Radio review: A week for book lovers to make Hay

Michael Rosen was among guest on Radio 4's Start the Week
Michael Rosen was among guest on Radio 4's Start the Week

Start the Week, Radio 4

You may not be able to get to the Hay Festival... but it can come to you, so make hay and all that.

For book lovers, a taste of the best of Hay came in Start the Week where, before a live audience from a tent at Hay – close your eyes and you’ll be there – Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Rosen and Natalie Haynes were on hand to talk Dickens in the 21st century.

Dickens is a master of comedy and there were laugh-out-loud moments, I promise you, in this chat.

Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Demon Copperfield takes David Copperfield and translates him to America – the Appalachian world to be precise – where he must fight poverty and the opioid crisis.

Kingsolver writes weighty, brilliant novels, but she’s a lively and funny communicator.

She wanted to put Appalachia, where she lives, into a book.

The place is “deeply misunderstood” and “the dog of America”, she said.

“I’ve spent my whole life dealing with the prejudices against hillbillies... all the jokes: ‘Oh you’re wearing shoes’.”

But it was a night in Bleak House – an inn at Broadstairs – that brought the ghost of Dickens out of the woodwork.

She sat at the actual desk where he’d written David Copperfield.

“I spent a lot of time feeling his outrage.

“He said: ‘Orphans, poverty, you think it can’t be done… let the kid tell the story’.

“So I said, ‘Thank you Charles’ and downloaded his book for free.”

Her boy – Demon – came to her at that desk and she started writing it all down.

Micheal Rosen has re-imagined both Oliver Twist (An Unexpected Twist) and A Christmas Carol (Bah Humbug).

But he also talked about the grief and trauma of his recent days – his son died unexpectedly and he himself was dangerously ill with Covid.

There is a moment when he describes how the ambulance crew came and how the rasping sound of the zip closing over his son in the body bag will stay with him forever.

He talked about how big his son was and how they had to carry him down the stairs.

This was a conversation that soared and swooped – from laughter to deep sorrow – those small observed moments in life that hover like ghosts at your shoulder.