Ken Bolton: Happy Accidents

  Ken Bolton

  Happy Accidents

  A work of bibliography       — for Gary Oliver

D.U.I. in the 1970s

Are you, perhaps, a
‘Reader of Books’?
— John Jenkins



I had been reading some poets before,

who were supposed to be good


And I suppose they were

but it was on


first reading John Forbes’

‘To The Bobbydazzlers’


my eyes opened.


There did I breathe John’s

‘intense inane’


& the way you felt for them

I felt for you, John: as though


I sat, saluting — & stonkered —



an horizon — blue sky,

blue sea —



of all but admiration,



in-touch at last, silent,


on a kitchen chair, in Glebe,

upon a beach, in my imagination.


Another time, I was sitting

On a firm kitchen chair. And the poems

Were Laurie Duggan’s. Then did I breathe in

A speck of muesli I was having.

But did I choke? I didn’t — these poems

Gave much to live for,

In particular a sort of infinite ‘Quiet Moment’

In which things were ‘in their place’,

‘Attended to’… Etcetera. I cleared my throat, vowing

To continue in this knowledge.


I think I stood up. It seemed too odd

To be sitting, the poem was so great.

Yet, a short one, it was over. In this instance I moved

From the brown, cracked, wood table I was reading at


& walked to the door, Pam Brown’s poems

Still in my hand — & stood a while,

Reading them in the doorway,

Breathing in, breathing out, looking


At the view, that you saw — if you

Stood straight — just above the tin.

The cat used to hang about me when I stood there

 — Pots of mint & things, at my feet —


On the step, looking over the fence — the Iron Bridge,

And the city with its back to you


One of the first poems that did it for me

Was ‘Tricks For Danko’. By Robyn Ravlich.

Graceful, & clear, and actual.

Another was O’Hara’s ‘For Grace,

After A Party’. And there were Berrigan’s ‘The Sonnets’,


the poem where ‘Terry’s spit

Narrowly missed the Prime Minister,’ leaving a mark

On the TV. (A poem of Laurie’s.) Later

a poem I loved was Anna Couani’s

‘The Bomb Plot’. John was writing poems


That pretended to be advertising. A different

John. Who became a best friend.


Remember Rae — reading ‘The Deadshits’?


The way we used to shout various lines

From various poets, over & over, for being

Too ridiculously full of portent? ‘Head first

Into the beautiful accident!’ ‘White horses.

White horses.’


Things we said: ‘Ah, Bin 33!’ ‘Je suis

Mr Tarzan!’ This is the life. Crash or crash thru.

‘Grandmother divided by monkey… (equals “Outer Space”!)’ Is that

a baby or a shirt factory — (No one can tell

In this weather). One false moof and I die you! There’s no

accounting for taste. I em, a sophiss-ticated

Euro-Pean! (slight Austrian accent) This is the life.

Head first into the beautiful accident. Ah, Bin 33! Another

Bin 33?

Then we said them all again.


No one said It’s a great life if you don’t

weaken or Get this into you, though we must’ve urged

something similar. I can remember the songs we danced to —

but that is life, which is the important thing —

but not important here.


      I first saw Alan Wearne coming down

the banister at a party singing a methodist hymn

wearing a little conical hat or something suggesting deshabille.

I met him first actually at the Adelaide Festival

in seventy-six — he told me something weird about another poet.


Carol Novack had big eyes & beautiful hair & when

she played pool her hands shook almost mesmerizingly.

Sometimes the balls went in. Anna’s pool was better —

& her writing, for a kind of intelligent mobility.

Carol took up Law. The party I saw Alan at

was for Brandon Cavalier, a person I have never heard of

or seen since. His shirt had full sleeves

like a pirate’s. (He was a poet.)


‘Poetry — it’ll be bigger than tennis,’

was a line already part of poetry folklore

when I joined the team. I never saw or met the man

who uttered it. (Similarly, when I came to Adelaide,

I was introduced to Ian de Gruchy — & well after

I’d heard his ‘The ambience is all around us’ — as either

forewarning, or characterization. He was an

artist, not a poet.) At some level, I think, young poets know

what they let themselves in for — an economic &

social reality they allude to with crossed fingers &

humour. Some of course get real jobs or train properly

for something. My friend John lucked his way into journalism

hardly expecting his charade to work. The profession

took him to its bosom, suffocatingly, tho not too

      suffocatingly. None I knew

became doctors. Laurie’s made a late well-timed run

at academia. Most of us have shit jobs. ‘Headfirst

into the beautiful accident.’ (Tranter must have

come in to some money. The line works differently for him.)


Kris Hemensley’s poems — ‘Rocky Mountains & Tired Indians’

& one about some biscuits — I liked a lot, though

I couldn’t emulate them. Their domesticity reminded me

of a happy little band of Melbourne poets whom I

assumed mirrored ours in Glebe, Newtown & Balmain — the

Westgarth/Merri Creek/Brunswick gang: Kris, Robert,

Walter, Retta. Letters from them were cheering & I

wrote back on happenings here — one, in which Adders

attacked everybody at a reading, casting aspersions on the Soul,

Potency, Alcoholism of his major rival (also on the bill), who did

his own equivalent of the same, while a performance-artist friend

tried to stage her nervous breakdown (over her husband’s

infidelity) — & which intuited the Interest

& Coming Intervention

of David Bowie into her life. She made a lot of repeated noise —

to the puzzlement of the audience,

who did not realize its import

and anyway, had the poets’ dark mutterings to work on.

We took her away, sedated or placated her (I

can’t remember). John & Laurie read, finally,

attacking no one just reading great poems: it was a total

fucking gas, Terry’s spit narrowly missing the Prime Minister



I wrote some poems just by going through my

note books circling all the good bits still

unused — from poems, letters, notes & quotations —

& typing them up in the order they came

adding new stuff wherever I felt like it. I still

do these occasionally. People don’t understand them

but I feel exhilarated. Laurie’s poems

had introduced me to Philip Whalen’s (& these

I liked). Philip Hammial introduced me to the poems

of Tony Towle — whom I knew & liked

only by one or two things

in anthologies. Autobiography & other poems

was a great book.

                                Years later

my inexpert emulation of it

enabled me to write Notes For Poems — a book

critics at the time ignored, or disliked.

As they do still, for all I know.

I remember the early Alan Wearne poem I liked

had Jesus Christ or John the Baptist running up

some stairs.


      That’s how it was when I started.

Earlier I’d read Creeley & Olson &

earlier still Larkin & Davie. But really

what I found exciting were the ideas I entertained

about Johns & Rauschenberg & the aesthetic

jockeying for ideological position

of Greenberg, Fried, Stella & the Minimalists,

the ideas of Kuhn, the dreaminess of Marguerite Duras

& the steel & irony of Robbe-Grillet, the look

of ‘key works’ by Rivers (‘key works’?) & the erased

de Kooning,

the nerviness of Gorky; Tony Tuckson; Joan Mitchell.

‘Bean Spasms’, when I read it, & ‘Tambourine Life’,

fell on fertile ground. Apart from the R n B

I played mostly, I also played John Coltrane —

all of this a cliche or at any rate ‘of its time’.

The sober brain of Donald Brook, internalized

in mine — where it nowhere resembled very closely

Brook’s big brain — looked on. The English Department

was dull. Anna introduced me to my own mind as

‘Curious Stranger’ — (to be ‘analysed’). It has grown

curiouser & curiouser, & I have learned to watch it

closely. Watch it, watch it! A favourite phrase —

spoken as by a removalist backing up a piano *

or something large. I was never a removalist like

other poets. I became a poet when a flatmate

kept showing me his poems, for evaluation, &

any demurral of mine met with Well,

you wouldn’t know — as you’re not a poet.

I could do better, I thought, & so I began — doing

better, if not doing actually ‘well’, till around

1976, the point at which this tale began.


When I first met Johnny J his grant

had run out. He used describe himself as a

grifter — which word he enjoyed for its hokey, 1930s

arcane quality. If it was a specific job description

it might well have been John’s: for example, Colin, another friend,

claimed the shoes John wore were his. John

had had them for a year but, caught out, handed them over

(fairly cheerfully). Colin shook his head. I loaned John my thongs

& he walked home. Those days I was on a higher degree scholarship,

though I did nothing but read & write poetry —

more intensely than anyone ever did an M.A. Laurie for a time

wrote movies, though he did not earn a lot by it.

He used don his dark glasses & say emphatically

Think ‘Mogul’. Mostly he did the dole — as we were

all about to do — or worked in the library

setting out to prove, I think, just how many sick days

could be achieved before redundancy. Pam worked

screenprinting for an American hippie employer

who turned gradually straight capitalist exploiter. Pam

had once been a nurse. Now she did the dole, taught film.

And works now in a library — taking probably the maximum number

of sick days (that ‘envelope’ first tested by Laurie).

John Forbes worked in a tinsel factory, &, one time, I was

surprised to see him in a lottery ticket-&-snacks type booth,

like a large Punch & Judy, outside Museum railway station;

then he went in for removing, which built him up

considerably. Big, but never boofy. Most of the poets I knew in the late 70s

worked briefly sorting mail — at Redfern Mail Exchange,

constituting a militant facet of its productivity problem:

Steve took a large supply of dope that he & others smoked

on the roof at lunchtime & on numerous breaks after

& before. In toilets, wash rooms, stairwells & broom cupboards.

Anna worked with him, & Alan Jefferies. (‘Good-o

Steve became a public servant eventually & wrote

speeches for Keating, but took so much time off

he returned at last from the U.S. to find himself

in charge of the photocopy paper, with a lone desk

 — alone — in the storeroom. He resigned.

His great book then was To The Heart Of The World’s Electricity

which I loved: intemperate — exasperated — lush.

Sal, with whom I lived in Redfern,

would catch the bus down Chalmers Street,

past the exchange, to the station —

a book rep, a job she was good at but hated.

Anna & Rae became teachers. (In fact Rae became mayor

of a difficult inner city council.) Nigel, also a teacher. Denis Gallagher

a captain of industry. Did he ever sort mail?

I don’t remember.


‘The European Shoe’ by Michael Benedikt I liked a lot

though not so much his other poems & I wrote a poem,

‘The Mysteries’, because of it, with other influences in there too: quo-

tations, bits ‘in the manner of’ & ‘reminiscent of’. (Of

whom? O’Hara, Ashbery, Robbe-Grillet.) Kenneth Koch

I read a lot then. (‘The Circus’, ‘The Departure From Hydra’,

‘The Railway Stationery’, ‘Fresh Air’, & later

The Art Of Love & other poems). Alan Wearne early recommended to me

Schuyler’s poem about a man mowing the lawn, in which,

I think, Hugo Winterhalter & other composers & conductors

are in the sky. Or are those two poems? It was very good

but I did not begin reading Schuyler as a fan until later —

& it was his later poems, too. John Tranter’s ‘Rimbaud

& the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’ in an early form I liked

though it puzzled me, but I liked its sense of a determined ambition —

a major work, like an Historical Painting. Ron Padgett’s poem,

in which God ‘runs off giggling’ I liked, for the graceful mystery

of its perfection — ‘Some Things For Anne’, was it called?

‘Ruth Etting’s Tears’ I liked but that was later —

there were other Schjeldahl poems I liked then — his version

of ‘Life Studies’, & ‘Hullo

America’ — the attack on Robert Lowell &

Bob Dylan. There were fabulous poems in Strange Days Ahead,

too. John liked Kenward Elmslie as I remember.

Anne Waldman’s first book, Giant Night, I liked. I also liked

Great Balls Of Fire, I Remember, Edwin Denby… &

Lewis Warsh I found curiously comforting. (Long Distance, & one

that was a diary.) Pam liked Tom Clark & various Frenchmen

and Patti Smith. (Others liked Duncan — but I couldn’t see it.)

Some German poets I liked — Bisinger et al — but

I have not kept up, & then it was the 80s

& another poem.


  notes, & names of those not fully identified

Gary Oliver, poet & carouser. We drank the mythical Bin 33.

‘To The Bobbydazzlers’ — see John Forbes, New & Selected Poems, A & R

Laurie Duggan — see New & Selected Poems, UQP

Pam Brown — see New & Selected Poems, Women’s Redress Press; This World, This Place, UQP & 50-50, Little Esther Books

‘Tricks For Danko’ — Robyn Ravlich, see Applestealers anthology

‘Terry’s spit…’ see Laurie Duggan, ‘Cheerio’ in Selected Poems, UQP

‘The Bomb Plot’ Anna Couani, see Italy, Rigmarole of the Hours Press

‘A different John’ — i.e., John Jenkins — see Blind Spot, Gargoyle

‘The Deadshits’ — see Rae Desmond Jones, Orpheus With A Tuba, Gargoyle Poets

‘White Horses, White Horses’ — actually ‘Wet horses’ was the phrase: see Pie O, Fitzroy Brothel, Fitzrot publications

‘Crash or Crash Through’ — Gough Whitlam

‘Grandmother divided etc’ — Ron Padgett & / or Ted Berrigan

‘Is that a baby…’ — John Forbes

‘One false moof’ — Kenneth Koch

‘Austrian accent’ — indicates Rudi Krausmann

I don’t think it was Bin 33 — I think it was Bin 26!

‘Poetry, it’ll be bigger than tennis!’ — Paul Desney, legend has it.

‘Headfirst into the beautiful accident’ — John Tranter, The Blast Area, Gargoyle Poets

‘Rocky Mountains & Tired Indians’ — a book of the same name from Stingy Artist Press

Robert Kenny, Walter Billeter, Retta Hemensley ‘attacked everybody at a reading’ — supposedly top of the bill was a visiting American poet everyone regarded as dull, a turkey. He never knew what was going on. A domestic argument that was probably not explained to him. [See a note earlier in this Journal: here.]

Autobiography & Other Poems — Tony Towle, Coach House South/Sun Books

Notes For Poems — Ken Bolton, Shocking Looking Books

John the Baptist — see Alan Wearne, Public Relations, Gargoyle

‘Bean Spasms’ & ‘Tambourine Life’ — see Ted Berrigan Selected Poems, Penguin

‘spoken as by a removalist’ — this is an evasion, right?

Johnny J — John Jenkins

Colin Mitchell, bon vivant

Museum Railway Station — maybe, in fact, Kings Cross Railway Station [In fact, in Macleay Street, opposite the Fitzroy Fountain.  — J.T., 2016.]

Steve K Kelen: ‘Good-o-Goodooga’ — a line from one of the mnemonic paragraphs the mail exchange memorized so as to identify postcodes in their mail sorting.

Paul Keating, Prime Minister

To the Heart Of The World’s Electricity — Steve Kelen, Señor Press.

Sal Brereton — Ideal Conditions, Magic Sam/EAF; Otis Rush magazine #12/13

Denis Gallagher — see Country, Country, Island Press & Making Do, Club 80 Press

Nigel Roberts, see In Casablanca For The Waters, Wild & Woolley

Denis Gallagher owned a ladder factory

Michael Benedikt, The Body, Wesleyan Uni Press

‘Rimbaud & the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’ — John Tranter: early version in New Poetry magazine; a later version in Selected Poems, Hale & Iremonger

Strange Days Ahead — Michael Brownstein, Z Press

‘John (Forbes) liked Kenward Elmslie’

Giant Night — Anne Waldman, Corinth

Great Balls Of Fire — Ron Padgett, Holt Rinehart & Winston, later reissued by Coffee House

I Remember — Joe Brainard, Full Court Press, later Penguin

Edwin Denby — see Collected Poems, Uni of California

Long Distance — Lewis Warsh, Ferry Press, & Part Of My History, Coachhouse Press

Tom Clark — see When Things Get Tough On Easy Street, Black Sparrow

Patti Smith — Ha Ha Houdini, City Lights

‘others liked Duncan’ — Robert Duncan

Gerard Bisinger


This poem was first published as a booklet
by Little Esther Books in 1999. The back cover read, in part:

What were they thinking in the 70s?
What where they doing?
What were they on?
What did they read?



Art Beck: Two Latin poets

  Art Beck

  Romance and Bromance:

  A Tale of Two Poets and Thousands of Kisses
  I. The Upright Poet and the Disreputable Poem

Paragraph 1 follows: 1:

There’s a much quoted last line in the fourth poem of Martial’s first book of epigrams, lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba. In the Loeb, David Shackleton-Bailey translation: ‘My page is wanton, but my life is virtuous’.


This distinction between literature and life is often traced back to lines in a poem of Catullus, written over a century earlier than Martial’s: nam castum esse decet pium poetam/ ipsum versiculos nihil necessest. As rendered in the 1913 Loeb, C.P. Goold version: ‘For the sacred poet ought to be chaste himself, though his poems need not be so.’


Martial, who masterfully incorporated obscene language and the unmentionable in his epigrams, admired and acknowledged Catullus as an ancestral model. So he may well have had Catullus’ lines in mind. But the two poems in which they appear (Catullus carmen 16 and Martial epigrams I, 4) are so different, that perhaps we should pause before interpreting the sentiment so similarly.


Martial’s epigram I, 4 is an apologia, addressed to the Emperor Domitian. Catullus’ carmen 16, on the other hand, is addressed to two young compadres, Aurelius and Furius, who were ridiculing his poems. It’s a poem, to borrow Yeats’ phrase, written to ‘mock mockers’. Its crude Latin invective was generally bowdlerized in translation prior to the last half of the twentieth century. Here’s my, somewhat interpretive, but I think reasonably accurate rendering. (This is probably a good place to say, that ‘interpretive but reasonably accurate’ will be my translation approach with all the poems in this article.)


Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,
Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi,
qui me ex versiculis meis putastis,
quod sunt molliculi, parum pudicum.
nam castum esse decet pium poetam
ipsum, versiculos nihil necessest;
qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem,
si sunt molliculi ac parum pudici,
et quod pruriat incitare possunt,
non dico pueris, sed his pilosis
qui duros nequeunt movere lumbos,
vos, quod milia multa basiorum
legistis, male me marem putatis?
pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.


I’ll shove it up your ass and fuck your face,
Aurelius you queer, you pansy, Furius.
Don’t confuse the poet with his poems. Just
because they’re lovey-dovey, don’t assume
I lack decency. A poet has to be upright
and pure, but good verse needn’t be.
Because it’s only wise and charming when
it’s a little gentle and dirty. That’s what
it takes to spark an urge. I mean, I’m not
writing for school boys here, but old goats
too stiff hipped to hump. You read my
thousand, thousand kisses and presume
I have a male malady? Fuck you
in the ass, and fuck your smart mouths.
  II. Thousands of kisses


The milia multa kisses that inspired his friends’ jibes occur in several Catullus poems. One, is Catullus carmen 48:


Mellitos oculos tuos, Iuventi,
si quis me sinat usque basiare,
usque ad milia basiem trecenta,
nec mi umquam, videar, satur futurus,
non si densior aridis aristis
sit nostrae seges osculationis.
Your honey sweet eyes,
Juventius, if I could just keep
kissing them — three hundred
thousand kisses — while we harvest
the sun ripe wheatfield of our
kisses — and I’ll still be hungry for more.


In our time, this poem addressed to an adolescent male, might seem the perfect candidate for Aurelius and Furius’ accusation of effeminacy and indecency. Especially since Catullus has two other poems in which he separately threatens to pedicate (carmen 15) and irrumate (carmen 21) Aurelius if he messes with Catullus’ toy-boy. But Roman times weren’t our times.


The mores of the age sanctioned these kind of same sex relations, but only with slaves or underclass youths. The classicist and Catullus translator Peter Green did idly wonder if Juventius may have been a member of the venerable Juventi family. For me, the name Juventius seems more a play on ‘youth’, similar to the way Catullus’ ‘Lesbia’ evokes Sappho as a muse and exemplar of poetic love. If Juventius was, in fact, a highborn young Juventi, Catullus would have been accused of more than just being parem pudici (somewhat indecent).


Similarly, he might also have been in for a world of hurt if he addressed his famous adulterous love sequence to Clodia, a senator’s wife, rather than ‘Lesbia’. There are two notable ‘kisses’ poems to Lesbia/Clodia. In carmen 7, Catullus wants more kisses than all the grains of sand in the Libyan desert and all the stars in the sky. But these exhortations pale before the haunting liebestod of carmen 5.


Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis.
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut nequis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum


Let’s live, my Lesbia, and love:
All the whispered hisses of the old
don’t amount to a single cent.
Suns set, then rise again. For us,
once our brief light sets, there’s just
night and an endless sleep. So, give
me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
a thousand more, another hundred.
Until we’re lost in so many thousands,
that no reckoning jealous fate
exacts, can ever extinguish
the kisses we can’t begin to count.


To me, there’s an essential difference between this poem and the Juventius poem. Juventius seems a possession, albeit a prized, lovely possession. A ripe wheatfield of sex. But notice the only explicit kisses are Catullus’ on Juventius’ eyes. There’s not a strong sense of mutuality.


And even though Lesbia is mea Lesbia, it’s Catullus who’s possessed in 5. The poem evokes, not a sunny afternoon, but danger, death, desperation and a helpless, clandestine eruption of life. It doesn’t really matter whether the illicit lovers’ mutual kisses exceed the stars, they’ve become the stars.


So, reading the vulgarity of Catullus 16 after 5, you want to paraphrase William Blake and ask : did he who made Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus make Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo? A great poet, but a conflicted young man?


Well, if Catullus’ Lesbia poems are anything, they’re a record of ecstasy and agony. And, his bros, Aurelius and Furius do seem to touch a real nerve. Catullus admits his poem is molliculi (tender, effeminate), but perhaps the better sense of the accusation is ‘pussywhipped’. I think what Catullus 16 ends up saying well is that he may indeed be a lovesick puppy, but the cause is a very stiff, throbbing prick.


Even so, the poem still seems somewhat disjointed and wandering and difficult to reconcile with the ‘romantic’ Catullus. So, what this wandering essay is going to wonder about is whether Martial, a century later, may have posited his own ‘Catullus reconciliation’.

  III. Lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba.
  The Censorious Emperor and the Careerist Poet.


The Emperor Domitian is a frequent addressee in Martial’s epigrams, flattered in his lifetime, denounced after his death. The flattery is sometimes witty, often saccharine, and at times, perhaps even sarcastic. The subject is too complex to explore here. But, Martial I, 4, seems almost a collegial apologia; a poem in which the megalomaniac Domitian, who eventually took to demanding he be called ‘lord and god’, is addressed on an informal citizen to first-citizen basis.


Contigeris nostros, Caesar, si forte libellos,
      terrarum dominum pone supercilium.
consuevere iocos vestri quoque ferre triumphi,
      materiam dictis nec pudet esse ducem.
qua Thymelen spectas derisoremque Latinum,
      illa fronte precor carmina nostra legas.
innocuos censura potest permittere lusus:
      lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba.


If you chance upon my book Caesar, relax the raised
      eyebrows that govern the world. Triumphators have
to endure rude jokes. And commanders aren’t shamed
      by their troops’ coarse marching chants. Read my
poems with the smile you can’t help when watching
      Thymele and that scamp Latinus in the mime show:
A Censor is allowed some harmless fun. My pages
      are shameless, an honest living.


Certainly, none of the invective of Catullus 16 here. But does lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba essentially say what nam castum esse decet pium poetam/ ipsum versiculos nihil necessest does? You may notice my (attempted) translation of that last line is somewhat different than Shackleton-Bailey’s ‘my page is wanton, but my life is virtuous’. It also differs from, say, James Michie’s ‘my life is strict, however lax my page’ and a number of similar interpretations. Neither of the above are mistranslations. It’s just that they summarize, and in the process, make prosaic choices. Conversely — at least as I read the Latin — the translation question posed is a little more complex and the ‘correct choice’ may be ‘all of the above’.


Let’s start with the word proba which means ‘good’, but usually in the sense of ‘honest’ or ‘true’, or ‘proven’ with the implication of ‘the real thing’. If say, we were talking about whiskey — ‘100 proof’. ‘Virtuous’ sure, but virtue to the Romans was a somewhat broader, ‘manly’ concept. (Closer, maybe to what Catullus 16 was defending?) Anyway, ‘honest’, I think, is the simplest, as well as most productive, English equivalent.


And then there’s vita. As succinctly defined by that invaluable online Latin resource, William Whittaker’s Words.
vita, vitae N F life, career, livelihood; mode of life


So what I think the line, in context, says is:

  • My page is lascivious, my life honest
  • My page is lascivious, an honest occupation
  • My page is lascivious, honest life.

All three of the above, because ironic resonance is what Martial’s epigrams are all about, and the Latin reader doesn’t need to make a translation choice. Rather, isn’t this the kind of harmonic fugue that transforms discourse into poetry?

  IV: Irony and emphasis


As I’ve mentioned, my intent in this article is to take a stab at reconciling the lascivious love in Catullus 5 and the honest mockery in 16. And to do so, with some Martial poems. But the path to this is circuitous and might benefit from snaking through political territory. So, indulge me with a short detour.


In Reading the Imperial Revolution an intriguing article on Martial’s Book X, the classicist Hannah Fearnley quotes Martial’s contemporary and friend, the grammarian Quintillian on a language concept he termed ‘emphasis’. A technique ‘I think is most popular. …One in which we wish to incite a certain suspicion without actually saying it. Not the opposite of what we want to say, as is the case of irony, but something hidden that is left to be discovered by the hearer…’


Perhaps what Quintillian calls ‘emphasis’, we might characterize as ‘inference’. And it’s a technique particularly suited to navigating periods of political oppression and un-free speech. Book X marks the period in Martial’s publishing life that coincided with the assassination of Domitian and his replacement by the senator, Nerva and his soon to be successor, Trajan.


Martial celebrated this transition in his epigram X, 72:


Frustra, Blanditiae, venitis ad me
attritis miserabiles labellis:
dicturus dominum deumque non sum.
iam non est locus hac in urbe vobis…


Now my flatteries are a waste of time,
my shameless groveling lips no longer
mouth out ‘lord and god’. There’s no
more place for that in the City….


The epigram goes on to praise the new imperator, ‘the most upright of all senators bringing dry, homespun truth back from the dead’.


A rebirth from the totalitarian atmosphere under Domitian described by the contemporary historian Tacitus:


… as a former age had witnessed the extreme of liberty, so we witnessed the extreme of servitude, when the informer robbed us of the interchange of speech and hearing. We should have lost memory as well as voice, had it been as easy to forget as to keep silence. Now at last our spirit is returning.


But the last lines of Martial’s X, 72 are ironic:


hoc sub principe, si sapis, caveto
verbis, Roma, prioribus loquaris


Under this princeps, Rome, you’d be wise to
avoid talking the way you used to talk.


Fearnley quotes a similar sentiment regarding the new liberty from Pliny the Younger: ‘You command us to be free, and we shall be free; you order us to express ourselves, and we shall do so’. The irony is that the Roman people are no longer capable of liberating themselves. What they’re enjoying is the top-down freedom of a palace coup.


