Where are all the women refugees?

Photo from UNHCR website

Photo from UNHCR website

A version of this column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine in September 2015

One of the strange realizations of being on the Channel 4 series It Was Alright In the 1970s was, when they showed me clips, how much I’d blanked from my memory. Star Maidens? I LOVED that TV show. Two burly blokes – one a French born German TV star (Pierre Brice), one a big-bellied Brit and future member of Blake’s 7 (Gareth Thomas) – escape slavery from Medusa – a crazed Middle East-in-reverse planet ruled by women. Women in polyester jumpsuits with big circles cut out in sexy places. Naturally the men seek asylum on Earth where sanity rules and Englishmen are in charge. I’d entirely forgotten the episodes set on Earth where jihad-crazed suburban housewives attempt to create a Medusan-style feminist state.

The series was an Anglo-German co-production and seemed part of a wider cultural realignment along with the Eurovision song contest and It’s a Knock Out! 70s children of the EEC-decimal currency age started seeing Germans, not only as the Nazis of old war films, but this reborn tribe of modern integrated Europeans. People like us making equally terrible SF.

In the 1970s German was widely taught in schools. We saw West German politics regularly explained on the news. The decline of that reporting and that study has left us ill equipped to fully understand Germany’s leading role in the current migrant & Syrian refugee crisis.

We probably do appreciate the most basic reason why a right-of centre German Chancellor is taking in 800 thousand refugees this year; a plain acknowledgement of Germany’s historic moral debt for the genocide of the Third Reich. (Although since this column was originally written, the government has quickly backtracked and suspended its Schengen zone open border in the south, because of the numbers of migrants that were apparently encouraged as a result to head their way. )

But Germany, as I found in the time I’ve worked and travelled there over 30 years, is full of contradictions. A country where huge numbers of Turkish Gastarbeiter were needed but not encouraged to feel they belonged. Where strange racial stereotypes endured in popular culture decades after they become obsolete in Britain. Where far right racial violence felt much more organized and murderous. Where only 5 years ago Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the failure of multiculturalism. 

A prominent political claim being made on social media against Merkel’s action is that Germany is looking for cheap immigrant labour to support an ageing population.

But importantly Germany’s undergone its own internal refugee and migrant crisis, too, as East German-born Merkel knows only too well. In the summer of 1989 a tide of East German families started seeking asylum via the West German consulate in Hungary. As an interrailing student I found myself sharing a train from Vienna with some of them, making an almost identical journey to many Syrians today. When the Wall came down a few months later, East Germans were widely regarded in West Germany as an economic and social burden. Many “Ossies” continued to regard themselves as victims, and never really made a reckoning with their collaboration both under the Stasi and the Nazis before them.

One of the most intriguing anecdotal demographic phenomena of the 1990s was what happened to East Germany’s young women; how many upped sticks and headed West in search of opportunity. It was, Germans told me, overwhelmingly men who stayed put when their obsolete industrial jobs disappeared, and in some cases nursed a grievance against foreigners. The rise of far right extremists in the East seemed correlated with that demographic change.

Polling here shows a large number of Britons, the majority even, are at best cautious about taking in refugees from Syria, because of the fear of conservative Islamic attitudes. Some readers might want to dismiss this as a cover for racism, just as in the 1930s the Daily Mail, warned of the “threat” of so many Jews coming from Hitler’s Germany. But just as in East Germany, looking at gender opens up a legitimate question about how you build a strong and stable society. Where are all the women refugees? According to the latest UNHCR figures 72% of the numbers arriving in Western Europe so far in 2015 are men, 15% children and only 13% women (as of date of writing mid-Sept 2015). A BBC World Service reporter a few days ago described on air the unease he and female colleagues felt when they tried to interview women refugees only to be uniformly refused permission by their men.

So where ARE the women refugees? Some men will have planned to establish themselves and then bring their families over safely. But talking to lawyers dealing with the big influx of young male Afghan migrants here a decade earlier it seems in many cases families spend the money on the people they value most. And that’s not the women.

