« Desert Island Discs

Classic Desert Island Discs - Andrea Levy

2022-10-09 | 🔗
Kirsty Young’s castaway is the writer Andrea Levy, in a programme first broadcast in 2011. Andrea died in 2019, aged 62.
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Bbc sounds music radio, podcasts, Lauren Laverne here we're taking our summer break so until we're back on air were showcasing a few programs from our wonderful archive. As usual, the music's been shortened for rights reasons. This week's guest is the writer andrea levy who died in twenty nineteen at the age of sixty two kirsty young cast her away. In twenty eleven My customary this week is the writer andrea leave each. She is full of surprises award when And highly regarded, she didn't read a book till she was twenty three, and this surely count me another significant figure of the literary establishment whose worked on the deck emory christmas show
but perhaps most surprising of all for someone whose father came to britain on the wind rush and who so vividly depicts the experiences of caribbean immigrants. She says that growing up she didn't really think of herself was black. that when she began writing she wasn't writing about being black. She was writing about being human. You might well and be held up, and she this a sort of ideal, articulate spokesperson for the black experience. But it sounds to me like you, don't really think there is a black experience to write about well a black experiences and experience if many millions and millions of people, so no not one experience all. The reason I write is because I am exploring my heritage and it's relationship to britain, and you know sorts of things like that, and there's still a lot of that story. Untold we'll talk more about that uh. What about the I'm your christmas show. Ah, yes, I remember very well. It was recorded in July, makes no all of that makes no absent.
Thirdly, we will be doing on it. I was very lowly employed in the bbc in the costume department? It was a great job I loved being on set and just watching everybody doing their their stuff and having christmas in July was wonderful, and you could read at that point that the bbc ended with some think about when poor, because you your contract was not renewed and, as I understand it, as you left the building these sort of vote, I will be back. I did you know I so too, the I'll, be back I'll, be back, and I did yes and you did tell me about that. When a small island was coming out. The television series they invited me to common view is a carpet we up and dropped me at the door and I was back see you could hardly have imagined when your contract wasn't renewed, that it would be under such stances do now, but I sort of dry daydreamed it and funnily enough it came true. You daydream taught that
we'll be back as a grand rights of great novel, not as a grand writer of novel is, but certainly as somebody who was producing something creative that the BBC to do how interesting and under so now. When I mean when you hear me and using your. U real peace in some broadsheet newspaper talking about you asked the to that. We all know you asked the great novelist. Does it feel like you? Do you feel you can occupy it quite comfortably, or do you sometimes think cash really? This is me. This is the life I have. I actually occupy it very uncomfortably. Am I feel quite uncomfortable with it and I'm never quite sure of what my places within it and I'm on constantly surprised by it too. I feel very uncomfortable in very social nervous my mama's montrose always pride comes before a fool and I'm very supportive nervous of being to an activity
know for now: we're going to have some music that the first to track of yours. That we're going to hear today is what the first track is high hopes by frank Sinatra. Now this track, where I was brought out there, so a mantra was don't get ideas above your station. Yes, that was how I was sort of told to view life daily and once I'd heard this song, I thought you know what I think. How will the ideas above mistake? just what makes little lamb. Thank kill, move that regulatory plan, Anyone know, can move around the tree plan.
