Flowers. (If you want to watch a drama about Bletchley, I recommend the British TV series The Bletchley Circle, about a group of ex-coders who get together after the war to solve crimes.)
Mac was also, indirectly, one of the reasons Gran worked at Bletchley. Family legend has it that, after he was killed, Irene took to her bed in grief and wouldn’t leave until Mac’s ghost visited her and told her she had to keep on living. Irene turned to Mac’s contacts for help. “Mac had given me the address of The West India Committee who would help me at any time. Lady Davson was the Chairman and her secretary was Heather Fryer, and from the moment I contacted them they were absolutely wonderful. Once again I had to change jobs, and it was through them I was introduced to Passport Control, a name that covered vitally secret work, and I was taken on.” One of the most interesting parts of Dunlop’s book is learning how the various ‘Bletchley girls’ were recruited: it seems to have been a mix of chance, shoulder-tapping, and hiring gels with mathematics and/or German. Or, in Gran’s case, a sick note. She writes: “The new office was dreary and got me down, and my doctor wrote a letter suggesting a change if it was possible. So it was that I was sent to Bletchley Park.”
Gran said there were all sorts at Bletchley, “from a gypsy to a duke’s daughter”. And nobody talked about what they did, they just got on with it. In an account of her life during the war, Gran wrote: “We worked shifts [at Bletchley Park], 7 day weeks and then 1 day off, until Sat/Sun – a weekend off, and 1 week every 3 months. We were not involved with Enigma.” This terseness – perhaps a result of the secrecy combined with the stringent compartmentalisation of work – is shared by Dunlop’s interviewees. Although based on long, in-depth interviews, The Bletchley Girls is remarkably light on technical detail. Dunlop seems more interested in clothes, dating, and food than computing.
One of the strengths of Dunlop’s book is that you get a real sense of the drudgery, stress, privations and sheer boredom of working life at Bletchley Park. A lot of the work was mechanical data entry, or staying up all night with uncomfortable headphones on, twiddling a radio dial and hoping to pick up signals. As to the detail of her own work, all Gran ever said was (quoting again from writing she left behind): “I was taught to code and we dealt with the correspondence of agents and others.” Gran did make friends, though, particularly with June Herapath, who went on to become June Washbourn, wife of Rear Admiral Richard Washbourn, and godmother to my father. I consider June’s children and grandchildren – who also now live in New Zealand – to be whanau.
So I understand why, when given the chance, Gran wanted to leave her life as a decoder at Bletchley Park. She wrote: “In August 1943 I was approached to become PA to Sir Amos Ayre, who was … giving his services to the Admiralty during the war as Director of Shipbuilding. My boss [at Bletchley[, who was a retired General, said he was reluctant to agree, but when I explained that the job would continue after the war and I would need a job, he consented. So once again I was back in London, and now involved in preparations for D-Day. The flying bombs started just after D-Day and later the V-2s – no warning because they flew faster than sound – beastly things.” A couple of years after the war ended, it was one of Gran’s Bletchley friends who introduced her to my grandfather.
I found The Bletchley Girls to be a useful resource in seeking to understand both my own personal history and the history of women in the second world war. I wish, though, that it had had a different author. I found Dunlop’s writing breathless and cliched (“Pat’s bright bird-like expression clouds briefly”) and her tone condescending. An academic herself, she throws up her hands at the revelation that hardly any of her interviewees had been to university (and yet they were so capable! and good at learning! without formal education? but how?!). I don’t think Gran would have approved.
Despite Dunlop, though, these women’s stories are a treasure, and the good news is that other people are writing them too. Don’t depend on Dunlop or The Imitation Game; use the opportunity to ask your family about their war experience. And then write it down.
With grateful thanks and aroha to my uncle, Irene’s younger son, Nigel Heritage.