When we talk of compassion in these humanitarian crises and doing the right thing, perhaps we ignore gender at our peril.

Sources and further reading

East German refugees escape via Hungary (1989) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8209639.stm

UNHCR gender demographics: http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.html

Salafists trying to recruit young male migrants arriving in Germany (Suddeutsche Zeitung Sep 10 2015)

Lingering alienation between East and West Germans (Der Spiegel)




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The Other Place: A journey into the Underworld with the Witch of Endor

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 10.42.50(image from Genius.com)

At the age of 6 or so I drew a picture pretty similar to this one in my school RE lesson and it’s been a question in my mind ever since and inspired my latest Something Understood for Radio 4: The Other Place. Shading in Sheol – the Jewish underworld – with thick black pencil, challenged the almost uniquely Christian&Islamic binary theology of Heaven and Hell. It’s interesting that both faiths have celebrated martyrdom in their founding history.

With Rabbi Jonathan Romain

With Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Most world religions though, do not have a hell. In the programme Rabbi Jonathan Romain gives wonderful insight into why Jews do not believe in Hell and the importance of focussing on doing good on Earth.

The spirit of Samuel conjured up by the Witch of Endor (William Blake)

The spirit of Samuel conjured up before Saul by the Witch of Endor (William Blake)

Rabbi Romain also unpicks the mystery of the pre-Judaic underworld that occasionally is glimpsed in the strangest tales of the Old Testament. We discuss the tale of King Saul – who banned witchcraft – secretly consulting the Witch of Endor to raise the spirit of his dead prophet Samuel from the shadow world.

A Hellfire Club in joke: Francis Dashwood mocking St Francis of Assissi by William Hogarth

A Hellfire Club in joke: Francis Dashwood in an infernal parody of St Francis of Assisi by William Hogarth

I conceived the programme as a partner piece to the Paradise one I made last month. In that we explored the very physical appeal of an Islamic Paradise to young male jihadists. And in this programme, produced by Natalie Steed, we speculate too, about the appeal to rich young aristocrats in the 18th century age of rakes and libertines, of flirting with darkness in their Hellfire Clubs, like Francis Dashwood’s, which met in caves in Buckinghamshire and included a Chancellor of the Exchequer and William Hogarth among its members.They dressed in monks’ robes to carry out their debaucheries. Was it anything more than a Bullingdon Club-type escapade for the privileged?  A sign of a wider fading away of religious fear of Hell itself?

Jacob Marley: "Ask me who I was."

Jacob Marley: “Ask me who I was.”

We think of the Victorian age as undoing all that; the heavy warnings of hell beaten into children in the schools we read of in Nicholas Nickleby, Hard Times and Jane Eyre. But even though it’s regarded as a Christian morality tale, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol  connects back to the Jewish and Classical idea of the godless underworld. Not only is it the first time travel adventure in Western literature, but in the spirit of Marley, dragging the spiritual chains he forged in life, we are confronted by an escapee from Sheol, with a lesson about the importance  of living well. And, as Rabbi Romain put it, the need to make the earth a garden in our lifetimes, not wait for the promise of one after death.

There is also an extract from Olivia O’Leary’s powerful 2007  Radio 4 documentary about Limbo Babies that’s haunted me since I first heard it. Limbo – a place mentioned in in Dante’s Divine Comedy – for those unbaptised or born before Christianity – was where the Roman Catholic Church said unbaptised babies went. For thousands of Irish mothers this meant the trauma of their stillborn children being buried in unconsecrated ground and out of the sight of God forever. It was only 2007 when this doctrine was qualified to suggest God would show mercy to them.

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 11.55.13

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a feature of the programme. Like my map of Sheol, it embodies our child-like fascination with mapping other worlds; in this case those concentric circles and compartments and towers for different kinds of sin and sinner. We use Clive James’ and John Agard’s wonderful Young Inferno translations, which features bankers in post-crash hell,  to explore the way this story continues to speak to us.