But Quintillian’s emphasis, as he points out, is something different from simple ironic paradox. There’s a much earlier Martial epigram, Book I, 78 , that may (or may not) be taken as an example of emphasis.


Indignas premeret pestis cum tabida fauces
      inque ipsos vultus serperet atra lues,
siccis ipse genis flentes hortatus amicos
      decrevit Stygios Festus adire lacus.
nec tamen obscuro pia polluit ora veneno
      aut torsit lenta tristia fata fame,
sanctam Romana vitam sed morte peregit
      dimistique animam nobiliore rogo.
hanc mortem fatis magni praeferre Catonis
      fama potest: huius Caesar amicus erat.


An undeserved malignancy fed on his throat,
      and dark disease began to snake into his face.
Dry eyed himself but consoling his weeping friends,
      Festus chose to depart to the Stygian pools.
He didn’t pollute his pious lips with subtle
      poison, nor drag things out with slow starvation, but
ended a virtuous life with a Roman death,
      liberating his soul with a quick noble act.
A death even more talked about than great Cato’s
      example: because Festus was a friend of Caesar.


The usual interpretation of this poem recognizes the surface irony of the last two lines. The stern hold-out republican, Cato, killed himself because he refused to accept clemency from Julius Caesar. He died an enemy of Caesar. Festus, on the other hand was Domitian’s friend and still killed himself.


But, I think it’s a rather lame irony, really unworthy of Martial’s usual subtlety, especially after the clinical description of what seems throat cancer; the honest pathos of Festus’ farewells,; the politically charged designation as ‘great’ (magni) of the Republican exemplar we call Cato the Younger.


I’ve tried to quietly imply a title that isn’t a title in the original, which just says ‘Caesar’s friend’. But the amici Caesaris (‘Friends of Caesar’) was a senatorial advisory council to the emperor, a sort of honorary ‘kitchen cabinet.’ And under the increasingly paranoid Domitian, membership could be both humiliating and dangerous. Domitian may have been relatively restrained at the time of Martial’s Book I, but contemporary accounts agree that by the end of his reign, Domitian had no friends. Rather, he cultivated a spider web of informers. Whom he also routinely condemned on the testimony of other informers.


So, is it a stretch to infer the suggestion that Festus suffered a deadly choking disease because he was one of the amici Caesaris? Presumably, there was a real Festus, but you just have to ask yourself — how would this poem read if Festus was an imaginary figure? This is either a poem in which nine powerfully descriptive lines are followed by a tacked on, coincidentally ironic ending. Or a poem in which the tenth line, organically and subtly, uses emphasis to whisper what can’t be said out loud.


In the context of the Tacitus quote above, I tend toward the latter conclusion. Paradoxically, that reading might even pass muster with Domitian, because he might take it to confirm his growing suspicions that his amici were his enemies. A fear that, in the end, came to pass.

  V. The Sweet Bird of Love.


While Quinitillian’s emphasis might seem particularly suited to the politics of the early Imperial period, the technique may also apply another, non-political, example from Cato’s late Republic — Catullus’ two poems to Lesbia’s sparrow.


Catullus’ carmen 2, on surface, is a charming tribute to his lady love’s pet bird.

Passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare appetenti
et acris solet incitare morsus,
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescio quid lubet iocari,
et solaciolum sui doloris,
credo, ut tum gravis acquiescet ardor;
sit solaciolum sui doloris,
tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem
et tristis animi levare curis!
(tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae
pernici aureolum fuisse malum
quod zonam soluit diu ligatam.)


Here’s an 1894 prose translation by Leonard C. Smithers from Tufts University’s Perseus site:


Sparrow, darling of my girl, with which she plays, which she presses to her bosom, to whom she gives her fingertip, arousing sharp bites as he seeks after it, when gleaming with desire of me she jests a light joke of it, so that, I think, it is a solace for her pain when the heavy burning is at rest. Could I but play with you just as she does and lighten the sad cares of mind. (… This was as pleasing to me as the golden apple was to the fleet footed girl, which unloosed her girdle long-time fastened.)


This seems a fairly simple poem, but there’s a lot of variance in even literal-intent translations. In part because there’s disagreement about whether the last three parenthesized lines, belong to this poem, or represent a fragment of another poem. But translations also vary because of where the translator stands on a longstanding dispute as to whether the Lesbia’s sparrow is simply a sparrow, or an inference of another kind of ‘pecker’. To wit, Catullus’ penis.


Carmen 3, the other ‘sparrow: poem, seems also open to a similar interpretation. In Smithers’ rendering:


O mourn, you Loves and Cupids, and all men of gracious mind. Dead is the sparrow of my girl, sparrow, darling of my girl, which she loved more than her eyes; for it was sweet as honey, and its mistress knew it as well as a girl knows her own mother. Nor did it move from her lap, but hopping round first one side then the other, to its mistress alone it continually chirped. Now it fares along that path of shadows from where nothing may ever return. May evil befall you, savage glooms of Orcus, which swallow up all things of fairness: which have snatched away from me the comely sparrow. O wretched deed! O hapless sparrow! Now on your account my girl’s sweet eyes, swollen, redden with tear-drops.


Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you distinguish between allegory and Quintillian’s emphasis, you might find yourself reconciling the sparrow-penis debate by having it both ways. Allegory uses the symbolic to metaphorically define reality. Emphasis (as I understand it) starts with explicit reality and finds something quietly implicit.


The beauty of Catullus’ 2 may be that it describes a real, not allegorical, bird that can’t help but become a verbal sex toy of sorts in the lovers’ heating dialogue. What we have may not especially be a clever allegory, but a conversational record where every surface word has its own inner pulse.


Catullus 3, on the other hand, may well be pure allegorical apology for the premature passing of the poet’s own loving passer. And an admission that the insatiable lover of Catullus 5 (and self described stud of 16) has, alas, his limitations. There’s a wonderful Dorothy Parker take on the second sparrow poem.


From A Letter From Lesbia:
… So, praise the gods, Catullus is away!
And let me tend you this advice, my dear:
Take any lover that you will, or may,
Except a poet. All of them are queer.
It’s just the same — a quarrel or a kiss
Is but a tune to play upon his pipe.
He’s always hymning that or wailing this;
Myself, I much prefer the business type.
That thing he wrote, the time the sparrow died —
(Oh, most unpleasant — gloomy, tedious words!)
I called it sweet, and made believe I cried;
The stupid fool! I’ve always hated birds …
  VI. Martial’s Take on All This.


If you’ve read this far, thanks for your patience. We’re finally getting somewhere close to where I wanted to go. The scholarly dispute over whether or not Catullus’ sparrow poems contain double meanings seems to have become a dispute only in post-Renaissance interpretations. The earliest extant source manuscript we have for Catullus’ poems dates from the fourteenth century, but he’s mentioned by a number of Roman empire era writers, perhaps none more than Martial. David Shackleton-Bailey, the translator of the current Loeb complete Martial, catalogs seven Martial epigrams that play on the theme of ‘Catullus’ sparrow.’ But, despite the fact that all seven impart a salacious meaning, Shackleton-Bailey refuses to extend Martial’s interpretation to Catullus’ intent.


Conversely, the 15th century Florentine scholar Angelo Poliziano cites a Martial poem to do exactly that, on the presumption that Martial was well qualified to read sex into the sparrow poems.


The sparrow of Catullus in my opinion allegorically conceals a certain more obscene meaning which I cannot explain with my modesty intact. Martial persuades me to believe this in that epigram of which these are the last verses:
…quae si to fuerint quot ille dixit,
      donabo tibi passerem Catulli
For he would be too inept a poet (which is wrong to believe) if he said he would give the sparrow of Catullus, and not the other thing I suspect, to the boy after the kisses. What this is, for the modesty of my pen, I leave to each reader to conjecture from the native salaciousness of the sparrow.


The Latin lines above, as translated by Shackleton Bailey (from Martial XI, 6) say: …Give me kisses, Catullan kisses. If they shall be as many as he said, I will give you Catullus’ sparrow.


S-B notes:


clearly with an obscene double sense here, but that is M’s contribution. Catullus meant no such thing, nor is M. likely to have thought he did.


Well, piss on that learned opinion. Pontificating some 2000 years after the fact. Shackelton-Bailey evokes the image of Yeats’ shuffling Catullan Scholars who ‘cough in ink’. We should keep in mind that Martial wasn’t writing just for his own amusement; he had readers who were not only familiar with Catullus’ ‘sparrow’, but presumably shared the double-entendre take expressed quite blatantly in, for example, Martial’s epigram VII, 14. (jauntily translated by Susan McLean):


Aulus, a monstrous evil has afflicted
my girl — she’s lost her plaything and her dear:
not like the one for whom Catullus’ Lesbia,
losing her naughty sparrow shed a tear…

…She’s lost a boy just twelve years old whose dong
was not yet fully eighteen inches long.


It’s hard to doubt that — whatever Catullus’ intent — his sparrow poems, a century after they were written, had taken on a distinctly erotic life. And does Catullus’ intent really matter? Rilke once wrote to an admirer who asked what a certain image (a ‘black monk’) in one of his poems meant:


I just wanted to make a black monk in the landscape against the sea….The interpretation always rests with the reader and must be free and unlimited… the more meanings there is room for in (images), the broader and more real they are.


Catullus, sadly, is long dead. His sparrow lives on. And if it wants to be a naughty pecker, that’s a prerogative of the living poem, not the late poet. The sparrow poems (as we used to say) allow different strokes for different folks.

  VII. Give me, Kisses, Catullan Kisses…


But what did Martial mean by ‘Catullan kisses’? And what might Catullus be talking about, in carmen 16, when he alludes to something ‘a little gentle and dirty’ that’s needed ‘to spark an urge’, not in schoolboys, but in ‘old goats’ stiff in all the wrong places? Here’s where I better warn you that, from this point forward, I intend to shamelessly speculate. I’m an amateur, ‘independent scholar’ who believes that — not unlike religion — scholarship is most interesting when it questions and imagines, and most pernicious when it’s dogmatic. My purpose is to entertain and wonder about things, not preach.


In epigram XI, 46 Martial describes an age-old, senile malady as clinically as he narrated Festus’ throat cancer in I, 78. But in this case, he holds out a cure.


Iam nisi per somnum non arrigis et tibi, Mevi,
      incipit in medios meiere verpa pedes,
truditur et digites pannucea mentula lassis
      nec levat extinctum sollicitata caput.
quid miseros frustra cunnos culosque lacessis?
      summa petas: illic mentula vivit anus.


It only awakens, now, in your sleep, Mevius. And
      when you piss in the middle of the night, your
knob just dribbles on your feet. You keep trying to coax
      the shriveled thing with your fingers. But no amount
of begging will lift that spiritless head. Squishing it
      into cunts and assholes is worse than useless.
Face it, it’s time to elevate your appetite. It takes
      a sophisticated palate to stir an old cock to life.


It’s an argument he makes more succinctly in IV, 50:


Quid me, Thai, senem subinde dicis?
nemo est, Thai, senex ad irrumendum.


Why do you keep calling me old, Thais? No
man’s an old man, Thais, pronging a mouth.


Although IV, 50 also seems to also impart a crude Ralph Kramdenish threat, both epigrams play on the trope that old men, in particular, greatly benefit from certain ‘kisses’. Could this be what Catullus was alluding to in carmen 16?: ‘…that’s what it takes to spark an urge… ‘not in schoolboys’ … but old goats too stiff hipped to hump’


Are these the kind of kisses Aurelius and Furius are accusing Catullus of needing? He certainly wasn’t an old man, he died, after all, at 30. But, he could be envisioned as a flash in the pan puer whose sparrow chirped and died. If so, where’s the harm in that kind of revival by his wise, more experienced lover?


But as I mentioned above, if the romance and caresses and thousands of kisses of Catullus 5 are anything, they’re mutual. Dare I say, sixty-nine thousand kisses?


Aurelius and Furius may have had something in mind along the lines of Martial’s epigram XI, 23:


Illa salax nimium naec paucis nota puellis
      stare Lino desit mentula. lingua, cave.


That oversexed prick more than a few girls know so well,
      won’t stand up for Linus. Uh-oh, tongue, your turn.


That would be a very crass interpretation of one of the great love poems of all time. But maybe just the interpretation we might expect from Catullus’ crude homies.


The scenario of mutual oral sex plays out easily in our post-feminist, liberated imaginations. This wasn’t the case in the last great period of Classical scholarship, the Victorian and post-Victorian age. And even current-day classicists seem afflicted by a Victorian-hangover conviction that cunnilingus was a fringe vice and matter of universal disgust in the ancient world. They bring up something called the os impurum, an affliction caused by oral sex evidenced by horrid halitosis. Well, Martial frequently talks about cunnilingus and always mockingly, with halitosis to boot.


But, none of this is either new nor old. When I was a teen, masturbation was rumored to cause hair on the palms. And our Irish monsignor, in what passed for male sex education, warned us that if the cops caught us necking with girls in cars, they’d make us lick our fingers. That thought was supposed to cause retching yechs. But then, we were schoolboys. There was a Sopranos episode in which old Uncle Junior’s sweet lady friend naively lets it out that he likes to go down on her. Tony and his mafioso cohorts’ Italian response isn’t all that different from the grief I imagine Aurelius and Furius may have given Catullus.


I guess what I’m trying to say is — cultures change, mores change, but human genes are constant and actual physical sexual behavior doesn’t change that much. Lovers did then what lovers do now. The twenty-something poet Catullus and his thirty-something, sex-tutor Clodia probably explored each other not much differently than Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salome. Rilke had the good luck to find a kinder, more scrupulous initiator. Catullus had to learn love the hard way. But all that came afterward. And, if you want a more Roman example, does anyone doubt Cleopatra would be shy about requesting some very un-Roman kisses from Antony. And maybe, earlier from Caesar, as well?

  VIII: Catullus and Martial, the Bromance of Opposites


On surface there are huge differences between the two poets. Catullus lived in the last, anarchic days of the Roman Republic. He was a patrician from a wealthy family, and hobnobbed with the great political players of his day. His lover Clodia was married to a powerful senator and came from a powerful, if morally disreputable, family in her own right. Catullus’ poems are a torrent of youth, love, brilliance, rage, and a life cut off before it barely began. What would he have written if he’d lived another 30 years? We ask similar questions about Rimbaud (despite his wilful post-early-twenties silence).


Martial emigrated to Rome from his native Spain in his twenties. But he doesn’t seem to have found himself as a poet much before he turned forty. He lived in a Rome where imperial cultural authority could be whimsical and border on the totalitarian. He’s thought to have arrived in the City under the patronage of his very successful fellow-Spaniards, Seneca and Lucan, both of whom were not long after forced to commit suicide by Nero. In Martial’s poems, his livelihood seems always tenuous.


Catullus endures for us in the richness of his romantic poems and the agony of love gone sour. Martial may be the most explicitly sexual Roman poet. but he seems to not have a romantic bone in his entire body of work. Catullus is the master of simply stated raw sincerity; Martial, of the surgical bon mot and middle-aged irony. Still, Catullus remains Martial’s acknowledged model and enabler. Martial’s glory is his ability to find elegant poetry in the grit, obscenity and wise-ass ridicule of the language of the Roman streets. And Catullus did this before him like no other Roman poet.


But beyond the routine use of the kind of language you’re not supposed to use at dinner, much less in poetry, Catullus presents the kind of imagined Capitol that a provincial poet might set out for.


That Rome was, of course, supplanted by the Rome of Martial’s time. But if the child is father to the man, Catullus’ young man’s Rome may have pulsed as a city almost personally remembered. Because Rome for Martial was mea Roma, as much a muse as mea Lesbia for Catullus. Similar to Basho in Kyoto, perhaps Martial wandering Rome, yearned for the ghost of Catullus’ city still lingering in poems like these.

  Catullus 33


O furum optime balneariorum
Vibenni pater et cinaede fili,
(nam dextra pater inquinatiore,
culo filius est voraciore)
cur non exilium malasque in oras
itis, quandoquidem patris rapinae
notae sunt populo et nates pilosas
fili, non potes asse venditare.


Oh, you’re the finest connivers
in the bathhouse: Father Vibennius
and his faggot son. (The old man has
dirtier hands, but the kid’s asshole is a
gluttonous pig.) It’s time you exiled yourselves
to some miasmal shore. Your father’s
pilfering is out, now. Everyone knows.
And your hairy butt isn’t worth a cent.
  Catullus 41


Ameana puella defututa
tota milia me decem poposcit,
ista turpiculo puella naso,
decoctoris amica Formiani.
propinqui, quibus est puella curae,
amicos medicosque conuocate:
non est sana puella, nec rogare
qualis sit solet aes imaginosum.


That fucked out juvenile Ameana
asked me for a whole ten thousand.
Bankrupt Mamurra’s little playmate,
the girl with that so ugly nose.
Her family’s still responsible for this
sick kid. Get help, call the doctors,
talk to her friends,
make her look in the mirror.
  Catullus 47


Porci et Socration, duae sinistrae
Pisonis, scabies famesque mundi,
uos Veraniolo meo et Fabullo
uerpus praeposuit Priapus ille?
uos convivia lauta sumptuose
de die facitis, mei sodales
quaerunt in trivio vocationes?


Porcius and Little Socrates: Piso’s underhanded
pair of extortioners, itching to starve the world:
Did that hard on, that fucking Priapus, promote
you over my dear Veraniolus and Fabullus? So
you can host elegant, sumptuous banquets in
the middle of the day, while my compadres
wander the streets, waiting for an invitation?
  Catullus 57


Pulcre convenit improbis cinaedis,
Mamurrae pathicoque Caesarique.
Nec mirum: maculae pares utrisque,
urbana altera et illa Formiana,
impressae resident nec eluentur:
morbosi pariter, gemelli utrique,
uno in lecticulo erudituli ambo,
non hic quam ille magis vorax adulter,
riuales socii puellularum.
Pulcre conuenit improbis cinaedis.


Those prancing pretty boys — Mamurra and his
butt-pal Caesar: They get along beautifully.
No wonder both the rube and the urbanite
have matching spots that won’t wash out
no matter how they scrub. They’re twins
who share. The same bed. The same diseases.
Even similar literary pretensions. One as
voracious an adulterer as the other. Competing
partners with the girls, they get along
beautifully, those prancing pretty-boys.


It probably wouldn’t have been lost on Martial that several of the poems above (portraying Julius Caesar, his father-in-law Piso and Caesar’s chief of engineering Mamurra), would probably be the end of someone like Martial if written about their equivalents in Domitian’s Rome. While their invective, in fact, earned Catullus a peace-offering dinner invitation from the original Caesar. Martial’s own invective at a ‘Caesar’ of his youth, addressed to the doomed poet Lucan’s widow, was written safely long after the fact, with none of the merriment of Catullus’ s mockery.

  Book VII, 21


Haec est illa dies, magni quae conscia partus
      Lucanum populus et tibi, Polla, dedit.
heu! Nero crudelis nullaque invisior umbra,
      debuit hoc saltem non licuisse tibi.


Today we commemorate a great birthday, the day
      that gave Lucan to humanity, and to you, Polla.
Damn it, vicious Nero, for no ghost more despised, this
      victim, at least, you shouldn’t have been allowed.

There’s an enigmatic Martial epigram addressed to ‘Catullus’.

  XII, 73


Hereden tibi me, Catulle, dicis.
non credam, nisi legero, Catulle.


You tell me you’ve named me your heir, Catullus.
I won’t believe it, Catullus, until I’ve seen the ashes.


The usual interpretation is that the addressee isn’t the poet Catullus, but probably some character who Martial has named Catullus. The literalist ‘point’ is that the poem refers to the practice of falsely telling legacy hopers they’re in your will, just so they’ll do you favors. But why does Martial choose a name so important to him? For me, the resonance, the Quintillian emphasis as it were, may be a quiet homage beneath the surface quip. How can I collect your poetic legacy, Catullus, when your poems are immortal?

  IX: Coda: Rip van Winkle


Martial returned to his native Spain in 98 A.D. when he was around 58 years old. He died there five or six years later. Sometime, in that ‘retirement’, he wrote epigram XII, 59. It starts with a nod to Catullus. There’s an almost dreamlike quality to the poem which begins with the narrator returning to Rome after a fifteen year absence. It’s unlikely Martial was ever away from Rome for very long since arriving there in his twenties, and he’d only been back in Spain for a few years. So if the speaker is Martial, it’s a Martial just imagining a return. But there’s no doubt this poem’s Catullus is, not only, Catullus the poet, but the poet of carmen 5.


What’s quizzical is whether the poem’s ending imagery relates to the poem’s opening. And whether the reader — as Rilke said, it’s always up to the reader — wants to imagine a dreaming Martial and a dreaming Catullus finally awakening to meet in their eternal City.


Tantum dat tibi Roma basiorum
post annos modo quindecim reverso
quantum Lesbia non dedit Catullo.
te vicinia tota, te pilosus
hircoso premit osculo colonus:
hinc instat tibi textor, inde fullo,
hinc sutor modo pelle basiata,
hinc menti dominus periculosi,
hinc dexiocholus, inde lippus
fellatorque recensque cunnilingus,
iam tanti tibi non fuit redire.


When you return after fifteen years,
Rome greets you with all the kisses
Lesbia never gave Catullus. The whole
neighborhood descends on you: The farmer
with lips sprouting bristles hugs you like a bear.
Then the weaver grabs you, next the pissy fuller,
then the shoemaker who’s just licked his cowhide,
then the proud owner of a sharp protruding chin,
then a cripple, and a runny-eye. And, here they
come  — that cocksucker and cuntlapper, fresh from
their nap. Was this worth the long trip back?



Radio: Richard Connolly, 2011:
ABC Radio


  Richard Connolly
  talks with John Tranter:

  The Australian Broadcasting Commission and Australian Writing

Summary: ABC Radio producer Richard Connolly in conversation with John Tranter, in Balgowlah, in Sydney, New South Wales, on 11 May, Wednesday, 2011. The topic is ‘The ABC and Australian writing’. The Australian Broadcasting Commission changed its name to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 1 July,1983. The initialisation remained the same. You can also read in this issue of this magazine the text of the 1982 paper by Richard Connolly that describes his visit under the aegis of a Churchill Fellowship to radio stations in Europe and England in the early 1970s and the events that led directly to the foundation of ‘Sunday Night Radio Two’, Australia’s first long and serious radio program.

Paragraph 1 follows: 1:

John Tranter: I just thought I’d start by asking when did you first join the ABC?


Richard Connolly: In 1956 in June, or July.


John Tranter: Did you go into Education?


Richard Connolly: No, no. I went in to Religious Broadcasts. That was the only thing I was good for, as it were. I had come back from Rome where I studied for four years, and I worked as a proof-reader at what was then quite a flourishing paper, with a ninety-thousand circulation weekly, the «Catholic Weekly», and I found a job there as a proof-reader, and went to Sydney University as a night owl for four years.


John Tranter: I did that for one year and I found it very difficult.


Richard Connolly at 84, in 2011. Photo John Tranter.
Richard Connolly at 84, in 2011. Photo John Tranter.
Richard Connolly: Bloody hell, yeah. I was married in the middle of it and by the time I graduated, I had finished the university course and had had two kids, but it was very hard, but because I had already been studying for years, particularly the four years in Rome, I was pretty much able to cope with the study and I had a job as a proof-reader, where you started at nine and you finished at five. Do you know what I mean? You have no worries after that.


John Tranter: You go home with a clear mind.


Richard Connolly: Like my son, the pilot. He says, you walk off the plane and it’s finished. It’s worrying maybe while you’re up there.


John Tranter: Yes, and once you get down, you can put it all behind you. And then there was an important thing that happened for you, you were given a scholarship to go to Europe, and look at radio production technology. That was the sixties.

Photo: John Thompson, 1960, National Archives of Australia, A1200:L36561
Photo: John Thompson, 1960, National Archives of Australia, A1200:L36561


Richard Connolly: That was a long time there, I’d spent four years with Religious Broadcasts, where I learned a lot of things. I mean, in those days, where I actually produced poetry, where I learned the basics of microphones in a way that I don’t think that anybody learns nowadays. And in those days, as a specialist trainee, you went around every department of the ABC. And I went around in my first six to eight weeks, and there was only radio, and television started in 1956 after I joined, and in fact, that’s why there was a job there. I spent  — it must have been a couple of weeks with John Thompson, and I immediately knew where I wanted to be in the ABC.


This was in 1956, but I had to wait until 1959-60, I had to wait for four years in Religious Broadcasts, then about another six years in Schools’ Broadcasts, mainly, but also in language — the ABC used to broadcast English to Indonesia, English to Papua New Guinea when they were still emerging.


John Tranter: I was going to ask you, you mentioned John Thompson, who was a poet and an ABC producer.


Richard Connolly: He was a wonderful, wonderful broadcaster.


John Tranter: He was. Did you have anything to do with the 1959 documentary, the Ern Malley program, ‘The Ern Malley Story’?


Richard Connolly: I remember it, but I had nothing to do with it. But I inherited John’s office, and when I joined Radio Drama and Features, I was features editor, and John was what they called a writer-producer, so he could please himself what he did, and what he did was extraordinary stuff. Ivan Smith was another name. Have you heard of him?


John Tranter: Yes, I have. I knew his name quite well in the early days of the ABC. He used to produce a lot of literary material.


George Ivan Smith, photo United Nations Photo: Mr. George Ivan Smith,
George Ivan Smith, photo United Nations Photo: Mr. George Ivan Smith,
Richard Connolly: Yes. Not enough Australian stuff was done when Ivan was editor. But he was a very, very gifted man. He decided that I was doing interesting work in Education and he managed to get a job made for me in assisting him, in the Features neck of the woods, and he had very interesting people doing very interesting things and I was able to produce very intricate… Robert Williams from Sydney University, I remember, producing a program called ‘The London Coffee House’, all about the time of the coffee houses, and you encountered all those people, Dryden and so on, and the institutions…


But it was later on, when Ivan had retired… in 1971 I was given a Churchill Fellowship, and the purpose of it was twofold. It was to study spoken word radio in Italy, France, Germany, and the UK. In fact, I was eternally grateful that Daryl Miley, who was then one of the bosses, he was the Head of Radio, and I just wanted to go and study radio on the Continent, because everybody who ever went and studied radio in Europe did it in Britain. Because I had languages, not very good German, but very good French and Italian, I wanted to go and find out what they did. But Daryl, thank God, said look, the BBC has started all this public radio business; you’d better go there too. Which I did, and found quite a difference in their approach, but a very solid organisation, especially in those days. But anyway, I did all that, over about six months or so.


