Writer Priya Jay responds to the sounds of Radio Ballads by weaving together a series of reflections that are, by turn, poetic, raw and resonant.
Radio Ballads was a three-year project commissioned by Serpentine’s Civic team (Amal Khalaf, Lizzie Graham, and Layla Gatens) in partnership with New Town Culture. Artists Sonia Boyce, Helen Cammock, Rory Pilgrim, and Ilona Sagar created long-term collaborative projects with people living and working in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and beyond. To accompany the 2022 Radio Ballads exhibition, Nada Smiljanic, an audio producer at Reduced Listening, worked with us to create eight sound objects that could embody collaborative processes, communicate care through sound, and invite listeners into the emotional world of Radio Ballads.
We invited Priya Jay – a writer and curator from London, whose work often explores grief, love, and connection – to respond to these sound objects through writing. In Jay’s open-hearted and open-ended reflections, which allow the personal to enter, we can sense how our worlds can be ignited and felt anew through listening.
And I have come to listen in
I lay warm unwilling to be awake just yet and my ears dilate towards birds’ rapture and high far roars. I’ll be restless soon but until then I am dreaming. Passing through this Here like the soapy film of a bubble’s edge, unbursting, into the next, iridescence. In this dream like all dreams, I am alive and the world is of this world but different, unfamiliar unquestioned and I am immersed. Dream a
These morning apparitions have been my secret excursions during these past years of interiority and grief sleep. The beep beep beep of the stairlift and the clack clack of the zimmer frame do not wake me because there is no one who needs lifting up the stairs anymore. Pans clang, wooden drawers drag, frantic bell dings, ato! ato! which is to say daughter of mine come here I need you for something but I can’t tell you until I can show you! Now the house creaks in relative silence, living isn’t so loud or calling. The throats that called from downstairs to come down or upstairs to come up are ash, but my ears still ring. Dream a
There was a voice in my head in the middle of the night when I was woken and needed, that said please, I’m so tired and you’re so old. Then there was another voice just days later that asked who are you now that you’re not a carer? And Gail Lewis says how do we bear to listen?
Bald winter sun stretches across my face. I take cue from an invitation to pause and notice that the arrow of my right shoulder blade is propped up on the park bench. In fact, now that I’m noticing, everything on my right side is bracing and curled forwards, as if to wrap a flinching heart. Muscles ache in shapes of awkward scaffolding. Amal’s handwriting is on my bedroom wall next to vines drawn in felt-tip – roots are reaching – and I remember to trust that there is a bench under me and a pavement under that. I give it a little more of my weight, a microscopic melting, inherited softening. And to my relief, there is no great collapse, just the smallest reorientation, resting into gravitational pull. The throat is an open channel to the lower belly, where you will find a pool of sound.
I contract my throat-that-is-an-open-channel to invite friction, enough to know that my out-breath has texture. The sound is vaporous. Rainforest screech, green parakeets dive above and small iron-wrought lionheads gape silent on the armrests of this bench. I smile at Alexa, the woman with five dogs and blue tape on her shoes, and she tells me the story of Henry, the labrador with a bump on his head. A conversation in a language I don’t know passes by, two friends, I imagine, because they are talking fast and intently. My ears are full of traces, of lives lived out loud, in shared proximity and overheard. And then that’s it! Keep going! is a puffing dad and don’t let go! is a daughter in a helmet. And then I’m letting go now! is my dad, in another park, and I have a scraped knee. The palimpsest of listening is thicker in some places than others. Scar tissue, maybe.
Yesterday, my raft was full of holes and I forgot where I put my anchors. I returned to the park because I knew I needed to find my limbs, and after an hour making loops like driftwood with heavy eyes, I found my anchors were my feet all along. One foot in front of the other. Repetitive, rhythmic enough like rocking, they call it bilateral stimulation, bringing the two drifting hemispheres back together again. On the day when the weight deadens on your shoulders and you stumble, may the clay dance to balance you. John O’Donohue’s voice flies from my ears to my feet. The poem is one he wrote for his mother when his father died, recited and recorded months before his own sudden passing. After rounds of tracing the path that knows the desperate walks of my neighbours as well as mine, I am moored and not full of water.
