Postcolonial Literature and Johnny Sellotape
David Harris reviews a title that embeds external BBC post-war broadcasting in the wider context of literature and radio history, and he recommends a new autobiographical publication on class, upbringing and radio.
Postcolonialism and Home Radio
This is a radio book with a cultural twist:
Radio Empire is about the influence that the BBC’s ‘Eastern Service’ broadcasts to
India had on the development of the Indian novel. The author makes the case that these wartime broadcasts acted as ‘pilots’ for the ‘Third Programme’ (now BBC Radio 3) which was launched in 1946 as a cultural radio station.
When BBC radio was launched in 1923 the audience was very small, well-educated and affluent. Many of the early programmes consisted of classical music recitals and ‘worthy talks’.
The URL below allows you to read copies of the Radio Times listing magazine from 1923 onwards. https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk
During the 1930s, radios became much cheaper and easier to use. Consequently, audiences grew, and programmes became more popular. During the Second World War (19391945) BBC radio had to entertain troops and factory workers alike, who wanted light entertainment, rather than intellectual talks. After the Second World War, the BBC reorganised its domestic radio network into the Home Service (now Radio 4), the Light Programme (now Radio 2) and the Third Programme (now Radio 3). Following a reorganisation in 1967, Radio 3 became more of a classical music station and talks were moved to Radio 4.
The BBC Empire Service was launched in 1932, originally as an English-language short wave service to English-speaking countries around the world. The Eastern Service began in 1940 with programmes in Hindi and English. Other Indian languages such as Gujarati, Burmese, Sinhala and Tamil were added later in the War. The BBC was aware that the target audience in India was very small and consisted mainly of university students, professionals and intellectuals. Very few other Indians had access to a short wave radio. The idea of the broadcasts was to shape opinion and promote Western values amongst the Indian intelligentsia.
The Empire Service also countered the propaganda broadcasts to India that were transmitted by the pro-Nazi station, Azad Hind. This station began in Germany and then moved to Singapore and finally Rangoon (modern-day Yangon) before the Axis forces were defeated. George Orwell (above) (1903 -1950), author of Animal Farm, 1984 and many other fine books worked for the BBC’s Eastern Service from 1941 -1943. In 1985, the scripts of his programmes, George Orwell – the War Broadcasts, were published.
This was closely followed by George Orwell: The War Commentaries, which comprised the scripts he wrote, and which were translated and broadcast by Indian-languages speaking presenters at the BBC. Many of those presenters such as Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004), Venu Chitale and Attia Hosain (1913-1998) went on to become major names in Indian literature. Quite a lot of the book is taken up with detailed studies of these authors’ writing and how it was influenced by radio.
The challenges of broadcasting and its immediacy helped shaped some post-war Indian writing. What is noticeable about many Eastern Service broadcasts, is how ‘radical’ and ‘highbrow’ they were, compared to what was being broadcast in England. In addition to Orwell, E M Forster (1879-1970) author of such classics as A Passage to India and Howards End presented a monthly programme of book reviews. Forster recommended books by DH Lawrence, whose novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in the UK until 1960.
One very controversial literary figure featured in the broadcasts was James Joyce (1882-1941). Recordings of him reading Finnegan’s Wake were broadcast to India but the book was considered too radical to talk about on British domestic radio. Although the central theme of Radio Empire is how the broadcasts shaped the Anglophone IndiaNovel, the secondary idea of how the service shaped the Third Programme is very important. One can get a feel of these wartime broadcasts by reading Orwell’s War Broadcasts, in which he talks about subjects as diverse as rationing, Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, poetry, and Macbeth. The War Commentaries provide detailed coverage of the war in Europe and the Far East from December 1941 to March 1943. These writings have also been repackaged in various compilations of Orwell’s writing and his Collected Works. Professor Morse concludes his book by noting that, by the 1950s, there was a shift in BBC External broadcasts away
from India to Africa. After the Second World War, All India Radio (AIR) took up some of the cultural programming, which had been previously supplied by the BBC.