My German wasn’t really good enough, except you still do get things. I learnt all about… the Germans had their technicians… they went to a special sort of technical college, and the technicians had all been to this technical outfit and they were all of a standard that you only dreamed of. In the ABC, there were certainly wonderful, innovative talents among the techs at the ABC, don’t get me wrong. I was astonished to go into a drama studio, where there was a row of concrete for someone to walk on, a row of rubble — crunch, crunch, crunch — and all the extraordinary sort of lengths that they’d gone to get a reality of sound. I remember Christopher Koch producing — I think it was a Schools’ Broadcast, a program about Ned Kelly, the shooting of Aaron Sherritt, knock on the door, bang! And they brought in — I think it could’ve been a revolver or a rifle — and it went bang, he just about called for a cannon.


John Tranter: For a bigger bang.


Richard Connolly: He wanted a dramatic bang, not a realistic bang.


John Tranter: So when you came back from Europe, having been through all these experiences, what did you find in the ABC? That was around the time that you decided to create «Sunday Night Radio Two», wasn’t it?


Richard Connolly: Yes, and it wasn’t my decision, actually. In fact, it was foisted on me.


John Tranter: Was it?


Richard Connolly: While I was in France, I was absolutely fascinated by what they call the Atelier du Création Radiophonique, the workshop of radiophonic creation.


John Tranter: Only the French could invent that.


Richard Connolly: But I heard extraordinary programs in this place. I remember hearing three programs that went on for three Sunday nights and it was very, very long. I could be wrong, but it was a long time. I think it was a three-hour program though, it was very long, on several big tapes, about a great jazz man who died of drugs, Charlie Parker.

LP cover: Charlie Parker in Paris
LP cover: Charlie Parker in Paris


[The Charlie Parker program brings together a wild mix of music and interviews and archives composed as a kind of improvised jazz frenzy, a whirlwind of references ­– the man’s life, vignettes recorded, actuality in New York, commentary, quotations… a rhapsodic homage. The ACR’s ‘Charlie Parker’ still sits today unassuming in its 3 AGFA reel to reel tape boxes in a rarely opened cupboard, part of a ‘working archive’ available to Performance and Features producers at Radio National in Sydney. These, and other tapes discovered from this collection (ACR), remain as an almost silenced memory of Connolly’s visit in 1971, and also of the hours of listening labour [producer Kaye] Mortley devoted to these imports. The program does not exist in the official ABC Archive, nor is it catalogued there as yet, remaining in its original French boxes, without English annotation — its provenance and influence largely unrecognised by a new generation of radio producers unaware of its historical role in the formation of their craft. (Virginia Madsen: at]

Kaye Mortley, left. Toni Hope-Caten, Paris, 1989. Polaroid photo John Tranter.
Kaye Mortley, left. Toni Hope-Caten, Paris, 1989. Polaroid photo John Tranter.



John Tranter: Jane Ulman produced a short prose poetry piece of mine, ‘The Subtitles’, as a two-hander for radio, and took that to the Prix Italia. It didn’t win anything, but the French liked it and bought the rights and produced a version of it, which I heard part of when I was in Paris. Kaye Mortley organised a radio conference, the ‘Nuits Australienne’, and it was very interesting. I talked to the producer Etienne Valles, and I said, the Australian version of this is twenty-two minutes long. Your version of the same script, basically, is forty minutes long. Did you do anything to the writing? And he said, oh no, no, I just made the pauses a little… longer.


Richard Connolly: Yes. and I remember when I came back from that tour that that was one of the things, but I just picked it up, and nobody told it to me. But even before I went on the road, I used to tell people at the training school what the constituents of radio were — of radio sound — and one of the most important constituents I always said was silence, and timing.


John Tranter: I was surprised at how many producers I saw, when they were producing a poem reading, would have the poem, and then the announcer come in immediately afterwards, and I’d say, no, you need a good long pause, to let it sink in.


Richard Connolly: That’s right. That was the rule, and I was taught that very early in the piece, because in those days, the trainee was pretty well-trained, and I was taught to count a good slow four after the end of a piece of music.


John Tranter: That’s a very good rule.


Richard Connolly: Yes. and it varies, of course, but you can’t just jump in on top of the ending of a piece of music, or a poem. But in Europe I heard all these extraordinary programs and your story about the silences –


John Tranter: The pauses being a bit long –


Richard Connolly: Well, their sort of radio was a kind of contemplative radio. It worked a bit like poetry or music, in that they had far more feeling about what they were doing. They were fairly mixed up with another outfit which produced weird, to my ears, radiophonic sort of music. It wasn’t part of the Atelier, or indeed Radio France , I think, but they took me along to it, to hear things. After Radio France, I went on to Italy. I think Italy had won the Prix Italia, perhaps that very year.


Giorgio Pressburger, left.
Giorgio Pressburger, left.
[The 1970 Prix Italia for stereophonic programmes was won by «Giochi di fanciulli» («Children’s Games»), by Giorgio Pressburger, stereo recording and sound production by Umberto Cigala and Riccardo Marchetti, produced by Radiotelevisione Italiana; and the 1971 Prix Italia RAI prize for literary or dramatic programmes was won by «Perelà, uomo di fumo», by Roberto Guicciardini, from a novel by Aldo Palazzeschi, music by Sergio Liberovici, produced by Radiotelevisione Italiana.]


I represented the ABC, which always got its money’s worth, so I was sent to the Prix Italia, which was great, because it was the first time a production person had been and sat on juries. I sat on three juries at the Prix Italia in 1971 in Venice. Before that, it had always been controllers, radio controllers of programs, but not working producers, and working producers were able to pick up far more of use, so that was good. Somewhere in the ABC there might even still be a copy of my Churchill report, in which mentioned this thing about the Germans, and how their technical arrangements were so brilliant. It was talked about at the time, when I came back .


Children's Games.
Children’s Games.

Italy had won the Prix Italia that year. Giorgio Pressburger, he was very impressive, he made a program called ‘Children’s Games’, «Giochi di fanciulli», after a painting by one of the Dutch painters, of crowd scenes in winter, that genre. He made this program and I don’t know how he gained access to these kids, possibly from some play centre, but he just set up a microphone and just let them get on with playing and I think he did it for a week, or two weeks or something, and just cut his program out of this. There was no narration, it was just kids playing.


John Tranter: But that was the great discovery of those years wasn’t it, that you didn’t really need a narrator; you could just hear the thing.


Richard Connolly: Yes. Malatini, the head of what they call Prosa, was really a sort of ‘drama-ish features’ sort of department, and Doctor Malatini, a very learned and cultivated man and I got on well with him. In fact, he said to one of his colleagues when he took me up to RAI in Milan and he introduced me to his colleague in Italian, and he said, this is Connolly who speaks our language and has our ideas, not all strained through the Anglo-Saxon strainer, he said, so I did get on very well with him. He invented the phrase which became very popular around the ABC, ‘scrivere su nastro’, writing on tape, and that was a phrase that I brought back with me, which is about what you were talking about. You don’t need a narrator, you write on tape, not on paper. He was the man who sponsored Giorgio Pressburger, and Pressburger was the man who made «Children’s Games».


[Giorgio Pressburger (born Budapest, 1937). In 1956, at the age of 19, Giorgio Pressburger fled to Italy with his brother. He settled in Rome where he received a grant to study at the National Academy of Dramatic Art, graduating as a theatre director. He later joined the Experimental Cinema Centre. After qualifying, the writer Andrea Camilleri introduced him to working on culture programmes on radio, marking the start of his lengthy research into sound. At the Phonology Studio in Milan, he worked with foremost music researchers Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio. Since 1986, he has written 13 novels and books of short stories, published by Marietti, Rizzoli, Einaudi and Bompiani. Several of his books have been translated into English. He has won many of the most coveted literary prizes (Viareggio, Campiello, etc.). His books have been translated into fifteen languages.]



[Connolly encountered Georgio Pressburger’s 1971 Prix Italia-winning ‘pure radio’ documentary performance ‘Children’s Games’ for example, while in Milan. Based on Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel’s 1560 painting of the same name, Pressburger turned the studio into a play space for local children to perform games of birth, death and marriage, recording them over many sessions and creating a unique document of a ‘living performance’, a new ‘writing on tape’ as he called it, echoing with the voices of sixteenth century peasant children and the over 300 ancient games made audible, and originally depicted by Bruegel. These kinds of experiments were an attempt to create ‘a visible theatre, a sort of hybrid between theatre and cinema, through pure sound’ as Pressburger explained much later, reflecting back on this fertile time of radio re-imagining at RAI (Pressburger, 2002) where the script was created out of the auditory traces of the performed real. This was also a rare example of ordinary people — and one of the most repressed voices of all in radio — children — being brought into the atelier [workshop] environment, there to create/ provoke a new almost mythical ‘space filled with objects and characters through sound, first monophonic and later stereophonic’ (Virginia Madsen, Ibid).] []


He was Hungarian, and he talked Italian like an Italian. He was a producer there, but I don’t think he was on staff. Their people, a lot of them tended to be freelance contributors, not permanent staff.


The Italian and French radio work both excited me a lot.


Also the BBC, in a different way. I wrote copiously, and I was lucky to be treated as one of them. A wonderful man named Richard Imison, now dead, was the head of the BBC Radio Drama script unit, and he gave me a desk in the unit.


[The Richard Imison Award, established in 1994, commemorates the life and work of Richard Imison. Richard Imison was Script Editor for BBC Radio Drama from 1963 to 1991. In the thirty years that Imison worked for BBC Radio Drama it was the largest patron of original creative dramatic writing in Britain. In his role as Script Editor no other single individual therefore had as much influence in either the discovery of new talent or the encouragement of established writers such as Edward Albee, Ludmilla Petrushevs Kayeea, Alexander Gelman, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett in the production of Drama for this genre.]


martin-esslin Martin Esslin was the head of the place, and we became friends and I used to spend my days, when I wasn’t gadding about, reading scripts and writing reports. There’s a great, big machine there, they have meetings all the time. They handle a lot of scripts, and the scripts were very interesting. Of course they had some very well-known writers and good writers.


John Tranter: I think in the early days, they had writers like Tom Stoppard for example, whose early work was for radio.


Richard Connolly: Exactly. Yes, it was where all these people started, but lots and lots of things started as radio plays that then became television, and sometimes became something else again.


John Tranter: Part of that, I suppose, is because radio is less expensive to produce than television. Infinitely less expensive.


Richard Connolly: And I think in those days, people said radio was more naturally a writer’s medium, for the sheer intimacy that’s involved in writing.


Anyway, I came home and wrote this report, and Arthur Wyndham noticed it.


Arthur had been an announcer and then I think he was in charge of radio publicity for a while and then he finished up as Controller of Radio Two, which is Radio National now, and he might’ve even gone further for all I know, but Arthur was in a sort of middle management position in Broadcast House with oversight of our Department and I was still Features Editor, but shortly afterwards became head of the Department. Arthur, having read my report, was impressed with my mention of three-hour programs. But they were productions that people took a long time to put together.


Producer René Farabet
Producer René Farabet
For example, in Paris, René Farabet made a wonderful program on buying and selling. He went to the old market in Nice. He called the program ‘Aimez-vous ma salade?’ ‘Do you like my salad?’, words uttered by an old lady at the market in Nice. He also went to the great stores of the grandes boulevards in Paris, the Boulevard Haussmann and so forth, those great, big department stores which were the beginning of hyper-markets. The program showed three different ways of selling stuff, but once again without narrators. They were very long programs, longer than we would expect listeners to tolerate here in Australia. And of course, the whole of France wasn’t deserting the football so they could listen to these things. It was a fairly rarefied audience no doubt, too. But they took it seriously, and it’s still going.


Frank Zeppell and I were sharing production roles, and there was an interregnum, Jim Pratt had left, but Frank was Head of Drama, and I was Head of Features.


Arthur Wyndham phoned me one day and asked me if I could do a three-hour program every Sunday night, on «Sunday Night Radio Two», which was the original name for what became Radio Helicon. I was absolutely thunderstruck. He said, I might be able to get you some more staff.


Julie-Anne Ford
Julie-Anne Ford
Julie-Anne Ford and Rodney Wetherell were the two people who were called in to confab about this. I think possibly Julie-Anne had more vision than I did, but she was less practical, too, I think. But anyway, I have to be honest and say that at the start, I think I was more or less talked into it. I grew to be quite enthusiastic about it, but I mean — the sheer realities of life –


John Tranter: Three hours a week is an awful lot of time.


Richard Connolly: It was in the evening, from seven-thirty till ten, the news for a quarter of an hour, then from ten-fifteen till eleven. In earlier times, the literary program in John Thompson’s day was «Quality Street», which was half an hour, and «The Poet’s Tongue»… and I think we kept going with «The Poet’s Tongue».


John Tranter: In the early days of «Radio Helicon» (the program that «Sunday Night Radio Two» became), the program was quite long. But as the years went by, it became shorter and shorter. I remember wanting to re-broadcast John Blay’s «Great Village Dream Radio Play», because that had gone to air years before, and I found it was half an hour too long, so I had to cut it down to make it fit the slot, which I did. But now, of course, the time slots are even smaller.


Still, in those early days, you must have had to look around for material to fill that yawning gap every week.


Richard Connolly: I never thought this would happen, such a large time-slot for features material. In the beginning, I think we were seduced by some of that Charlie Parker material the French did. Naturally enough, in that program, there were lots of English people, because he was an English speaker. The French had developed a neat technique of letting you hear the bloke talking in English, but doing their voice over in French. That was a very, very difficult thing to do without confusing the listener. I had a fight with Julie-Anne Ford about it, I remember.


John Tranter: To fade one down, and bring the other up a little.


Richard Connolly: Yes. I think very early in the piece, we did three programs by Max Charlesworth, «The Existentialists» and of course, you had Simone de Beauvoir and all of these people. I think we asked a former Talks Department bloke to record it. I can’t remember how it was done, but there were three programs, but that wasn’t the first.


One of the first programs I remember was a whole thing about Ireland, but because I’d spent some time in Radio Television Eire and recorded a whole lot of absolutely lyrical Irish broadcasts. The Irish actors all knew their Yeats, and other poets, too. At times, but very rarely, we made a single program that lasted the whole two and a half hours. I remember it would have been about the third program when we first did that. Kaye Mortley did a few of those.


What we ended up doing mostly was to have component parts that fitted together to make up the full evening. I woke up fairly soon to the fact that the Australian National University in Canberra had the Humanities Research Centre, and I had a couple of spies down there who’d tell me about somebody who would be a good broadcaster, and I whizzed down there to talk to them.


Leon Edel, in front of a portrait of Henry James.
Leon Edel, in front of a portrait of Henry James.
That’s why Rodney Wetherell and Julie-Anne Ford at the time were enthusiastic about Henry James, and his biographer, Leon Edel, an American. I met Edel and either Julie-Anne or Rodney or both saw a lot more of him, because I just met him and said hello.


I think we had Leon Edel in the studio for the programs, sitting there, reading a Penguin paperback that I’d never seen before. It was short stories by Kingsley Amis. On this occasion, and this was in the early days of «Sunday Night Radio Two», and I’d read a couple of the stories, and I thought, he has this particular comic technique, which was to let somebody go on for a while before you knew who the person was or what the person was, without anyone noticing at first. I thought, this is interesting. Now, if you’re just a reader, like me, you don’t think about what the writer is getting up to structurally. So I wrote to him [Kingsley Amis] and said, as far as I know, Lesley Stephen, Thackeray’s son-in-law, I think, last century wrote an essay on comedy and I don’t know that anyone’s done it since, and I’d be very interested if you’d have a shot at this. And he said, come and have lunch, or rather, he said, write to my agent, and I was coming to England on a trip anyway, and I had lunch with him, and we got on like a house on fire. He may have been a dreary old bastard in many ways, but he was terribly entertaining, and I had several lunches with him.


Kingsley Amis. Photo courtest The Guardian. The typewriter is a portable German Adler, which word means "Eagle" in English.
Kingsley Amis. Photo courtest The Guardian. The typewriter is a portable German Adler, which word means “Eagle” in English.

And I can now confess it — I also asked him to do a personal choice of poetry, which we often used to ask people to do, and I recorded him doing this. And I bloody well lost the recording. I don’t know how. I think that’s about the only time I ever lost a recording.


But anyway, his essay on comedy was a full night, and the ABC failed to advertise it. You’d think that if they had someone like Kingsley Amis talking on a subject like that… because in those days everybody had read «Lucky Jim», at least, and if there ever was a funny novel, that certainly was. I received one letter, and the letter said, Dear sir, whatever, I think I have just heard the best radio program I’ve ever listened to, sort of thing, but if things were advertised, they’d find a big listenership. If the ABC didn’t advertise them, they were just something that was stuck away in this corner, so often, and that was a sad aspect of working in radio.


John Tranter: Yes, and you’d often build an evening out of two or three things, and you didn’t know which one to advertise the most, or to try and advertise all of them.


Richard Connolly: No, and they didn’t, I mean, just occasionally, we’d persuade the publicity department, which didn’t have much dough, in those days. We had it, and I mean, I had enough dough to, if there was something that was really good, like the opportunity of getting Kingsley Amis, to go ahead and do it.


Later on, when we started «Sunday Night Radio Two», I remember I’d do these series. For example, for one program I gathered together historians from around the world, including two Australian historians, a French historian, an American from Harvard — a German, originally, who had escaped from the Nazis. These things would come about, because — well, I was over against the Talks Department at that stage philosophically, because they seemed to me to be keen but they didn’t seem to have any use for history in their thinking. This is the way I saw it, and of course I could see that they made some very good programs, but I felt that some of their work lacked a sense of history.


And so I produced this program called «The Use of History», meaning what’s the use of history, as a kind of pun. We had several series like that, on Radio Helicon.


Richard Bosworth
Richard Bosworth

John Tranter: I remember a program called «The Cheese and the Worms». Was that Radio Helicon? [The program was adapted from the book by historian Carlo Ginzberg, about the cosmos as understood by a sixteenth-century miller, as revealed in the records of the Inquisition.] And there were the Australian historian Richard Bosworth’s programs about Europe drifting into World War One. [The programs made up a seven-part study of pre-1914 Europe which went to air in 1977 under the title «Europe before the lamps went out». It was repeated a number of times.]


Richard Connolly: Yes, Richard Bosworth was very good for his. He was made for radio, he really was. There were many others, all colleagues and friends.



John Tranter: I was going to ask about the difference between history writing, and creative writing, and how each of them fit into radio in different ways. I think that radio allows and encourages writers to write in ways they would not normally do, because the medium allows them to do things with their writing that you can’t do on a page exactly. I’m thinking, as an extreme example, the play called «Revenge», a thirty-minute play by Andrew Sachs, who played Manuel in «Fawlty Towers». It was first broadcast in 1978. It’s a radio play without a script at all, rather with a very detailed script, but no words, and recorded in true 3-D in Kunstkopf stereo.


Richard Connolly: Yes.


John Tranter: You can’t do that on a page, but you can in a radio studio. Whereas with historians, it’s almost always a lecture they might deliver, turned in to a radio talk with sound illustrations. It’s a more conventional way of writing, I think. They aren’t allowed to lie, as Plato’s poets did and found themselves banned from the ideal republic.


Richard Connolly: Yes, just different. I think of Alain Trutat, the founder I think of the Atelier in France, he was one of these people, he’s a famous man, but not terribly well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world.


John Tranter: I think I met Alain Trutat on that evening of radio in Paris.


Richard Connolly: Yes, these people don’t use capital letters, ever. Kaye Mortley doesn’t use capitals.


John Tranter: I find that a bit eccentric, actually.


Richard Connolly: Or Georges Perec, very eccentric. He wrote that book «Life, a User’s Manual».


Georges Perec
Georges Perec

John Tranter: That’s right. He came to Australia once; as writer in residence at the University of Queensland in 1981.


[During this time Perec worked on the unfinished detective novel «53 Jours» («53 Days»). In that book, now in English translation, he writes ‘five Englishmen: Sutherland, Oatley, Mortdale, Penshurst, Sydenham; three Canadians: Redfern, Rockdale, Hurstville; one New Zealander: Kogarah; two Frenchmen: Tempe, Como; one Lebanese: Janalli.’ These ‘surnames’ are all railway stations on the Southern suburban line in Sydney.]


Richard Connolly: Yes. I mean, people like him, and he may be a slightly extreme case, but they did extraordinary things with radio. They were the sort of people who really appealed to a particular kind of French way of doing things.


John Tranter: His lipographic novel — «Life, a User’s Manual», was produced here as a radio work in Australia, wasn’t it? Perhaps as a book reading, produced by Jane Ulman.


Richard Connolly: I think so, yes. I remember the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who produced the «Doctor Who» theme and things like that. Compare that to the radiophonic outfit in Paris, I mean, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were very practical people, and their feet were on the ground, whereas the mob in Paris were way up in the sky somewhere, very interested in radio maybe. It illustrates the old division, the two worlds, the English and the Anglo-Saxon empirical, practical world, on the one hand, and the French rationalistic anything-goes world.


John Tranter: Yes. The French will go to great extremes, won’t they, to get an idea across?


Richard Connolly: It sounds silly to say it, but they do work from principles. They work a priori, where the Anglo-Saxons generally are utilitarian, a posteriori.


John Tranter: Pragmatic. I remember John Ashbery said to me once, as we were talking about experimental poetry, and either he or I said this, I can’t remember which, that no matter how experimental the French become, and they become wildly experimental, they always keep perfect grammar, spelling, and syntax. They obey the rules, even when they’re breaking the rules.


Richard Connolly: But in any case, I’m thinking of a program, one of Kaye Mortley’s, I think… it didn’t travel from A to Z in delicate steps or anything. Neil Hutchison, who came out to Australia as BBC representative, he decided he liked the place and he stayed and he became head of Drama and Features. Then he was Controller of Programs, but he went off to London to be manager in London for quite a few years and when he came back, he wanted to come down to his old neck of the woods and see what we were getting up to, and Kaye was here, she must’ve been here on a visit from France, or maybe she hadn’t left at that stage, but she was doing one of these French things and he was taken with Kaye beforehand and he listened to the program, and found it very difficult to grasp, with its strong French radio production influences. That’s just the different ways of doing things.


John Tranter: It interested me that the department you ran there had so many different kinds of producers doing different kinds of things all the time.


Richard Connolly: My motto — and I had two mottos on the back of my door that nobody ever saw, because it was always open, you see, and I was the only who ever saw them — one was from [the Latin playwright] Terence: ‘Homo sum: nihil humani a me alienum puto’; ‘I am a man; nothing human is alien to me.’


John Tranter: I’ve often wondered where that came from.


Poet James McAuley (left) and Roman Catholic Cardinal James Freeman
Poet James McAuley (left) and Roman Catholic Cardinal James Freeman
Richard Connolly: Yes. And the other one was from Jim McAuley, from a poem to the Madonna. It’s one of his very late poems. ‘Give us back the images. And shut / The foolish mouths.’ [From ‘Madonna’, from the book «Time Given», 1976.]


John Tranter: That’s interesting.


Richard Connolly: It’s a good radio motto.


John Tranter: I’ve always thought that radio had the advantage over any other medium, because the pictures are better; an old motto, but a good one.


I was going to ask you about [Australian poet] James McAuley. You knew him for a long time, didn’t you? He was an old friend.


Richard Connolly: He was a valued contributor, and in the last three years of his life, he made some very good programs for radio.


John Tranter: I didn’t know that.


Richard Connolly: Yes. he did a fantastic talk on Andrew Marvell and we were supposed to broadcast him, and in fact, we commissioned his, who was that German poet…


John Tranter: Georg Trakl was it?

Poet Georg Trakl, photo Wikipedia Commons.
Poet Georg Trakl, photo Wikipedia Commons.


Richard Connolly: He was interested in early Trakl, not late Trakl. We commissioned McAuley’s translations of Trakl, and — I won’t say who — but the head of ABC publicity at the time was enthusiastic about publishing this, as a book to go with the broadcast, and a nice feather in the cap for the ABC, translations of Trakl. When it came time to talk business, McAuley had done this program, and it was all ready for publication, we thought, and the head of publicity was probably having budget troubles or something, and became all shirty with me, and said, what are you doing? And the whole thing fell through. It was very embarrassing. They were published by another publisher, but when they were published, there was no acknowledgment of the ABC at all, which was mortifying. Anyhow, those are the things that happened in big organisations.


John Tranter: It’s intriguing that McAuley did that for radio, and perhaps he may not have done it otherwise; or he may have.


Richard Connolly: No, he wouldn’t have. It was my idea. He had done a Trakl poem, one or two, but I said, could you just have a go at that, and he did. This is my memory of what happened.


John Tranter: And then you did McAuley’s long poem «Captain Quiros». How long? Did that run over a number of episodes?


Richard Connolly: No.


John Tranter: Was it just one reading?


Richard Connolly: It was about two hours, I think, and I wrote music for it.


I think that starts with him introducing the poem and I suggested to him that there’s a poem of his called ‘The Introduction to the Poem’, which I like very much, ‘Midnight once more; the untended fire sinks low’, and it’s midnight, and there’s a blank sheet of paper, and it won’t come. Nothing will come, and then suddenly, ‘The ships of Quiros, on their great concerns/ Ride in upon the present from the past.’ [The quotes are from ‘The Inception of the Poem’ by James McAuley, from «Collected Poems 1936–1970»] And he gets the idea of Quiros.


I observed this change in our vocabulary in the 90s, because of all the self-help books that the Yanks are telling us, you mustn’t be ‘worried’. It became okay to be ‘concerned’, and I heard people being interviewed for the BBC «Today» program, just ordinary people off the streets, saying ‘I was very worr — concerned’ (meaning ‘very worried’), but when I think of that line, of ‘the ships of Quiros, on their great concerns’… now things are ‘concerning’ instead of ‘worrying’, and you wonder how long ‘concern’ is going to hang on to that sort of meaning. But that’s the fate of things, and the language changes.


John Tranter: Things change, don’t they? You can’t stop them. It started with «How to Make Friends and Influence People», I suspect, a long time ago, and American salesmanship, how to drive a deal or how to make everyone like you, and buy whatever you’re selling.


I was interested to discover there’s a name for a word that only appears once, ‘hapax legomenon’.


Richard Connolly: I know, I learned that when I was studying Greek.


John Tranter: I came across the idea recently and it seemed wonderful to me that — for example — there’s a word for describing a snowflake, ‘flother’, but it’s only used once in a text from 1275 and it never has existed anywhere else in English, except for that one occurrence. Perhaps it’s a portmanteau word, a blend of ‘flurry’ and ‘bother’. It’s remarkable.