Orfeo (image from Roundhouse website)

The programme starts with the beautiful music of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, whose attempt to bring back Eurydice from the dead is doomed to failure. I have to confess to having been deeply moved by Michael Boyd’s Roundhouse production earlier this year in which the lovers are physically wrenched apart – while suspended in the air between the underworld and the garden of earth.

I’ve put together a list of most of the music we used here on Spotify.

Something Understood: The Other Place is on Radio 4 on Sunday September 21st at 6am and 1130pm and for a month after on BBC radio iPlayer.

Further reading/listening

Something Understood: Strains of Paradise: Available till Sep 29th

Did Dickens invent time travel? BBC Culture feature (July 2015)

High politics and Hellfire: Gresham College lecture on Hogarth’s Francis Dashwood portrait

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A brief history of the News At Ten: one of the biggest mistakes in the British TV News business

The Culture Secretary’s  speech to the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge last night included an observation about whether the BBC should be presenting its flagship evening bulletin at 10 pm – the same time as its main commercial rival ITV. “It is important to look at the impact the BBC has on commercial rivals. To give one example, is it sensible that its main evening news bulletin goes out at the same time as ITV’s?”

It seemed worth refreshing memories about how this came about and what questions it raises about commercial decisions. For a start, younger readers may find it hard to believe that for many years such news bulletins attracted massive audiences in the days before the internet and rolling news channels.

The News at Ten was for decades an editorially valued and  commercially lucrative landmark in the television landscape. The BBC’s main bulletin was on an hour earlier at 9pm. ITV’s News At Ten had the slot to itself and drew a bigger audience. Plus in the days when TV advertising had little competition (the internet has helped destroy that) its commercial break was one of the most expensive and high profile advertising slots in the country. In 1988 it was a media news event in itself when the Hanson Trust mega-corporation bought up the entire 2′ 30″ minute slot to run a bombastic celebration of its brilliance, featuring, as I can still remember from viewing it once on TV, a through-the-decades montage to David Bowie’s Changes of 60s dollybirds, concorde & city traders, with an animated graph of its rising share price. (See above) Special thanks to Brian O’Keefe (@rider45 on twitter) who sourced the Hanson advert for me.

In the late nineties with other commercial tv rivals Channels 4 and 5 as well as Sky now well established, according to media reporting at the time, the newly merged down Carlton/Granada ITV management that owned ITN, felt the half hour slot was more a burden than an asset. There has always been regulation around the public service aspect of ITV’s programming, so moving the flagship news programme was a very big deal. Crucially ITV wanted to screen blockbuster movies and sports events without that big 30 minute  interruption. Even before online video streaming and DVD box sets, many media industry people, not just ITN journalists, felt this was a shortsighted decision that would destroy an important and valued brand connection between the channel and the national audience. But ITV went ahead anyway and shunted the news to about 11pm in March 1999.

Along with selling most of the freehold & leasing back its 200 Grays Inn Road headquarters in 2001, taking a major contributions holiday from the staff pension fund during the 2000s, and buying the social media dead end that was Friends Reunited and selling it for a fraction of its 2005 purchase price, the decision to vacate the 10pm slot seemed like the commercially most damaging decision made by the company’s senior management.

According to the Guardian’s timeline article from 2007 the BBC’s director general Greg Dyke waited 17 months till announcing plans to take up the empty slot which actually happened in October 2000. The BBC made a huge success of it. “I personally liked News at Ten,” said Tony Blair in 2000. “I also had some concerns about the likely consequences of moving it … I think those concerns, I’m afraid, have been largely borne out by what has happened since.”

ITV did not reap a ratings bonanza by dropping News at Ten. Quite the opposite. Under pressure from the regulator the ITC, ITV relaunched the News at Ten in January 2001, less than 2 years after it had vacated it. Despite the excellent quality of its news output, the channel has never managed to claw back the majority audience share it used to own until it threw it away of its own accord. A decision that many media experts and journalists had warned against from the start.