frank sinatra and high hopes, so andrea leaving. It is true. Beware, twenty three: when you read your first novel, yes, why did it take? in so long. All my shame yes. Well, I was supposed to read novels at school. I did a level english can you believe and we were meant to wreathes nineteenth century novels. So when I was reading dickens and george Elias and jane austen are social things, but I lived in a council flat, a tiny council flat, and there were six of us, in that, and this was the days before central heating, so we only ever really kept one room warm, and that was the front room. And we were all in the front room. Usually the television was on from the time we got home from school to to the time little dog disappeared after they and national anthem. So I would defy any body to sit in red middle ma,
as you know, the golden shot he's going on, I mean it's really very difficult any couldn't you know you have to go to another room and be quiet to read a sort of novel that, so I never manage to actually read them, but you say your english eleven haven't you get it then if you ve never met when you get all those little pass, no things ass. They were called and that was how I sort of got through its aren't. You know I wasn't a brilliant pupil at that english, I have to say, and horses I mean I talked aplenty writers who say well, you know I was secretly writing from the age of seven. Obviously that wasn't the case feed, so as a young child. What was it you were aiming ass. Well, I loved watching the tele and I was aiming at all. My main ambition was to become do Andrews right. I wanted to sing and dance want to live in a world where all of a sudden everybody got up sang and dance and knew how it was. You know that was the sort of thing I will I aspire to. So it was more sources that that kind of
entertainment, we're gonna have some somewhere music suit. Tell me about what's coming at nights and I'm in the mood for love by scotty scotch tunes are when a group of friends I have great family and great friends, and I doubt that I ever let them know how much they me, To me, basically, as I've got older, I realise that to love and beloved is what life is about, and so I wanted to display this song. For my friends we used to have these wonderful part is where we had carry oki evenings with life banned and the kids were growing up then, and it got to the point where the kids is actually singing, so max is singing this song and justice for my friends.
The That was the scope citizens and I'm in the mood for love, and it was maxine there who is, he say, is now one of the grown up children of one of your friends, so plenty memories, their family policies and your father came to britain and really be in. It was nineteen forty, eight he was on the empire winds your mother stood at home for the first few months. Why did they decide to move? Well? My mom had always wanted come to brittany. She really wanted to go to university. There wasn't a universe. At that time in Jamaica and she you know she wanted to better herself in that in that sort of way
My dad just wanted to a quiet life and a good job. So that was what we wanted. What did they find They were quite shocked. I think when they were not, I don't think I know they were very shocked when they first came to Britain just find themselves sources not considered part of the I am certainly not considered desirable part of the empire. You know people asking them where they come from. Nobody knew about jamaica and also they felt like second class citizens completely. They were treated Thirdly, some of the language that used in small island, as you know, is very sitting in its is vicious to contemporary ears. Were they routinely sort of abuse in the streets and in the air in a well? I don't I don't know about routinely, I'm sure that that you know they have many days where everything was fine, Emily they loved this country to end, and they got on with a lot of people here is where I was
You know every single day was like that: you're color is a very complex issue and even degrees of blackness is it is a complex issue. Can, Can you explain why you I said in the beginning that you didn't really think of yourself was black when you're growing up? Can you explain more about that right? Well, family are very light skin. So why not obviously dogskin black and in jamaica the class structure kind of works on the color of your skin north. On the amount of money you have so much
europe was sought a brought up to think of themselves as that in a high class, because they had a lighter complexion and they believe that once they got to Britain that those suitor gradations would be recognised by the white british and was surprised to see that no, they would just black here. They try to sort of distance themselves, I suppose from other black people in the hope that nobody would notice that they sneaked into the country. They didn't want us to talk about jamaica, they didn't know no, no, because they hope that nobody would question us about that and that they would just think that we will. You know it. We we were, we were a little dog, but not too, we just sort of got a tan is a very complex. It is a very complex, very complex, and it's very hard to explain so too quickly, without it sounding crazy. No, it doesn't say increasing it. Doesn't sound
The thing had described very well in this idea that they could slip in unnoticed. Maybe they were just people with a bit of a town, but of course everybody else was seeing them as the black people who ve arrived from somewhere. We don't know where and how did you feel in school? Well, in school. I knew I was the black girl who tour arrived and I was made to feel very different weary from and when are you going back was astern a lot when you welcomed into people's homes as a little girl, you don't play. Did you? Yes, oh yeah, right yeah. As I say, it's not, you know, prejudices and says thing that happens every single day. You know yes, but it's interesting that you have spoken about the fact that any risk slurs or insults were quick to surface. When things became difficult, you know you could be playing a game and that lay learning and then yeah as they do between kids. Things suddenly turns sour, that's it. You have to be very clear and we were very careful- and I didn't realize until I got older- that I had been very careful as a child. You know I thought everybody had to be this careful, and this was in highbury.