Richard Connolly: Yes. I had a wonderful Greek teacher who also taught philosophy. He was in a seminary, but he had an adventurous mind and somebody asked me who was the best teacher I’d ever had, and I had some pretty damn good people at Sydney University, one or two anyway, but I’d say that this bloke, Frank Meacham, as a young man, particularly in language, he was doing Latin privately by correspondence with London University and myself and another bloke, we’d both gained honours in Latin, so we were told not to go to the ordinary Latin class, but to do Latin with this bloke, Frank Meacham.


John Tranter: Didn’t they broadcast «The Aeneid» on «Sunday Night Radio Two»?


Richard Connolly: They did, and I have the first six books out there on tape, with the typical ABC echo. Do you remember that awful tape, the type of tape that gave print-through problems? Someone can very likely fix that these days, but it’s very difficult.


John Tranter: Because it varies, depending on where you are in the loop of tape.


Richard Connolly: That’s right, you couldn’t do it purely by mechanical mode.


John Tranter: No, it’d have to be adapted somehow, but you could do it, I guess. But it’s interesting that digital recording is so much better than tape, because it doesn’t have those problems. It’s very peculiar.


Richard Connolly: No, and it doesn’t happen on BBC tapes. The BBC tapes are fine, but the ABC… I think engineers just… I don’t know what they did, I think at some stage, anyway, they made very poor decisions about tape quality.


John Tranter: And what sort of tape to buy. I know, I remember when the fifteen-inch BASF tapes came in with the backing on them, that black charcoal type of backing, how marvellous they were. They were very thick tapes. Anyway, that’s all history now. They have chips to do it for us. But you did broadcast all of «The Aeneid» on «Sunday Night Radio Two».


Richard Connolly: Yes. And do you know, that of all the programs I made, it certainly would have been one of the three that got extraordinary reactions.


John Tranter: Audience response.



Richard Connolly: The three that stand out in my memory: there was one that I did when I’d been at the ABC about two years called «Rediscovering the Psalms», about a Frenchman who had put the psalms in to French, a bloke named Gelineau, quite famous, but dead now, a young Jesuit, and his work became famous all around the world later on. He had put the Psalms into French — and he was a scholar, of course — using the Hebrew sprung rhythm, the Hebrew poetic, prophetic devices, so you were getting nearer to the original, and instead of whole sentences, you get juxtapositions.


That was one program, and the other two were ‘Remembering James McAuley’, naturally enough, that was advertised properly, and I got letters from lots of poets and literary people.


And I produced «The Aeneid» with Derek Williams. I mean, he was the world’s great Virgil scholar, one of the two or three. It just so happened that I rang one of my old teachers at Sydney University. There was still a Latin department back at Sydney University back in the 70s, and I told him that I was thinking of doing something on «The Aeneid» and he said, you’re very lucky. Professor R.D. Williams is going to be out here for some months. I remember taking him to one of the Italian restaurants around the place, and we got on quite well, and talked about it, and then somewhere along the line, I thought, God, this man’s utterly brilliant, so I decided we’d do the whole thing.


I actually wrote a bit of music, too, I gave it the whole works, and we did a big introduction and the ABC printed a little booklet. The first night, I think there were twelve programs, I can’t quite remember, and I managed to get the actor Wynn Roberts. In some ways, I’m sorry I didn’t get Ron Haddrick, a different approach. But Wynn Roberts, a Victorian actor who really didn’t have Ron’s beautiful voice, was wonderful.


He did a really terrific job. I had the whole thing produced and then I decided to take some long service leave, after the first episode was produced. I went off to Europe for a bit of a holiday and when I got back, there was a stack of letters on my desk, and one came from a schoolboy. There were several from school kids and this boy just said, it had been a great radio serial adventure.


John Tranter: That’s nice when you get a response like that, isn’t it, because often, with radio, you broadcast it, and it goes out in to the galaxies, so you never hear anything again.


Richard Connolly: No.


John Tranter: In fact, I saw again, a little phrase I have known for many years from Alexander Woollcott, the American writer who said that publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear the sound when it hits the bottom. It’s rather like that with radio, I think.


Richard Connolly, left, with Peter Porter, Perth, Western Australia, 1983, photo John Tranter. m21-21.
Richard Connolly, left, with Peter Porter, Perth, Western Australia, 1983, photo John Tranter. m21-21

Now, I should get on to Peter Porter, too. I think I was in Perth in 1983, when you and Peter Porter were there at the same time.


Richard Connolly: Yes we were, and so was that marvellous English jazz man George Melly.

Richard Connolly, Perth, Western Australia, 1983. Photo John Tranter. m21-20
Richard Connolly, Perth, Western Australia, 1983. Photo John Tranter. m21-20


John Tranter: Yes, trad jazz kind of stuff. I think that was when you decided to ask Peter to write the autobiographical radio programs that he did, or was that earlier?


Richard Connolly: I think that was his idea. I think so. I first met him when he was at the Adelaide Festival, the first time he came back to Australia in 1974.


John Tranter: He was a wonderful man, and I got to know him a couple of times. My family and I, Lyn and the two kids, stayed with him for a week in that flat in London in 1989. He was so generous and kind.

Peter Porter, showing the divine afflatus, London, 1989, photo by John Tranter.
Peter Porter, showing the divine afflatus, London, 1989, photo by John Tranter.


Richard Connolly: Yes. When we lived in the west of England, they came and stayed with us once, but whenever I went to London, because in the early days in England, I’d be recording poets for the ABC and so forth, and I’d just always stay at Peter’s place and we’d argue about the existence of God or something, up until two o’clock in the morning.


John Tranter: He was a wonderful talker, wasn’t he? He could just talk the legs off a table.


Richard Connolly: Yes. He couldn’t stop himself in a way, because he was thinking out loud, his music out loud. But I met him, and I was going to tell you a story that Robyn Hughes told me, I think possibly before I ever met Peter Porter. Robyn Hughes worked at the BBC before she even ever came out here; this is years and years ago. It’d be back in the mid-60s or something like that. She was at the BBC and she said she’d met Peter Porter and I can’t remember what the exact expression was, but something about Australia or Brisbane, one or the other, and his attitude to it was extremely negative. He came out here to Australia in 1974 to the Adelaide Festival and I went to hear his talk, and I just thought, God, this man is absolutely brilliant. He gave a talk. Do you remember Pi O?


John Tranter: (grimly) I remember Pi O.


Richard Connolly: Pi O was there and Pi O very rudely interrupted. This bloke’s just giving a very…


John Tranter: Pi O wanted attention all the time.


Richard Connolly: Yes. but anyway, it all finished up okay, but I just thought, this man Porter, apart from anything else, I just heard his talks, and I thought that you could just broadcast these.


John Tranter: You could just turn the microphone on. That’s all you needed.


Richard Connolly: Yes.


John Tranter: He was so erudite and funny.


Richard Connolly: Then, because he went back home after that and Jannice, his wife, killed herself, and that event gave rise to that extraordinary poem based on Bishop King. Do you know that poem, ‘An Exequy’?


John Tranter: Yes. He’s marvellous.


Richard Connolly: But John Pringle I remember said to me, that he thought that a poem of that kind, a better one had not been written for a long, long time.


John Tranter: It was an elegy, really, I suppose, wasn’t it?


Richard Connolly: Yes, that’s right.


John Tranter: Very hard to do well, mourning. So he wrote a three-part talk, wasn’t it?


Richard Connolly: That’s right. I’ve got that out there, too. They’re all sitting there on ancient cassettes, probably printing through as hard as they can go. [Note: cassette tape, because it is very thin, has a big problem with print-through, where the sound on one piece of tape “prints through” onto a previous or a later part of the tape. J.T., 2015.]


John Tranter: They are, as we speak. Although some cassettes do really quite well at long-term storage. It’s surprising.


Richard Connolly: Yes. Mind you, I regard them as the greatest [thing…] [talking of a] song and word man, sort of singer-songwriter of the twentieth century, I have no doubt, Cole Porter ranks very, very high, but I think of Charles Trenet.


John Tranter: I don’t know his work at all. Charles Trenet being in French, I don’t know French.


Richard Connolly: I was going to say, and I don’t think many French people would agree with me nowadays, because he’s so old hat, and a lot of what he celebrates is a kind of France that doesn’t exist anymore, but simply for the mechanics of putting words to tunes.


John Tranter: Getting that flow right.


Richard Connolly: Cole Porter also.


John Tranter: There was Ira Gershwin, of course.


Richard Connolly: Gershwin, Cole Porter, and also, not to be entirely neglected by any means, Irving Berlin. I used to despise him when I was young.


John Tranter: Did you?


Richard Connolly: Anyway, we’ve gone off that subject, but Peter did a lot of programs. I think he called that ‘In Exile’ and then the subtitle was ‘an anti-biographical autobiography’, and it was a very interesting way of introducing, because you see, so many of his poems are all about childhood, an enormous number.


John Tranter: Yes, displaced to some extent. He always displaces things, and I think poetry itself is a displacement of an engagement you might otherwise have with yourself.


Richard Connolly: Anyway, those three tapes. He was very taken, Peter was chuffed with the music that I wrote for those programs.


John Tranter: And he knew his music very well, didn’t he?


Richard Connolly: Yes, but I think he was a bit taken aback later on, for some reason or another, he heard another program that I’d made with the same theme, because that theme was originally, that particular theme, and what I did for Peter was get a really good recording done by the, I can’t remember their name now, not the Austral, but after them, a really lovely quartet, who were a lovely group of chamber players and the version of the thing I did for Peter’s program was very superior, but the original version was done by very good musicians, including Don Burrows, and George Golla, but it was for Alec Hope, and that was another program that Julie-Anne produced, Alec Hope re-wrote Marlowe’s «Doctor Faustus».


John Tranter: I didn’t know that.


Richard Connolly: Yes, and that’ll be down there in Canberra, in the archives somewhere, and Alec wrote to me, and this was really after I’d given up largely writing music, where I couldn’t, because I’d done most of my soundtrack and all that stuff for the ABC in the 1960s to early 70s, when TV producers largely used to get me to write music, but by the time I was Head of Department, for one thing, you were taking bread from the freelancers.


John Tranter: Starving musicians.


Richard Connolly: And that is a consideration. But Alec pleaded, and he wanted me to do the music for «Doctor Faustus», and I did, and everybody loved the music, except Max Harris.


John Tranter: (laughs) Really?


Richard Connolly: I think Max had to have a grizzle somewhere.


John Tranter: He likes having a grizzle doesn’t he? He loved complaining about things.


Richard Connolly: Yes, but that was very good, because what was good about it was that Max Harris wrote very nicely about what Alec had done, and the pair of them, and I remember Bob Brissenden, already in the early throes of that awful thing he died of, that narcolepsy down in Canberra. I had to go down there for something, and he said, wasn’t it great that Max Harris should’ve written what he did about it, and I said, no, the bastard. He didn’t like the music!


John Tranter: I think in the Ern Malley affair, A.D. Hope was very supportive of the idea that Max Harris should be completely humiliated and skewered and so forth, although I think everyone matured as the years went by.


Richard Connolly: I remember John Thompson produced, John Thompson did something on television about it.


John Tranter: Did he?


Richard Connolly: I think so.


John Tranter: I have a copy of the radio documentary he did.


Richard Connolly: But the radio program with McAuley and –


John Tranter: Harold Stewart and Max Harris and all of those people. Tess van Sommers and Colin Simpson.


Richard Connolly: It was just the right time.


John Tranter: Clement Semmler, in his book, «[For] The Uncanny Man», published a transcript of the whole tape, but I think with McAuley, the interesting thing about James McAuley is that he was a –


Richard Connolly: We were extremely close friends, a large part of which is documented in the «Australasian Catholic Record», called ‘Writing Hymns with James McAuley’, an article that I was invited to write by the editor, while we were living in England, in 1997. It says a bit about our friendship. But Alec Hope, I mean, what a job. Some of the people I got to meet and talk to…


John Tranter: I think I did hear of somewhere when Alec Hope was a younger man he was ‘Anthony Inkwell’ on the Argonauts.


Richard Connolly: Yes, and my kids used to watch (listen to) the Argonauts, and also, Jeffrey Smart, the artist. He used to teach them how to paint. Yes, these brilliant people. Various people, so many inspired people starred in the Argonauts.


John Tranter: I can remember when I commissioned Amanda Stewart to do a program on poet Michael Dransfield. She dug up a piece of tape from the Argonauts when Michael was about twelve. He’d sent in a poem and he’d won this little prize and he was explaining about poetry to the announcer, and it sounded very quaint and charming.


Now, audience ratings. Did you ever feel that ratings were an issue? I can remember occasionally, in Radio Drama and Features, someone would say, have you looked at the Nielsen’s Ratings for this week?


Richard Connolly: Yes, we used to get them and I don’t know, really, how exact they were, as that’s none of my business. What I do know is that at one stage, according to Nielsen, we used to get about five or six thousand listeners in the whole of Sydney, and I remember saying to somebody, that’s more than they sell of the little magazines in those days.


John Tranter: Many more.


Richard Connolly: Yes. that’s right.


John Tranter: Poetry magazines, you’d be lucky to sell five hundred of them.


Richard Connolly: Precisely.


John Tranter: And I remember, thinking at the time, hearing that «Sunday Night Radio Two» had got something like fifteen thousand listeners Australia-wide and I remember thinking, if you had a novel that sold out in one night with that amount of copies, you’d be dancing with joy.


Richard Connolly: Precisely, and this is my memory. You can look them up and see for yourself, but I think Sydney and Melbourne were in the thousands.


John Tranter: Of course, for television, ratings are more vital in determining what you do next, whereas with radio, you can afford, to some extent, to… not exactly ignore them…


Alan Ashbolt.
Alan Ashbolt.

Richard Connolly: No, and the art of programming came in, as they call it. Allan Ashbolt was very scathing, and rightly so, about that. But the funny thing about Allan was that he and I were opposed philosophically, but every time there was any kind of difficulty, we lined up on the same side. I hate to say this, but in many ways management so didn’t understand the troops, or failed to grasp what was bugging them at times. I can still remember not working on the first day that the ABC went on strike. Well, I did go to my office, but I went down and fraternised with the strikers. John Challis did, too, and Bob Connolly, the film maker now, he was from the Rural Department then. They came in and slapped us on the back and said, good on you, mate. We used to say wryly, Allan Ashbolt and I are philosophically opposed, but when it comes to brawling with management, we are on the same side.


But I remember I did go in to the audience figures, and what we did have was something much bigger than what you just said.


John Tranter: A larger audience than a novel would hope to find. I mean, the average first novel these days in Australia, if you sell two thousand, it’s not so good, but if you sell ten thousand, it’s really excellent. And the ABC found a larger audience than that on every Sunday night.


Richard Connolly: The other point to be made, that I used to make, was that you can have lots of kinds of broadcasting, with people chatting on, on Radio National nowadays and good luck to them, and with almost any music broadcast, from the sublime to the just very mundane, you can broadcast that and the audience need not really listen carefully to it. They need hardly pay any attention to it. But with the sort of material we broadcast, the listener had to pay attention to it, or there was no point having the radio turned on at all.


John Tranter: Yes, that’s very true. You have to listen to it carefully.


Richard Connolly: It was good material to work with, large and exciting ideas, and it was a great job to have. It really was. It’s wonderful to be…


John Tranter: To be paid good money to make good radio programs.


Richard Connolly: Julie-Anne Ford said once, you know, we’re the luckiest people in the world. They’re paying us to do this!


John Tranter: I used to think, that when I worked at the ABC on and off, now and then, I’d find myself at the end of the week too tired to do much of my own writing. And then I’d think, but wait a minute, I’ve been making radio all week long, and I’ve been paid for it. It’s like being paid to write poetry, but with a much larger audience. It is really the best job I’ve ever had.


Richard Connolly: These days the bar seems to be set a lot lower.


John Tranter: That’s right.


Richard Connolly: I mean, you might hear the Reith lectures, and the Canadian lectures, and the ABC’s Boyer lectures, but you’re not likely to hear a philosopher, or a historian, or a litterateur, or a writer, a poet talking at length, and thought out, on radio now at all, it’s a whole different ball game.

Robert Peach
Robert Peach


I remember Russell Warner, the head of current affairs. I used to spar with him all the time in a friendly manner, and he would not forgive me because I pinched Robert Peach from him at one stage — and Bob Peach was his voice of current affairs — and I remember Russell saying to me, you bastard! Getting Bob Peach to leave the vital sort of stuff that we do, stuff that’s really important day to day, to go and work in your department! I said, Russell, you are the director of ephemeral affairs, and I am the director of eternal affairs. I was putting a humorous edge on it, but it was a serious point. I said, what you broadcast won’t be important the day after tomorrow, but what I broadcast was important a long time ago, very likely, and is going to be important a long time in the future.


John Tranter: It was around that time that you put forward the idea that producers of programs should announce them on radio rather than to leave it to an announcer to do it, who might gets things wrong. We had Arch McKirdy come in and train us to talk well on radio. It was very useful.


Richard Connolly: And I decided, after not very long, that it was a good thing if you could line people up, there was such a big field, the world was one’s oyster. But if you got people lined up with their own enthusiasms, they were likely to work more happily, and, more important, they were likely to do better work. You could cover a broad spectrum. We used to broadcast stuff that I wasn’t keen on personally, but you had to be editorial. There were enough people in the department with different sort of tastes.


John Tranter: An extraordinary range of interests and tastes.


Richard Connolly: I mean, you had Andrew, who as somebody said, put everything but the kitchen sink in his programs.


John Tranter: Andrew McLennan, yes.

Andrew McLennan, left, stalks poet John A. Scott, Balmain 1981 with a copy of Scott's "Book of Rats." Photo John Tranter, 1981.
Andrew McLennan, left, stalks poet John A. Scott, Balmain 1981 with a copy of Scott’s “Book of Rats.” Photo John Tranter, 1981.


Richard Connolly: And we were both at his retirement, and it was funny to see Andrew retiring as an old patriarch of radio, when I remember him as…


John Tranter: He was the hot young firebrand.


Richard Connolly: I remember we all went over to Julie-Anne’s place, the whole department, to have lunch, just on the spur of the moment, I think, just before Christmas, and Andrew got out on the kids’ trampoline and Andrew was a dancer, you see.


John Tranter: He used to do these dramatic gestures, occasionally.


Richard Connolly: Yes, and he started doing all sorts of things on the trampoline.


Radio: Richard Connolly, 1982:
ABC Radio


Richard Connolly
Australian Broadcasting Commission Radio: Culture and the Spoken Word

This is the text of the 1982 paper by Richard Connolly that describes his visit under the aegis of a Churchill Fellowship to radio stations in Europe and England in the early 1970s and the events that led directly to the founding of ‘Sunday Night Radio Two’, Australia’s first long and serious radio program. It was first published in: Australian Cultural History. No 2, 1982-1983: Institutions and Culture in Australia (S. L. Goldberg and F. B. Smith, eds.). Pages 22-37. Australian Academy of the Humanities and the History of Ideas Unit, Australian National University, Canberra: 1983. Provenance: scanned and typeset by John Tranter, incorporating corrections and emendations by Richard Connolly and John Tranter, Sydney, 2011.
You should also see Richard Connolly’s 2011 interview with John Tranter, in this issue of this magazine, here.

Paragraph 1 follows: 1:

Richard Connolly at 84, in 2011. Photo John Tranter.
Richard Connolly at 84, in 2011. Photo John Tranter.
It was a different Australia fifty years ago; no ockers, no ethnics; multiculturalism unheard of; republicans as scarce and despised as wine-drinkers; nine out of every ten people able to regard the British Isles as, in some sense, ‘home’. The Prime Minister, ‘Joe’ Lyons, and the P.M.G. [the Federal Post-Master General, in charge of telecommunications and broadcasting] J. E. Fenton, were in no doubt that the ABC should be made in the image of the proper British exemplar. Introducing the Australian Broadcasting Commission Bill on 9th March, 1932, Mr Fenton told the Parliament that


…under the Empire broadcasting system, it will be possible for naked blacks to listen-in in the jungle to the world’s best operas. We may also reach the period when brown-skinned Indians will be able to dance to one of England’s best orchestras, and when fur-clad Canadians in distant snow-bound outposts may listen to a description of the running of the English Derby.


Mr Fenton was not overestimating the influence of radio; he was misjudging its effects. Only thirty years would pass before Marshall McLuhan would write that ‘the subliminal depths of radio are charged with the resonating echoes of tribal horns and antique drums…’, and that ‘radio is the medium for frenzy, and it has been the major means of hotting up the tribal blood of Africa, India and China, alike.’ [See Note 1


The ABCs first chairman, Charles Lloyd Jones, made the Commission’s intentions quite clear. In the Melbourne Argus of 28th May, 1932, he was quoted as saying:


We intend following in the footsteps of the British Broadcasting Corporation… With the staff of the Australian Broadcasting Company taken over, the Commission is confident that broadcasting will continue effectively while the Commission is feeling its way. This action is in line with the advice given by the Prime Minister [Mr Lyons] to walk in the footsteps of the BBC and fall in behind Britain.


Dr Alan Thomas, in his book Broadcast and be Damned (Melbourne University Press, 1980), observes that ‘fall in behind Britain’ is a phrase that would have appealed to an Australian audience in 1932. For the ABC, the aim of making itself in the image of the BBC was not merely commendable, but pretty much inevitable.


Whether it was possible, though, is quite another matter. There were similarities, and there were differences. The British Broadcasting Corporation had been formed from a British Broadcasting Company, the ABC from an Australian Broadcasting Company. But whereas the ABC’s precursor had been a rather haphazard, middle-of-the road outfit, the BBC had from the outset been moulded by that determined visionary John Reith. It is not insignificant, I think, that the BBC, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 1982, reckons its age from the start of the company.


Because of the start that Reith gave it, the BBC has always had a tradition of intellectual strength in its management, and a corporate self-awareness and confidence that have been matched only rarely and partly by the ABC. But the big difference was that Reith’s Corporation from 1924 until 1954 (indeed much longer in radio) would enjoy a complete broadcasting monopoly in the U. K. Our Commission began life in the capital cities of Australia as a minority of two national stations among a majority of commercial ones. Whatever the ABC might achieve, it was in the nature of things, in a competitive world that was learning fast about advertising, that it would never broadcast daily as a matter of course to the mass of Australians as would the BBC to the British. From the start it was restricted to a largely middle-class appeal, and with some notable exceptions that has continued to be so. The constitution of television twenty-five years later, with one ABC channel versus two commercials in major centres, reinforced this state of affairs.


So the ABC’s role was restricted. Nevertheless, so far as influencing a national culture was concerned, it did have one essential advantage. By 1936, when it had got itself organized into federal departments, it was national, not just organizationally, but in the extension of its broadcasts.


Anyone who works in radio or thinks much about it will understand something that Martin Esslin has put rather well in a recent essay. He says that radio is


…first of all, a mechanised technique for the transmission of pre-existing material, just as printing, when first invented, was above all seen as a new mechanical device for the rapid reproduction of manuscripts, or the cinema as a means for preserving and mass-distributing stage performances. It is only at one remove that fine printing and the production of beautiful books was recognised as an art-form in its own right, that the cinema developed its own aesthetic and artistic techniques. [See Note 2


So we have radio as a means of transmission; and radio as the creative medium of sound, sound as an art-form.


It is not surprising that the early programmes of the ABC were very much concerned with ‘the transmission of pre-existing material’ in the shape of musical performances, gramophone records, talks, and so on. More medium-based techniques would come in time. Neither is it surprising that the greatest and most noticed cultural effort of the early ABC was in music: the development of orchestras, and broadcasts of recitals and concerts.


Depending on where one works in radio, one will think of it according to one or other meaning of the term. In News, in most Music broadcasts, in much of Talks, it is thought of as a means of transmission. In Drama, Features, Documentaries, it is very much the sound-artifact to be transmitted that is uppermost in our minds.




The subject originally suggested for my consideration in this paper was ‘The ABC and Literature’. Does radio transmit or create literature? It does both, of course, but the word ‘literature’ may cause a frisson in a dyed-in-the-wool radio person with etymological hangups — and perhaps other hangups caused by awareness that his works fade into the air. Even reading the Chairman of the ABC’s message to our staff on our fiftieth birthday, in which she observed justly that the ABC had become a reference point ‘for the things that go to make up a literate and informed society’, I confess that that word ‘literate’ occasioned in me, if not a frisson, then certainly an afterthought.


Perhaps, to avoid classification as some sort of neurotic nit-picker, it might be wise for me to mention that a few years ago, doing a long interview with the Adelaide Advertisers drama critic, I mentioned in passing that, all told, I thought the best of all media was still probably the book. He rebuked me in print, remarking on the danger of having one so obviously print-oriented in charge of an electronic medium.


What I am getting at is not a frivolous as I am making it seem, and it can perhaps illuminate ways in which radio might approach literature. For a start, taking extreme cases, we might say that publication in sound is on the whole better for Beowulf or the Tain Bo Cuailnge, whereas publication in print is better for Patrick White or Graham Greene. But then a moment’s reflection will persuade us that, given the shortage of bards and shenachies in our culture capable of calling up 30,000 words at a time, it is as well that our Beowulf or Tain or whatever should be in a book in the first place to be read from; and a further moment’s reflection will make it no less clear that although the styles of Patrick White and Graham Greene, children of a literate, print culture, require literary publication, their literary artifacts will gain enormously, under certain aspects, by being read aloud — one might as well say ‘performed’ — by a sensitive reader.


Locked behind the printed letters are not just reference and emotional connotation and other associations, but that primal element, the sound of the words. And that locked-up sound has its part to play even when a solitary reader reads without moving his [or her] lips. It resonates in his [or her] mind’s ear and contributes essentially to the total effect.


This is true of all literature, with only slight exceptions in the case of some modern page poetry (maybe) and concrete poetry (maybe). We regularly, and normally, criticize a printed prose style that offends this inner ear.


There are all sorts of ways in which works of literature can and do find their way into the air-waves — adapted as serials or plays, for instance — but I am talking about the simple, straight reading of such works. Practically all of literature can be treated as a text for the performer’s art, and can gain thereby. Thus radio can be an excellent performing space (perhaps by its very nature, the ideal one) for a one-man show of the kind originated, I think, by Dickens and popularized in our time by Emlyn Williams, Michael MacLiammoir and others. I think that in ABC radio we’ve perhaps developed this notion a bit further than has been done in most other places, thanks partly to the presence of several very talented performers and our own attitudes to literary texts.


In other places there is a tendency to prefer performing such texts with a number of voices, even in a straight reading — different voices assigned to different characters in the interests of some kind of ‘Variety’ which I personally view with suspicion. The text is one, its persona is a single storyteller, and I prefer that this basic unity of the work should be expressed by a single performer. Of course, his or her ability to embody various characters and enact their dialogue is essential, and enriches the whole thing, but the performer never entirely vacates the persona of the storyteller. When Professor R. D. Williams came to introduce our readings of the Aeneid, he asked if we would have several voices; we told him no, just Wynne Roberts. Michael Alexander wondered the same about his translation of Beowulf and again we said no, just Ron Haddrick. On the other hand, our broadcasts of the Argo recordings of Paradise Lost assigned parts to various voices, and although the cast included some of Britain’s finest readers, I thought the over-all performance deficient in that it lost the pure sense of an integral text, a single epic poem.




