May 30, 2015

News Quiz

Finally, a job my mum can tell her friends about: I was on Radio 4’s News Quiz yesterday! With Jeremy Hardy, Rebecca Front, Francis Wheen and of course presided over by the almighty Sandi Toksvig. The episode is here, or available on the Friday Night Comedy podcast feed.

Here we are on stage at the Radio Theatre, looking studious while Sandi gives Jeremy Hardy an antihistamine.

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May 22, 2015

brunchtime

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In the new Allusionist episode, I teamed up with Dan Pashman from The Sporkful, one of my favourite podcasts, to consider the semantics of brunch. He also taught me a breakfast-architecture technique known as ‘the porklift’. Find out more about the episode at theallusionist.org/brunch, and you can hear more of my conversation with Dan on this recent Sporkful episode. My capacity for pedantry pales in comparison to Dan’s! Must. Try. Harder.

I was on this episode of a new Radio 4 comedy panel show, Best Behaviour, with Holly Walsh, Richard Herring and Lloyd Langford. It’s all about manners, which I wouldn’t say were my strong point, but my mum listened and approved, so PHEW.

I’m also on this recent episode of International Waters with Dave Holmes, Arnab Chanda, Paul Provenza and Brigid Ryan. We recorded very soon after the general election, so you may feel Arnab and I were slightly forlorn in our defence of the UK. On the subject of Maximum Fun – I’ll be attending my first MaxFunCon this year, so if you’re going to be there too, please come and say hello! And sign up for one of my group therapy sessions if you fancy airing any of your problems and questions.

Finally: listen out for me on the News Quiz on Radio 4 next Friday at 6.30pm!

May 6, 2015

Election Lexicon

Happy Election Eve! (Interpret ‘happy’ as abstractly as you feel is necessary given the circumstances.)

Taking refuge in dictionaries from the political storms, for the new Allusionist I discovered the etymology of several election-related words, such as ‘poll’ (hairy!), ‘ballot’ (ballsy!), ‘argue’ (shiny!) and ‘Tory’ (a whole world of WTF). You can find the episode at theallusionist.org/electionlexicon, and it’s an excellent length to accompany you on your way to the polling station tomorrow, if that journey is precisely nine minutes.

PS: I wrote about the different parties’ names for The Pool, click here to read.

PPS: Here I am recording the episode at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. You might be able to hear from the show that it was WINDY.

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April 24, 2015

Crosswords and no words

A brace of Allusionists came out this month.

First: crossword setter John Feetenby explains how he goes about setting those infernal cryptic crossword clues. theallusionist.org/crosswords

Second: historian Kate Wiles reveals to me that the spaces between words are a relatively modern (and crucial) invention. theallusionist.org/spaces

April 6, 2015

krappy krafting: kimono

Today, I had the ridiculous joy of appearing on Woman’s Hour‘s craft special. They asked me to teach Jane Garvey how to sew something on air; as the shops are presently full of diaphanous kimono-style bed-jackety garments, I decided we’d make our own, using three vintage square scarves from my ever-expanding collection (a few months ago I did try to count them, but stopped at 70).

I worship Jane Garvey, but ‘interest in craft’ is not one of her strong points. Watching her wield huge scissors and adopt the unconventional ‘Look, no hands!’ approach to machine sewing, I felt like a novice lion tamer on my first job.

Click here to hear the programme, and click the photo below to zoom in on the tutorial for making one of these very simple garments. I promise they are a lot more straightforward than we made them sound.

kimono tutorial Woman's Hour

Here’s one I made earlier, flapping about in a high wind. There are French horns on the front, medieval men on horseback on the sleeves, and a massive striped Z on the back.

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March 26, 2015

Allusionist: Mountweazel

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a listener, Eley Williams, asking whether I know that dictionaries contain false words, to act as copyright traps.

I DID NOT KNOW.

So I got Eley on the phone for the latest Allusionist, which left me very disAllusioned about dictionaries, let me tell you. Episode is at theallusionist.org/mountweazel.