As part of The Read’s ongoing investigation into the place and value of book reviewing in Aotearoa (where this article originally appeared, on 23 April 2015), I wanted to explore the ways in which Radio New Zealand National contributes to and supports our book culture. As with print review media, discussion of books on radio can take the form of a feature, an author interview, or a review. To this list, radio adds a more performative element – books read aloud. I spoke to producers and presenters at Radio NZ, as well as booksellers around the country.
Kim Hill’s author interviews on Saturday Mornings
Kim Hill (right) is one of the most widely respected figures in our national media, and getting an author – or a book – on to her Saturday Mornings programme carries considerable cachet. I spoke to her producer Mark Cubey about how they choose their content, and why discussion of books is valuable.
“Books are good way to explore ideas and people; that’s what life is all about,” says Cubey. He likes programming author interviews because “authors tend to be articulate and thoughtful and don’t have a marketing schtick; they’re still raw and honest.” In terms of Kiwis vs international, Cubey says: “I want to give weight to New Zealanders who are doing great work”, while also bringing listeners ideas and books from around the world.
He’s very clear on his priorities though, “It’s not my job to help [Kiwi authors], it’s my job to make good radio”. Authors must be able to speak fluently, clearly, and engagingly. Books that don’t come with a radio-friendly author attached don’t make the grade.
Cubey (left) is also very wary of over-exposure: “I want to preserve specialness”. Interviewees must have a new story to tell. “Part of the job is to make people go wow, I didn’t know that, that’s interesting – otherwise it’s all just ‘reckons’.” This means that authors of non-fiction tend to have a higher hit rate on Saturday Mornings than their fiction-writing counterparts: they have new facts to share. Another factor of course is Hill’s personal preferences: “Kim reads omnivorously and voraciously.” Cubey says memoirists often make great interviews because, “it’s so much better to talk about experience than ideas”.
Bad news for debut novelists. “We want to hear from writers who have lived a life, not those straight out of their creative writing courses.” Cubey says it’s difficult to discuss novels on the radio because you need to avoid spoilers, “and we don’t really want to talk about style and so on unless it’s a stand-out brilliant book”.
One of the things Cubey checks before scheduling an author interview is whether the book is available in New Zealand – although he notes that the meaning of ‘available’ has changed drastically in recent years. “People can buy online – if they want it, they’ll find it”. The selection of books featured on Saturday Mornings is no longer limited by what’s for sale in Kiwi bookstores, or by new releases, “The past is the present – these days pretty much everything is available to everyone at any time.”
Nine to Noon and afternoon reviews
Nine to Noon receives review copies of books from a wide variety of sources. One channel is the collection of books administered by Booksellers NZ, for which publishers pay a fee per reviewed title. Nine to Noon also receives books directly from publishers and publicists, and from authors who are self-publishing.
Their selection process is as follows: the Nine to Noon team gets together and makes a shortlist. Firstly, they pick out any books that would make for a good author interview – for example, a memoirist with a compelling story to tell, or a non-fiction author with a topical book that could make for a news-type interview. Then they pick out books to review. Their aim is to showcase a range – New Zealand literature, literary fiction, non-fiction, biography, poetry – anything except ‘airport fiction’. Sometimes they match books up with a particular reviewer (they have a stable of 30-40), other times, reviewers will put their hands up for particular titles.
They see book reviewing as an important part of what they do, especially reviewing New Zealand books, because books are where ideas and inspiration come from; they are how we get turned on to issues and how we are entertained. They also often get booksellers getting in touch after a review has aired, wanting to know more details about the title so they can stock it.
Books that aren’t chosen are offered to the Radio NZ library. If rejected, they are made available to Radio NZ staff in a periodic book sale, the proceeds of which go to charity. If not sold, they’re shipped out to Wellington’s charity book fair.
Afternoons on Radio NZ National also have book reviews on occasion. David Allen says, “The book reviewer will consider NZ written books first, or eagerly anticipated books from foreign writers. Everything on Afternoons is run on merit, whether it’s the live stories, interviews or reviews of anything.”