From the beginning, there were talks on ABC radio. The first Annual Report to Parliament (for the year 1932-1933) mentions among overseas speakers Pope Pius XI and Herr Hitler. The talks given by locals were referred to often as lectures, and by present standards many of them seem to have been trivial or dull. But there were some celebrated exceptions — among them Vance Palmer (who contributed plays and short stories), H. M. Green, and (especially) Walter Murdoch. And there was some drama, plays accounting for just under three per cent of programme time in the first year. By the late 1930s radio plays had become important and popular, and the standard was high. Leslie Rees, the ABCs first Federal Drama Editor, has written about their development in his book, The Making of Australian Drama (Sydney, 1973). Authors included Edmund Barclay, Dymphna Cusack, George Farwell, Max Afford, Betty Roland, Catherine Shepherd and Gwen Meredith. In the 1940s came Douglas Stewart and The Fire on the Snow, which Tyrone Guthrie produced for the BBC in 1951. There were also short stories. And it is worth noting that although the BBC broadcast the first radio play, the radio serial was an Australian and American development.


Plays and serials and short stories and talks constituted performances in sound’; but, apart from the scripts they were performed from, they were as transient as the breath that uttered them. I have already used the term sound-artifacts. The greatest single step in the development of radio sound as an art-form would come with the application in radio of the tape-recorder. In the 1930s and 1940s (and notably in the war years) it was possible to record sound performances on acetate discs, but there was no flexibility. One mistake, one fluff, and you had to start again from the top. The tape-recorder, which arrived in Australian radio in the 1950s, made it possible to collect sounds quickly and easily, to amass different voices and music and other sounds as raw material, and then to cut, to splice, to juxtapose sound elements at will, to mix or superimpose them at different levels simultaneously, and so on.


A Radio Features Department had existed in the BBC since 1935. With studio musicians and turntables and sound effects and actors all working direct to air, it had in fact been putting out quite complex and sometimes poetic creations. D. G. Bridson’s feature King Arthur, for example, in 1937 provided the first BBC commission for a young composer named Benjamin Britten. As early as 1931, Tyrone Guthrie, reacting against naturalism, had envisaged a kind of radio drama that might concentrate less on conveying to the audience ‘a series of mind pictures’ and, instead, explore the symphonic possibilities of the medium — vocal rhythms, colours, tempos, pitch. [See Note 3]  Francis Dillon and Bridson were at the same time exploring the possibility of presenting recorded actuality-material in dramatic ways. The coming of the tape-recorder liberated the aspirations of these people. In Britain it was the Features people in the 1940s and 1950s, thinking and working flexibly in sound, who made the running for drama.


The ABC had a Features Department in 1948, which in 1950 was joined to Drama to form the present Department of Radio Drama and Features. The Commission’s annual report for 1950-51 said that ‘Allied to the broadcast play by its dramatic form, the feature provides a vehicle for documentary and other specially-written programs on a wide range of subjects and is designed to present these subjects in a manner that will appeal to a lay audience…’


With the advantage of hindsight I would prefer to define a feature as a confected programme, on any subject, which is natural to radio in that it so uses radio that it could not be presented in any other medium.




The ABC was very fortunate in its first two Features Editors, Mungo MacCallum (snr) and Ivan Smith. Both were first-rate producers. Mungo MacCallum is still [in the early 1980s] a distinguished, if occasional, writer of radio plays and features; Ivan Smith won the ABC’s first Prix Italia in 1959 with Death of a Wombat. By 1955, Australian writers of features included Shan Benson, Barbara Jefferis, Nancy Keesing, Coral Lansbury, Richard Lane, Frank Legg, MacCallum and Smith, Ray Mathew, D’Arcy Niland and Ruth Park, Morris West, Myra Roper, Leslie Greener, Catherine Shepherd and John Thompson.


Because they were made in a time of fast developing techniques, many of the features of that time can sound dated today. But the works of the poet, critic and writer-producer John Thompson still find a place on the air. His Harney’s War was broadcast on Anzac Day 1981, and we are now planning a season of the ‘radio portraits’ he made through the 1950s and 1960s of famous Australians including Christopher Brennan, Maurice O’Shea, Curtin, Monash, Melba, Alf Conlon, and many others. These programmes are among the finest sustained work of ABC radio. They are also probably the first rudimentary examples we have in Australian radio of what we now call ‘writing on tape’. They were transcribed to the printed page and published under the title On Lips of Living Men [Melbourne: Lansdowne, 1962]. But they must be heard to be appreciated. John Thompson’s method was to talk with a number of people about the particular subject of his (posthumous) portrait, and then to edit and juxtapose their various utterances until the picture had been built up. It has been done since, but it has not been done better.




The most important media event of the 1950s was the arrival, in 1956, of television. Its effect on ABC radio was enormous, and demands consideration. But first let me make a short digression to consider television itself in our context.


Competing with commercial stations in TV was much harder than in radio, because the ABC had only one channel on which to range the whole gamut of adequate and comprehensive programmes’ against two commercial channels in the major centres. It could not but be left high and dry in the ratings race, and this would eventually affect ABC programmes and programming in the new medium. In its first decade, ABC TV was leisurely, comfortable and, by todays standards, uncompetitive. Whatever the quality of productions in comparison with those of today, there is no doubt that the aspirations were different. So far as ideals were concerned, it was closer to Reith’s BBC, or to Cleary’s and Boyers ABC radio, than to its own latter-day self of the 1980s.


It was in the nature of things that a more aggressively competitive programming attitude towards the commercials should develop. It came in 1966 and its agent was the dynamic Controller of Programmes, Ken Watts. [Actually, Ken was Federal Director of TV Programs, under Neil Hutchison, Controller of Programmes (Radio and Television) at that stage — but Ken was the dynamo as described. [R.C., 2011] His main weapon was current affairs. Over against the familiar commercial fare he placed This Day Tonight at 7.30 pm every week-night, introducing current affairs to the front line of Australian television. There followed weekly contemporary Australian drama with Australian Playhouse, and weekly documentaries about Australia with A Big Country. At the same time, clever use was made of audience research data in the placement and sequential arrangement of programmes. On screen announcers were replaced by commercial-style voice-overs and up-beat station-themes (‘musical logos’). A trend had started, perhaps inevitably — a trend away from the old ABC TV with a human face. For the moment its effect was on presentation and style rather than upon programmes, but it was not long before Drama began to move away from one-off plays into serials and series (often well done) like Contrabandits and Delta and Certain Women. I remember at the end of the ’60s the documentary producer Tom Haydon (The Talgai Skull) telling me he thought the future looked rather bleak for his sort of work, and he left for the BBC. So did Storry Walton (My Brother Jack). So did Bill Fitzwater, Ken Hannam, Henri Safran, and others. When they came back it was to the film industry.


In the 1970s, the commercial channels began to catch up in current affairs, and the ABC lost the few points it had gained in the ratings race. As a result, ABC TV was pushed further along the pop road. We had slogans like ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’, and British comedy (not always the subtle kind) in prime spots every week-night. The new path taken in 1966 had, by the mid-1970s, acquired a distinctly Gadarene aspect. It is interesting, and perhaps instructive, to note that by 1970 radio had definitely reasserted itself inside the ABC as an attractive medium offering interesting work and congenial subject-matter for thoughtful people.


In celebration of its fiftieth birthday the ABC put on a specially commissioned television opera by Peter Sculthorpe straight after the current affairs programme Nationwide. This was a strange choice, opera having been banished from our TV screens since the mid-1970s. The irony escaped the critics and commentators — or perhaps they were decently polite. I found the work absorbing, but not so much so that I was not able to reflect for a moment on the unusualness of sitting in front of a TV set watching a commissioned Australian work that engaged my serious critical judgment about it. In fine, I think ABC TV, in the late 1960s, in the midst of a shake-up that brought about much that was good, took a fatally wrong step in deciding to programme aggressively for a big audience at the cost of seriousness. It was a slight, almost negligible cost at first, but it inevitably grew. Just how great the consequences were only became apparent in the 1970s. Maybe a single national channel in competition with a number of commercial ones is bound to be a mixed bag; but in the mixture the things of the mind and spirit should have and be seen to have the primacy. Why else should the parliament and the people continue to think it worth paying for?


The ratings themselves provide a final comment. During its first decade of fairly uncompetitive programming ABC TV in the big cities attracted around 14% of evening viewers. Ken Watts’s 1966 revolution raised this figure to a peak of at least 17%. But the increase was short-lived, lasting only as long as it took the commercials to wheel on their Willesees. Through most of the 1970s the ABC’s share was around 11% or 12%, and it has never regained the 14% it enjoyed in its first decade without any populist huffing and puffing.


Some of this commercialism has spread from TV to radio. All radio programming is now determined much more by reference to audience-research data, with considerable benefits. But I would agree with a fellow department head who remarked that our programming deliberations in recent times seem more and more to deal with questions like ‘Saturday afternoons don’t seem to be going so well. What sort of programme should we put there?’, whereas formerly it would more likely have been ‘Yes. This is a good idea for a programme. Where should we put it?’ Radio One (i. e. the ‘light’ stations in capital cities) has been transformed into a smooth-flowing continuum of talk interspersed with research-approved formulaic music, as free as possible (pace Parliament) of ‘hiccups’, which is the term the planners use to denote disparate items that might interrupt the even flow. Such a ‘hiccup’ for instance, was the Friday day-time one-hour play, which was discontinued a year ago on the ground that it hindered the station’s ability to broadcast sudden ‘news-breaks’ even though it rated well. This emptying out of certain elements from Radio One has put greater pressure on Radio Two to accommodate lighter non-topical and performed spoken word that used to be on Radio One. ABC FM, committed to gramophone music, only slightly interested in spoken performance, and demanding stereophony, does little to relieve this pressure.


The question ‘What is the ABC for?’ inserts itself. I do not propose to give the answers here. I assume them. And my assumptions imply the indispensability of intellectual strength in managing national radio and television programmes. Not vague highbrow-ness, but the strength of mind which manages ideas with clarity and decision, sorts out values, and approaches the public confidently with what it has decided, and which is helped, not determined, by extrinsic considerations like the data of audience-research. Heads with some fire in them.




Writing for radio drama declined as the 1960s went by. Television took over the mass audience, and radio was traumatized for a time. The writers who had worked for radio went after the richer pickings and a bigger audience in TV. But in one important area the Features Editor, Ivan Smith, maintained a holding operation that was in the main unsung, but which ensured that certain qualities and genres and writing techniques were not lost and might be built upon later when radio re-grouped itself at the start of the 1970s.


Working with writers who were not always of top quality, but applying exacting standards and ingenious editorial guidance, he kept three important radio programmes going through the 1960s. These were the Sunday evening half-hour Quality Street, which presented features on literature and the other arts; another half-hour, Tuesday Night Feature, which treated more general subjects, including biography and history, and also presented some very notable half-hour plays — true radio works, not mere proscenium radio — at a time when the official drama-editing machine was failing; and The Poet’s Tongue on Sunday afternoon. I should also mention Nocturne (poetry with improvised music).


Ivan Smith’s standards were rigorous and he would do anything short of murder to see that a piece of good radio writing got to air. By the end of the 1960s the radio feature was beginning to ‘take off’, and his stable of writers had increased in both number and quality. Two of them were outstanding, and without them he would certainly have had to shut up shop. Both were freelancers who for long periods lived very largely or wholly from Smith’s radio programmes. One was Colin Free, now an ABC script editor, and well known as the author of novels and stage plays as well as radio and TV ones. I have no doubt that Colin Free’s real genius has been for radio; and in Ivan Smith he found not only a helpful editor but a crack producer (in many ways the best I have seen anywhere) exactly fitted to his talents and writing style. One can only lament that this superb combination of talents functioned at a time when ABC radio was definitely the poor relation. Such programmes were little publicized; they were heard by comparatively few listeners; and there were no radio reviews or criticism.


I certainly commend the radio scripts of Colin Free (there are some dozens in our Drama and Features script library) to any serious student of radio in this country, and even more the extant productions of them by Ivan Smith in our sound archives (here there are some unfortunate lacunae). They are nearly all half-hour pieces that revel in the freedom and the suggestive and associative possibilities of radio. Unfortunately, many of them (especially the futuristic and science-fiction ones) tend to abound with contemporary references and half-hints about topics of the day, and generally do not translate well across time. ‘Brain Drain’, for instance, loses much of its point since the fuss about organ transplants has died down. An exception is A Walk Among the Wheenies, which in the production by Ivan Smith was heard on the BBC and in many other countries through its issue by the BBC Transcription Service. It also became a stage play and a TV serial, and a number of the others were translated to TV or the stage — but I think they were best on radio.


The other writer on whom Ivan Smith depended, Norman Gear, was not of the same order as Colin Free. He was a Hampshire man who migrated to Australia in the early 1960s and, having told the migration authorities in London that he hoped to work as a writer here, finished up in Elizabeth, South Australia.


He had been advised that Adelaide was the city of culture. The ABC in Adelaide sent him to see Ivan Smith in Sydney, and he moved to Sydney and stayed for a couple of years before returning to the UK. But both here and (for years afterwards) from his home in Wales, he contributed hundreds of feature scripts on writers and poets, radio portraits of historical figures, series like Three Men of the Reformation (with Ron Haddrick as Luther, Robert Peach as Erasmus and Edward Hepple as Calvin), Three Russian Novelists (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev), Giant at War (about Wallenstein and Gustavus Adolphus), and countless arrangements of prose and poetry including two serial surveys of British and American verse. As a writer, he could be a bit pompous at times, but that was easily fixed up before going to air. What he did superbly was to research the essentials of a subject and shape them for radio productions. He was much appreciated then (one listener wrote asking if Norman Gear was a real person or a consortium of historians) and listeners today are in his debt.


The difference between Colin Free and Norman Gear is the difference between creative radio writing pure and simple, and the high-class journalism that can arrange the presentation of general literature on the air. The latter is a proper task of a Features Department. The ABC, as we have seen, had started one in 1948 and joined it with Drama in 1950.


In the ABC’s Report to Parliament for the year 1950-51 we read of the beginnings of the Quality Street programme:


On Sunday evenings a different field was covered in a series of anthology programs of literature and music, in which special attention was given to the work of Australian poets — Roderick Quinn, Christopher Brennan, Judith Wright, Rex Ingamells, ‘Banjo’ Paterson, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and many others were represented in this series.


The juxtaposition of Quinn and Paterson and Gordon with Brennan and Wright may startle, but allowance should be made for the need to impress politicians and others with as many Australian names as possible. When I first worked on these annual lists there was a perfect paranoia about this, which even now has not entirely disappeared. But we can note advances in sophistication if we compare titles presented to the Parliament in the mid-1950s with those of the mid-1960s.


Features titles selected for mention in the Annual Report of 1954/55 are:



Some Australian Poems — an anthology;
Australian Panorama — (Australian ballads & descriptive verse)
Australian Writers (an anthology)
The Moonbone Myth (Aboriginal Myth)
Gordon the Poet



Anthology of American writers and poets
Under Milk Wood
Poet of Darkness (poems of Novalis, translated by Ivan Smith)
François Villon
Horace — Poet of Rome
The Devil and young Tennyson
Poems of Stephen Spender


In 1963-64, Australian literature is still a bit thinly represented, with mention of Christopher Koch, Shaw Neilson, David Campbell, Mary Gilmore and Bernard O’Dowd. Notable, though, is the first mention of A First Hearing, a quarterly programme of unpublished Australian verse, established by John Croyston, which persists today and attracts many contributions. (Many Australian poets were published here in their early careers, including Les Murray, Geoffrey Lehman, Rhyll McMaster, Roger McDonald, Michael Dransfield, Peter Skzrenecki, and others.)


World literature in 1963/64 is more cosmopolitan, with mention of Robert Frost, John Pudney, Marianne Moore, Whitman, Vernon Scannell, Archibald McLeish, Mark Van Doren, Ungaretti, Montale, Quasimodo, Wilfrid Owen, Heine, Holderlin, Allen Curnow, and Edgar Lee Masters, among a lot of classics. And in 1964, ’65, ’66, things looked up further for Australian poets, with programmes on Bruce Beaver, John Blight, Gwen Harwood, Roland Robinson, Vivian Smith, Douglas Stewart, John Thompson, Kath Walker, Judith Wright, James McAuley, Thomas Shapcott, J. R. Rowland, Rosemary Dobson, Eric Rolls, Elizabeth Riddell, R. D. Fitzgerald, and William Hart-Smith.


In all of these programmes, the accent was strongly, if not exclusively, on presentation of the literary work. In a half-hour feature on Wordsworth or Browning or whomever, the narration, talking about Wordsworth or Browning, might assume an air of critical importance, but this was partly a device. Its essential function was to support and illuminate the actual works that were being presented. Purely discursive programmes — as opposed to these performance-oriented ones — were more normally the business of the Talks Department; and through the 1960s, on Friday evenings, it put on a half-hour programme variously called Books for Comment and Today’s Writing, the latter describing itself as ‘interviews, comments, original poetry readings, occasional chit-chat by authors, publishers, bookmen.


After the demise of the Talks Department in 1969 and the rise of Allan Ashbolt’s ‘Special Projects’, this programme changed its name ominously to Books and Ideas, with the even more ominous sub-title ‘A programme not so much about books as about the ideas they contain’. In the manner of other Special Projects programmes, it began to deal almost exclusively in books about the environment, the arms race, property-developers, multi-nationals, and so on. The nearest it came to literature would usually have been in political biography. This moved me in 1977 to start a pure Talks programme in Radio Drama & Features called Books and Writing [produced initially by Jan Garrett and John Tranter and later by Martin Harrison, Robert Dessaix and others], to get some attention back to books as literature. Thus were the roles of departments muddied and confused during the lively ’70s. But again, I jump too far ahead.




In 1971, I left my ABC Features Editor’s desk for six months to take up a Churchill Fellowship to study cultural spoken-word radio in Italy, Germany, France and Britain. It was the first time that anyone from the ABC had gone into Continental radio at the programme level and at length. During this trip I sat on Prix Italia juries for stereophonic works and radio documentaries for the first time. My ears were opened to a whole range of new things, and on my return to Australia I wrote, proposing an internationalization of our programming outlook:


I should summarise the difference I observed between the continentals and the BBC (which the ABC tends to follow). Simplifying for the sake of brevity, I would say that the Continental program-makers favour a technique-based approach, founded in the medium itself: boldly experimental, with an appreciable failure rate but some stunning successes to compensate. At the BBC the approach is more word-based. This is safer, perhaps, more tied to a text, but the tradition of good writing in Britain (much envied on the Continent, I thought) brings successes of a different kind. The two approaches are by no means mutually exclusive.


Writing about my time in Radio France, I said:


Of most interest to me were the programs of the Atelier de Creation Radio-phonique, which is headed by M. Alain Trutat and provides fine programs for a regular three-hour Sunday night spot on the France Culture network. This three-hour program may consist of a single work, or more often a number of works. Sometimes it consists of several works (talk, documentary, music, poetry) all on a particular person or hovering around a particular theme — but suggestively, paying due attention to the fact that radio is an associative medium and operates at various levels like a poem.


M. Trutat’s approach is radiophonic and his programs tend to be markedly documentary, the documentary elements often being ‘treated’ with much mixing and cutting and the use of particular sounds as symbols. The Atelier grew out of the events of 1968, and its interests often reflect that origin. Trutat says that its programs offer insights, not judgments, and this is true.


At the suggestion of the then Controller of Programmes, Neil Hutchison, I had written my Churchill report in such a way as to stimulate comparisons with the ABC without making direct suggestions that might alienate those they were directed at. I was hoping to be influential, but never dreamed that I might be asked to take up this idea of a three-hour programme and apply it mutatis mutandis to Australian radio. Arthur Wyndham, then in charge of Radio Two, made the suggestion, and I still remember the 1965 Mildara Cabernet Shiraz with which he tempted myself and my two Features colleagues, Julie-Anne Ford and Rodney Wetherell. So was born Sunday Night Radio Two.


It was born for other reasons too. The ABCs historian, Professor Ken Inglis, mentioned in a recent broadcast three programmes of ABC radio in the 1970s that he considered innovatory (in ways the BBC was not) in reacting to television: Radio Drama & Features’ Sunday Night Radio Two (now Radio Helicon), Special Projects’ Lateline, and the Science Unit’s Investigations. I agree with him. It is intriguing that SNR2s French exemplar should have been born out of 1968 in Paris, because I think that these three programmes and especially SNR2 and Lateline 9Investigations was a slightly later derivative) were also the result of an Australian upheaval, very noticeable in the ABC, which owed much to the same anti-authoritarian spirit (arriving a bit later in Australia and getting an extra fillip from the Vietnam and conscription controversies).


Programme-makers in radio formed a Radio Action Movement (RAM), which adopted a strong attitude towards management and was influential in bringing about the programme changes of the early 1970s. I was later to describe Lateline as ‘boringly repetitive and tendentious’; it was supposed to cover a wide range of subjects including literature and the arts, but it quickly got hooked into what Denys Pryor, in the Melbourne Age, termed ‘social engineering’. Nevertheless it did make some outstanding programmes, and its introduction of the use of international circuits to hold serious and lengthy discussions with authoritative people anywhere in the world was imaginative.


Sunday Night Radio Two (the predecessor of the present Radio Helicon) began on 11th March, 1973. The people who worked on it in the beginning were Rodney Wetherell, Julie-Anne Ford and, at times, Ron Blair. Instead of producing half-hour features researched in libraries, we were suddenly scouring universities in Australia and abroad for expert writers and presenters of spacious and authoritative programmes. SNR2 was a gigantic undertaking, always employing far too few people inside the ABC; and its demands affected the orderly transmission of production-skills in, e. g., poetry and tightly structured half-hour features, from which we have not recovered. The restrictions on staffing imposed only a couple of years after it started did not help. But the programmes are there and they represent nothing less than a revolution in Australian radio.


In 1973 they included The Surrealist Dream, a history of dada, surrealism and pop-art arranged by Colin Free, with music by Satie, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Lukas Foss; The Branch of Dodona, presented by David Campbell; Dr Frances Yates of the Warburg Institute; a six-part Survey of Australian Verse arranged and presented by Leonie Kramer; a radio version by Ron Blair of his Nimrod Theatre musical, Flash Jim Vaux, translations of Georg Trakl by James McAuley specially commissioned for the programme; two evenings on Fascism and Nazism by Richard Bosworth; a brilliant arrangement of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past by Rodney Wetherell and read by Gordon Chater.


Jean-Paul Sarter, left, and Simone de Beavoir
Jean-Paul Sarter, left, and Simone de Beavoir
In the couple of years that followed, there was a long poetic treatment of the search for Prester Johns kingdom, by Rodney Hall; The Celtic Inheritance by John Pringle; a programme in words and music on John Cage by Nigel Butterley; my own production with music of Ron Haddrick reading James McAuley’s Captain Quiros; The People of the Sagas presented and arranged by A. D. Hope; an evening with Peter Porter on is first return to Australia after 21 years; three whole evenings assessing the Existentialists, by Max Charlesworth, which included interviews with Sartre and de Beauvoir, and contributions from R. D. Laing, Raymond Aron, Maurice Cranston, Alistair Davidson, Philip Ihody and others; another evening on Ionesco built around an exclusive and hard-to-get interview; Bill Mandle on Sport in Australia. Robert Peach made the documentary on deafness, The World of J.K., which won the ABC’s third Italia Prize in 1974.


Denys Pryor presented Juvenal: the Indignant Poet. Kingsley Amis accepted our commission to write and narrate a two-hour essay on comedy, The Comic Muse — penetrating, biased and funny. John Douglas Pringle devoted a whole evening to The Poet’s War, a study of the Spanish Civil War as seen through the eyes of a Manchester Guardian leader-writer of the time. We discovered the possibility of one-man shows on radio when Alastair Duncan presented Robert Williams’ arrangement of Boswell on Johnson.


Other examples included Ron Haddrick’s reading of Beowulf, introduced by the translator, Michael Alexander, who was so excited by the undertaking that he took leave from Stirling University to come here and participate. Ron Haddrick also read The Moods of Ginger Mick. Perhaps the high point of this genre was in 1977 when the Virgil scholar, Professor R. D. Williams, of Reading University, introduced the readings by Wynn Roberts of Virgil’s Aeneid.


Among the big undertakings there were all sorts of small delights — readings of poems or odd bits of music in the interstices of things. I remember with particular pleasure a reading by Nigel Lovell of Douglas Stewart’s poem Rutherford; a little 20-minute feature on Scott Joplin, in which Joshua Rifkin’s recordings of Joplin’s rags were broadcast in Australia for the first time; and the performance by a visiting German, Werner Ganse, of some of Kurt Schwitters’ ‘sound poetry’, including the Ur Sonata.


[I should perhaps mention that during my own time at the helm of Radio Helicon, 1986 and 1987, detailed programmes on the work of poets John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Laurie Duggan, John Forbes, Michael Dransfield, Harry Hooton and Martin Johnston were broadcast. — J.T., 2016.]


We took numerous programmes from overseas, especially the BBC. We argued about techniques of‘voicing over’ foreign language inter views, and sometimes got them right. And there were also the flops. (Flops, like the poor, are always with us.) Sometimes they were caused by the actual spaciousness of the programme-spot: programmes that should have run for one hour were allowed to run for two. At other times they resulted from arch or twee attempts to be funny.


As well as the successful ones, there were one or two failed attempts at anthology-programmes; this sort of thing can be one of the delights of radio, but it must be done with sensitivity and some originality. I have lost count of the number of people who have offered to undertake an anthology-programme on death. I still run a mile from them.


With Sunday Night Radio Two, ABC Radio, although a net gainer, also sustained some losses that we did not foresee as all our efforts went into one big programme. The gentle art of the half-hour feature, the Norman Gear type of programme of the 1960s, has been all but lost — lending weight to accusations that we have become too exclusively high brow. Nocturne, the Sunday-evening quarter-hour of poetry and improvised music, disappeared. So did those tidily balanced Sunday afternoon broadcasts of poetry, to be restored only six years later. In fact, to our ashamed surprise, surveying results at the end of the first year of SNR2, we found that over-all we had broadcast less poetry than in the previous year.




The presentation of poetry on radio is a vexed question. The only thing James McAuley wrote that I find in any way tedious is his Primer of English Versification. I am not saying that it doesn’t serve a useful purpose or that it is not well done; it is in fact ingenious. But its virtues are like those of, say, a written manual for non-swimmers on how to stay afloat in the water. There are, admittedly, a lot of non-swimmers around these days.