This was in high, whether any other black families living there not not round our way there weren't right. Let's have some more music for now then andrea, tell me what we're going to hear it on disc sweetener desk three. Ah, this is George fame and the blue flames singing. Why issues in this yeah and well? This there's something about this song. It takes me right back to my childhood and to a particular christmas and it's christmas day a in his tiny flat, I'm gonna call fire burning and my dad's lying on the sofa snoozing. My brothers and sisters are just sort of sitting around being annoying I'm playing with, penny bright, dull and my mom's in the kitchen and yellow eyes Nobody wants to see. It again I talked
as bab groovy Alas, we suggest a venus James. You know that there was georgie fame and the blue flames, and yet you were the youngest then of the four kids and your mother. Had you mother, been a teacher in to make it she'd worked in the education system. Had yes, yes and she want. When she came up britain did. You want to work again as a teacher, yes and, and she thought she would bear tat she she had to retrain. So what watch too kind did she take in sewing or she worked in a factory as a seamstress. What would happen sheets she took in sewing? There was nothing else that she could actually do. She'd got four children and, and there she had to make ends meet as well. You know my dad was just working for the post office. I remember very well how just sit
in so doing in the bedroom, and somebody would come with great bundles of things for her too, so and so as a trained educated. young woman and a busy mother for her. Did she feel about all of that? I think she felt incredibly frustrated and she was scared that she wasn't going to make this work, that that move that she'd made it had taken her out of the middle class in jamaica and put her. You know really into a very lowly position in this country and she was scared that she was never going to get out of that. Did she taught tuba that latterly she has spoken to me about it? Yes am and- and I could tell I was brought up with my mom, you know when I was at home with her, and I could tell her frustration I sort of took it in my policy. Did you want to go back? I don't think this. That was
A repulsive billowy, I know that there were times when she missed her mother with you know a passion, but there was never enough money to do anything like that. You know there was barely enough money to put food the table didn't do you think she regretted having such a big family? I mean for kids that that's unless a lot of responsibility is a lot of work is I think that that is definitely a possibility, and I certainly thought that ten, my being at home with her as a young child was, was very frustrating for her. At that point, she was about to go to college and become a teacher, and then she got pregnant with me and that kept her home again for another five years. Right did? Did you expect you to do well in school? Then? Yes, she did. I mean education was everything to my mom. You know you had to be well educated, and so she finished
She made us to ballet lesson. She made us, go a piano lessons you know end and to work hard at school and done and get involved in the school work. She she had a great sort of respect for the school teachers, but guarantees to be one earlier. When we were talking. You said you weren't a very good people, then so were you aware of disappointing here? did. I say I wasn't very good me. Did you eyes when I was asked me how come you ve got the age of twenty three and you haven't got a book. You said: will oversee ozma vague it? Ok, if I was a very good indeed, yes, and while I dont think I did disappoint my mom, I am, I think I did. Meanwhile, I know when I went to college. My mother was very disappointed that I went to college and that I didn't go to university in our colleague. She didn't really rate at all. She just thought I was just going to go and do some drawing for four years, so she thought I should have been good enough to go to.
University. Let's have some more music. Tell me what were getting your next am we're going to hear the he hid, which is dialogue and father of mankind, and why be chosen? and well, and I was in a lot of choirs when I was young, I loved singing. I miss it. Is it that camino singing there. So I was in a choir at church. I was brought up a christian where I'm not anymore, but I was in a quiet, so I went three times in on a sunday and if ever this him was to be sung, then it cheered me up. It was going to be a good day. And the the The
the the was impulse cathedral choir singing dear lord and father of mankind, written by John grimly whittier set to written by sir Hubert parry andrea movie? Your mother, then, was a little disappointed that you didn't go to university. She can't surely have been disappointed with the success that is, later in your life. What does she made of your writing? Oh well, when I first started writing my mom would have led me to shut up. To be honest, she was absolutely horrified his. I think there are a couple of reason
it's for that, and one of them was that she was worried. Somehow I would make a fool of myself and and and my mom always used to say to me: if you can't pause a sentence, you can't speak and I didn't to argue with her, but my mom just thought I am just going to show her up with my lack of knowledge of english as well, so well and also I was writing about our family and I was writing semi autobiographical staffs thinly disguised sometimes, and I was telling everyone out business. You know so. She really wanted me to to stall. Telling everyone her business? That's really interesting, because in small islands, of course you are also telling the story if of european life and certainly the lives of that generation over caribbean immigrants It was interesting. You said that when europeans came here, they knew everything about britain, but people in britain knew nothing about them, nothing about where they came from.
