Here’s what it’s like to step out of the Lantern Room at the Belle Tout lighthouse near Beachy Head in Sussex, in the South Downs National Park, and walk around the platform on the outside of the tower. Yes, the outside. A long way above the ground, and beside a four hundred foot drop. I’m afraid of heights – my children still laugh at the way I clung on to the inside wall of the Eiffel Tower for dear life, genuinely scared, so this was a challenge. The heavy breathing is because I was frightened! Worth it though, for the astonishing views. Enjoy! It’s the setting for The Light Keeper, my first novel, published this August. If you want to know more about the book or read the first three chapters for free, just let me have your email here. You’ll automatically get the chance to win a night in the lighthouse.
Hello you. How’s it going? Last night we stayed at the Belle Tout lighthouse. This is a Georgian lighthouse on the edge of a four hundred foot drop on its own hill near Beachy Head in East Sussex, The Lantern Room is a wonderful space with 360 degree views of the South Downs, the Seven Sisters and the sea. Here’s a video, taking you around the room.
Gorgeous, isn’t it? David and Barbara Shaw bought the place a decade ago and they’ve spent more than a million doing it up, so it’s a really beautiful bed and breakfast. Here’s the website. It’s not like that in the story, which takes place when the lighthouse is still semi-derelict, as it was for a while before they took over. Next time I will show you what it was like to go out on that balcony, on a windy day. Brace yourself.
As you may well know by now, this is the setting for my novel The Light Keeper, a story of love, hope, faith and longing, which comes out on August 15. I’ll be telling stories from it and singing songs inspired by it at the Greenbelt Festival over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Then I’ll be doing the same in Alfriston on September 14 thanks to my friends at the wonderful Much Ado Books and at an exclusive, very-limited-numbers performance inside that same Lantern Room, the one in the video, on September 15. Do you want to be there? I’d love you to. Only a dozen people can come, but for the chance of a pair of tickets – or even, separately, the chance to win a night for two staying at the lighthouse – sign up here.
I’m also up for telling you stories and singing you songs wherever you are, if you can get some other people who want to hear. Let me know email@example.com.
That’s it for now, thanks for reading. I’m going to try something new and write a little note every Friday to share what I’m up to and how you can get involved too, if that’s okay. Get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.
I live on the coast. I can hear French radio on the car stereo. Ferries leave for France every day. The fishermen here are related, way back in time, to families from Normandy and Spain. We’re nearer to France here than we are to Westminster … yet my town voted for Brexit, by a large majority. The same goes for other towns all along the edge of England, for people living by the side of the Channel. I was fascinated by that and wanted to explore what was going on, in real life, way beyond the headlines and the B-word balls up. I do believe, in general, in the words of the late MP Jo Cox:
“We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”
I wondered if that was true here and now, in this fraught and divisive moment. And I was lucky, even blessed, that the perceptive Mohit Bakaya at Radio 4 was prepared to commission radio on this theme.
So I got together with my partner in radio, the producer Jonathan Mayo, and we devised a two-part documentary that would take us walking through Calais first then Dover, talking and listening to people who live, love, work and play beside and on the stretch of sea that the French call La Manche and that can seem like a bridge on a beautiful clear day, but is almost as often a barrier.
The model was the programme we had done for Radio 4 called The Walk: For Richer, For Poorer, walking through Kensington meeting the very rich and those who were struggling.
The Walk: Across The Water was floated, if you will forgive me, in the Autumn, just as the first reports began to come through of migrants trying to cross the Channel in small boats, having been told by people traffickers that they should try to get here before Brexit closed the doors for good. Men, women and children nearly died in the attempt, but they were rescued by the admirable servants of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the Border Force, the ferries or the fishing fleet. Even as we were researching the programmes, the Home Secretary Sajid David sent more boats to the Channel and declared the migration a national emergency.
I went across to Calais in early January for a research trip with my son Joshua, who has good French. We went to the top of the Calais lighthouse on a terrifyingly windy day, saw the White Cliffs of Dover and met Sebastien, the guide, who turned out to be a fan of Doctor Who and as a cosplay enthusiast who dressed up as David Tennant’s Doctor. On the way back I got terrible toothache as the result of an infection under a tooth on the lower left side of my mouth, which screamed to be taken out. I didn’t dare do that though, for fear that having it removed would make me sound like Daffy Duck right in the middle of making two radio programmes that were increasingly coming to mean a lot to me, personally. I waited until after they were made before having the tooth out, which meant suffering the pain for a couple of months. It’s gone now, which is a relief.
Anyway, I returned to Calais with Jonathan later in January and we met up with Sophie Tritz, a French journalist who turned out to be a brilliant fixer and great company. You can listen to the results here, but let me just say that the love story between Beatrice and her partner is extraordinary. So are the jaw-dropping, hardline things the Deputy Mayor of Calais says about migrants. Dover proved equally full of surprises. If you’d like to read more about either programme, I wrote a piece about Calais for the i newspaper and another about Dover here. The Walk: Across The Water was made by TBI Media on behalf of the BBC, with excellent sound work by Andy Partington. Thanks for your interest. I’ll post some photos of the trip below.
EastEnders ain’t Cockney no more says June Brown in The Lost Cockney Voice, first broadcast on Radio 4 last year. Now the documentary I made with producer Jonathan Mayo is back at 4pm on Tuesday 2 January 2018 (or on iPlayer right now).
You ’avin’ a laugh, mate? They don’t speak Cockney on EastEnders any more. That’s what June Brown says and she should know, having played the tough old bird with a heart of gold Dot Cotton in Albert Square for more than 30 years. “Slovenly speech, that’s what it is. I wouldn’t call it Cockney, no. They can’t help it, that’s how they speak,” she told me when I went to see her at home in Surrey. “It’s much more The Only Way Is Essex. That has become the Cockney of the times.”
She’s right, as I found out whilst making a documentary for Radio 4 called The Lost Cockney Voice. This isn’t about jellied eels and gentrification. I’m actually after a very specific lost voice: that of my grandmother Gladys and her generation. Gladys sounded half like a Cockney and half like the Queen. Women like her grew up during and after wartime in a vibrant East End culture but with the wireless as the source of news, entertainment and authority – and everyone on it spoke the Queen’s English, with accents that sound comically posh to us now. Nan and her mates developed this curious, one-generation voice that has almost vanished, because they’ve almost all passed away and their kids had other influences, like the telly.
I longed to hear that unique voice one more time, so I went looking to see if there was anyone in the East End still speaking like that – and on the way met some remarkable, inspiring people. Continue reading “The Lost Cockney Voice returns to Radio 4”
Frank Gardner has a stronger handshake than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Neither smells like David Beckham. That is what I can reveal today as three pieces appear in different titles at once, thanks to an accident of timing. Black Friday is a totally spurious American festival of greed for which Britain is going crazy all of a sudden and I have written about it in my new column for the Independent on Sunday today. Should we be gleefully grabbing David Beckham aftershave for a tenner or protesting against the bonfire of the bargains?
Meanwhile, people are paying £2,000 a time to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and other Hollywood legends and Event magazine for the Mail on Sunday carries a reportage from behind the scenes at one of these events. Yes I did shake Arnie’s hand and his grip is strong – but it’s not as strong as that of Frank Gardner, BBC Security Correspondent who was shot six times by terrorists a decade ago and has overcome massive injuries and extreme pain to go on reporting, which he does with great authority. The last of his assailants has just been sentenced to death and he gave me the only in-depth interview about that for the Sunday Telegraph. So now you know.