If I may change metaphors, A. D. Hope once described the eighteenth-century attitude to poetry as being like the educated discrimination that people today think worth acquiring in the world of wine. I think there are plenty of people around today who can tell you whether a wine is in balance, but would be at a loss trying to balance a few lines of Shakespeare or Milton. That doesn’t mean, though, that they don’t enjoy hearing Olivier or Scofield or John Bell speaking the same lines. Certainly, the reading of poetry aloud is a very delicate art, and many radio listeners enjoy it, most of them in the way that the majority of concert-goers enjoy music — as non-practitioners who could not say theoretically what is wrong with a performance but who, nevertheless, know pretty surely when it is well done and when it is not.


All production is a matter of tact and personal interaction. With poetry it is especially so; and having produced plays and features, and poetry, and music, I have no hesitation in saying that I have found poetry the hardest to get just right. For a start, your casting choices are much narrower; and when you have got your performer, his [or her] margin of error is usually narrower. (It is as though they were on a higher, tauter tight-rope.) Then, leaving aside such gross error as mis-interpretation, there are three broad ways in which it can easily go wrong.


(1) You can muck it up technically: wrong pacing or pausing, or legato when you should be staccato, or getting the intonation-tunes wrong, or failing to achieve the right counterpoint between the stress-requirements of the metre and the natural rhythm of the words.


(2) You can get things wrong emotionally, so that the emotional qualities of the reading don’t correspond honestly to the content of the poem. There are a thousand ways in which this can occur. The least offensive is probably the too-flat reading, when the reader, emotionally, doesn’t come up to the mark of the words. Worst of all, and unfortunately much more common, is when the reader invests the words with emotion that they do not warrant. This spurious emotion is the hallmark of the bad reader, but it can happen to the best, too, when they get tired and their concentration starts to wane. I call it ‘intoning’. It is the main reason why many poets and others say that actors should not read poetry.


(3) You can fail acoustically to suit your microphone and studio technique to the style of the poem. The works of Homer and Eliot, for instance, would benefit from quite different technical approaches.


On the question of who should read poetry, I can often sympathize with poets who state baldly that ‘actors shouldn’t’. But despite my sympathy, I think the attitude is wrong and shortsighted. I remarked earlier that practically all of literature can be treated as a text for the performer’s art. When arguing this point with a poet, I am more likely to say baldly that poetry is a performing art. Once a poem is written, then (neither more nor less than a play) it is there to be read — let us hope as well as it deserves.


Jonathan Miller, a few years ago, talking as a producer of plays, remarked that every playwright deserves at least one production of his play according to his own insights and wishes. I would say that the reading of a poem by the poet is bound to be a significant and interesting reading of it. What the poets often mean is that they should read their poetry on the ABC. My answer is yes, if they’re good enough (and extant). If the argument hots up, then I’m likely to come out with the old one-two: why is it that Russians like Yevtushenko and Vosnesensky read so beautifully, yet so many Australian poets — and I’m thinking of some whose writing is ingenious and effective in terms of sound — don’t read well? It may be pertinent to note that a really fine reader-poet like James McAuley was as fussy as anyone about the reading of his work on air — but his fuss was all directed towards ensuring that we got Ron Haddrick.


If I say that in recent times the over-all bias of our literary programmes has been a bit highbrow, I am not thinking of poetry. I still take comfort from the memory of something that happened in 1979. The National Times critic, Harry Robinson, upbraided Sunday Night Radio Two for broad casting Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he described as ‘indigestible to all but a few of extremely scholarly bent’ and ‘a work that not one per cent of the population have ever read or will read’. The very next week there were three letters in the National Times taking him to task as a philistine. None of them was from a scholar; in fact, one was from a migrant couple whose first language and culture was obviously not English. A few weeks later I was to introduce a production of C. J. Dennis’s Ginger Mick, and although I don’t believe in answering critics, on this occasion it happened to suit the trend of my argument to mention Harry Robinson’s criticism. I was referring to the vanished vogue for recitation, and I took up his remark that only one per cent of the population would ever read Paradise Lost:


When we do these long poems, whether it be Paradise Lost or Ginger Mick, we don’t ask people to read them. We’ll take care of the reading. We ask you to listen to them. What were on about is oral performance — reading stories aloud, listening to stories. Maybe it’s only scholars nowadays who read Virgil’s Aeneid on the printed page. Virgil himself, of course, wrote it for reading aloud, and recited it himself. And when Wynn Roberts read it aloud — performed, recited it — on Radio Two, the mountain of letters we received asking for more of the same came ten-to-one from ordinary people, not scholars or latinists. The art of recitation is not dead — its alive and well on Radio 2.




Having begun this paper with comparisons between the ABC and the BBC in 1932, I shall end with more comparisons as at July 1982. We should expect to find differences, and there are many. Looking through the spoken-word radio programmes of the two organizations, I think three are worth noticing here.


In the first place, BBC talk is more variegated, covers more subjects and areas of interest; the ABC concentrates more on current socio-political questions. In a week’s programming on the BBC, there are more occasions when you are likely to bump into, say, a half-hour feature on an exchange of letters between B. R. Haydon and the Duke of Wellington; a documentary about life on a super-tanker; a biography of Robert Owen; a quarter-hour on ‘Words’. To the BBC more things seem to be ‘relevant’. It seems less moved by considerations of topicality, less bounded by the present. It seems to assume to a far greater extent than the ABC that its listeners will find the past interesting.


The same applies to criticism. ABC radio’s critical gaze tends to fix itself more exclusively on practical, social things like the law and its reform, education and child-rearing, the environment and the wood-chip industry, &c. There are good review programmes, especially of films and books, but nothing to match the scope of the BBC’s nightly half-hour Kaleidoscope and its weekly 50-minute Critics Forum, which offer criticism of theatre, architecture, art, as well as cinema and records. If your touchstone is Terence’s dictum ‘I am a man: there is nothing human that I consider alien’, then the BBC seems to come off rather better.


The second difference is that more of the spoken word on the BBC is the result of reflection. A greater proportion of ABC talk comes ‘off the top of the head’ of the speaker, in response to questioning by an interviewer.


The third difference is in the vastly greater amount of performed, as distinct from discursive, spoken word on the BBC, and especially the larger amount of fiction — drama, readings, story-telling of all kinds — that the BBC puts on. It is hard to be precise because of week-to-week variation, but from examination of the most recent programme layouts I think one could express the difference pretty accurately as follows: Short stories (new, unpublished), BBC, 1 each weekday, ABC, nil; Short stories (published), BBC 2 per day, ABC nil; Serialized book-readings, BBC 1 programme per week-day (total 15 minutes), ABC 2 programmes per week-day (total 27 minutes); Dramatized serials, BBC 4 hours 45 minutes per week (including one-hour repeat), ABC 1 hour 20 minutes (including half-hour produced by BBC); One-off plays, BBC 10 hours 30 minutes per week, ABC 3 hours per week (including some BBC productions). The BBC broadcasts at least one play per day; the ABC broadcasts at most three plays per week.


Some, but not all, of these differences simply reflect the BBC’s superiority in sheer size and financial resources. Others certainly reflect differences of outlook and relative values between the two organizations.


Whether they also reflect basic differences between the two societies is a question I often ask myself. But my own particular professional background, and the possible biases you may infer from it, caution me not to offer an answer now. You are listeners and for that matter owners of the ABC. These are questions you should think about. They should certainly not be left only to us broadcasters.



Endnote links: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

[Note 1] Understanding Media, London, 1964, pp.299, 310.

[Note 2] Mediations, London, 1980, p. 172.

[Note 3] BBC Handbook, 1931, p. 189.



Anthony Howell: Three poems

  Anthony Howell

  A Clutch Of Primes

  Three poems
Atheism’s youth
Doesn’t mean it merits the reproof
It offers no such thing
As consolation — wine in
The chalice faith has wrought.

Say you read a line in
A madrigal by Drummond.
Following his thought,
You let the words release their lyric spring,
Your very being summoned

To pursue his track,
Just as Milton’s was a while back.
Reading how his rhymes release their ring
You hear what he heard too;
His senses, wit, intent alive in you.


No one has much use for me today.
Social intercourse demands I toe its
Line regarding what I choose to say.
But the mediocre poets

Nominate the most
Mediocre among them for the prize.
I dream about a threesome with the prettiest of these
Whose poetry lies pooled between their intertwining thighs.

But who am I to boast?
Haven’t got a hope of screwing one.
I’ll prosper when I’m dead,
When all is said and done,

And then the tribe of bards will beg forgiveness on its knees.
But not today, today my hopes are sunk.
The dregs are truly drunk.
Only the cat’s prepared to share my bed,

And she employs me as a cross between
Her mother and an exercise machine.


Although I write in many a genre, to be honest

      I have never really found my voice,

‘Really’ — that’s a word you should avoid.

And ‘to be honest’ is an empty phrase.

Like others I have toyed

With sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, every type of form,

But I’m unsure of what I may have actually achieved.

Once I hoped to find a way of writing that was mine alone,

      as if I had no choice.

But am I even warm?

I’ve never found that voice.

The phrases that I’ve used are all received.

As if I had no clue,

Were lost within a maze.

But what am I to do?

I wouldn’t want you calling me ‘inviting’.

I wouldn’t want you calling me ‘absurd’.

And why should I not heed your feedback? Merely a mortal

      after all, responding well to praise,

But not some lyric bird,

I think I’m unexciting,

And there are times one hears another’s voice

In every line one writes.

I’ve never struck that sheer compelling tone

That conjures out of language something more than words alone.

One read me till the pleasure cloyed and after that

      she never chose to read my book again.

Her poetry delights!

And now I hear her voice’s cunning way

Transforming the design

Of every line I’d like to call my own.

She’d read me and re-read me, but I was envious of her,

      and rubbished what she had to say.

She read me and re-read me every day,

Or I would bawl my poems down the phone.

She’d listen till her ears were sore, but I’d read more and more

      without a single pause or break,

In search of my own voice inside the writing:

A voice I felt should last forever, yes.

But now I must confess

My verse was hard to take.

It could not be enjoyed;

A poet out of touch,

Bathed in another’s lighting.

I never thought this lack of voice would bother me so much.

But she was one who loved me for my words,

One whose words had flavour more distinctive than my own.

Yet I’d disparage what she did, undermine her confidence

      and tear her poems down.

So many nimble birds

Fell victim to the winter of my frown

She told herself she’d never write again.

But what was in her could not be dismembered or put down.

The poetry welled up in her, and nothing that I said was going

      to stop it pouring out,

Contaminating mine,

Infecting what I wrote

And what I write and may intend

To write tomorrow, yes, I hear her voice in every line.

Call her my muse: my very best being merely an echo

      of her far more fascinating note:

A woman once my friend,

To whom I dedicate this serpentine.

Author’s note: The Serpentine is a form I have hit upon, developed from the madrigal. The madrigal uses mixed rhythms, trimeter and pentameter (3 and 5 stresses per line), any rhyme scheme, any line order — that is, you can have a couplet of pentameter, then one trimeter line, or any other order. The madrigal as a poetic form was pioneered by Drummond of Hawthornden, based on the pioneering experiments of Della Casa in Italy, and I go into more detail about this in ‘A Paean to the Pioneer of the Madrigal’, published in the Fortnightly Review at, where Drummond’s conversations with Ben Jonson are mentioned. Note that 5 and 3 are both primes. Mixed metre works well with primes because they don’t divide into each other. The Serpentine extends the concept of the madrigal to include the fourteener (a line with seven stresses) and a line with eleven stresses (twenty-seconds?). So the poet may use 3, 5, 7 and 11 stress lines, in any order with any rhyme scheme. I have called this form a Serpentine, because the prime numbers spiral, so there is something ‘serpentine’ about the form. One can also employ 3, 5 and 7 only — I call this a Lizardite — not quite a Serpentine. These early primes are part or very nearly part of the Fibonacci sequence, which in turn is associated with the golden rule.


Aaron Belz: Four poems

  Aaron Belz

  Four poems

  Against One Odd

Our love persists against
not all odds but certain odds.
Okay, one odd: your odd brother
who still wets his propeller
beanie. Okay, and doesn’t know
how to wear a beanie.
Or shall we say where. And should
I call your brother ‘odd’
even in an effort to get even
with your odd family, you being
one of five, with your bright
eyes and silly haircut? Girl,
you still want me to wash dishes.

You still want me to mow yard,
to pull weeds and skim pool.
Our love persists despite
a baffling headwind
and that we are still chased
by nude firemen everywhere.
Perhaps I should forgive myself
for releasing the nude firemen
from their holding cell.
Or try. It hasn’t been easy.


Headphones? I feel jammed into them.
Earbuds is everybody else, clustered
in airports, checking;

I go for liftoff only, no lonely
embrace between Corinthian columns,
no movie sendoff, not even

Starbucks, God. I may be the spirit
that populates my clothes, the Buddha
of everyone else’s misapprehensions, but

words? I’ve said all of them—
into mirrors or while sobbing into torsos
that turned out not to belong to the ghosts

who turn my book’s pages
while I pretend to nap. Can’t shop
for bananas again (or really any other fruit).

Just won’t go down that path.
I speak perfect English but can’t do math
no more, and I have five feet

as far as I know. Lowly bungalow,
be still. Night shades, chill; go hence
and find out where my sweetheart went.

  My Daewoo

I’d like to propose a toast,
but I can’t, because my tongue’s
been torn out by the roots.

I’d also like to propose toast,
but it’s been proposed, accepted,
and now is widely embraced.

Plus, no tongue. Plus, all
my clothes are at the cleaners.
Also my Daewoo is flooded.

Baby, where did you go.
I waited all night at the hotel for you,
and I waited by the phone all day—

tore my heart out by the roots.
And now I can’t sing or swim or
open the door of my sinking Kalos.

  When the Ancient Pipa Plays

Oh, the Mello Yello shimmering
in the luminous stone cup!
I am going to drink it
the way a horse
whinnies while being flayed
by its Brutus, then live
like a consonant tucked between
vowels—so thoroughly
will the hanging
relieve me
of my bowels.
      Then soldiers,
will gather, like commas,
too many towels, to daub
up the spillage— Oh,
do not laugh, my petrograph,
if I double over drunk
on the blood of my own self,
or lament if I stagger
home sloshed on the blood
of others. For this time it’s you,
Miss Jasmine Carruthers,
but, just as babies bring glee,
next time it well could be
a man as impressive
as I: A fortress
of anger, a stallion of sweetness
who’d rather be kissing—
than killing—and what then?

What will you think
when the ancient pipa plays,
urging me to charge?


Peter Dale Scott: Three poems

  Peter Dale Scott

  Three poems

  An Old Man out After Breakfast (Morning Walk)
For Sylvia Boorstein

Snapdragon shadow on the sidewalk
                    a baby in its carriage
          smiling at a giant Great Dane

sap flowing upwards
                        a half inch inside
          this sycamore I hug

Be guided from within
                        the principal hornist at the Met
          learned from her dharma teacher

after centuries of the blind advice
                        to Odysseus in the underworld
          curb your instinct                                                  Odyssey 11:105

an overhanging rosebush
                        and a jogger so close
          I feel again that power

of the wholly unexpected
                        the intricate feathers
          of the barn owl splayed

in the glinting broken glass
                        at the side of the desert road
          or that smile from the tour guide

under the Thai waterfall
                        the spray lighting up her face
          at the edge of the maelstrom

in a gorge so deep
                        the others were too prudent to climb down
          one moment indefinable

and of no consequence
                        the hornplayer’s Schumann fragment
          at Sylvia’s anniversary

the light from the meteoric fireball
                        on the hill slope of yuccas
          or when sharpening my pencil

I smell those cedars again
                        or that elusive ex-student
          wistful perhaps from her mother’s early death

who smuggled a whole boatload of marijuana
                        with her biker boyfriend
          one kiss by a mountain stream

and she burst into tears
                        I thought you were interested
          in my mind

And so what is this oxymoron
                        the meaning of life
          deluding and sustaining us

for decades?

  Before reading this book

take a morning walk outside
and imagine over your head
the white stars

you are quite confident are there
because you have seen them
though only at night

and then when your mind has expanded
think of the earth’s surface you tread on
curving away to maybe Paris

the next takes a little doing
but when you have the stars and curve in mind
imagine how the space over your head

is mirrored darkly
with all last evening’s stars
deep down under your feet

until you feel our planet
smaller even than a bit of dust

Bless the Huge Unknown
within us
that can do this

and ask compassion
for those on this crowded soil
who are suffering


Now you can read
but begin with something great
perhaps a Song of Innocence by Blake.

    GREEK THEATER: Mario Savio and the Socratic Quest
But in diverting the city’s desires another way instead of complying with them…
that is the only business of a good citizen.
– Plato, Gorgias 517 B-C
It has taken weeks
of unsettled half-awareness
for me to recognize
the student wrestled to the ground Cohen Freedom’s Orator 213
by six policemen in uniforms
a baton menacing his neck and tie
(an arm across his throat
to keep him from speaking) San Francisco Chronicle December 9 1964
on the cover of this book
about how J. Edgar Hoover
slipped lies to the San Francisco Examiner
advancing the career of Ronald Reagan Rosenfeld Subversives 212-13, 227
is Mario Savio leader of Berkeley Free Speech Movement
on the stage of the Greek Theater December 7 1964; Rosenfeld Subversives 224
wrecking the well-planned closure
of the assembly called to proclaim
an end to the protests and sit-ins
of the Free Speech Movement
and the inauguration
of a new era of freedom under law Rosenfeld Subversives 223
by an ambitious professor Cohen Freedom’s Orator 213-14
hoping thereby to become
our next Chancellor
who defended the war on national TV
and is now less googled
than his daughter a language poet Leslie Scalapino
The anticlimax when Mario
came back out only to announce
there would be a Free Speech rally Cohen Freedom’s Orator 213-14
on the Sproul Hall steps Rosenfeld Subversives 224
up-ended my own planned life
I was just a few yards away
at the same camera angle
one of those who had urged
the students to trust
the decency of those in power
my head then filled with Anglo-Latin
verse from the ninth century
why the return of a cuckoo in spring
spoke to the heart
expressing aspirations of friendship
more deeply than Virgil could Scott Alcuin’s Versus de Cuculo
and did more to invent Europe
at a higher level –
Christianus sum          I am a Christian
non possum militare —           I cannot make war Acta Maximiliani 1.3
than the battle stopping the Moors
on the banks of the Loire
two different kinds of power Douglass Gandhi and the Unspeakable 25
bia the power of dominance βία violence Arendt 93
versus peithein the power of persuasion πείθειν Schell Unconquerable World 218
the virtù of Macchiavelli
the founder of academic
political science
versus the politiké techné πολιτικῇτέχνῃ Gorgias 521D
of Socrates and Gandhi
which persuades by the force of truth Kornfeld 108 Schell 119
the cop who thanked Howard Zinn
for his talk to the Police Academy
then pleaded with him desperately
to please leave the antiwar blockade
before a little later
battering him with an outsized club Ellsberg
versus Mario inspiring the crowd
to immobilize the campus police car
till Jack Weinberg inside it was released Cohen Freedom’s Orator 98-120
the power to transcend enmity
as I had seen in an iconic moment
alone reading Plato’s Gorgias
in the Ambassador’s huge bed
when I was chargé d’affaires in Warsaw – stand-in for absent ambassador
that the way to change the world
was not through international treaties
but through changing the city’s desires Plato Gorgias 503-21
the power of persuasion
versus that of the nightstick
or even the diplomatic service
with all its tempting frills –
the cook the chauffeur          that flag up ahead on the limo
the house party up the Hudson
where baffled ducks were released
for the half-drunk guests to shoot
the sit-down banquet at Schünbrunn Vienna Imperial Palace
for six hundred people
served by liveried footmen —
which I willingly abandoned
so I could teach in a university
the heritage of the Patrologia Latina
which I had skimmed so greedily
my first semester back
and then Dante          la mala condotta misguidance
è la cagion che’l mondo ha fatto reo is why the world goes wrong
e non natura che’n voi sia corrotta and not your nature that is corrupt
Dante Purgatorio 16:103-05
Well — little could I foresee
how Mario in an instant
(who himself had been inspired
by the plays of Sophocles
and Aeschylus and Euripides Cohen Freedom’s Orator 35
before being beaten in Mississippi
for walking in public with a black man
as part of Freedom Summer) Cohen Freedom’s Orator 59-60
had changed me from a Latinist
into an activist
no longer a mere spectator
(as I had been five days earlier
when the students filed into Sproul Hall
singing We shall overcome) December 2 1964; Rosenfeld 216-22
that same evening I spoke Scott Charlie Sellers 1
at the crisis faculty meeting Cohen Freedom’s Orator 214-15
and only one month later
my first public appeal
to get troops out of Vietnam
which though I could not know it
would soon bring a painful end
to my evenings with Milosz
debating the right English
for what is poetry
that does not save
nations or peoples? Milosz New Collected Poems 78
a heartbreaking loss at the time Haven An Invisible Rope 69
but not one that deterred me
as much as the crazy violence
that developed after Mario
moved away from leadership Cohen Freedom’s Orator 253
not wanting the Movement
to become too dependent on him Cohen Freedom’s Orator 237-38
in the dramatic struggle between
two kinds of decency
one struggling for an end
to racial hiring
in the local supermarkets Rosenfeld Subversives 176-77
one that of the U.S. middle class
who did not want their kids dropping acid
or cursing Amerikkka Ruether America Amerikkka
and so when given a chance
voted for Ronald Reagan
the great persuader Broder Washington Post 6/7/04
while Richard Aoki
as a paid FBI informant
armed the Black Panthers Rosenfeld Subversives 418-19, 421
But Mario returned in the 1980s
and revived a dormant campus
changing the city’s desires Plato Gorgias 517 B-C
with his use of philosophy
Socrates and Thoreau Cohen Freedom’s Orator 202
when he spoke of shifting our values
for an America less dominated
by production for war
and more by human needs Cohen Freedom’s Orator 280, 348
inspiring — yes! — even faculty like myself
to monitor a divestment protest
in support of the South African resistance Rosenfeld Subversives 501
with white armbands torn from a sheet in our

all helping to stoke a nationwide demonstration 15 ARRESTED New York Times 4/17/85
till finally the UC Regents
divested $3 billion in funds Skelton Los Angeles Times 12/11/13
so that — I do believe –
Mario helped contribute
to the liberation of South Africa
Mandela himself credited California
with helping push his country
toward racial integration Skelton Los Angeles Times 12/11/13
Truth-force as history!          Oh John Searle Satyagraha
you recognized in your student Mario’s speeches
a kind of freshness combined
with a certain deep intellectual vision Cohen Freedom’s Orator 189
but when you later came to see the movement
as a bunch of losers Cohen Freedom’s Orator 317
with unreasonable expectations Searle Interview 5
you were resuming your distinguished career
as an academic philosopher
while it was Mario
at what you called a second-rate university Cohen Freedom’s Orator 316
who remained on the straight path
of the Socratic quest
to change by persuasion
our misguided world

curbing the authority of violence
by appealing to those hints of freedom
encoded in our DNA
that truth-force enabling a movement
to overcome as Mario said
a machine so odious
you’ve got to make it stop Cohen Freedom’s Orator 183, 458-59
The the typesetting for this version of the ‘Greek Theater’ poem is taken, with minor modifications, from Freeman Ng’s blog at Coming to Jakarta (at for which many thanks. J.T.

Acta Maximiliani, ed. H. Musurillo. The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Hannah Arendt. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

David S. Broder, ‘The Great Persuader,’ Washington Post, June 7, 2004,

Robert Cohen. Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

James W. Douglass. Gandhi and the Unspeakable: His Final Experiment with Truth, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012.

Daniel Ellsberg, ‘A Memory of Howard Zinn.’, January 27, 2010,

‘15 Arrested on Berkeley Campus in Protest on South Africa Policy.’ New York Times, April 17, 1985,

Mahatma Gandhi, ed. Louis Fischer. The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas.

Ralph J. Gleason, ‘The Tragedy at The Greek Theater,’ San Francisco Chronicle, December 9, 1964,

Cynthia Haven, ed. An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2011. Contains Peter Dale Scott, ‘A Difficult, Inspirational Giant.’

Jack Kornfield. Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are. Boston: Shambhala, 2011.

Seth Rosenfeld. Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Rosemary Radford Ruether. America, Amerikkka : elect nation and imperial violence. Oakville, CT : Equinox, 2007.

Jonathan Schell. The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2003.

Peter Dale Scott. “Alcuin’s Versus de Cuculo: the Vision of Pastoral Friendship,” Studies in Philology, LXII, 4 (July 1965), 510-30,

———. American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.

———. ‘Charlie Sellers at Berkeley.’ A Tribute at the Charles G. Sellers 90th Birthday Symposium, Berkeley, CA, September 7, 2013.

John Searle Interview. Conversations with History, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley.

George Skelton. ‘Leading the way to justice in South Africa.’ Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2013,

Kent Johnson: Two poems

  Kent Johnson

  Two poems

  From Rimbaud, and Some Poetry Bumper Stickers
  from Rimbaud: Campuses (I)

Paragraph 1 follows: 1:

The Campus has it all over the wildest accomplishments of late Tang accommodation and decadence. Futile to describe the yearning looks on the faces of the apprentices, the imperial glint of the barrack-like edifices, the ancient silence of the snow-globes. The hubris is unimaginable: Structures of fantastical modernity inhabit the gigantic bodies of aging hybridists. I go to poetry readings amidst the architecture many times more spectacular than any in all modernity. And what sexuality! Pulitzer Prize-winning Nebuchadnezzars have arranged their attendants in haughty poses on the staircases of the ministries, though here and there some sit, normally, at affected attention; even the flunkies are fairly smug, confident of their station. When I saw their old masters dissected for exhibit, gape-mouthed in their shark tanks, I nearly fainted. Nevertheless, the hint of endless galleries beyond these gave me strength, not least the suggestion of careful arrangement and tactful selection in matters of frame and lighting these promised. The upper zone of the campus, I hasten to note, has weird segments: simulacral streets of hashish clubs filled with patrons, each of them encased in bluish tile, imported from an oil-producing backwater, where such fragilities are crafted by prepubescent no-names. Narrow tunnels lead to the frescoed vault of the Palmer House. This dome is an armature of well-wrought plaster approximately fifteen million meters in diameter.