In a way with small island. It seems as though you were defying people to ignore the importance of that relationship of where these people should. stand in in british society. Absolutely I mean that's why I write books is because I'm I'm social belligerent on that topic at that time knew he should understand what happened in the caribbean. It's a very important part of british history in yes, I'm very ah That's why, right yet at the beginning of the first piece of proves that you were moved to right was a moment about this. The death of your budget is a very important subject, as well as the bed nets that That was just me sort of when I thought I'm going to do an evening class- and I think I might try writing but just in case I'll, try out I'll, write, something down and see, and the first thing that came the death of my budget, which is a very important event. and then- and I wrote it and I read it out my house.
And I was so scared as this one paragraph. I just thought I really I'm gonna make a fool of myself by by writing. So you Haven't you courage in both hands and read it out loud to your husband and his response was hot. His response was that's very good. Yes, do the class right. Did you actually learn anything in a nightclub about writing. Did you learn more about sent in structure and all of those things island? Everything I learnt such a lot about writing now in that sort of a teacher in blackboard sort of way, but by listening to other people's writing and by listening to what the teacher Alison found is a wonderful teacher said about that. Writing so I learned about storytelling and I realized as well that I could bless my mother, but I could just to not worry about the grammar and actually go for the feeling go for the story go for for how you are and how you you,
somebody's interest and also you ve been a as well as the recipient of many prizes. You ve been on many judging panels for these big literary prizes. You said- and I think this is a very straightforward of you- that you ve learned a lot about writing. While you ve been reading other people's books did. Do you think it's the case that you readers can almost trace your developments as a writer. use? Machu? Absolutely. If you start from the beginning of my books, you can see absolutely the I'm learning my craft as I go along this absolutely there, and it was when I judge the orange prize for fiction in ninety ninety seven that completely changed the way I felt about writing. I sort of red all these seventy books in three months back to back and from them. I just sort of learned that you could be more ambitious and you know it really taught me tat to trust my instinct in that way.
In two to really push myself. I have some more music. What's next ok! Well then, there was a tv series made of small island. The music for this was by martin phipps, and this bit that we're going to here is the theme tune from small. in ireland and aunt. When I first heard this, which was in a a studio in nam hampstead, I went to see this sort of fifty piece orchestra playing this music and it was such a great moment in that I was sitting listening to a piece of music that in some way I had inspired- and I think it's the most fabulous piece of music that that he made in fact it one abaft bafta, so wonderful,
that was,
the sea music written for the television dramatization of small island by martin sips so and relieve you. you were you thirty eight when you first novel was published, elisa yes and I've many the issues had seen the manuscript o every single, what it was about, one left by the end of it quite a lot. Quite a lot of seeing the manuscript ts it took about and I'd sent it out for about a year and I got an agent and he sent it out for about a year, so we must have got through quite a lot. it publishes so every light in the house burning was your first novel and then ten years later was wearing. Who won the wit breads prized it was that the point that which you felt it had been too novels and between that by all the handwriting, when did you Will you could look yourself in the eye in the mirror and say yes, definitely a writer any day now here
I just always feel I'm learning. I I do fear complacency. I do fear that you sort of thing I and the best thing since I spread. You know. I think it's bad for the crew. Experience. I really do. Did you ever worry after the first novel that that was it that you'd spent your creative force that the left that nickel feeling that you seem to have had for a couple of decades? The you you just wanted. you had a next. I didn't have to scratch it. I think you feel that, after every book, if after every book I written, I think that was it, that's it I'm washed up now is the time going out and then it so too slow. You start and come back in again and you think. Well, maybe I could write another book as he used a curious phrase once he sent them that when you write your first draft of of a novel, you say it's like the meandering of an idiot's mind. Yes tell me more Well, I usually right in my local library- and I just I right just absolutely the first thing
