Poceza m’Madzulo by Julius Chongo and Ernst Wendland

Or to give the full title: Poceza m’Madzulo: Some Chinyanja Radio Plays of Julius Chongo with English Translations by Ernst R. Wendland. Poceza m’Madzulo means ‘evening story time’, apparently, and was the name of a show broadcast in Zambia from 1967-77. They aren’t really what I would call plays: they are solo storytelling performances. Apparently he did write scripts for them but the broadcast version always differed somewhat from the prepared text; this book is based on transcriptions of the actual broadcast.

Some are the kind of thing I would think of (rightly or wrongly) as traditional African stories: Hare has been stealing chickens but he tricks Hyena into taking the blame for it. Others are more contemporary in their subject matter: stories about young men who leave the village to go and find work in the big town so they can afford to buy bicycles and record players. The division between the traditional and modern isn’t clear-cut; there’s a story about two men returning from working at the mines who are tricked out of all the wealth they are bringing back with them by a witch who turns them into wild pigs. You can imagine basically the same story being told a hundred years earlier with a different social context.

The stories are enjoyable, and these kind of things always work better if they are reproduced with all the quirks of verbal performance; tidying them up and turning them into a plain prose narrative tends to suck some of the life out of them. So that’s all good. My major problem with the book is actually with the presentation, not the content. Each story is given first in Chinyanja and then English, but to make it easier to cross reference the translation with the original, every sentence is numbered.

(251) But Hare merely said “Listen folks! (252) I told you that I’d bring a dance on Saturday. (253) Now what have you done about it, isn’t this the very dance I was talking about?! (254) What kind of dance do you want?! (255) ((That was Hare, stoking up the fire, ahi-hi, hgha!))

As you can imagine, this is incredibly irritating. You might think you would get used to it, but I didn’t — it just made reading the book a lot more like hard work. Why they couldn’t just number each paragraph, preferably in the margin… but there you go.

Still, that’s a pretty inevitable part of the Read The World challenge; I’ve been reading a lot of books published by niche publishers and university presses, and they tend to focus their limited resources on the content, rather than design. If only their were more people in the world like Robert Bringhurst, who published both a very good book about typography and his own (beautifully typeset) translations of the oral poetry of the Haida people of British Columbia.

» The photo — Zambian Women Hold Bags of Tilapia Fingerlings — has no connection to the book at all apart from the fact it was taken in Zambia. But I thought it was a nice image and a brilliant title. There are actually some great photos of Africa from the 60s and 70s on flickr, like this one, but they are all of white people.


The Ross/Brand incident and its aftermath

Yeah, I know, not exactly topical. But David Mitchell wrote a good article about it in the Guardian today and it seemed like a suitable moment to add my halfpennyworth.

It seems to me that the phone calls to Andrew Sachs were a special case. It bothered a lot of people who are not easily offended. I know that the outrage was orchestrated by the Daily Mail, but even so, I don’t think they would have been able to generate so many complaints if it hadn’t touched a nerve with a lot of people.

Leaving a message on someone’s answering machine making a joke about having slept with their granddaughter is just a dick thing to do. It would be a mean-spirited and distasteful thing to do even if you didn’t broadcast the message on national radio. It is in a sense as much bad manners as it is bad taste. And it was aimed directly at an individual who had done nothing to provoke or deserve it. If someone did it who wasn’t on the radio, just because they thought it was funny, it would be understood as harassment.

As you can tell, I think Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand crossed a line. I didn’t complain myself, but I can understand why people did, and an apology and some kind of disciplinary action was appropriate.

But that doesn’t mean that I support some kind of generalised campaign against bad taste at the BBC. An example: in the weeks after this happened, in the general climate of BBC self-flagellation, Frank Skinner made a little current affairs programme investigating the issue of bad language on television and particularly in comedy. To me, that’s a completely separate issue. I don’t care about bad language; sure, keep it off Blue Peter, but in an appropriate slot in the schedules I just don’t care. There is literally no amount of swearing you could fit into half an hour of television that I would find offensive. I might find it boring and unnecessary, but I am not going to be offended by it.

