Hello I’m Kirsty Young. Thank you for downloading this transcript of Desert Island Discs from BBC Radio 4. For more information about this program please click on our link Desert Island Discs .
My castaway today is Ann Webber, known well to most of you who read this blog but completely and utterly unknown to the wider world. Before we went on air she quipped, “I’ll never have an English heritage blue plaque hung outside any of my front doors.” But this series highlights that all lives, even seemingly small ones are valuable.
Ann grew up in regional Victoria, the eldest of three. After university worked as a hospital scientist in pathology laboratories before taking off to Europe. She met John in 1986 in Greece. They were in 1987, and Ann moved to Sydney a city she loves and calls home. In 2010, Ann and her husband John were relocated with his work to Auckland. Then in 2014, they were relocated to rural Worcestershire. There are likely more moves to come and Ann has become what’s known in the business as a trailing spouse.
Welcome Ann. What’s it like being a Trailing Spouse?
AW: Oh gosh! That sounds awful! I’d be reluctant to call myself a trailing spouse, both in terminology and practice. The term defines one solely in relation to the spouse – never a good thing – and secondly the word trailing – I have in my mind’s eye a child shuffling reluctantly behind her mother, teddy bear dragging in the dust. But there is some truth in it nevertheless because of the way the “other” partner necessarily position themselves within the relocation context. John’s life in a new place, much more than mine continues within a familiar structure – he moves with same company, to a largely similar role, with a pattern and purpose to his days, weeks and months. I on the other hand have to create something from scratch each and every time. And it does take time.
I learned a seminal lesson in the early days of John’s career from the wife of a Managing Director, not just about being “the MD’s wife” but about an approach to life . The MD and his wife were hosting a table of ten at a very swanky French Embassy event and she made absolutely no effort with anyone. It was completely obvious these occasions were a duty, as was our company and she’d long given up uncovering even a grain of pleasure on such occasions or even on the pretense of it. It was embarrassing and fascinating and sad, that level of detachment as well as the expression of her private state in such a public forum. And I can remember thinking I never want to be like that. No matter where/what/who, I would look for ways to engage. I try to find that meaningful connection, if only for a moment, that makes an otherwise dull or duty bound situation worthwhile. When John and I have made decisions to move, I resolve to embrace it wholeheartedly, to fully own my place and situation. I never want to be in the middle of a fight screaming at him “…YOU’RE the one that made me come here!”
KY: So, the first disc you are taking to your desert island Ann – what is it?
AW: It’s Dance Then Where Ever You May Be. My siblings and I went to church with my mother every Sunday and this is one of the hymns I remember. It’s message to me was keep going, keep going, find a way, take what you can, where ever you may be. The lyrics still move me when it plays every now and again on Classic FM. My mother once told me she would like this at her funeral.
KY: Your childhood was difficult, I would say tragic. Off air you said you didn’t want to dwell on it but I wondered, when it must have seemed hopeless what gave you hope?
AW: During childhood my overriding objective was to survive and reach adulthood. I used to repeat to myself over and over, Just get to be grown up, just get to be a grown up, then you can control your life. I’m a D-type personality – determined, dogged, driven – so I made it. Many don’t even if they live. There are two positives for which I am grateful, one from each parent. My mother was a teacher and instilled the value of education. She believed it was to be a way of bettering oneself, of stabilizing life in a fickle world and ensuring an acceptable position on the social ladder. I was relatively bright and despite a high school channeling everyone into mediocrity, I have benefited because of her commitment to my education. What is infinitely more satisfying to me now though, is that valuing education and in some ways the fear and shame which underpinned it then, has morphed into valuing learning. And that has opened up the world, which I think my mother was also ultimately attuned to.
KY: So education from your mother. From your father?
AW: My father’s affinity for landscape, the bush in particular, deeply affects my well-being and, I think identity, to this day. I always thought of my father as a fish out of water in the suburbs but he was a different person in the majestic, softly whispering, eucalyptus world of his boyhood. When I start a bush walk at home in Australia I kneel to the ground, filter the dirt through my fingers, look up into the trees. I feel the beauty and the terror, as Dorothea Mackellar wrote so perceptively. I feel held by it. I think our nation’s sense of Australian-ness is derived largely because of this combination of beauty and terror, and I like to believe has been positively influenced by the country’s First People, despite the lopsided conversation between us. My father’s legacy though is that I take great pleasure and meaning from the visual – natural scenery, art, movement – no matter where in the world I am.
KY: Your second disc is by Paul Kelly. Tell me why you choose it.
AW: I had a great deal of trouble choosing just one of Paul Kelly’s songs. A critic once said Mr Kelly would be more famous but for the Australian-ness of his sound and subject. I could have filled your program with his entire playbook. From St Kilda to Kings Cross is iconic but I have chosen Have you ever seen Sydney from a 747. In about 2013, I saw Paul Kelly perform in Auckland’s Town Hall. We’d been away from home for about three years by then but were going home every couple of months or so. I have never suffered overt homesickness but when he played this song I blubbed and blubbed. The magnitude of my losses – home, girlfriends, summer, work, a known future – simply flooded my body.