Also, if you have a moment, could you do Radiotopia a favour and fill in their survey? You listeners know quite a bit about podcasters, but we know very little about you; hopefully if we can find out, we can make our shows better for your ears. And, you stand to win a delightful pair of wooden Tivoli headphones, worth over £100; so either way, your ears will win. Trot along to surveynerds.com/allusionist, please and thank you.

March 15, 2015

cricket dolls

My brother Andy is over in Australia and New Zealand at the moment, covering the Cricket World Cup for CricInfo.

You may notice that in some of his videos he is playing with dolls. Not Barbies – dolls of historic cricketers W.G. Grace and Fred Spofforth. Where does one obtain dolls of historic cricketers W.G. Grace and Fred Spofforth?

The same place one obtains dolls of Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Plant and Tony Benn.

As soon as I’d finished making them, they were stuffed in a suitcase and flown to Australia, so I don’t have very good photos showing the details, but the materials were felt, white bedsheet, and yarn – WG’s beard is knitted in garter stitch. Here’s one man and his dolls:

cricket dolls Andy

And here are the LADS enjoying themselves at a match:

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March 11, 2015

Allusionist 6: The Writing On The Wall

New Allusionist is out! In this episode, exhibition-maker Rachel Souhami reveals the work that goes into the text panels accompanying exhibits at museums – and that only 30% of visitors read them. I read them, Rachel! (Though admittedly when I’m abroad and the text panels are written in a language I don’t know, I feel slightly relieved not to feel the obligation.)

Perhaps my favourite thing about making The Allusionist is finding out about something I had no idea about. Rachel is fascinating, and I’ll never approach an exhibition in quite the same way again.

Full details and listening links are at theallusionist.org/museums, or have at it right here:

March 2, 2015

despatches from the podcasting frontline

A bunch of things about podcasting:

1. I’ve just booked in the next podcasters’ meetup – Monday 9th March from 6pm at the Carpenter’s Arms. Come along if you’re a podcaster or fancy becoming one. All are welcome. And don’t forget to join the Podcasters’ Support Group on Facebook for virtual support and encouragement for your audio endeavours.

2. I’ve done several interviews about podcasting this year, and they all came out in the past few days:
2.i. The women of Radiotopia and Invisibilia talked to Ravishly about equality in podcasting and radio – there are some great mic drops in the piece, which is HERE.
2.ii. I talked at very great length to The Timbre, which is a great site if you’re interested in podcasts at all. If you’re interested in my own thoughts about them, the piece is HERE.
2.iii. I had lunch with the brilliant Caroline Crampton of the New Statesman. She is a lot more interesting than me; sign up for her newsletter. The interview with me is HERE.

3. I’m really happy and excited to see the emergence of several interesting sites devoted to podcasting in the same way that people have been critiquing music and film etc for years. As well as the aforementioned Timbre, Nick Quah’s Hot Pod newsletter, and the charming Podcast Pillowfort podcast. If you’re podcast-interested, get stuck in.

February 25, 2015

Allusionist 5: Latin Lives!

20+ years ago, my Latin teacher played our class a clip of a Finnish radio station that broadcasts a weekly news bulletin in Latin. I’d always been curious as to why – and how – they do this.

At long last, I found out, in the new Allusionist:

February 11, 2015

Allusionist 4: Detonating the C-bomb

This is the first episode of The Allusionist I worked on, but I think you’ll understand why I couldn’t release it first.

WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE THROUGHOUT.

February 9, 2015

Sound Women swansong

Sad times: I’m retiring from the Sound Women podcast. Here is my swansong episode, aptly about podcasting, in which I talk to Theresa Thorn of the very entertaining One Bad Mother, and my new Radiotopian overlord Roman Mars.

I admit, mixed messages ensue. We’re not lying when we say that podcasting is easy; it is not difficult to start podcasting, as the tech and financial outlay are both pretty manageable. (My beginners’ guide to podcasting is here, as proof.) The difficult thing is keeping a podcast going, and for me to be able to make The Allusionist and keep making Answer Me This, something had to give.

I met some fantastic people over the nearly two years of making Sound Women, whom you can hear on the episodes at soundcloud.com/soundwomen or on iTunes.