At the time that News at Ten returned, ITN was also making the news for both its commercial terrestrial rivals – Channel 4 and Channel 5, so it’s hard to know what would have happened if a genuine commercial rival had tried to take the slot. (Channel 5 News was made by Sky for several years from 2005). The fact is that it was the BBC, which is funded by public licence fee, which made a smart commercial decision in terms of attracting its now much larger audience to its Ten O’ Clock bulletin. 14 years on, is that a concern for the BBC as the Culture Secretary has apparently implied? Or as many in the news and media business warned back in 1999,  proof that a bad commercial decision can cause irreparable damage where people are free to choose what to watch; and that responsibility lies with those who made it?

Special thanks to Brian O’Keefe (@rider45) for sourcing the Hanson Trust advert on twitter and Oliver Bayley (@) for reminding me of the Friends Reunited purchase.

I  worked at ITN, which makes ITV news and Channel 4 News from 2000-2011.

Posted in Business/Economics, journalism, Media, TV, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

Plotting Paradise: A journey through medieval maps and the mind



Strains of Paradise may start with medieval maps and the Garden of Eden, but producer Anthony Denselow and I didn’t want to shy away from difficult questions too.  So we ask a Muslim theologian about the power of a highly sexual Islamic concept of paradise so beloved by murdering jihadists. Incidentally are 72 virgins really a mistranslation of 72 raisins? And the very political and current row over Britain as a paradise for economic migrants, launching daily attempts to get here from “The Jungle” in Calais.

Diwan-e-Khas, Red Fort, Delhi

Diwan-e-Khas, Red Fort, Delhi

But we begin our journey in the British Library with keeper Peter Barber, looking at images of medieval maps that place Eden as a physical place separate from heaven – a bubble of perfection. You can see it in Hereford’s famous Mappa Mundi above; Adam and Eve within,  showing the 4 rivers including the Tigris and the Euphrates that locate Paradise in modern day Iraq. Persians and their Mughal emperors builts walled gardens across their empire – creating private courtly paradises within their palaces such as Delhi’s Red Fort. It was prevalent in medieval courtly manuscripts and clearly inspired CS Lewis’ Christian walled garden with its healing fruit trees in The Magician’s Nephew.

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Nico Muhly’s haunting music for the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery of Richard II sets the scene for Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt “this sceptr’d isle” speech from his play about the monarch. The suserration of the angels’ wings evoked in the strings of a viola da gamba.

Harry McClintock’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, most famously used on the soundtrack of the  Depression era film O Brother Where Art Thou? conveys a bittersweet vision of Paradise. A hobo’s vision. I’m making a partner programme on The Other Place (Hell, Limbo, Purgatory) to come in the autumn.

Something Understood: Strains of Paradise is on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday August 30th at 6am, 1130pm and iplayer for a month after

Further listening/reading

My Spotify list of featured music – (with a substitution piece for Nico Muhly as it’s not commercially available)

Nico Muhly on his music for the Wilton Diptych – You can hear more of it and listen to him talk to me about it on Front Row (July 2015) – about 3 min in.

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What should we read into bookshelf wallpaper?


This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine in August 2015

I went to a fancy middle class holiday camp the other week. You know the ones. It was fabulous. We did fencing, crossbows, rode Segways and swam every day in a giant sub tropical paradise dome like we were living in a 1970s future world of wholesomeness. Our wooden chalet in the woods had a games room, equipped with a mini billiards table, chessboard, and a gaming console that could also play dvds. There were big bean bags to lie around on. There was even a real fire place. But the walls of the games room were covered with wallpaper of fake bookshelves with piles of old books to replicate something that was naggingly missing.

I am fascinated by the growing ubiquity of fake bookshelf wallpaper. I’ve seen it line coffeehouses and hotel work spaces for guests. At the same time I’ve seen a private club advert promise a “bespoke” library for its luxury membership price. With actual old books.