Standing Room Only
I asked presenter Lynn Freeman (left) what part she sees Standing Room Only (on Sunday afternoons) playing in sustaining and contributing to our books culture in Aotearoa. She says: “We hope our weekly interviews with New Zealand fiction writers, and writers of arts-related non-fiction, support our wonderful writers and encourage our listeners to read New Zealand literature.”
How do they choose which books and authors to feature? “We cover NZ novelists who don’t secure interviews on other RNZ National programmes. These tend to be debut novelists or ones with just a couple of books to their name. We welcome our senior writers also, but they do tend towards the other ‘bigger’ shows where they can get longer interviews (our average is around 10 minutes) and larger audiences.” So, if debut novelists can’t get onto Saturday Mornings, it’s worth having a talk to the producers of Standing Room Only.
The Daily Book Readings – always NZ works – are commissioned by Radio NZ’s drama department. I spoke with Adam Macaulay (left), Executive Producer Drama and Readings. He says,“Our aim is to celebrate and promote the breadth and depth of New Zealand writing talent.”
When choosing which books to turn into audio productions, a number of things need to be considered: not only the likely audience appeal of a given book, but how it will sound when read aloud – and when edited down to fit the available time slots. He says: “This can mean that, sometimes, good, multi-layered books are not produced. In adapting a book we usually lose between two-thirds and three-quarters of the original.”
So what kind of NZ book is likely to be given serious consideration? “We are looking for something that is well-written – word for word, phrase for phrase – and that has something ‘other’ about it: a sort of richness and a power to engage that sets it apart.” Macaulay notes that many listeners now use the Radio NZ website to catch up on episodes they’ve missed – and, crucially, want to then buy the book after listening to the adaptation.
The Children’s Bookshop review slot
Bookseller John McIntyre (right) has had a fortnightly review slot on Nine to Noon now for 12 years. He says: “Because my slot is a personal arrangement with the team at Nine to Noon, it sits outside of the Booksellers / Radio NZ scheme, so I am in total control of the books I choose. Publishers and established authors are very aware now that I don’t work off submissions so I don’t get a lot of pressure from them to review books.”
Given that freedom, how does he choose which books to review? “I do feel a duty to do mostly good New Zealand books, and have noticed a real change – whereas 12 years ago I would have done 3 or 4 sessions on local titles, these days I do 12 to 15. I also select only books I like, and therefore avoid being a critic. I see myself as a cheerleader for the genre.”
The Unity Books review slot
Since March 2014, Unity Books’ Tilly Lloyd and Kiran Dass have also had a regular book review spot on Nine to Noon. Lloyd speaks about how they choose which books to review: “Kiran and I agreed to choose the most impressive read of the previous month that isn’t on the Booksellers NZ list run by Fiona Stewart in conjunction with Josephine Lynch at Nine to Noon. This doesn’t mean it’s marketing though. We are critiquing what we found to be the best. Arriving at the ‘best’ is simply done by reading all the time.”
Dass adds: “it’s a terrific opportunity to showcase books that we think are fabulous, but which could potentially fall beneath the radar. It breaks my heart to think of some of the best new fiction and non-fiction not getting the audience it deserves.” Both Lloyd and Dass see reviewing books as an important responsibility that they have, as booksellers, to “tell the truth” to their customers.
Value and reward
It’s worth noting that, although a lot is said about the value of book reviewing, this is often not recognised in any remunerative sense. McIntyre says: “When I started on Nine to Noon 12 years ago I made it clear that I didn’t want any remuneration in any form, as I’ve always figured that if you don’t cost anything, then you don’t get ditched in cost-cutting rounds. Radio and newspapers are increasingly content- and talent-poor, and cost conscious. If a reviewer offers to fill some space/time and do it for free, then I think you’d be surprised how keen some may be. Be passionate, be reliable, be on time, and be free.”