Recently I’ve really been enjoying meeting other podcasters, especially through the Support Group gatherings. I’m naturally quite a solitary, antisocial person, but podcasting can be such a lonely pursuit and it was so many years before I knew any other podcasters, that now I’m pathetically excited when I meet other podcasters: “Hey colleague! Let’s talk BUSINESS!!”

A few days ago I was tweeted by Australian podcaster and comedian Alice Fraser, who said she was in London for a few days. We sat in a cafe and chatted for her podcast Tea With Alice, and I’m very glad I hauled myself out of my editing-hole and went; she is a really fascinating person. I wish I’d been recording what she was talking about before she switched the mics on so you could hear it. Anyway, look/listen out for her.

Finally, here’s the latest Answer Me This, in which we learn about coconuts, Grumpy Cat’s finances and Femidoms:

January 29, 2015

Allusionist goes viral

In the latest Allusionist, I find out lots of interesting stuff about how BuzzFeed goads you into viewing and sharing stuff using only LINGUISTIC SORCERY. But never sarcasm or round numbers. Plus there’s a cameo from Roman Mars, complaining that we’re all misusing the word ‘viral’. Read more about the episode at theallusionist.org/viral, and hear it on iTunes/SoundCloud/RSS, or, if you can only be arsed to click once, not twice, right here:

January 27, 2015

Ex Libris

Well, this is going to be fun – tickets are here if you want to come along.

Ex Libris Invitation Oxford Lit Festival new

January 23, 2015

Radiotoparty

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In other Radiotopia stretch goal results news:

Last autumn, they promised that if their Kickstarter campaign raised $425,000, they would hold parties for Radiotopifans.

As you donors blasted through that target, the parties are about to happen – and the first is in London, 2.30-5pm on 15th February, upstairs in the Upstairs Bar at the ever marvellous Ritzy cinema in Brixton.

I will be there. Love + Radio’s Nick van der Kolk will be there. Free pizza will be there. Will you be there? Click here to book your place.

January 14, 2015

The Allusionist begins

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I am very excited to tell you that my new Radiotopia show The Allusionist – which many of you very generously Kickstarted last autumn – has landed!

It’s all about language – little documentaries about words and phrases, with etymological tidbits thrown in. Its online home is theallusionist.org, and the show is available via iTunes, SoundCloud, RSS and various other podcast-wranglers.

Upon hearing I was doing a show about language, loads of people asked me, “Will there be episodes about puns?” Well, guess what: the very first episode is about puns, so I could get the damn things out of the way. It features my punfortunate brother Andy (familiar to you Bugle fans), and the puntriarch himself, our father Zack. TAKE COVER.

I wanted to launch the show with a double bill, and the second episode is all about bras: blogger Lori Smith teaches me about the history of undergarments, while I wonder why we have so many synonyms for our knickers, but none for bras.


A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with the Radiotopian overlord Roman Mars, and he asked me how it was different starting a new podcast now to when Answer Me This! began eight years ago.

Here’s something which is the same: I don’t know exactly what my show is or how to make it, but I can only learn those things by making it and putting it out. One of the most important pieces of advice I give to people starting a podcast is not to publicise it for at least three months or ten episodes, whichever equals more episodes. They never believe me. But I insist that it’s a good move, because a show always improves, and finds its footing; and it’s not a problem, because when listeners do find it a little later, they are happy to find a backlog of episodes to binge on. Between you and me, I was hoping to follow this advice myself this time. BUT…

Here’s a difference: this time, people are listening. You can’t keep a Radiotopia production under the radar. And there was this very flattering review in the Allusionist’s debut week. Of course it is extraordinary to have listeners right from the start, but, given my statement in the paragraph above, it is also VERY DAUNTING. I was insomniac and crapping myself* for weeks before launching The Allusionist! When we launched AMT, I was totally gung ho: I had no idea what I was getting myself into, nor any relevant experience; and luckily our handful of listeners in the early days were very forgiving of these scrappy upstarts. Now, however, I have spent thousands of hours podcasting, so people expect me not to produce a sloppy bowl of shit soup. While I don’t think the first episodes are sloppy bowls of shit soup, I’ve never presented or produced anything like The Allusionist before – it’s a very different beast to AMT, or Sound Women, or live radio – and I know it will take me a few months to get to grips with it properly. So you’re very welcome to listen to the show now, but you’re also welcome to go away and come back in, say, September, when it is likely to be a fully realised audio masterpiece (or a tidy bowl of shit soup, at least).