Here and there, at the copper readings, the golden celebrations of honors, the platforms and stairways that wound round the labyrinthine markets and institutional pillars, I thought I could grasp the meaning and purpose of the weird plan. Yet from the inside of it, I was merely cipher, happy and excited as I was in my astonishment of it. Are there other worlds more real than its marvels, above or below its game of Go? For the tourists in these hotel-marvels, Cairo, Aden, or Benghazi are old-hat, been there, done that. They enter the business of it, properly ordered, with arcaded galleries, shops full of curios. The trampled road waits to be trampled; a few nabobs ride in diamond-studded sulkies, though most still die, anciently, in the gutters. Here and there, an intricate web of microscopic tubes connects the sewers to writing retreats in deserts, mountains, and grape-growing regions. Furthermore, at the Associated Writing Programs Conference they serve tropical appetizers whose prices vary from eight thousand to eight million dollars. Insofar as nosing out a poetry reading in this place, I should say that the gold-leafed sewers I mentioned contain tragedies that are tragic enough. I think there is a State apparatus, but the laws of the Poetry State, communards, are already so exactly as strange as those of the Imperium that I’m ready to disembowel myself with a dull ladle. You can take Space and Time for granted, but look at my face in the daguerreotype: Space is a miracle and Time is a freak-house.


Paris is now a suburb, but the avant-garde gives light to the Museum where the action is. Like forever, the real vanguard elements number in the mere hundreds. For apparently normal individuals, architecture is discontinuous and ecstatically erratic; their gated communities come into their communal gathering in periodic travel, meticulously arranged like any suburb, though these structures lose themselves bizarrely in the provinces after the rituals, where savage gentlefolk hunt down their gossip columns by artificial light.

  Some Poetry Bumper Stickers



























































Kent Johnson, left.
Kent Johnson, left.

Kent Johnson’s latest book is I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetic Field (Longhouse, 2015). His annotated translation of Cesar Vallejo’s only known interview appeared as a letterpress object from Ugly Duckling Presse last year. With Kristin Dykstra, he has edited Materia Prima: Selected Poems of Amanda Berenguer, also to be published, in 2017, by UDP. You can read his translations of some poems of Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz (translated with Forrest Gander) in Jacket 8, and his interview with poet Henry Gould in Jacket 10. Like everyone else, he is currently writing a novel.



Radio Fields: Debra Spitulnik Vidali: A House of Wires upon Wires


Radio Fields: Chapter 13:
A House of Wires Upon Wires

Sensuous and Linguistic Entanglements of Evidence and Epistemologies in the Study of Radio Culture

by Debra Spitulnik Vidali

Taken from Radio Fields: Anthropology and Wireless Sound in the 21st Century, by Lucas Bessire and Daniel Fisher, with an Afterword by Faye Ginsburg
Debra Spitulnik Vidali is an associate professor of anthropology at Emory University. Author of numerous essays on the topic of radio, she has also written extensively on people’s relationships with media and language in Zambia.

Provenance: this piece was scanned from the book Radio Fields and converted to HTML by John Tranter, March 2016. The ten photographs that accompany this piece were selected, captioned and added by John Tranter without prior approval of the author. This piece has yet to receive added material deleted to accommodate the length desired for the book version, and paragraph numbers. Later!

When I was a little boy, I listened to programs in my own languages, and in [the] Bemba [language] they used to say ‘kuno kuhanda kwashikapepele’ [here at the house of endless activity]. Especially David Yumba. It means ‘here is a place of many wires.’ As a kid, I would imagine that you had to crawl under all these wires, and whatever you said there would be picked up. The broadcaster sat there hunched up under the wires and spoke. They also said ‘handa ya nsalensale’ [a house of wires upon wires].
 — Lawson Chishimba, Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation Radio disc jockey
David Yumba in office, 1989, photo courtesy Debra Spitulnik Vidali
David Yumba in office, 1989, photo courtesy Debra Spitulnik Vidali
Competition Quiz No. 3

1. Your wireless set is full of wires. Why, then, do we call it ‘Wireless’?

2. For what inventions or discoveries were the following men and women famous: (a) Marconi? (b) Priestley? (c) Curie? (d) Whittle? (e) Pasteur? (f) Edison?…
 — African Listener 9 (Northern Rhodesia, September 1952), 16

Media cultures are permeated by the twin discourses of technological mystique and no-nonsense technical manipulation. The idioms of the former: traveling voices and people, activated powers, transformed worlds, enveloped and transported selves. The voice of the latter: push here, move this, connect that, open, close, listen. The juxtaposition in the epigraphs of the personal, lyrical memories of a radio DJ with the dry, colonial voice of authoritative knowledge testing captures this tension between mystery and science, between creative world making and practical technology. It also provides a window into the multidimensional story of radio’s meanings in both contemporary Zambia and colonial Zambia (then, Northern Rhodesia). In this chapter, I wish to activate this tension between the voice of imagination and the voice of science and also to activate these metaphors of wires, tangles of wires, and being wireless to open conversations about the nature of evidence and knowledge production in the study of media culture. My questions are just as much about the nature of media anthropology’s subject — in this case radio culture — as they are about our work, our writing practices, and our relations to them.

I begin with two sections that explore what it means to document the phenomenology of sound and hearing. In the first, I suggest how researchers might experiment in the documentation of their own media captivations as a way to sharpen their ability to tune in and find language for documenting other people’s media captivations. In the second, I argue that the phenomenology of auditory experience, particularly that within radio culture, is entangled with material and ideological meanings and that this necessitates methodologies and research frames that can capture complex nexuses of relations shaping ways-of-hearing, as well as ones that remain modest about their ability to capture subjective realities. Building on these points, the second half of the chapter explores how evidence from language matters for the production of knowledge about sonic cultures. I argue that language can never be taken as a transparent window into subjective experience, thought, or cultural categories. At the same time, I show how different orders of linguistic data — such as nicknames for radio personalities, modes of address, circulating radio phrases, words used by avid radio listeners, and indigenous words for radio — provide important arenas for exploring the complex phenomenology of sonic cultures and ways-of-hearing. All along, the chapter can be read as one that relies on language to argue and to uncover but that remains wary about languages ontological fixity.

microphone-lores Sharpening the Documentation of Media Captivations

Much like the scholars of a different kind of mediation — spirit mediumship — many media anthropologists have been attracted to their subject because of its connections with transformational and imaginative powers. For many of us, there is wonder and aesthetic appreciation much like that suggested by DJ Chishimba’s remarks in the epigraph. At the same time, in professional writing, we often downplay these personal attachments, passions, and pleasures. It might be said that we often work as social scientists to balance imagination with fact, to separate juicy from dry, and to allow our research subjects to revel in the former ends of these dyads while downplaying our own emotions and our encounters with mystery.[Note 1]


Amber Lincoln, History Felt: Installation view. Hierarchy Gallery, Ethnographic Terminalia 2014. Photo credit: Trudi Lynn Smith. Sound utterances are, by their nature, ephemeral. Analog and digital methods of recording may preserve their content but their situational context — Ranciere’s ‘mise en scene of words’ (Ranciere 2014:44) — can never be restored. Kwame Phillips and Debra Spitulnik Vidali’s ‘Kabusha Radio Remix/Your Questions Answered by Pioneering Zambian Talk Show Host, David Yumba (1923-1990)’ constructs its own archive. The radio host Yumba’s recordings, transcripts, and letters construct new relationships with novel sets of speakers and listeners, thus drawing attention to the possibilities of archives as troves of memory and knowledge-making. Central to the installation is a reengineered 60-minute Kabusha ‘radio program’ produced by Phillips and Vidali that mimics its original format. This version, however, juxtaposes Yumba’s recorded responses as answers to present-day Bemba archive workers’ inquiries about politics and technicalities of archives, as well as ‘anonymous’ letter writers about current Zambian politics.

Several years ago, I accepted an invitation to reflect on my personal attachments with radio and with one Zambian radio broadcaster in particular, within the context of an essay for an edited volume titled Personal Encounters in Anthropology. This broadcaster was Lawson Chishimba, quoted in the epigraph. In that essay, I wrote about how ‘his voice burned a permanent mark on my auditory memory’ with its dramatic and unpredictable contours, its hint of mischief, and its unusual blend of sharp and rumbling tonalities (2003,186). An excerpt:

His voice had more contours, more ups and downs than those of most Zambians I met… It was a gravely voice, but not deep — more like the voice of a smoker or someone who can’t clear his throat. Yet Lawson never sounded congested. It was just as if his voice were flowing over some little pebbles at the back of his throat. And he talked fast, very animated, always making exclamations like ‘ooh’ and ‘aah.’ So in the midst of this he would sometimes let out a little bit of a squeak. Kind of like his voice had cracked, like he had strained it across too many fluctuating contours or too much excited delivery. (Ibid., 186)

While my writing centered mainly on Lawson’s life — relaying his own love of the magic of broadcasting, ethnographically depicting his work behind the microphone, and narrating a chronology of his career — I also shared how I was a fan of his, how our lives intersected in complex and puzzling ways, and how I grieved over his death in 2000. In the essay, I did not explore the larger epistemological ramifications of my auditory experiences and my search for language to describe both them and Lawson’s unique voice qualities. I simply crossed the passion-dispassion divide in a very ‘normal’ genre-sanctioned way: in an essay under the rubric of ‘personal encounters.’

Reflecting now on my attempt to capture auditory recollections and render sounds into language, I am led to larger questions about the production of knowledge in the study of media culture. What might open up for us as scholars, if we were to more directly foreground and interrogate our own relations to the media cultures that we choose to document? What might this open up for an anthropological understanding of media cultures themselves? This entails more than choosing a writing style that is personal or ethnographically reflexive. It is about pushing research toward more phenomenological types of descriptions and discoveries. The magic of being transported by voices and images, the perceived textures of sound, what being riveted feels like — these are difficult to document. They are easily lost in the perfect storm of privacy, the ineffability of experience, delimiting anthropological research frames, and a scarcity of communication resources that can relay and value them. [2] Creating space to explore and express our own magical experiences might sharpen our skills in documenting those of others.

Recording a play at the Central African Broadcasting Station in Northern Rhodesia © WRTH Radio Heritage Foundation Collection: Courtesy Radio Heritage Foundation at, with thanks to Debra Spitulnik Vidali.
Recording a play at the Central African Broadcasting Station in Northern Rhodesia © WRTH Radio Heritage Foundation Collection: Courtesy Radio Heritage Foundation at, with thanks to Debra Spitulnik Vidali.

microphone-lores Sharpening the Documentation of Auditory Worlds and Soundscapes

The phenomenology of auditory experience and pleasure (both ethnographic subjects’ and researchers’) has been treated extensively within the field of ethnomusicology. It also figures prominently within the subfield of the anthropology of the senses. While a growing anthropological literature on radio addresses listener positioning and the affective tenors associated with programs, personalities, and even stations (Fisher 2009; Katriel 2004; Kunreuther 2006), the more experience-near phenomenology of auditory worlds (or ways-of-hearing) is still relatively underdocumented. Paddy Scannell is a useful starting point for thinking about the ‘complex phenomenological projection[s]’ of media (1996, 14), but the challenge remains to explore beyond a text-centered position on media ‘projection’ or beyond an ethnographic/interview-data middle zone that relies mainly on media users’ brief comments about their affective attachments.

Here, I propose using Steven Feld’s (1996) concept of ‘acoustemology’ (i.e., acoustic epistemology) and Thomas Porcello’s (2005) concept of ‘te-choustemology’ (i.e., acoustic epistemology as it is interlinked with epistemology about technologies) to move this conversation forward. Both Feld and Porcello argue that forms of knowing about sound are culture and place specific and that the phenomenology of hearing is shaped by culturally specific acoustic epistemologies. Further, for Porcello, technological mediation impacts these acoustic epistemologies. Porcello proposes that it is not possible to disentangle people’s knowledge, interpretation, and experiences of technologically produced sound from their knowledge, interpretation, and experiences of the technology that produces it.

Radio listener, Nigeria, 1960s.
Radio listener, Nigeria, 1960s.

The 1960s saw the start of the BBC African Service and a greater interest generally in African affairs. Here a Nigerian listener tunes into the African Service on the BBC.

Porcello’s proposal significantly expands Roger Silverstone’s (1994) important concept of media as doubly articulated, that is, simultaneously (1) conveyors of ideological content and (2) material objects with particular cultural meanings. Particularly with regard to the latter type of articulation, the implication of Porcello’s approach is that the experience of a medium’s materiality on one plane (e.g., as a device with a certain history) affects the experience of the medium’s materiality on another plane (e.g., the perception of sound quality). Such entanglements abound for the case of radio. Radio’s materiality is multifaceted and complexly overlaid — interpreted in various parts of the world and at different times — as a box that magically speaks, a technology that can be carried, a machine that needs battery or electrical power, a commodity with social status, a commodity within a hierarchy of other electronic commodities, and so on (Crisell 2006; Larkin 2008, 48; Vidali 1998-1999, 2002). This materiality crisscrosses the ideological, moral, and affective resonances of radio sounds, voices, personalities, and content, as well as a past-present-future of coexisting voices, sounds, and genres within oral and auditory culture.

Rudolf Arnheim, by John Gay, 1950s - NPG x128693 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
Rudolf Arnheim, by John Gay, 1950s – NPG x128693 – © National Portrait Gallery, London

One of the earliest theorists to tackle such complexities of radio was film critic Rudolf Arnheim (1936). In his far-reaching book, titled simply Radio, Arnheim writes about the dynamic nature of radio broadcasting, with its sounds of different intensities, layers, oscillation from one listening perspective to another, and complex connections to imagination, memory, and thought. Fast-forward five decades plus, and one hears echoes in the field ethnomusicology with Chris Watermans ‘densely textured soundscapes’ (1990, 214) and Felds phenomenology of foregrounded and backgrounded relations among sounds which are ‘multilayered, overlapping, alternating, and interlocking’ (1990, 265).

Not only does Arnheim try to explain the ‘enigma of radiophony’ (Cardinal 2007, 23); he captures the mobility of radio sound and its potential for forging connections across public and private spaces. The clever vignette which opens Radio’s chapter 11 illustrates these insights:

While the reader of this book was making himself acquainted with the last pages of the previous chapter, a pleasant baritone voice from the loudspeaker beside him is giving out stock exchange quotations; now there is silence except for the slight noises and cracklings, the reader closes the book and gets ready to go out, and suddenly an entirely different voice from the loudspeaker announces that he will now hear Beethoven’s 8th Symphony. The reader puts on his coat and cuts off Beethoven’s introductory bars in the middle by a pressure of his finger. But the music persists, though more distant and raucous, drifting up the stair from the hall-porter’s room. The reader … bangs the front door, but Beethoven follows him down the street, loud and strident from the shoemaker’s back room, softly from the second floor of a villa, braying across the market-place from a little cafe. (1936, 258-259).

While Arnheim moves from this passage to pessimistic mass-culture arguments about the dangers of ‘all hear[ing] the same thing’ (ibid., 259), he nonetheless suggests the complex relationships between the materiality of radio soundscapes and the subjective experience of them in social lives.

Leo Sarkisian with his first recording
Leo Sarkisian with his first recording
Leo Sarkisian’s Launch from Monrovia: In May of 1965 the first radio broadcast of Music Time in Africa rang out from VOA short-wave transmitters from Mambo Point, Liberia. Leo’s First Recording: The 30-minute, hosted radio show, presented African music across the African continent in the English language.The program’s creator was Leo Sarkisian (born January 4, 1921). Leo collected original music and cultural information directly from the place and people who made it and used the material as content for his weekly broadcasts. He recorded music himself, collected it from radio stations, and from listeners and local musicians.

As there is no ideal starting point in the documentation of radio soundscapes and auditory worlds, how does one begin to ethnographically document them and what might be called acoustic practices of ‘worlding’ (cf. Stewart 2007)? One strategy might be to adopt George Marcus’s (1995) ‘follow the X’ formula, originally introduced as a framework for research design in multisited research. Marcus proposes that multisited research can be anchored through a selection of one of the following strategies: follow the people, follow the metaphor, follow the thing, follow the plot, follow the life, or follow the conflict. Adapting this to radio, for example, one might ‘follow the sound,’ as Arnheim imaginatively does, that is, that persistent broadcast of Beethovens 8th Symphony. Or one might ‘follow the person,’ as Arnheim also does while tracking his own imagined reader. For the case of radio, I would add that an additional strategy is to ‘follow the machine’ (see Vidali 2002) or to ‘follow sounds’ in one location. Let me introduce ‘follow the language’ or ‘follow the labels’ as a further permutation of these strategies for object construction and ethnographic entry point. Indeed, if as Feld (1990) argues, a major part of examining the cultural meanings/experiences of sound in a particular place/culture requires investigating the very language and even metalanguage used to describe sound, then language itself can be taken as a powerful entry point and anchor for a wider research agenda into radio cultures. In the remaining half of this chapter, I pursue this strategy on a number of linguistic levels.

microphone-lores Tuning In to Nicknames and Other Linguistic ‘Captures’ of Sound

In colonial Zambia during the 1950s, many radio broadcasters’ on-air names were simultaneously about sounds and about excitement, fast speed, and constant activity, all features that were strongly tangled up with radios perceived ‘modernity’ at the time (Debra Spitulnik Vidali 1998-1999). These themes resonate with DJ Chishimba’s childhood memories in the epigraph, namely, about the broadcasting institution being a place of ‘endless activity.’ [3]

In a 1988 interview broadcast on Radio Zambia, former colonial broadcaster Andreya Masiye explained some of these nicknames and their associations: ‘Kateka was Mfumfumfu. In other words: ‘Dishing out a lot of information.’ Alick Nkhata was known as Kapandula: ‘One who was very good at analyzing issues.’[4] I was known as Kabvulumvulu: ‘One who was going around like a whirlwind.’ Things like that.’ [5]

Masiye’s name derives directly from the Kabvulumvulu (Nyanja language, ‘Whirlwind’) program which he initiated in 1953. In the program, Masiye moved quickly across the country — like a whirlwind — recording ordinary people’s opinions about everyday problems and changing social norms. In his onomatopoetic name (eponymous of the program title), one can hear a whirring sound (transliterated as ‘bvooloo-mvooloo’) and envision its busy bearer, both moving fast and traveling remarkable distances. In colonial Zambia, the speaking styles of early broadcasters also became the basis for their popular nicknames, regardless of program titles, as former colonial broadcaster Edward Kateka explains to researcher Graham Mytton in this 1971 interview excerpt: [6]

GM: Mfumfumfu, yes this is what everybody calls you. What is the meaning of this word, mfumfumfu?

EK: Well, mfumfumfu is a word — ‘the flow of words without stopping.’ [7] You see, I used to read the ten pages in five minutes without stopping. You see. This came from the, you know, a four-gallon tin, with only one end open, and you put — you fill it with water, and that sound which it makes — mfu-mfu-mfu — which water makes — mfu-mfu-mfu-mfu. And well, well, ‘This person talks like a bucket of water, the flow of that water, as in mfu-mfu-mfu.’

Emphasizing one syllable at a time (mfu-mfu-mfu), Kateka provides a rendering of how ‘flow’ is experienced as both continuous and punctuated. There is a rhythm. A container with a narrow opening has what could be described as punctuated gasps of air along with the sound of pouring liquid. This sound is akin to what is represented in English as glug-glug-glug, also an onomatopoetic form that uses syllable reduplication. In the Bemba language (from which mfumfumfu derives), the use of onomatopoeia, often conjoined with syllable reduplication, is also present in other words denoting sounds, movements, natural forces, and animal names. This raises questions about the extent to which culturally specific and language-specific habits and patterns of word formation might support such kinds of onomatopoeia when it comes to talk about sound and sound quality. My suggestion is that sonic ways of knowing and being in the world intersect with linguistic habits and grammatical resources. Attending to these intersections potentially generates a whole new arena for understanding radio culture. And the zone of nicknames is just one place where this auditory world opens up.

This material also provides a very brief but vivid snapshot of the enigma of radiophony: Arnheim’s fundamental point that radio sound does not have psychological resonance or ‘meaning’ on one plane only. The nicknames and the comments about them highlight the complex entanglement of sound, rhythm, speaker’s personality, speaker’s role, and media content in the experience of radio sound. They also point to the important place of acoustic interconnections and analogies. The phenomenology of radio listening is shaped by experiences with other environmental sounds, natural sounds, whirlwinds, echoing chugs as water is poured out of a container, memories of other voices and attachments to them, and so on.

Such names, labels, and other linguistic practices are revealing of culturally specific meanings and subjective experiences, but they cannot be taken as direct and transparent windows into cultural categories, thought, or experiencing subjectivities (Silverstein 1993). Researchers need to proceed with both caution and creativity, taking linguistic material as clues about acoustemologies and subjective experiences of media, without reifying the linguistic data as evidence of a concrete thing — be it a sound or an experience — that exists outside or prior to language. Such nicknames simply point to a rich relational nexus within what might be called Zambian hearing culture: one that includes natural sounds, one that makes analogies across sound/water/ air flow and movement, and one with a type of acoustemology that includes evaluation of speaker’s personality, speaker’s role, and content in the experience of sound.

Radio Cassette Player Listeners at the Marketplace in Kasama, Zambia. Photo by D.S.Vidali.
Radio Cassette Player Listeners at the Marketplace in Kasama, Zambia. Photo by D.S.Vidali.


How might a caution around linguistic objectification of sound and sound experiences play out more broadly in the documentation of soundscapes and auditory worlds? Arnheim creates a vivid scene around dynamic textures of sound: ‘cracklings,’ ‘drifting,’ ‘braying.’ But are these the terms — and sound qualities — that matter for the person whom Arnheim follows? If the person and scene were real, would Arnheim’s rendition adequately capture what is being experienced? Arriving at more emic terms might require different modalities of research. And perhaps such emic concepts are mainly visible only in pockets, as with highly salient modes of labeling via nicknames, internally within a professional register, or in rich descriptions that a single speaker with particular insight shares with the ethnographer. I leave these as open questions, ones which were not on my radar when I conducted fieldwork in Zambia but ones which I would certainly want to ask about radio culture now.

Radio Freedom worker G.Mqwebu reports on a Soweto commemmoration in Lusaka, Zambia, 1966.
Radio Freedom worker G.Mqwebu reports on a Soweto commemmoration in Lusaka, Zambia, 1966.

The larger research agenda that I propose here extends the positions of scholars such as Feld (1996) and Paul Stoller (1997): attending to sensory domains such as sound is not about adding a new research topic as much as it is about a potentially radical shift in epistemological frames. For the case of radio culture, this plays out on at least three scales of ethnographic description: the phenomenological, the material, and the sociohistorical. Taking the first, if ‘one’s sonic way of knowing and being in the world’ is central to what it means to live as a person (Feld and Brenneis 2004, 462), then this fundamentally informs both radio reception and radio production. Ways of hearing and sounding — and ways of being an acoustically attuned being — may be much more central as organizing and orienting cultural logics than many scholars have yet to give them credit for, even as such techniques of the body are unavoidably central to critical ethnographies of radio (see other contributors in this volume). And it may very well be the case that the familiar Eurocentric and even textcentric frames of talk-based interviewing and collecting self-report about radio worlds, practices, habits, and reactions unduly flattens this phenomenological realm.

The second ethnographic perspective, the material, intersects or is potentially completely enmeshed with the phenomenological realm. So too for the third, the sociohistorical. And the epistemological stakes are parallel. The challenge again is not only to more richly document and explore the meaning of radio or radio programs for a particular people, in a particular place, with more attention to auditory experiences and the meanings of sounds. Nor is it merely about considering how radio, like other public and private sounds, participates in ‘historically layered relationships in sound’ (Feld and Brenneis 2004, 469; also see Kunreuther 2006), although this is crucial. It is about entertaining possibilities for acoustemologies to become manifest in different ways in historical and social formations and experimenting with the language of description in ways that may diverge from familiar Eurocentric and even textcentric frames. It is about simultaneously pushing and reflecting on the limits of commensurability, translation, and inference.

microphone-lores Other Pockets of Insight from the Zone of Language

The zone of language as it relates to the study of media cultures is vast. It is not just about language selection or which language is selected as the preferred variety in a particular medium, be it radio, television, film, novels, or newsprint. It also encompasses rhetorics, the modes of address that are used to construct audiences and publics, and the turns of phrase that are used to hide or elevate interests and ideologies. Attending to language means taking into account the social circulation of media phrases. And finally, it is about our word choices. To illustrate this, we can return to the epigraphs.

The first question in Quiz No. 3, published in the Northern Rhodesian newspaper the African Listener (1952), poses a linguistic paradox: ‘Your wireless set is full of wires. Why, then, do we call it ‘Wireless’?’ The theme of Quiz No. 3 was ‘Science,’ and its author was Mr. R. J. Seal of the Northern Rhodesia African Education Department. The magazine announced that Seal was to judge the answers and that ‘his decision will be final.’[8] A substantial cash prize was promised for the reader who gave the ‘correct solution’ to brain- teaser questions about radio, the causes of measles and malaria, and the famous inventions of Marconi and Pasteur.

Announcement for the African Listener number One.
Announcement for the African Listener number One.

Begun in 1952, sixteen years after the introduction of radio into the region, the African Listener was a British colonial magazine for the growing radio audience in central and southern Africa. The magazine was full of program schedules, photos of happy listeners, and columns about agriculture and heath care. As part of an ongoing colonial effort in public relations, it invited readers to connect with the project of broadcasting, through friendly, albeit paternalistic, modes of address and numerous competitions based on listeners’ participation.

From the perspective of the present, the quiz is a curious artifact representing a Western genre which unites knowledge and pleasure. Truth, expertise, and indoctrination merge with competitive performance, entertainment, and winning money. The quiz, and its embedding in the African Listener, is also a microcosm of an entire social field of technologies that worked to shape colonial subjects and establish colonial governmentality. This involved the manufacture of radio consumers and membership in a national collective, as well as the disciplining of regimes of knowledge, such as science and medicine, and, especially, the performance of that knowledge in a competitive format. The two processes converge in the case of the quiz, as an audience-participation genre that relies on previous exposure to science education programs. The modes of address and reference in the first question reveal how this field of relations was mapped out. The radio owner as listener/participant is personalized and directly addressed (‘Your wireless’), the first-personal plural and a timeless verb tense are used to establish a broader collectivity and a collective truth (‘we call’), and the European male expert (‘his decision’) is positioned as the arbiter between this ‘you’ and ‘we.’

OK Jazz Band, circa 1957. See Wikipedia at
OK Jazz Band, circa 1957. See Wikipedia at

From Wikipedia: 1950-1959: The musicians who started OK Jazz included Vicky Longomba, Jean Serge Essous, François Luambo Makiadi, De La Lune, Augustin Moniania Roitelet, La Monta LiBerlin, Saturnin Pandi, Nicolas Bosuma Bakili Dessoin and vocalist Philippe Lando Rossignol. They used to play at Loningisa Studios in Kinshasa as individual artists, before they got together to form a band in June 1956. The name OK Jazz originated from the bar in which they played which was named OK Bar, owned by Oscar Kashama. The new band played regularly at a specific studio in the city during the week and on some weekends they played at weddings. In 1957, the lead vocalist, Philippe Lando Rossignol, quit OK Jazz and was replaced by Edo Nganga, from Congo-Brazzaville. Later in the same year, Isaac Musekiwa, a saxophonist from Zimbabwe joined the band. Up to that time the band’s leadership was shared between Vicky Longomba, Essous and Franco.