As a kid of the Atari age (I still have my first Pong game if you can find me an analogue monitor to plug it into) I feel no instinctive distrust of digital technology. This spring I had floor to ceiling bookshelves made for the 4 walls of an entire room. I felt childishly excited and a grownup at the same time. Sometimes I carry such ludicrous sized review hardbacks around for work I worry they’re like dinosaurs – a Darwinian extinction is inevitable. My unease is genuine. I love them. Why does it feel to me like physical books (and the concentration their use requires) are being fetishized and threatened at the same time?

Andrew Male deputy editor of Mojo magazine, pins down my distrust of the wallpaper: “It’s the iconography of our “I love books!” age without the weight/threat of the books themselves. It somehow feels similar to new London flats inheriting the cool cultural trappings of the buildings they replaced.”

Photo copyright: The Roundhouse.co.uk

Photo copyright: The Roundhouse.co.uk

If you go to the Roundhouse in London this summer, you’ll see books used with real power in Penny Woolcock’s amazing “Utopia” installation. Inspired by Thomas More’s book of a future world, she’s created an urban dystopian theme park. An unashamedly left wing, political version of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. A jeep has ramraided the “T. More bookseller” and piles of real books are spilling out the back, and falling off shelves inside. Projected voices of real young men and women who’ve fallen foul of the law, often born to drug addicted or violent parents, speak of how books have changed them. One discovered Plato’s Republic while in prison.

Woolcock told me, aware of the irony, how they had to buy books by the yard to furnish the set. Browsing them is a delight. Among them are loads of remaindered massmarket hardbacks missing dustjackets: Danielle Steele, James Patterson, Dean Koontz. The kind of authors who get sneered at in highbrow news reviews. But who are read voraciously by millions of readers who love reading. I have no snobbery about that. I once met a Lebanese SF novelist who had been given Doctor Who paperbacks as a child. She didn’t know about the TV series, just read them as adventures of this interesting character and look where it took her.

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In, the market house in my local town, made over for vintage style craft sellers, one stall holder sells handbags made out of just such cheap and cheerful hardbacks. They’ve ripped all the pages out and sewed up the sides with cloth, fixing chain handles over the top. I can’t object logically. It is a kind of recycling. Yet like vinyl records warped into bowls, or album sleeves and blown up orange Penguin covers mounted as art, I feel an instinctive revulsion. See also the Cath Kidston window display featuring books with ripped off covers and titles; possibly remaindered and heading for the dump anyway, but still mutilated.

Like those London shell buildings I’ve watched over the decades – cleared of civic services or industry or annoying poor tenants – with their innards ripped out to be remade as hollow symbols of luxury living or business. The Shoe Factory, The School House, trading on the civic pride, industry and philanthropy in many cases that built them.

In the 70s & 80s adults sneered at a lot of books teens read. Choose Your Own Adventures or cash-in film novelisations. I have still only read, never seen 1977’s The Incredible Melting Man, incidentally. But such trashy books offer the best metaphor for what I see. An alien predator destroys its host and occupies the shell of the body while a few voices urge society to pay heed to an impending, incomprehensible but irreversible disaster.

Further listening/reading

Penny Woolcock on the making of Utopia at the Roundhouse (R4 Front Row Aug 2015)

Andrew Male on Eric Clapton’s Bookshelf

Posted in Books, Culture, Design, Media | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Leaving home: The 60s and getting out


The roots of this Sunday’s Something Understood for Radio 4 are in one song – The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home and one time: the 1960s.

Over the course of the decade young people found greater opportunity through a huge growth in jobs and state funded education than ever before to break away from the old ways, though the stigmas of class, homosexuality, unmarried pregnancy and strong racial prejudice were still strong. Lynn Reids Bank’s The L Shaped Room and Philip Larkin’s heartbreaking Jill written in the late 1940s reminds us how deep seated such divides still were and the loneliness of the adolescent thrown into a new world. I’m also reminded of George Melly’s lovely parody of Northerners heading to Swinging London, Smashing Time. There’s a scene when Northern girls Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave scan the clearly genuine ads in a newsagents window for flat shares. You’ll see the one that specifies ‘no coloureds’; a reminder of the reality beneath our selective celluloid memories.