KY: You did grow up then. And can I say thank goodness, congratulations, wonderful. What’s it like?
AW: Oh Kirsty, a hard question! How to sum that up in a half hour radio show! Hmm…for me it’s turned into a lifelong process of moving from survive to thrive. Being a newborn grown-up was terrifying and barely compatible with life in the beginning. Then in the middle it became wobbly and now, mid-fifties I am on more stable ground from which to explore the deeper issue of selfhood. If I had to summarise where I think I am now I’d say I’m up to feeling the tension between vigilantly expressing a muted form of me with the expectation that something terrible will happen, and unconsciously expressing the authentic me with the expectation of acceptance.
KY: You’ve chosen as your third disc, Pachelbel’s Canon by composer Johann Pachelbel. Why is this on your list?
One evening at our home in Sydney, I was sitting on the lounge room floor, John on the sofa. I was early thirties and in that terrifying and barely compatible with life stage. Pachelbel’s Canon started playing on the radio and John said to me “Can I hold you?” And I couldn’t let him – I was too damaged, too unlovable, too repellent. A devastating moment for both of us. I can only say we have come a long way since and now whenever it plays, we always touch each other. The piece is as beautiful and steady as his patience and love has been for me.
KY: You said you don’t get homesick and it sounds like John plays a large part in that for you. How do you make your way, as you said before from day one in a new country?
First of all you’re right. Nothing, nobody feels more like home to me than John the Steadfast. Without him I’d be divorced / died / beheaded. I also think without familiarities, I have had to learn what’s important to me and kick off from there. I wonder if other people work this out subconsciously or grow it from childhood but for me this has been a pursuit of some difficulty. I have wrestled with these issues. What do I value? How do I want to spend my time? I have a lot of time on my hands to mentally wander/wonder which I regard as a luxury. Sometimes this does feel like a waste but on the other hand it delivers me to myself. And if I feel restless or lacking, I search to clarify what that is and what might fill the void. I am drawn to working with children, history, story telling. So I go from there.
KY: Despite the losses you mentioned earlier, what do you like about living in the UK in particular?
AW: I don’t believe the saying, what you see is what you get. It’s not true of anyone or any place. To reside it to go beyond the stereotypes – who knew the English would be so less reserved than their reputation for example! The obvious things to love in the UK are the seasons and all that entails. There’s the breadth and depth of museums, exhibitions, galleries, theatre. I love British media, the BBC Radio 4 especially – except The Archers. I’ve tried but I just cannot care. Overall I love that the everyday ordinary is novel. It’s addictive. I don’t know how I will live without it.
KY: I am about to play your last disc Ann. It’s another Australian singer, John Paul Young, known more popularly as JPY. He’s singing Love is in the Air. Tell me why you choose it.
AW: It reminds me of my girlfriends. It’s fun, a bit of frippery. The kind of song we’d dance and sing to, champagne bottles lined up on the island bench. I have been incredibly – incredibly! – lucky in the realm of friendship. My friends have demonstrated through their relationships with parents, partners, children, other friends and me what is possible and more crucially normal. The power of these connections strikes me with awe and gratitude.
AW: I’m torn! Bless the Beasts and Children by Glenn Swarthout was a seminal novel for me, aged 15. It’s about six emotionally disturbed boys sent by their loveless parents to an American boy’s summer camp in hopes of making them “men”. It’s tragic, comforting, and hopeful. I’ve asked to buried with my 1977 copy. But it’s relatively short and might not fill much time, and while it’s pivotal to my past, I think I’d like to take something which represents my future. My choice then is Tim Winton,the Shakespeare of Australian literature. I don’t think he’s been published as a collective but would you let me sticky tape all his books into one volume?
KY: Oooh, you’re pushing the rules but if you do the binding yourself before you’re dropped off then I will allow it. I also allow our castaways to take a luxury with them. What’s yours?
AW: I’d really like a french patisserie. I don’t know how I will live without cake. I also thought about a diary – I have kept one for decades – but then I can write in the sand. So I’m going to choose an art gallery with an ever-changing exhibition of paintings and photographs. I think I’d need to see someone smile at me every now and then.
Travel Notes to Self
Colesbourne Park, Gloucestershire. Named ‘England’s greatest snowdrop garden’ by Country Life, showing a collection of 350 varieties. Have lunch at the Colesbourne Inn for the perfect winter’s day out.
Manchester: Ann Sutton Exhibition, Oldham Gallery; Ziterblast cafe where you pay not for what you eat but for the time you spend – 8 pence a minute; Cat Cafe filled with relaxed and relaxing felines; Manchester Art Gallery. Tapa at Tapeo and Wine, Deansgate.
Quarry Bank Mill. Lancashire. One of Britain’s greatest industrial heritage sites, showing how a complete industrial community lived. A working mill with intact workers’ village and children’s labour house from 1784.
Wells, Somerset. The best preserved medieval street in the UK. Lovely cathedral and bishop’s place surrounded by a moat.
The crocus and daffodils and the lovely English Spring, tipping us towards double-digit temperatures. What could be more novel?