Kate Fenton


The Colours of Snow
Dancing to the Pipers
Lions & Liquorice/
(US) Vanity and Vexation

Balancing on Air
Too Many Godmothers
Picking Up
The Time of Her Life

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BALANCING ON AIRBalancing on Air is Kate Fenton on sparkling form… A funny and highly engaging novel
Woman's Journal
Thoroughly entertaining
Does for local radio what Drop the Dead Donkey does for television news
Phil Rickman, BBC Wales
A terrific read. I loved it.
Lynda Lee Potter

'Like juggling ferrets while singing a calypso and riding a unicycle…' That's how Rose Shawe describes her job. If you've ever presented a live radio show, you'll know what she means.

Mind you, Rose loves her daily three hours. When things are running smoothly, she truly believes it's a pleasure and a privilege to be steering the good ship Radio Ridings across the airwaves. When, however, she's been battered by one of the BBC's wackier management courses, when her delinquent old Dad wrecks a phone-in - and when, to top it all, she learns the station's getting a new Deputy Editor, name of Tom Wilkes…

The guy's coming from telly (dodgy), London (worse) and is a journalist to boot. Non-news types like Rose love to hate the hack-pack. But that's the least of her worries because, for all she's is a highly respectable pillar of Yorkshire life these days, Rose has a past - one hell of a past. And she's afraid this Tom Wilkes will blow her intricate web of secrets sky high. Still, you know the old broadcasting adage: when calamity strikes on air, smile. A smile will inflect the microphone voice with a miraculous glow of confidence. Or so they say. Poor Rose is in danger of rupturing her cheek muscles.

It doesn't help that bloody civil war is sprouting in the station as her old friend George (motto Reith or Glory), mounts a gallantly hopeless last stand in defence of Steam Wireless against the likes of Stephen Sharpe. He's the statistic-crunching, Armani-plated Dalek who's been brought in to run the joint - or ruin it, depending on your point of view. He is also, as it happens, Rose's lover.

She is going to have to learn - painfully - the truth of that other hoary old radio adage. To be a good broadcaster you must, first and foremost, be yourself.




I like to think that nothing's actually wasted. Though it's hard to believe this when I chuck another telephone directory-sized typescript into the Dead Novel Chest, which was what had happened to my first attempt at a book set in the world of radio, (see notes to Lions & Liquorice).

It should have been terrific. After all, you're supposed to write about what you know, and BBC radio is the only proper day job I've ever had. I may not actually have laboured at the sharp end of local broadcasting, where a whole day's programming is somehow spun from a budget that would barely buy the tea and buns on Radio 4, but I'd long ago realized that a local radio station in a provincial town is a brilliant setting for a novel. These stations - the good ones, anyhow - really are at the heart of a community. All life passes through their studios, politicians great and small, straight and crooked; the community movers, shakers and agitators; the neighbourhood nutters as well as visiting soap stars and celebrity footballers. Best of all, a presenter on such a station needs no excuse to poke his or her nose into anything that's going on locally. Asking questions is the essence of the job.

So why hadn't my first attempt worked? There was a vast array of rich material I wanted to pack in. Every local radio employee I'd talked to had endless tales of disasters on and off air which were hilarious, even if most were far too improbable to be included in a novel. It's a well-known cliché that truth is stranger than fiction. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that fiction has to be more plausible than real life - which, as we all know, frequently boggles belief. The radio documentaries I used to make - real lives, real people - told stories which were far more incredible than anything I'd dare invent in a book.

I got a bit carried away with the supporting cast of bit-part players, too. The DJ, for example, whose dark brown velvet voice is six feet tall and sexy as Sean Connery in a wet tuxedo, attracting bucket-loads of fan mail a week. Shame then, that the guy concealed behind the microphone is a four-foot ferret with pebble specs who lives with his mum and wears polyester golfing sweaters. Thus the well-known expression 'a great face for radio…' Every station has one.