Much more can be said about this fashioning of early radio and listener participation, particularly as it supported the double-faceted colonial project of ‘modernizing’ Africa and regulating African populations to do productive labor within the imperial economy. But question number one remains unanswered. How ironic that the name of the radio machine was a contradiction of what lay inside. How could wires be inside the wireless? Even early broadcasters, according to DJ Chishimba, talked about the radio station as being full of wires. And for enchanted radio listeners such as the young Chishimba, there was probably no other place on earth that was less wireless than the radio workplace.

The answer to the linguistic paradox is that, despite the tangle of wires in the studio and in the radio set, what was wireless was the space between these different ends of the communication process. According to the answer from a subsequent issue of the African Listener, ‘The word wireless is used because there is no wire connecting the receiving set to the broadcasting station as is the case in ordinary telegraphy and telephones, where there are wires between the sender and the receiver.’ [9] There were no wires in the space between machines and listeners or in the space between studios and villages. Despite the visible technology of wires, something invisible was happening. This was called wireless.

In addition to the linguistic contradiction (How could something with wires be wireless?), question number one also opens up a broader question about denotation: What does the label ‘wireless’ stand for? Does it denote the radio set itself or something else, like the technology or the transmission? While scholars of radio culture use an updated vocabulary — ‘wireless’ is now ‘radio’ — such questions of denotation continue to trouble talk about radio. And this has implications for both constructing and representing units of analysis. Radio is not necessarily fixed or singular, but the single word radio potentially steers thinking this way. Or, perhaps better put, ‘it’ is simultaneously singularly singular, variably singular, and multiplex. Radio is the machine, the transmission, the institution, a program, a voice, and/or the sounds.
microphone-lores Language as a Window into Reception History

Experiments in colonial broadcasting in this area date back to the late 1930s, and the first official government broadcasting service for Northern Rhodesia was inaugurated on September 18,1940.[10] By the time of my field research in the late 1980s, nearly fifty years had passed since radio’s introduction. While I attempted to elicit oral histories of people’s experiences with early radio, these were difficult to get. Many people could talk about their favorite programs and personalities from the colonial period, but they had dim memories of what their first listening experiences were actually like. Others could not describe their own first encounters with radio but could remember the reactions of others. For example, during a research interview, one woman recalled her grandmother’s reaction to radio: ‘She couldn’t believe it. She used to say, ‘How could that man be speaking from that box all day without getting tired?’’ Significantly, this perception of radio talk as an overflow of speaking resonates strongly with the idea of mfumfumfu, ‘the flow of words without stopping’ (the nickname for 1950s broadcaster Edward Kateka), described earlier.

The Ever Ready battery company sponsored the first "saucepan special" radios.
The Ever Ready battery company sponsored the first “saucepan special” radios.

The names on the dial of the "saucepan special" radio set are specifically African.
The names on the dial of the “saucepan special” radio set are specifically African.

Beyond a report by colonial information officer Harry Franklin (1950) containing excerpts from listeners letters and the listeners letters published in the newspaper the African Listener, there is little record of how colonial Zambians actually talked about radio and its powers. But traces do remain. According to letter writer Diamon Simukwai, radio is a machine that ‘speaks’ within the domestic space. The speech of this ‘Wonderful Machine’ makes homes ‘happy,’ evenings ‘jolly,’ and owners such as Joshua Amisi ‘proud’ (ibid., 7-8,12). [11] These and other early commentators replicated British colonial modes of speaking about radio as a crucial technology for modernizing Africa and Africans, most likely borrowing from the very words of radio broadcasts. For example, in the words of letter writer Henry Kumwenda, radio brings ‘modern world general knowledge’ and is a means for Africans to ‘wake up’ (ibid., 11). By reproducing radio discourse, newly literate and beginning speakers of English such as Kumwenda also helped to canonize a basic set of English-language expressions for talking about both modernity and media technology. In such ways, radio and radio listening provided a crucial enabling technology for modernity’s varied forms: as a governmental project, a mode of organizing experience, and a set of wider social discourses.

Script and original letters, 1989, Photo D.S. Vidali.
Script and original letters, 1989, Photo D.S. Vidali.


The language of these early letters, like the language of nicknames, is revealing of acoustemologies and subjective experiences, but it cannot be taken as an unproblematic window into the early reception of radio or colonial consciousness. Rather, it is better understood as pointing toward these ontological realities, ones that may only be approximated. Moreover, the language of the early letters does not stand in isolation but rather needs to be viewed as part of a larger communicative ecology, one with its own conditions of production and circulation and of which we can see a nexus of traces and hints that again inform it only loosely and not deterministically.

Without implying that there is some more pure, or less mediated, way to get at the phenomenology of reception — past or otherwise — I wish to consider what can be illuminated about early reception experiences by looking closely at indigenous Bemba-language words for radio and broadcasting (in the two tables below). A significant majority of early radio listeners in colonial Zambia spoke the Bemba language, which by the 1940s had emerged as the major lingua franca in the Copperbelt and coal-mining towns. Because of its widely recognized political, economic, and social value both for Zambia’s migrant labor workforce and for the powerful rural-based Bemba chieftaincy, Bemba was selected as one of the four indigenous languages of colonial Zambia to be used in early radio.

  Table: Bemba Verbs for Broadcasting

Disperse; cause to disperse; distribute; publish; broadcast. Examples: basalanganya ilyashi, ‘they broadcast news’


Spread or scatter information; broadcast. Examples: basabankanyapo pamwela, ‘they broadcast out on air’

  Table: Bemba Nouns for Radio and Broadcasting
Meaning: radio set, radio broadcasting
Singular, Plural Class — Class Semantics
waileeshi, baa-waileeshi

1a / 2a — human, personal

waileeshi, ama-waileeshi

9a / 6  — unmarked animacy

leedyo, baa-leedyo

ia / 2a — human, personal

leedyo, ama-leedyo

9a / 6  — unmarked animacy

cilimba, baa-cilimba

1a / 2a — human, personal

ici-limba, ifi-limba

7 / 8  — inanimate

Meaning: radio station
Singular, Plural Class — Class Semantics
leedyo, baa-leedyo

ia / 2a — human, personal

leedyo, ama-leedyo

9a / 6  — unmarked animacy

Meaning: broadcasting station
Singular, Plural Class — Class Semantics
umu-labasa, imi-labasa

3 / 4  — agentive, alive

Meaning: broadcasting
Singular, Plural Class — Class Semantics
umu-labasa, imi-labasa

3 / 4  — agentive, alive

Meaning: musical instrument
Singular, Plural Class — Class Semantics
ici-limba, ifi-limba

7 / 8  — inanimate

Both verbs in the top table above predate the introduction of radio.

The first, -salanganya (disperse, distribute), is used to describe the distribution of food by a chief among his subjects, the spread of news or gossip across long distances, and electronic broadcasting.

The second, –sabankanya, describes actions such as the spread of news or rumors, either through face-to-face or electronic communication. The use of these verbs in the new domains of media need not be seen as a case of semantic extension, per se, but rather as a consistent use of primary meanings.

In the second table, in contrast to the verbs, only one Bemba noun for radio derives from an existing word, namely, the common Bemba word for musical instrument: (i)cilimba. The other nouns were either borrowed directly from English or newly coined. For example, waileeshi (wireless) and leedyo (radio) are straightforward cases of loan words assimilated into Bemba from English originals. They illustrate the widespread pattern of word borrowing in which things and the words used to name them are borrowed in tandem.

The origins of umulabasa, ‘broadcasting; broadcasting station,’ are less certain. The form is built from the root -labasa and the singular prefix umu-. One plausible origin is that the word was coined after a pronunciation of the radio stations call letters, LBS (Lusaka Broadcasting Station), with la-ba-sa being the basis for the root. [12] In this process — similar to the process in which the verb to xerox means ‘to copy’ — the proper name for the radio station (LBS) could have become the name for broadcasting in general.

The etymological patterns in the table above illustrate two simultaneous modalities of linguistic innovation. One emphasizes the newness and Europeanness of the radio technology, that is, its unnameability with existing Bemba words and nameability with English ones. The other emphasizes its similarities to what preceded it: musical instruments, spreading out, diffusion, dispersal, and even chiefly redistribution of resources and services.

The realm of grammar is one area that tells still more about word meaning and potential experiential realities. All nouns in the table are part of the Bemba noun class system, which is a system for grammatically tracking nouns in the language with obligatory agreement markers on adjectives and other parts of speech. Noun class systems are analogous to the gender systems of European languages. Each noun belongs to a noun class and pluralizes according to its noun class pattern. For example, the noun for radio — ici-limba — pluralizes as ifi-limba. Its noun class membership is indicated by prefixes and the way singular nouns in class 7 always pluralize in class 8. According to standard citation conventions, ‘class 7/8’ is a shorthand for nouns that follow this pluralization pattern. Bantu languages such as Bemba have anywhere between fifteen and approximately twenty-four different noun classes, a dramatic contrast to the much smaller number of noun genders in European languages. Bemba has twenty different noun classes, each characterized by distinct semantic values such as ‘human,’ ‘animate,’ ‘inanimate,’ ‘long,’ and ‘small’ (Vidali 1987, 1988).

The class memberships of the Bemba nouns for radio technology reveal some intriguing semantic associations. Consider that of umulabasa/ imilabasa, ‘broadcasting,’ which occur in class 3/4 (umu-limi-). In Bemba, class 3/4 nouns denote phenomena that are agentive, generative, and expansive, such as spiritual beings, natural forces, and other animate entities (Vidali 1987, 56-61). Broadcasting is classed alongside umupashi, ‘ancestral spirit’; umweela, ‘air’; umulopa, ‘blood’; umulumbe, ‘story’; umusowa, ‘wailing’; and umulilo, ‘fire.’ Such groupings suggest a framing of radio as a living, vibrant phenomenon. This resonates with the semantic associations of early listeners descriptions of radio as an agentive and transformative technology.

A similar perception of broadcasting as agentive and alive is also intimated by the membership of waileeshi, leedyo, and cilimba in a subclass of the human class 1/2, which has the values ‘human’ and ‘personal’ at its semantic core. Class ia/2a words include most kin terms, most occupational names, and numerous animal names, particularly animals that possess the capacity of speech in folktales. The grammatical grouping of words for radio among the ranks of these nouns suggests that, conceptually, radio was viewed in a similar fashion as humans and other speaking beings.

It should be noted, however, that there is some fluidity to the class statuses of waileeshi, leedyo, cilimba, and their corresponding plurals. The assignments to class ia/2a are not fixed in stone. The nouns cilimba/baacilimba (ia/2a) coexist with the historically prior icilimba/ifilimba (7/8), which belong to the generic class of inanimate objects. Waileeshi and leedyo also occur with the grammatical markings of class 9a/6, which tends to be for nouns denoting inanimate things. In short, the three distinct singular/plural pairs that belong to class ia/2a, known for its nouns denoting humans and humanlike creatures, all have alternate forms that belong to inanimate or unmarked classes. The dual class memberships thus reflect a tension between radio being perceived as ‘humanlike’ and as ‘thinglike.’

Unknown African group of Lusaka radio journalists
Unknown African group of Lusaka radio journalists
In sum, the linguistic material yields two general insights. First, the new technologies of radio broadcasting were initially intelligible by reference to both indigenous and nonindigenous idioms and practices. They were described through analogies with local practices of information dissemination and music, while entirely new words (‘wireless’) and discursive practices (reading out radio station call letters) were also assimilated into local languages. The second set of insights is more tentative. The noun class memberships may suggest unique interpretations of radio’s meanings. However, the data remains inconclusive because with Bantu noun classes, as with the gender systems of European languages, class membership does not transparently indicate semantic value (Vidali 1987,1988). As with the English word radio, there is a fluidity of denotation, as well as a polyvocality of connotations that echo through layers of culture and language.

microphone-lores Conclusion

Language, like sound and radio, does not stop in one place. In this chapter, I have attempted to activate conversations about how both language and sound (or, better, ways of languaging and ways of sounding) matter for the study of radio culture. Along one line of thinking, it might be said that looking at language and sonic cultures is just one more arena for research effort to be extended: an option, an add-on, something that gets itemized in an ethnographic division of labor. But in another line of thinking, attending to both language and sound is indispensible for theorizing, methodologically uncovering, and representing radio cultures. This chapter, joining others in this volume, offers a number of suggestions for how such work might be done, what is at stake in it epistemologically, and how it plays out in the investigation of Zambian radio culture. While the twin discourses of technological mystique and no-nonsense technical manipulation typify the poles of mediated experiences, as well as conventional options for investigation and representation, I have suggested here that such poles are better engaged as entanglements with a hermeneutic circle, along with our very language(s) of documentation and evidence.


Endnote links: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

I wish to extend my deepest gratitude to my undergraduate teachers Hubert Dreyfus and Hans Sluga (UC-Berkeley) for bringing me into the work of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, respectively, and to my graduate teachers Michael Silverstein and John Goldsmith (University of Chicago) for their rich training in the complexities of the language-culture interface, issues of evidentiality, and Bantu linguistics. For research support, I am indebted to the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, University of Zambia, National Science Foundation, Fulbright-Hays, and Emory University. Special thanks go to Lawson Chishimba, Graham Mytton, volume editors Lucas Bessire and Daniel Fisher, and my father, who first introduced me to the beauty, mystery, and everydayness of sonic cultures.

[Note 1] See Van Maanen 1988 on these genre conventions and some well-known exceptions to this personal/scientific dichotomy.

[2] Anthropologist Alfred Gell describes his own ‘methodological deafness’ to the rich auditory worlds of Umeda people. Writes Gell, one must approach ‘the auditory domain, including natural sounds, language and song, as cultural systems in their own right, and not just adjuncts to culture at large, but as foundations, thematic at every level of cultural experience’ (1995, 233).

[3] It should be noted, however, that Chishimba’s childhood dates to the subsequent decade, the 1960s, a period in which colonial rule ended and Zambia gained its independence (1964).

[4] Literally, Kapandula means ‘The Analyzer’ or ‘The Splitter’ (Bemba language, -pandula, ‘chop, split’).

[5] Andreya Masiye, speaking in an interview with Maxwell Malawo on Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, Radio 2, October 1,1988.

[6] Personal audiotape collection of Graham Mytton, London.

[7] The onomatopoeic word mfumfumfu is used in the Bemba language to describe flowing or gurgling sounds. It does not have a precise literal translation, akin to the one Kateka provides. It is related to the onomatopoeic verb -fumfumuna ‘pour out,’ ‘run out.’

[8] African Listener 9 (September 1952), 16.

[9] African Listener 11 (November 1952), 4.

[10] This section is based on Debra Spitulnik Vidali 1998-1999; see for more detailed discussion.

[11] The word ‘happy’ appears in both the letters of Simukwai and Munthali; the word ‘jolly’ appears in Munthali’s letter (Franklin 1950, 8).

[12] I thank Michael Mann (London) for this suggestion.


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An African man enjoying his radio broadcast.
An African man enjoying his radio broadcast.


An African family enjoying their "saucepan special" radio set.
An African family enjoying their “saucepan special” radio set.


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Basil King: Delacroix’s Pigeon

  Basil King

  A Pigeon in Delacroix’s Garden

  Prose Poem

Paragraph 1 follows: 1:

Paris, October 2013.


Mother of pearl there is an Olmec head
In my back yard and it doesn’t stop talking
And it says at the Louvre we had to walk the whole length of the second floor beginning with French Medieval painting because the entrance to gallery 6 and 7 where Watteau is hung was being repaired. We saw wonderful studies by Ingres, a portrait of a lion’s head in profile by Gericault. I think this painting is his Self Portrait. Eighteenth and nineteenth century painters, Fragonard, Boucher and a room full of paintings by Chardin which I’d never seen before in a book or any other museum.


Chardin the great French homebody was married two times, painted kitchens, maids, children, the table and its contents, fish and fruit, the cat wants the oysters. The silver mug wants your attention. Attend to the detail the line comes from outside. The line is not always linear. It’s not always predictable. Chardin the precursor of Morandi keeps his larder stocked.


Morandi fills his table with muted arrangements. Paint eclipses his father, the Holy Ghost, his mother and his two sisters. Paint stirs his muscles and the triangle sleeps next to his easel.




There were two young Asian women in the last room sitting on a bench in front of Watteau’s Gilles talking, they paid us no mind. Because we weren’t sure how long they would stay Martha took a photograph of me gazing up at Watteau’s Gilles as they sat talking. During the whole time that we were with Gilles no one else came into the room.


I have known Watteau’s Pierrot or Gilles since I was in my teens. And I have always wondered is this young figure a man or a woman. The costume hides the answer. Take off your jacket. Take off your pants. Take off the mask. I can’t forget the smile. I cannot forget that I love the ambiguity of not knowing is Gilles Watteau’s Self Portrait, is Gilles a man or a woman. I appreciate that men and women are not the same but there are likenesses and likenesses appreciate that nature has four seasons. I think we all have a season of choice. And in the Louvre there are bold contrasts. One being Poussin’s Self Portrait is an abstraction that says he has thought of everything and when I think of Watteau’s Self Portrait, my Gilles, I cannot forget that I love the ambiguity of not knowing is Gilles Watteau’s Self Portrait, a man or a woman.




Downstairs on the first floor huge crowds visit Mona Lisa. What does Mona Lisa say? I see Leonardo always running from his illegitimate birth the diverse and unfinished projects, is Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile Leonardo’s smile? Leonardo writes backwards, fly motherfucker I visited The Last Supper and catch me if you can. I want to keep you at a distance. But the public is like a cat. If a cat knows you don’t like cats the cat will forever want to get on your lap. So the crowds come and the Mona Lisa smiles. Oh, Leonardo your heart is bare who can blame you for wanting to keep it covered.




Amongst the more than 20 paintings of Poussin’s in the Louvre is Poussin’s self-portrait. He wears a dark green gown. His hands rest on a closed portfolio he is 56 years old. This most practical of men this master gave himself permission to mythologize Pan the lover, the fornicator lives with Poussin. I don’t know if this is correct. Are the paintings meant to be dark? The Poussin paintings I’ve seen in books are never dark, does artificial lighting highlight the figure and the landscape and make the paintings look clean? In Arcadia where nature is bountiful and light perfects the flesh Poussin’s paintings are never dark. Whereas the Poussin’s in the Louvre look like they have never been cleaned.




I have a window in front of me that needs cleaning sunlight is coming in between the blinds. Above my head I have a 65 watt light bulb. I sit in a comfortable chair and write of having had the advantage of having been to the Louvre and seen Poussin’s self-portrait and Watteau’s Gilles. The Louvre has more Poussin paintings than the National Gallery in London, Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has five Poussin paintings and all five have been cleaned.




Watteau had been a sickly child. And maybe because of this he obsessed. How much time do I have? I suspect that Watteau didn’t take care of himself and was careless and anxious when he wasn’t drawing or painting. When he wasn’t drawing or painting, he went to the theater. It was always the theater, the action, the gesture the imaginary pasture. On Watteau’s stage so many depictions of frivolous fêtes galantes. But look again where you think there is only romance there is Mezzetin (The Lute Player) The French Comedians, The Italian Comedians. He alone among 18th-century painters exposes a secular Blue, the excess of skirts, futility, truth and imagination, White on White. Compassion tells us there is no metaphor for death.




In 1720, Watteau travelled to London, England, to consult with Dr. Richard Mead, one of the most fashionable physicians of his time and an admirer of Watteau’s work. He had purchased The Italian Comedians. London’s damp and smoky air offset any benefits of Dr. Mead’s good food and medicines. Watteau returned to France and spent his last few months on the estate of his patron, Abbé Haranger, where he died in 1721 perhaps from ‘tuberculous laryngitis’ at the age of 36. The Abbé said Watteau was semi-conscious and mute during his final days, clutching a paintbrush and painting imaginary paintings in the air.




Late in life Nicolas Poussin developed a tremor in his hands. That didn’t stop him painting — he improvised and taught himself to use the brush as a pointer and build up the surface with a multitude of dots. But his tremors got worse, so bad he had to stop painting. His wife died and a year later in 1665 Poussin died. Dot, dot, no dash Seurat will continue the chase.




Seurat caught a theory. By juxtaposing tiny dots of colors he created lights of harmonious balance. This innovative technique came to be known as pointillism. He used the same technique when he drew using conte crayon — he drew dark dots, light dots, night and day, day and night. Seurat was 24 in 1883 when he painted Pierrot with a White Pipe. Pierrot stands calmly smoking his pipe. There is no hint of danger. Seurat died seven years after completing Pierrot at the age of 31.

  Part 2


I don’t know if every museum in France honors the disabled. I use a cane and have a limp. In Paris the disabled do not pay or stand in line to get into a museum.

  Musee de Orangerie


In 1879 as his wife Camille Dosnicieux lies dying Monet paints her disappearance and experiences water, clouds, Lily pads. Monet didn’t laugh at death and he didn’t ignore it. Measure the distance between lily pads the distance between layers of off whites, pinks and clouds. View his compulsion, his desire to complete his metamorphosis, his Self Portrait.


Splash, Monet blows his nose. The silence is broken.


The first thing I saw was a huge swash of yellow paint in Monet’s Soleil Couchant. The yellow sun hit me and I screamed. A very tall guard wearing a long knitted scarf came rushing over to me with his finger on his lips and a smile on his face.




I experienced cruel moments as I was sucked into Monet’s surfaces. I lost my bearings, my equilibrium. Remember the color wheel the distance between trees the lack of shade, the oval egg shaped galleries that house Monet’s Water Lilies. I was a fetus. I was born and I died and I was born again. Looking out of the train and seeing the English landscape the landscape of my childhood was not tender it was complicated by war, resentment. Splash the silence is broken.




In 1941 my mother, my aunt Jenny, my cousin Renee and I were living in a rented cottage eight miles outside of Northampton, in the village of Great Creatan. We were new comers, foreigners to an inbred medieval village. That I am Jewish that I was six years old and could read and write didn’t exactly favor me with the village kids. They wanted to see my horns. The village wanted to know why we buried our dead standing up.




Built in the 1900s a one-room school held all the grades. The teacher a Miss Edna Litchfield sat on a high stool in the middle of the room. In her right hand she held a very long switch. She used it when she saw any infraction. Whack! It stung.


If I didn’t walk home with my cousin I always ran home. What started it was it a fight or the calling of more abusive names? I was dragged by a number of older boys to the horsetrough that was in the middle of the village green. The boys dunked me over and over. Under the water I couldn’t breathe and I saw lights like tiny yellow bulbs. I thought it was my aunt Jenny’s sister Sadie who pulled me away from the boys but my cousin Renee says she did. I was swollen and everything was very blurry. I don’t remember anything after that.


When I woke up I was in the hospital I had been operated on for an infected mastoid, the ward had young men who had been wounded. Some of them were bandaged all over their bodies. Others had leg or arm wounds. There was a shortage of bed sheets, towels, pajamas and nurses. One of the men befriended me he must have been a medic. Three times a day he gave me my shots.


In one corner of the ward there was a little boy who always stayed in bed. He never did answer any of my questions.


The operation is the only good part of this story. Every doctor that looks into my ear wants to know who operated. They say it is beautiful, a magnificent job.


Back then it was believed that it would be emotionally disturbing to children in hospital to see their parents. They might cry they might want to go home. The one time I saw my parents I was given a clean top and bottom and a dressing gown. I sat in a wheelchair and the nurse wheeled me into a bare room with a large window. My parents were on the other side of the window. They smiled and waved and I waved. I don’t know how long I stayed in the hospital but that was the only time I saw them. And that was the only time I wore a top and a bottom. The rest of the time I wore what the men wore. Some days some men wore tops and some men wore bottoms. On the days when the men had only tops they were exposed. A young nurse came into the ward to change the men’s bandages and give them their shots. Men would get hard ons and a man would say something to the nurse that I didn’t understand. Without hesitation the nurse would flick the man’s genitals with her fingers.

  Part 3


When we visited Delacroix’s apartment studio and garden at Rue Furstenberg I saw myself living in this modest and unpretentious apartment painting in the studio with its skylight, large window and northern light. This great painter, painted tigers, Liberty Leading the People, drew panthers, said ‘One can never paint violently enough’, always lived alone.


Delacroix loved his garden. He had the soil rehabilitated, cut and pruned the existing flowerbeds and vines, created new flowerbeds edged with thyme, planted roses, gooseberry and strawberry bushes, as well as a number of trees. The aim was a varied, densely planted garden.




There was a Pigeon in Delacroix’s garden that reminded me of the Pigeon that hangs on the wall over our bed. I’ve painted Pigeons since the 1970s. They don’t beg and they have no master. They know what the rules of the city are and they obey them. They take care of themselves. They fascinate me. Their timing is perfect. When approached they wait till the very last moment before they fly away.




I stood in Delacroix’s garden watched the Pigeon fly and I flew back to Great Creaton. I am going to be 79 this year. I am a superstitious man and the numbers 7 and 9 are hole cards, wild cards. And the number 79 has me spooked. I have started to feel like the survivor who asks himself why am I still alive when so many of my friends have died. I am unable to count how many times I have returned to the afternoon I got dunked in the horsetrough and I am being dunked again. I am married, have two daughters, four grandchildren and a house and a garden and I envy Delacroix he wasn’t afraid of success. I have painted for over sixty years written seriously for thirty years and in all that time I have not lived up to my work. Since the age of six I have been in hiding. Frightened that if I show myself I could get dunked. The trauma never goes away. Black Mountain College, San Francisco, New York City and so I am the foreigner, the man who was never there.


I think I began to draw when I was 5 or 6 years old. I remember copying cartoons by David Low. Black and white. Black and white has always been very important to me. Ink. Charcoal. Print.
By the time I was 14 I was painting every day. But otherwise, as has often been the case, my life was unsettled and difficult. By lucky circumstance, I found Black Mountain College when I was 16—and from there I was able to enter New York City and San Francisco.
I often explain my art by saying “from the abstract to the figure, from the figure to the abstract makes an edge of exquisite distance and distance gives us our sensations.”
Writing was part of being at Black Mountain. But I did not begin to write seriously until 1985, after a series of disappointments followed by my first trip back to England since my parents and I emigrated in 1947. When I returned to New York, I could not stop writing. It was “a season of digestion.”
Today I go back and forth between painting and writing, on two different floors of my house in Brooklyn. One feeds the other and in both I bring disparate things together.