comes into my mind, and this is longhand and lonely happened. Yes, you know they really are neither the meandering so that the very first ideas that I sort of them come to end and their bad. The first things I write down: good? So if the writing in itself can be difficult, then the subject matter, I'm thinking- the long song nominated for the men booker prize last year tackled the incredibly I mean a very big subject and also of a difficult subjects of fur slavery. Do you went back to the caribbean, I'm imagining too that research I did. I went to the caribbean to sort of research, a plantation, this geography of planting rights couldn't really do that from crouching. You said in one interview: it was terribly unpleasant research, nineteenth century ideas of racial superiority are to a modern. Your abhorrence, my heart would sink. Sometimes, yes, absolutely it was difficult enough. There wasn't any things for me to read about what a life of his slave would have been like, and
The only way I could do it was by reading sort of the the slim volumes that a lot of the white people are missionaries or plant is plant. His wives wrote about when they went to the caribbean. I mean I, I read some things and be really quite shocked. Really and the history of the caribbean and the history after maker is a very violent and unpleasant. Tree and the history of slavery is in a very difficult thing to go into it. Don't really talk about it that much in british history in this country, you are, really driven to change that. Clearly, you see your book says as if they are doing anything, seems to me is that that is recorded and people understand
yeah I mean it. I dont want to sound to worthy the I'm going out trying to be didactic about something I'm not about sort of basing people over the head with this history. That would be horrible. I want to entertain you as well. I want you to understand this story and to understand the sort of people that had two to go through, that sort of situation will have more music disk number six then and relieve you tell us what it is. Well we're talking about a jamaica, and then this is the redemption song by bob marley, and somehow this song really speaks the history of jamaica. What was strong,
by the end of the weave is generally shown triumphantly. Won't you just say some red That is both marine, the winners and redemption song and really You described how your mother heads will not just be mixed feelings. But actually quite negative feelings when you started to rights, given the enormous success you ve had ass, a writer. What's her view that oh she was then she was so excited when small island began to take off and when it began to sort of win prizes. Now that was a real, not from France, I dunno from somewhere. That
we respect it? And then I actually, when I won the commonwealth writers' prize, one at part of the prize is that you get to meet the queen. I I phone my mom and I said that I was going to meet the queen and my mum just cried. She just thought: how can a child of hers get to go and meet the queen? She was terribly proud of it, and now she sort of was saying to me, why don't you write about jamaican women getting older? You know so she's she's with, tell me anything. I can't shut her up he went on, did she she did retrain and she did become a teacher. Oh, she did yes, she became a teacher, yes, but she had another ambition and the big ambition was to have a degree. She couldn't go to university because she had to work, but then she did an open university
and got got her degree, and what about your husband then hers? He, he works in graphic design, and you worked with him for many years and he was the one who heard the story about the budget that you wrote at night class and how has he coped with all of the enormous attention that your career and your success has brought all these cope? Very well is funny, because then I was something to do with him being a male mail me being a female people almost feel sorry for him that he has wife, who has been successful, and that is what are you all right? I will write, because somehow he's being a masculine, didn't he doesn't feel that at all he's been absolutely fantastic and if critique your manuscripts before you have them to the publisher or that's not his department. When I finished writing a section, I will read it out to him and I will trust that at so. If there is anything wrong with that manuscript, he will find a way of telling me now. I can't be directly because in a divorce would would come