Here’s another difference: I am now a full-time podcaster, and it is the best job I have ever had. Long may it continue!

*Not literally, thanks for your concern.

January 9, 2015

events listings

Some events coming up:

Learn how to podcast in one evening, that being the evening of 26th January. At this three-hour Guardian Masterclass, producer Matt Hill of the Media Podcast, Spark London and loads more, and I will share our accumulated podcasting knowledge – hardware, software, enamelware finessing your format, getting started, and most importantly, not stopping. Get your tickets HERE.

I’m off on tour around the country with Sound Women. We’ll be visiting Brighton (24th January), Birmingham (31st January) and Newcastle (7th February) to talk about audio and have a jolly old time. Get your tickets HERE.

Also on 24th January, at the Hackney Attic I’ll be participating in a charity game show to raise funds for Arts Emergency. Fellow podcaster Neil Denny of Little Atoms will be hosting, and my fellow panellists are Viv Groskop, AL Kennedy and Chris Coltrane. Get your tickets HERE.

PS Answer Me This! is back, with listeners’ unusual tattoos, stealing back presents, and olive theft:

January 5, 2015

decade in the job

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Today is a milestone of sorts for me.

Ten years ago, 5th January 2005, I packed in my last normal job and went rogue, ie self-employed.

I had turned down the opportunity to make permanent my temporary office job, and didn’t feel compelled to get a new one immediately because at the time I was making enough from work on the side – an occasional bit of overpaid radio comedy, on top of a regular income from going to a rich businessman’s house every Saturday morning so he could dictate his memoirs to me. Plus in those halcyon days, my rent was only £50 a week. IN ZONE 2 LONDON. It would no doubt be far more challenging to try this now, when you need to be clearing £40K a year just to be able to sublet a beanbag in zone 6.

By the time the radio show was cancelled and the memoir-transcribing was on hiatus, frankly I was ruined for proper jobs. I was always terrible at getting them anyway, so being self-employed didn’t really feel like a choice – although I suppose it is, if the absence of an action counts as an action itself. Also, I think it was easier for me to default to this feckless ‘career’ ‘path’ because my father is a sculptor, and my brother is a comedian; I wasn’t taking a risk and breaking the mould, because that mould was already long broken.

Nonetheless, this past decade has been full of fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency hard graft, begging for work, monumental levels of procrastination, frequent feelings of failure, frequent feelings of smugness when I don’t have to get up on Monday morning to go to an office, stress about my lack of current and future financial/career/emotional security, and, above all, the absolute joy of getting to do pretty much what I wanted.

Self-employment is a pretty great way to live, if like me you favour variety, self-reliance and solitude over stability, structure and the company of colleagues.

But let’s not forget that fear. It’s not my ideal constant companion, but maybe I’ll get used to it after another ten years.

Are you in the same self-employment boat? I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you’re willing to share them in the comments.

PS More about freelancing in the October 2014 episode of Sound Women.

December 30, 2014

top books of 2014

book_concretopiaProbably my favourite book this year was Concretopia by John Grindrod. Disclosure: I used to freelance for this publisher and I know John Grindrod; he worked on the Answer Me This! book way back when. Rather embarrassingly, I fainted at his book launch, because I get all Beatlemaniac over the post-war rebuilding of Britain*. Well, not quite, but it’s a very unusual prism through which to examine a slice of 20th century history. And it’s lovely to read someone writing affectionately about architecture that is usually the object of scorn or derision. Well done John Grindrod; you have really opened my eyes to lots of structures hiding in plain sight.

A recurring theme in Concretopia is the practical demands of reality clashing with the idealism of architects. One of the more uncompromising, Alison Smithson, also appears in Rachel Cooke‘s Her Brilliant Career, ten mini biographies of pioneering women in the 1950s.