Unfortunately, the plot underpinning this rich cavalcade wasn't up to much. It involved large quantities of smuggled cannabis, rare koi carp, a psychopathic teenage toff, an affair between a middle-aged mum and a juvenile delinquent… and I think I'd best draw a merciful veil over the rest. The randy ferret-faced DJ was a bit of a treat, though. Shame he didn't make it to the final cut.

Because when I start again on an idea like this, I really do start again, with a blank page. It's not a matter of returning to the shaggy old manuscript, weeding out the duff bits, and stringing the better sections together along a new, improved plotline. I can rarely re-cycle even small chunks of the original text. Unfortunately. Time and again, I've tried to graft into a new book an existing stretch of dialogue that I flattered myself was rather witty, or a particularly purple little descriptive passage. Call it transplant surgery - and the transplant virtually never takes. I don't want to sound pretentious, still less creepily mystical, but it's my experience that novels have to grow. They have to develop an organic life of their own, have to sprout characters and situations you, the author, have never dreamed of.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know it sounds loopy. I only mention it because lots of authors say similar things. When I was a producer on Radio 4's Bookshelf I heard more than one novelist claim that their fictional creations would argue with them, declaring - for all the world like some prima donna actor in a soap opera - that their character simply wouldn't do this or that. Tolkein, apparently, claimed the character of Strider just appeared, unplanned, in The Lord of the Rings. The author had no idea who this dark, mysterious stranger sitting in the inn with the hobbits might be, but recognized at once he was destined to play a significant role in the saga. I'd have found this hard to credit, if I hadn't had similar experiences. Very strange and rather unsettling really, because you can't plan for the unplanned. You can only hope.

So anyway, when I decided to have another go at setting a book in radio - after romping merrily through Lions & Liquorice in the meantime - I was starting from scratch, as far as actual words on the page were concerned. However, even if the old text was junked, that didn't mean I couldn't carry some of the ideas forward, as well as the more successful characters. It's a bit like gardening, really. You nurture these puny and unconvincing little seedlings in the first book, and by the time you transplant them to the richer soil of your new improved plot, they're ready to romp away.

Having said that, I wasn't wildly enamoured of my existing heroine, Rose/Rita, but in the absence of better ideas, was prepared to give her a second chance, along with her bolshie teenage daughter, Polly. One of the few aspects that had seemed to work before was the combative relationship between the two of them. The radio station itself, well, that was all there, too. But it was like a dusty toy theatre and a box of collapsed puppets. Nothing was animating them. I drew up sheaves of potential plotlines and ideas, tried to write - and got nowhere. Unusually, however, I know exactly where and when the breakthrough point came on this book.

It was at the dinner table, several glasses down a bottle of burgundy. OK, I can't guarantee the wine was actually Burgundy, but allow me a spot of poetic licence. Mr Carmichael and I were certainly several sheets to the wind because, in spite of copious experience to the contrary, I'm still inclined to believe, in extremis, that inspiration might lurk at the bottom of a bottle. Or three. Ian was doing his best to play supportive spouse, which generally makes me want to throttle him. Not his fault, of course it isn't, but when you're in the depths of writerly despair, it is neither helpful nor comforting to be breezily assured that you've been through all this before and will come through again just fine.

I don't as a rule inflict my plot problems on my husband, incidentally. Short temper, long silences, yes, but I don't treat him to a reading of today's output over the gin & tons, and nor do I generally explain what's troubling me at the word-face. This isn't out of selflessness or consideration for his nerves, I'm just not the problem-sharing type. I realized long ago, in my BBC days, that creative coves divide into two camps. There are those who like to try out every idea, whim and dilemma on their nearest, dearest or whoever's passing the office door - to parade their fledgling creations in front of an audience, as it were, ear attuned for cheers or boos - and those, like me, who huddle alone in a dark corner and fret. Darkly.