to the equation, but he must find a way of doing it, and he usually does unease is very tactful about about it. and you are stepmom to his two kids that I mean that is a very different role from being among. Oh, yes, yes, how did you find it? well. I sort of modeled myself on maria in the sound of music and did not go. didn't go so well I mean most of the time you feel like cruella de vil. You know he says a very difficult role and when you are having to do the sort of parenting it it somehow feels cooler or are more difficult coming from a step parent. But it's also, been a great joy on. I am really pleased to have those too in my life. It's bits it's great and you haven't heard. Children has there been any point at which you saw ok. I made that this Maybe I should have made another decision, or has it been fine with you now? I think I made the decision not to have children about the age of five. I always knew. I would never have
children? I was that I don't know, I don't know I just we want to have children, and I knew I would never have children, and that was ways the case and it never wavered. I think it wavered for about ten seconds Once when I was at the birth of her friends child- and I so ah and then it par right and so having children in your life, though oh yes, I was pleased about that. Yes, having children in your life is very good and having grandchildren now is, is grey You just see life afresh, let's have some or music, and where are we now We want this number seven andrea I've been with my husband now for thirty years, but when we were courting this was our courting. So It's a baby just cares for me nina semite. Let me show you
man baby, ma embrace me kid that was needed. Simone and my baby just cares for me so and we leave you and we order experiences somehow helps us understand our own responses to ourselves. Do you find that your writing has a used in the introduction that phrase at using that you know you didn't really think of yourself as black, which is so interesting, given the decades that you ve spent writing about what it means to be black in the history of of coming from Jamaica has to understand yourself more. Do you feel more of a connection with that cultural heritage? That was never really spoken about at home? How absolutely- and it's been extremely important
grown two inches. You know I mean really. Has an enormous difference to me and it's an ongoing project. There is still work to be done. You ve grown two inches, that's what a great phrase to explain a little bit more of that meeting. Well who knows what we were talking earlier about those those kids who sought to say to you. Why are you here and what are you about and that count me for some very many years and I felt like I had no right to take up space in in this country. Indeed, in this world and Actually, learning about my history and about my heritage has made me stand tall, you ve written What about the resilience of the human spirit in new novels and really the unimaginable on a desert. Island you'll be absolutely fine. I think you're made of strong stuff. How do you think you'll be, I think, I'll be fine for the first day then
I will come and in the morning I think I will probably be insane just twenty four hours, just twenty four hours before insanity sets in. I am actually scared off anything that creeps and cruel, as I'm scared of things that I'm scared of things that go bump in the night. You know I'd. I have a lot of fears, although I I do have some grit. A desert island is not a good place. To put me, that's comfort s ourselves with your final piece of music and tell me about the eight track today. Ok, well, I'm gonna. Take you back to my adolescence. Here to discos, I used to have a dread of slow songs discos, because if nobody asks you to dance which is usually hand, you'd have, the social. Do this strange swinging your arms dance with a sort of head,
tilting as if I don't care that nobody's asked me to dance, and you just have to do this on your own. But when this song came on, I didn't care because I just went into a world of my own, and this is let's stay together by outgoing I'm. So what that was our green and let's stay together. So andrea leave you, let's have your book. Of course, I'm gonna give you the bible and complete once expire and you're going to take her out well,
I am presuming there is no book called get off a desert island in two days or your money back now, and even if there was, I probably wouldn't let you have oh okay. Well, failing that, then I'm going to take my thesis. Oh okay, I'll do some work, while I'm there probably rise tourists and a luxury tune actually most people when they see sort of a rolling. white sand and beautiful see lapping the shore and sun and palm trees dipping down they, I think of paradise, and I just think o. It is a law mosquito Oh, I need some mosquito repellent, I'm afraid. That's your luxury, its use and if you had to choose just one of these eight discs, if they were, he washed away by the waves, which one would you choose? Well, it's so act and so beautiful. The theme from small island are right. It's yours and you Thank you very much for letting us hear your desert island discs. Thank you. Lifelong ambition achieved.
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Transcript generated on 2023-02-18.