Lloyd agrees: “Booksellers are always being hounded by radio stations to buy radio advertising – we recommend booksellers approach producers and work their own ‘free’ content. Booksellers are uniquely placed to review well because we have all that book knowledge and useful amounts of motor-mouth.” McIntyre adds: “Booksellers are literate people. When I started I’d no radio experience. It isn’t hard.”
Dass sees book reviewing on Radio NZ as an extension of her job as a bookseller. “It is a more refined version of what we do every day on the shop floor at Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. We are constantly talking about books in a critical and engaged way; this is what our customers expect from us. I think it’s a good use of our time because I love the way reviewing enables and encourages us to engage with a text critically, to think about what we love about a book, or dislike about it. It works pretty harmoniously with the kind of bookselling we do.”
Does it all sell books?
I have written for The Read before about the complex interplay of factors that leads readers to purchase books. If anyone knows any PhD students looking for a project, it would be fascinating to see an analysis of sales figures for reviewed books and whether there’s any predictable effect following a review (or feature, or interview) airing.
In the absence of hard stats, here are some anecdata.
Hamish Wright (above) of Paper Plus Cambridge says that book talk on national radio has minimal value for his business, with the exception of topical non-fiction titles, McIntyre’s children’s books reviews – and anything by Kim Hill. “Her Saturday segment when she either has the author on the programme or someone associated with the book or subject always tends to make things happen.” Wright says that, with some titles, every single sale from his shop can be directly attributed to Kim Hill enthusing about the book.
Marcus Greville of University Bookshop Otago agrees about the power of weekend radio. “I’ll often come into work to discover that a book that has been sitting in on our shelves unmolested for two months has suddenly sold out, and the first thought (and usually most accurate) is that it must have been on the radio over the weekend. I think National Radio reviews have a greater reach, in general, than print reviews; there’s something about the articulation of complex thoughts on the part of the author or reviewer, being able to detect the enthusiasm or excitement in a voice, or the frisson between the interviewer and author that can trump written reviews.”
McIntyre says that book reviews on radio don’t significantly affect sales at The Children’s Bookshop, and those that do sell can be difficult to predict. “There are titles I expect to sell on the back of a review that don’t, and others that seem to strike a chord that surprise me.” He notes, though, that reviews by Kate de Goldi (again, on Saturday Mornings with Kim Hill) do sell books.
Direct effect on sales may be difficult to pin down, but Phillippa Duffy of UBS Otago (right) notes that public discourse around books has a wider, positive effect. “It can often lead discussion around books; help with them being chosen for book groups; and then, alongside other print reviews, work to re-emphasise a book to a potential reader. The interview with the author can help illuminate their own personality and insights into their writing, which also helps backlist titles. These are also important in advance of festivals, particularly exposing the engaged audience to new writing or new writers they otherwise wouldn’t be aware of. [Book talk on radio] exposes people interested in ideas to books beyond what they may otherwise naturally be drawn to.”
Where to now?
As with any media outlet, when investigating the impact its publicity has, we must take into account who is consuming it. There can be no doubt that National Radio no longer has the nation’s attention as once it had, especially among young people. Listeners tend to fall into the 40+ age bracket, and, although Radio NZ is making an effort to tap into the increasing digital/podcast market for audio content, they have yet to make a significant impact there. Most people still listen live or not at all: this is one of the reasons Kim Hill’s programme has such an impact, because listeners tune in at the weekend, when they’re not at work. It will also be very interesting to see what happens after Hill retires (or, heaven forbid, goes the way of Campbell Live) – was it the content listeners wanted? Or Hill herself?
As with so many aspects of the book trade, publicity, reviewing, criticism and public discourse around books is changing. People will always want to read, and talk about reading, but they’re finding different ways and places to do so – not always instead of, but in addition to the tried and tested channels. So keep tuning in – remember to check the Radio NZ listings on Booksellers NZ, and make sure you’ve got plenty of stock of whatever’s on Kim Hill this weekend.