Even so for my parents’ generation of Commonwealth immigrants the 50s and 60s was also a remarkable time. Many thousands crossed continents and oceans at an incredibly young age, found work, fell in love and created a new culture in the big cities like London. It’s a period I’ve only recently begun to appreciate fully. We’ve music from the Jamaican born Lord Kitchener (the discovery for me in making this programme) and a Bollywood film song to celebrate the way Britain was changing and a poem by the wonderful Grace Nichols.

Having made a whole documentary about David Bowie and suburban escape, I Dressed Ziggy Stardust, my plan was to end this show with David Bowie’s postcard from those left behind, the song Everyone Says Hi. A fascinating number from the suburban boy who put so much effort into becoming a pop star and getting out. It was lost from the final edit, sadly, but it’s on this spotify list I’ve put together with music from the programme.

Hope you enjoy it.

Something Understood Away Being, Coming Home is on Radio 4 Sunday July 26th at 6am and 1130pm and iplayer after.

 Spotify list of the music played with some extras

Loving The Alien: David Bowie and the ‘burbs 


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Celebrity Masterchef: Its part in my downfall

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All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted

More in The Big Issue magazine.

So I was in heat 4 of Celebrity Masterchef 2015. As the hack in the pack alongside actual showbiz celebrities (Dancer Natalie Lowe, presenter Keith Chegwin, actor Scott Maslen and The Wanted singer Tom Parker) it was an irresistible chance to see how the show works and gather some stories. Not least the horror of hearing about the strange dance with the devil that can be a celebrity’s relationship with the tabloid press. And yes, I do love cooking and the feminist history of women’s relationship with the kitchen. I grew up watching all that 70s telly: The Galloping Gourmet, Delia, Nanette Newman’s Fun Food Factory, even the processed 70s “snacks” involving pineapple chunks and white bread that they made on Why Don’t You…? And of course my mum Lalita Ahmed cooking on Pebble Mill At One, (precursor to This Morning) and coming home with photos of her with Sasha Distel and similar sofa sharing luminaries and writing cook books.

I’ve also been collecting cookbooks from the 1950s onwards for years. They include such 60s gems as Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook, Saucepans and the Single Girl and (a personal favourite) The New Generation Cook Book, in which recipes are linked by a story about a young female researcher working on a Top of the Pops type TV show.

COOKBOOKSFrom the off it was clear that the Celebrity Masterchef standard and ambition was high. Natalie did everything you’re supposed to do: Be bold and experiment and she knows her grilling.  They were all very sweet and fun to hang out with. Cheggers wizzed up some beautiful desserts and sauces. Tom is very modest but seriously able. Scott is the standout and my bet for a potential winner. And I don’t know having not seen beyond my heat. And I scared myself. Don’t cook with me is all I can say.

In The Big Issue next week you’ll get the full story on my identity crisis as a career woman who’s never sought to be judged on an old style “feminine” skill like cooking.  And as one who attempted the kind of basic Indian home cooking (the chappatis, oh god the chappatis) that if you’re going to cook you should have been cooking for years and mastered before attempting it on national television. And for Christine Hamilton at that. Luckily my mum is abroad for the whole of July. I take the chance to apologise now to the entire nation of Asian mums and aunties for Letting The Side Down.

The best experiences were cooking up the challenges in the studio kitchen with tofu and chocolate or squid. And especially being in the Almeida Restaurant kitchen run by a very impressive young Scottish chef Tommy Boland. I can’t tell you what an adrenalin high that day was. He is a chef to watch.

I think what I really wanted was to be taught elite stuff. There was a pastry chef in the Almeida cooking 3 different desserts and loaves of fresh bread from scratch over the course of the morning. I’d liked to have shadowed him for a day.

Behavioural psychologists can debate the performance/show off element of the Masterchef format that so many men seem to do well at. Looking back I made all the classic errors of some other women I’d watched on previous series:  competent home cooks who aren’t naturally big risk takers and who made the mistake of trying to be safe and cook what they or their families like.  I’m not making excuses. My heart wasn’t in it to give what was needed. But it was great fun and I think Tom and Scott were totally obvious and deserving heat winners.