Many of the Eastern Service presenters now went on to work for The Third Programme. In this title, the author traces the link between radio and Indian novelists to Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children which also contains references to the subject of radio.
This is an important book for students of Indian Anglophone literature but is also a useful contribution to the history of BBC Radio 3 and the role of the BBC’s external broadcasts.
Radio, Travels, and Class-Consciousness
Radio User, June 2019: 49, I reviewed Red Light Zone by Jeff Zycinski. The book was a memoir of his career in broadcasting, in the course of which he rose to be Head of BBC Radio Scotland. I described it as, “a very well written book which gives an excellent insight into the life of a BBC producer”. In this book, Jeff hinted that he may write another volume. Therefore, I was very pleased when Lunicorn Press sent me his latest book, which is both a prequel and a sequel to Red Light Zone.
The new title starts with quotes praising Red Light Zone, collated mainly from Scottish publications. I was delighted to note that my quote (above) was included too. I always send publishers copies of reviews that I have had published but very few even acknowledge them. This is the first time that one of my quotes has appeared in a book.
[congratulations to David; may this not be the last time either – Ed.]
Red Light Zone concluded with Jeff having retired from the BBC. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, he contracted cancer of the tongue and found himself in hospital. He had many vivid dreams about his childhood when in hospital – hence the subtitle of this book. The bulk of the book is taken up with recollections of his early life growing up on the tough Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow. He was one of eight children whose father came to Scotland from Poland during the Second World War and settled in the country where he became a welder. Jeff’s background is in marked contrast to that of many senior executives at the BBC who came from the same public school/Oxbridge background as so many of our elite. Jeff is a very accomplished writer who draws upon his memory of childhood to bring alive special moments from the past. I think that anyone who grew up in the UK in an ordinary family background will be able to relate to his stories of childhood. He recalls tales of playing in the austere environment of a housing scheme with few amenities for children but making their own fun.
Moreover, Jeff writes quite a bit about his Polish background. His father was born in Germany but grew up in Poland. He was captured by Russian troops in the early days of the Second World War and sent to Siberia. Released in 1941, he joined the Polish Navy, where he was based on a warship that spent some time in Clydebank, Scotland. This is where his father met his mother; after the war, they married, and he stayed on in Scotland. When Jeff was older, they went on holidays to Germany, where his father surprised him by speaking in fluent German and making friends with many men of his age who had served in the German Army. There are also chapters about Polish relatives turning up in Glasgow and being accommodated by his family.
Jeff recounts his sister’s love for Neil Reid, a young singer who had appeared on the TV talent show, Opportunity Knocks. Neil came from nearby Hamilton and achieved ‘one-hitwonder status in 1972. Jeff accompanied his sister to his concerts, and she names her rabbit after the boy singer. Jeff first realised that he came from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, when, on a school trip, he and his classmates were turned away from a National Trust stately home because they were from Easterhouse. Jeff manages to sneak in anyway and look around the house by following children from a ‘posh’ school. School holidays were always endless periods with nothing to do but Jeff and his family decamped each year to a hut near the coast of Fife on the east coast of Scotland. He has a good eye for detail and fills the book with anecdotes drawn from deep in his memory of childhood. Jeff was a bright boy who loved going to the library and being able to borrow books. He even confesses to a period in his childhood where he truants regularly and sees little point in school.
However, he returns to school and eventually goes to university and then on to a career in radio. The second part of the book is taken up with nine original short stories, some of which were written when he was much younger. The stories are well written, and I liked the fake obituary of Johnny Sellotape, a comedian who is Jeff’s alter ego. The book concludes with a glossary of the Scottish places which are mentioned in the book. I feel that these and other places could be the basis of a new book for Jeff, something like a ‘Bill-Bryson-style’ odyssey around Scotland. Overall, this was a most entertaining read, and I certainly think we will hear more from Jeff in the future.