On being heard

01 May 2014

The first time I ever had to read from, or otherwise refer to, my writing in public was at the launch for New Writing 7, in which my first and to this day still only story was published. I was extremely young and, although the point of New Writing was that it combined established authors with debut writers, I was by far the most infantile and clueless person in the anthology.

Perhaps because of this – no, obviously because of this – I was one of the authors asked to read aloud. As we mingled / cowered, I noticed that the audience, all of whom were each other’s friends, editors and agents, contained A. S. Byatt, Julian Barnes and others even I knew were famous. In my terror, I turned clumsily and trod on Julian Barnes’s foot.

‘Sorry,’ I said.

He looked down at me. ‘That was my bad foot.'

When I went up to read, fear constricted my throat so badly that at first I was unable to speak. Fear also forced me onward; fortunately, a couple of sentences later there was an, albeit feeble, joke. Someone, kindly, laughed. They definitely weren't A. S. Byatt, but it gave me courage. Slowly, my voice returned; by the end of the story, I was lolling merrily against the lectern, actually enjoying myself. I am scared of many things but, thanks to Squeakgate, reading from my books is no longer one of them.

But although I enjoy events, I love radio even more. It's the perfect medium for those who are simultaneously show-offs and reclusive. Even if I hadn't grown up with grandparents, then parents, with a radio in every room, I'd be a passionate listener: why have silence, when you can have words? However, there are other reasons why making radio programmes is a joy. First, it's easy to read one's own writing, or answer questions, if one can’t see the person who’s fallen asleep a metre away, or hear the outraged tutting, or answer a question from the organiser, sitting in the front row, who wishes one to know that 'I hated your novel' – all of which have, naturally, happened to me.

Second, thanks to radio, I have toured the kitchens at Marine Ices, met Maria Abramovic, an intimate-plastic-surgery expert and the daughter of Elizabeth Taylor-the-novelist, sat in a studio constructed of foam egg boxes and carpet, written an entire programme bringing my youthful Interrail experiences to vivid life – insularity, Brussels brothels, German train stations, Dire Straits and marrying Sean Connery – before remembering that, oh yes, the Berlin wall fell that year too.

And, third, one gets to have a conversation with extraordinarily interesting and brainy people – Mark Lawson, Kirsty Lang, Michael Berkeley – who, thankfully, are so good at their job that one forgets there are, possibly, other people listening.

The only problem is my voice. Even if I didn't sound like a pre-war public schoolboy, I'd find it excruciating to listen to myself. And that is why, when I was recently on Private Passions, despite my pride in having been asked, I kept putting off hearing the programme, and then I missed it. Which proves that, on radio, one really does never know if anyone else is listening.

Charlotte Mendelson's novel Almost English is out now.

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