The recipes

The roasted veg couscous with harissa and feta cheese from episode 7 was adapted from Nigel Slater’s Real Cooking. I make this in big quantities for parties.

That rhubarb ginger sponge pudding of mine (episode 8) is a favourite of all my friends. Give it a try. It’s in the Margaret Costa Four Seasons cookbook.

The chocolate brownies (relay challenge episode 8) were based on the pudding I’ve made more than any other in my life: From Rose Elliott’s Vegetarian Dishes of the World (one of my most beloved and best used cookbooks). I use redcurrants, raisins, or cranberries  instead of the nuts usually stated in such recipes. The berries give a lovely sourness against the sweet dark chocolate. Serve with a big dollop of greek yoghurt or creme fraiche. Eat them warm or if you refrigerate the brownies after they cool, they taste even nicer I think.

Further reading

Big Issue magazine feature about Simone De Beauvoir, feminist Masterchef existentialism and me

My BBC TV Blogpost on How To Survive Celebrity Masterchef (Jul 2nd)– Oh the irony. It’s filled with clues as to the outcome.


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On location for HG Wells and the H Bomb

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As well as this documentary I’ve written this feature for BBC Culture about how the Atom Bomb changed our culture and imagination.

And I discuss it with Robert Elms on BBC London here. Listen from 1 hr 39 minutes.

In his 1914 novel The World Set Free, HG Wells imagined bombs that destroy civilization and lead to a new world order. But his “atomic bombs” – a name he conceived – are grenades that keep on exploding.

How did this idea become a reality? Producers Simon and Thomas Guerrier and I set out to explore the strange conjunction of science-fiction and fact that spawned the Bomb as Wells mixed with key scientists and politicians such as Lenin and Churchill. Churchill claimed Wells was solely responsible for the use of aeroplanes and tanks in the First World War. Thanks to Wells, Churchill was also ahead of many in writing about the military potential of nuclear weapons – as he did in his 1924 article for the Pall Mall Gazette, “Shall We All Commit Suicide?”

How did HG Wells come up with the idea and the name of the atomic bomb? And what happens when you have an idea too dangerous to contain? Simon and Thomas Guerrier and I have made this Sunday Feature for Radio 3 about the chain reaction of ideas that followed HG Wells’ conception of a small device of infinite power. How a science fiction writer and his friendship with a powerful politician Winston Churchill and the impact of The World Set Free on a brilliant scientist Leo Szilard led to the creation of the A-bomb 30 years later. These are photos taken on location during the making of the programme.

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In London’s Russell Square, with nuclear physicist Dr Elizabeth Cunningham, we retraced the steps of Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard who conceived the neutron chain reaction. Amid the bustle and noise of the capital in 1933, he suddenly realised how to exploit the potential of nuclear energy and – because he’d read Wells – the devastating impact it would have. Graham Farmelo, author of Churchill’s Bomb, and Michael Sherborne, author of HG Wells: Another Kind of Life reveal the scientific discoveries of the Edwardian age and how Churchill and Wells imagined their military potential. In his book and subsequent 1936 film Things To Come, Wells had imagined a civilisation-destroying world war carried out by aerial bombardment with a benign new world order eventually resulting. A view that seems deeply unsettling now. But when he died in 1946 he’d been working with Alexander Korda on a planned sequel dealing with the new world of the atomic bomb.

Professor Lisa Jardine reflects on her father Professor Jacob Bronowski’s friendship with Szilard and the terrible moral dilemma of scientists who worked on the bomb programme and witnessed the aftermath at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The experience featured in Knowledge or Certainty – the most famous episode of Bronowski’s landmark television series The Ascent of Man (1973).

And at the Science Museum in London, Churchill’s Scientists reflects on the British made bomb and  the optimism and pessimism cast by Wells’ fiction.