From this place of steady, I do the thing I should’ve done a week ago and call my remaining grandparent. Her voice is upbeat but like a paper plane being blown from below. Something heavier stirs, the conversation wanes and we share silence. I resist filling it and wait, remembering how Layla said that it’s not always necessary to speak. A tremble, then she says she has no love left. The voice in my head says and yet we live, and the voice out loud tries to say that in Gujarati but falters and falls flat. Language snags and tears in our mouths sometimes, I may lose you before this is done. When she sings, her voice is a wooden flute. I know that if we sang together, love and tears would have steering, a clear route to enter and exit. But question and answer calcify when we have never sung folk songs over the phone.
Emotional leakage goes drip drip. Amongst intonation, opening and pause, we glimpse the masts of attentiveness. In the few minutes of these sound tapestries the trust between voices is palpable, because words come out differently when they know they have a place to land. I know there are ears on the other side, patient and receptive. When flooded with praise for On the Edge (1963), the sixth in the series of original Radio Ballads, Ewan MacColl, thinking it unmerited, said the team had allowed itself to be overcome by the richness of the actuality. To allow overwhelm, and to know safety and richness in the holy range of the everyday, is the mark of a skilful methodology of support. And I have come to listen in.
The door has been kept ajar. The god of this work is in protecting its intimacy while inviting strangers to bear witness. And in doing so, outside and inside grow a mossy channel, where the eighteen months of relationship building, storytelling, risktaking, making, live on. Process… processsss’ sibilance is a clue to its own ongoingness. I am sure that it continues to unravel long after direct attention, stagnant to an untrained eye, but composting in the backs of our minds. Broadcast dissolves into static. Lizzie asks how do we integrate endings into a process? And I don’t know, but maybe there’s a point at which we take one and then two steps back because we don’t need to be so close to it anymore.
I am in the park again because it is my mossy channel, close enough to home but far enough out. I have been listening to these woven sound objects in one ear, alternating between Sonia Boyce, Helen Cammock, Ilona Sagar, and Rory Pilgrim’s Radio Ballads and Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker’s Radio Ballads. They say things 60 years apart as if time hasn’t passed and we know each other. In my other ear, a man is trying to call a squirrel and the squirrel is calling a crow. Then I switch to a voicenote from a friend I haven’t spoken to for months who says how are you I’m thinking of you and, soon after, a phone call has news that I outlived someone I grew up with. We’re young but we’re a-growin’. Pre-spring sun is a raft, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the things that keep us afloat and the things that sink us. Each fleeting connection sediments and carries me onwards. An amorphous patchwork, barely distinct from the sea, life, and its churning.
Priya Jay is a writer and reader based in London. She reaches toward her body as guide, medicine and archive. And she experiments with language as sensory, storied and alive. Care work, grief facilitation, community archiving, collaborative publishing, and bodywork lead and feed her work.
About the Radio Ballads Audio Guide
Inspired by a series of historic BBC radio documentaries by the same name, Serpentine’s Radio Ballads projects centred listening, voicing and sound. In these deeply human and interpersonal projects, processes were just as important as finished works, and actions such as embodying and supporting emerged as shared threads across all four artists’ projects.
Referencing the methods used in the original BBC Radio Ballads, audio producer Nada Smiljanic made eight sound objects by stitching, layering and weaving together sound and music that had been captured by the Radio Ballads team throughout three years of collaborations, conversations and performances. These creative tracks are permanently available on Serpentine’s free Bloomberg Connects app, alongside an introduction from the Civic team and an interview between Amal Khalaf, Civic Curator, Serpentine, and Marijke Steedman, founder of New Town Culture.
Radio Ballads Partners
New Town Culture, Barking Dagenham Youth Dance, Barking and Dagenham Domestic Abuse Commission, Clean Break, Becontree Broadcasting Station (Valence Library), Green Shoes Arts, Hodge Jones and Allen Solicitors, Interfaith Sanctuary Shelter (Project Well Being), LBBD Children, Young People and Families Services, LBBD Disability and Life Planning Services, LBBD Temporary Accommodation and Hostel Services, LBBD Integrated Care, Pause, London Asbestos Support and Awareness Group (LASAG), London Contemporary Orchestra, Radio Active, The White House, Lungs at Work Imperial College, Goldsmiths Social, Therapeutic and Community Studies, Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Leigh Day Solicitors, North East London Foundation Trust and We Rise Hub.