The year after I stopped believing in Santa I asked for a radio. I could have asked for a stereo but I like to keep expectations manageable. The pastel-blue transistor could fit in one hand. The dial was a mechanical cog the size of a 20-cent coin, the interface a dense constellation of mysterious numbers. I believed that longwave meant secret and far away, mediumwave brought close and often annoying things, and that FM, that odd-one-out acronym, was where you found proper radio.
It went under my pillow at night, where I surreptitiously listened to Radio Luxembourg. I even brought it around with me as a 10- year-old, not quite hip-hop in the Bronx, more Downtown Radio in Co Antrim.
Radio was a constant backdrop to my childhood, the monotonous tones of Northern politicians intoning words like situation, incendiary, utterly condemn, dialogue, both sides of the divide.
It was there on a Sunday morning, my Dad listening to hymns broadcast from some alien English town with cadences as familiar as the sounds of the stairs on the way down to breakfast. Radio was called the wireless, but there really was a wireless, a large brown box with dials the size of door knobs, something hipsters would fight over now on Adverts.ie. It sat on the window-ledge behind my mother as she ironed, a scene that could have been transposed back decades and looked the same.
Radio was there when I moved countries, when I picked out odd words of Italian in a torrent of at first unintelligible syllables. It was a welcome; it said I belonged enough to be listening to a jingle for a local supermarket, that common denominator of terrible muzak.
I can’t grasp how radio works for much longer than it takes to read a Wikipedia article. It’s magical to me, in the same way that camera obscura makes complete sense and yet the concept is so slippery that I can only catch it for a moment, until photography becomes once again a deep art. How can you capture a voice on a wave?
Years ago, we had a family trip to Valentia island in Kerry, where the first trans-Atlantic telegraph was sent in 1858, to Trinity Bay in Newfoundland. I stood near roaming sheep on the hilltop and tried to tune into something in the air, some latent echo.
Being on my own with two children during restrictions has had its challenges, particularly at the start of lockdown one, when everyone was wondering if this was how the world ended, not with a bang, but with banana bread and facile inspirational quotes. Friends checked in, but mostly, people I knew retreated into their own families, with lovers or partners, mothers and fathers. It’s a peculiar feeling when you realise you are the life raft.
Radio was my friend during those weeks, the comforting format of Meet the Artist on BBC Sounds, the opening bars of the RTÉ Arena theme music, the reassuring chat of Lauren Laverne on BBC Radio 6 in the morning, all saying quietly, emphatically, everything is going to be alright.
Isn’t it fitting then, that my first guest on the Burning Books Ireland podcast has her latest book broadcast on BBC Radio 4? You can listen to each chapter of The Last Resort as a short story in its own right, or all of them together to form a novel, set in a caravan site on the north coast. The narrators all have accents to match their characters, from clipped Belfast tones to the glottal stop of a Ballymena beautiful.
Jan Carson can often be found on the airwaves. She grew up not too far from me although our experiences of that background are different – the same- different, as is the way with us all, particularly those of us who grew up in the complicated North. People use the word voracious about reading, but Jan’s appetite for books surpasses anyone’s I know; she has a library of knowledge but is wise and funny, with a humility to go with that quick intelligence. I knew after talking to her that this podcast was going to be not just enlightening, but great fun too.
My second guest is journalist and writer Patrick Freyne, who has also had a love affair with radio. In his twenties he was part of a group of friends running a pirate radio station, of which he writes with wit and elegance in his book OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea. As a journalist he’s spent many years talking to people, to gather stories. When I say talking, what I really mean is listening. He has that most important thing for a writer – for anyone – curiosity.
It was daunting interviewing someone much more qualified to be asking the questions, someone so practised at it he often doesn’t need to look at his notes because his research is so thorough. I told him this, looking at my notes. Like Jan, he had some words of wisdom too: don’t worry about it.
I am beginning to see that the most interesting aspect of these programmes are those that go off on tangents, ones that are spontaneous and alive – and, without getting too sentimental about it, that the best part of all this is being able to connect in a meaningful way with people who have something to teach me.
The loose format of the show is cousin to a programme I have listened to all my life, Desert Island Discs: I ask each guest which books they would save from the flames if their house was on fire. I really hope you can join us for Burning Books Ireland, a new podcast that you can find on Apple, Spotify and other platforms: a podcast yes – but you all know what I’m really calling it, don’t you? Radio.
Ruth McKee is editor of Books Ireland, and the host of the new podcast Burning Books Ireland, generously supported by the Arts Council Ireland.