HG And The H Bomb is the Sunday Feature on BBC Radio 3 July 5th 645pm and on iPlayer after

And here’s one we made earlier: The Fundamentalist Queen

Further reading

How the Bomb changed everything (BBC Culture feature)

Was HG Wells the first to think of the atom bomb? (BBC News Magazine feature)

Posted in Books, Film, History, Politics, Radio, Science, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Uncategorized, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Plankton of the midsummer air

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This week’s Something Understood takes its title Inebriate of the Air, from an Emily Dickinson poem about the insect heavy honeyed thickness of midsummer light and air. And insect and bird sounds (swifts) dominate this programme.

Entomologist Ross Piper helps us pin down the insects that make up the plankton of the air with the aid of a large net in his garden.


I was obsessed as a child with the diagrams of the earth’s rotational spin in the opening pages of my parents’ atlas, marking the solstices and equinoxes. John Agard’s poem about the tropical mixing with the regular colder clime fruits on the supermarket shelves and Purcell’s The Indian Queen – a English baroque reimagining of the heat of the Mayan world – are a bit of fun with the tilting of the axis  at the summer solstice.

There’s a Nordic/Midnight Sun flavour too, with readings from Tove Jansson and Moon music from Bjork.  The best thing about Midsummer in my youth was staying up late and heading out to parties and college balls.  Plus I get to share my love of The Zombies’  cover of Summertime. Totally English. Totally inspired. All the music and some extras are on this Spotify list.

Listen to the progamme here:

Something Understood: Inebriate of the Air produced by Natalie Steed is on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday June 21st (6am, 1130pm) and iPlayer for a month after.

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Only Connect: An encounter with Charles Correa and the power of the empty centre


(Jun 17th 2015) I was saddened to hear the news of Charles Correa’s death. An international name who declared he was proudly an Indian architect first, I was fortunate to interview him for Radio 3’s Night Waves in May 2013. You can listen to the interview online here. This is the piece I wrote then about meeting him:

I interviewed Charles Correa, India’s Greatest living architect at RIBA yesterday, which is holding a retrospective of his remarkable career till September 4th. He’s just given them his archive of papers and his story is a fascinating one. He trained at the University of Michigan and MIT in the mid 50s as modernism was starting to bloom. And despite some landmark projects in Boston, Lisbon and Lima, he told journalists at the press preview that he regards himself as an Indian, not an international architect.


We discussed the challenge of slums, city corruption, what he called the “slave ships” of 24 hour call centres to service Western financial services, India’s ambivalent attitude to its own architectural heritage, with its disrepair one of its great shames, and the aspirations and impact of the returning non-resident Indians from the West, as well as of the poor. Part of his legacy is his work in the early 1970s in planning the expansion of Bombay (Navi Mumbai) and building affordable low rise housing that incorporated traditional patterns of communal courtyard living.

The range of cultural reference in his thinking and his work is huge: Hindu, Islamic and ancient Greek philosophy in the “empty centre” concept are at the heart of many of his great designs such as the magnificent Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics University in Pune (top), referencing black holes, and the Big Bang theory in patterns laid out in polished black granite and white marble. He smiled as he remembered shocking some Cambridge dons with his observation that the quadrangles of Oxbridge had been inspired by the Islamic courtyards of places like the Alhambra in southern Spain.

In our conversation he compared his architectural choices to the literary ones of a favourite writer — EM Forster — as a professional pursuing excellence, rather than the equivalent of an airport blockbuster career.


His Tube House from Ahmedabad in 1961 (above) is breathtaking for its simplicity — using pure design not mechanical engineering as so many supposedly “green” buildings do today — to build a natural cooling airflow through the house. Sadly the original has been pulled down and it is sobering to see how many great ideas developed so long ago did not get taken up more widely.

Modest, charming and well worth a listen. We packed in as much as we could of our conversation into Night Waves last night:

Listen again here

This post was originally written in May 2013

All photos courtesy of RIBA/BBC

Further reading

Seoul: India’s Dream City




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