Also on the mini biography/20th century shelf was The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing. She has a brilliant knack for combining literary biography, travelogue, history, and searching her own soul, as in her debut To The River. (Disclosure, I know Laing too; years ago, she was my editor on books section of the Observer, and when she was let go from there, she went off and became a brilliant author instead.) Her next book is about loneliness; and as somebody who spends most of their time alone, I can’t wait to read it.

Patricia Volk made this list in 2013 for her exquisite biography of Schiaparelli alongside her own mother, The Art of Being A Woman. This year, I read Stuffed, her memoir of her childhood in New York where her parents ran a bustling restaurant, and again it was a perfectly turned piece of work: funny, sad, meticulous, not a word wasted.

New York restaurants turned out to be an unexpected theme of my book consumption this year. Not as beautifully written as Volk, but still entertaining, were Anthony Bourdain‘s No Reservations and A Cook’s Tour, and Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, her memoir of her years as the New York Times’s restaurant critic. This job seems to involve eating foie gras every day (seriously, SO MUCH foie gras) and being taken so seriously that she needed to create a range of disguises and fully rounded clandestine identities in order to visit restaurants undetected. I wonder whether any newspaper still has the budget for that kind of chicanery…

I was familiar with David Sedaris from This American Life, but hadn’t actually read any of his work until Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls. I wasn’t so keen on the handful of fictional pieces in the collection, but loved the wry melancholy of the essays, small moments zoomed into so closely, they become significant. And I have to hand it to him for taking it upon himself to clean up the roadsides of Sussex.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf was a real surprise. Backderf went to high school with Dahmer, who began his serial killing two weeks after they graduated; he and his friends had a Dahmer Fan Club, goading their socially awkward, heavy-drinking friend to do ridiculous things for their amusement. The author isn’t condoning the murders, but trying to understand what propelled a human he knew towards monstrous acts.

And finally, for all of you Pre-Teen Sensations out there: I also reread Judy Blume’s Forever for the first time since I was about 11, and, my god, SO MUCH CRINGE. I’m so relieved never to have had a boyfriend like Michael! Here’s a fact that will gross you out: Judy Blume’s dad was named Ralph. Think on that.

* Not really, I had donated blood that day during the tail end of being pretty ill AND moving every single item of furniture in my flat four times so they could repaint and replace the carpet. I’ve never regretted my book collection more.

Top books of 2013, 2012 and 2011

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December 10, 2014

Sound Women Podcast: be smiley for Jo Whiley

iTunes best of 2014
Well, this is nice – firstly, Answer Me This! being a ‘classic’ in iTunes’s best of 2014, which both flatters our little home-made show, and makes me feel very old and Roger Moore-ish. Secondly, I’m absolutely delighted to see the brilliant No Such Thing As a Fish being dubbed iTunes’s best new show of 2014 (and this has been a GREAT year for new shows, including Pitch, Criminal, Death, Sex & Money, and of course the juggernaut that is Serial).

I appear on episode 27 of No Such Thing As a Fish, by the way, but don’t let that put you off.

And now for a parade of shows I’ve been doing lately:

On the fun history podcast Z List Dead List, I talk about Dr Wilhelm Fliess, Sigmund Freud’s best frenemy; and on She Podcasts, I bang on about podcasting and radio and stuff like that. Which [UPDATED TO ADD] is also what I do on the 200th episode of the Wired podcast.

This month’s Sound Women podcast features Jo Whiley:

I guest hosted the Media Podcast special from the Women in Film and TV awards. I got to meet Sue Perkins and Jon Snow!

And I’m on the new International Waters, along with Simon Kane, Jackie Kashian, Brian Fernandes and host Dave Holmes, AND a very festive hit from New Kids on the Block. Prepare yourself for a funky funky Christmas:

Finally, if you would prefer a funny Christmas to a funky Christmas, may I suggest the Answer Me This! Christmas? Further information about the contents is here, as well as links to buy it for a very trifling price; and now is the time of year for it. I anticipate April will NOT be the time.