Or take the incontinent old women in Little Britain:

Now people might or might not find that kind of thing funny. They might well find it distasteful, in which case they can choose not watch it. They might even feel that there’s a serious social issue about the portrayal of the elderly, or the issue of incontinence, and that the show is actively harmful for that reason. But even if you find it offensive, it’s something which is performed by actors, which you have chosen to watch and which you can turn off. It is not the same as the BBC ringing your house and personally offending you, which is what they did to Andrew Sachs and the reason why so many people were angry.

It would be a tragedy for British popular culture if the BBC only ever made programmes which were completely inoffensive. The message I would want the BBC to take away from Sachsgate is not ‘don’t produce any material that might possibly offend people’. It’s ‘don’t call up individual members of the public and go out of your way to offend them personally’. Its the difference between a stand-up who makes fun of religion in a comedy club, and one who marches into a church on a Sunday morning and delivers the same material to the congregation halfway through the service.

Daily Links


  • 'the stream addresses of BBC National Radio stations, so that you can listen to the BBC on the move using an iPhone or iPod Touch.' Not sure this works for people outside the UK, but I'm really excited to find it. Now I can listen to the cricket on my phone… genius!
    ( tags: iPhone radio BBC )

My only comment on the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand fiasco

Next time there’s a media shitstorm which forces the BBC into having a panicky purge of staff, can they please find a reason to retire John Humphrys? Pretty please?


Podcasts I listen to, part 1

Hardly a day goes past without nobody asking me what podcasts I listen to. So, in defiance of public demand, here goes. This is the first of two posts, in alphabetical order.

Adam & Joe

Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish have a radio show on BBC Radio 6; Radio 6 is a music channel, but because of licensing restrictions, this is their show with all the music taken out so that you’re just left with their chatter. Which is, clearly, a great idea, and I only hope that the BBC never manages to negotiate a version of the podcast with music on it.

Silly and reliably entertaining.

Answer Me This!

Even sillier, and also entertaining. People submit questions, Helen and Olly answer them.

Apple Keynotes

Videos of Steve Jobs doing his bit as the Freddie Mercury of the computer industry. Boom! Probably only one for Apple fanboys like myself.

Armstrong & Miller – Timeghost

Comedians Alex Armstrong and Ben Miller provide culturally-themed chitchat in the personae of art critics Craig Children and Martin Baine-Jones. I’m not really convinced that they’ve worked out how to get enough value from doing it in character, but after a weak start it’s now an entertaining show.

Arts and Ideas R3

A selection of highlights from BBC Radio 3’s arts coverage. Variable but worth a listen.

The Bugle

This is probably the single podcast I would recommend most strongly: John Oliver (that English bloke from The Daily Show) and Andy Zaltzman (English comedian) provide satirical comment on the week’s news. Very very funny.

CERN podcast

An occasional podcast from the nice atom-smashers in Switzerland. It has mostly been (interesting) cheerleading so far; now that the LHC has been turned on and then gone phut, it’ll be interesting to see if they do a podcast about the problems

The Collings and Herrin podcasts

Comedians Andrew Collins and Richard Herring. Funnny enough that I keep listening to it, but every time I find myself thinking that it could usefully be just a bit shorter.

Friday Night Comedy

Depending on the time of year, either The News Quiz or the Now Show, two current-affairs comedy shows on BBC Radio 4. The News Quiz has unsurprisingly lost some of its lustre over the past couple of years since the sad loss of Linda Smith and then Alan Coren — difficult people to replace — but it’s still worth listening to.

Front Row Highlights

Front Row is a daily arts programme on Radio 4; this is a weekly highlights package. 

Global Arts and Entertainment (World Service)

Selected arts coverage from the BBC World Service. Variable but worth subscribing.