So when Ian, with exemplary patience, asked if I could explain exactly what the trouble was with this book, I gave my usual response. Which was largely unrepeatable and in the negative. Well then, he persisted sweetly, couldn't I at least tell him what this story was supposed to be about? I probably scowled and heaved the kind of long-suffering sigh stroppy teenagers deploy when asked to tidy their bedroom. But I did tell him.

It was all about this radio station, I growled - or something to that effect - with a presenter, or maybe producer, called Rose Shawe. Well, called Rose now, but she used to be called Rita because, oh, she was once a sort of cabaret singer. Which was, incidentally, proving to be a complete and total nightmare, because the plot was getting hopelessly bogged down with my trying unobtrusively to slot in enough detail of her complicated past to explain her present behaviour. However…

"Singer?" chipped-in the lad, doubtless because cabaret is more up his street than the politics of local radio.

Thus, I had to explain what sort of singer she was, what sort of cabaret - Blackpool, I said instantly, (drawing at random on my own, ahem, early showbiz career, detailed on the biog page), but it had to be Blackpool, I knew that. And in that instant, I had a startlingly clear vision of Rose at twenty-four - or rather Rita, as she'd then been. All hennaed hair, clenched cleavage, tottery stilettos. I don't know if I actually fell silent, mouth agape, but it felt like that. Because the key to the book was coming to me. Rose's past - her previous incarnation as Rita - was not boring backplot detail to be stitched as invisibly as possible into the present day story, it was the core, the mainspring, the raison d'etre of the whole book. Her past was what motivated her, drove her on, made her tick. Her immaculately renovated house, her skills as a radio presenter; her obsession with middle-class respectability - her very daughter - all of these sprang from that sleazy cabaret artiste in the spangled G-string, Rita Shawe - no, not Shawe, Bagshawe. The very lovely, the ritzy - hell, I could hear a sweaty club compere announcing her act, crummy mike a-pop - the rip-roaring, RITA BAGSHAWE!!!

I was away. Never looked back. And while I can't claim the book flowed out in one seamless whole, it had nevertheless found its life and soul. The essence of Rose is that she's hiding the Rita within. And this touched a chord with me, because don't most of us reinvent ourselves along the way, to some extent, anyway? Give a little polish to our life histories - a tweak here, a smudge of discreet amnesia there? I freely admit there are times and places when I'm more likely to recall playing chamber music in an Oxford Quad than belting out Hey Big Spender on Blackpool's Golden Mile.

Everything else fell into place from that point on. What had been the psychopathic teenage toff in the old book - a character so deeply implausible I could scarcely induce him to utter a word - transmogrified into the adorably gawky, eighteen-year-old Thomas Wilkes. The ferrety-faced disc jockey, sadly, stayed on the cutting room floor. But in his place came My Friend George, who remains one of my favourite characters. She's a creative artist of the airwaves in the grand old BBC tradition and, at the time I wrote the book, her real-life contemporaries were being slashed out of network radio by the scythe of that grimmest of reapers, John Birt. You don't find many like her in local radio - don't find them in BH London these days, come to that - but I'm glad to have encountered her like. I was less enchanted by the grey-suited, number-crunching, jargon-gargling clones of Stephen Sharpe. Much as I'd like to claim he was a monstrous figment of my imagination, I reckon he's an almost kindly caricature of the genuine article.

There was one character I was to regret having invented, however: Rose's wicked old Dad, Mac Bagshawe. This was because I was invited to record the book, in its entirety - correction, in its entirety minus rude words - for a talking book company. Chuffed to bits, I couldn't wait to get behind the microphone… until I remembered Mac. He's a Scot - a Glaswegian Scot at that - and I can only do two accents. Me posh, and me northern. With, OK, a few shades in between. This covered most contingencies in the novel, but not Mac's tar-soaked, Gorbals growl. I did my best. Closeted myself with a tape-recorder and a kindly Hibernian neighbour by way of voice coach, watched Billy Connolly, gargled with whisky, the works. But I fear the result is about as authentic as a Tandoori haggis.