This Wednesday morning I was on The Today Programme on Radio 4, to talk about the research done by Dr Helen O’Connell at Durham University into peasant women’s lives in nineteenth-century Ireland. She’d rather brilliantly discovered how they were castigated by their social superiors for drinking tea: i.e. wasting their money, getting addicted to it, getting above their station, and squandering time better used for the cooking of their husbands’ dinners.
The first I heard about all this was on Monday afternoon, when one of the programme’s journalists texted me (I was in our curators’ team meeting) to ask if I could provide some context to the interview they were planning with Helen.
Now, I get quite a few of these kind of requests, and normally I say ‘no’. Often it’s a request to talk about something that I don’t know much about, or a topic about which isn’t appropriate for me to talk: the modern royal family, for example.
Then, the role of the commentator on live news programmes really is a thankless one. It’s stressful and it’s often horrifically early or late. Breakfast TV is in particular a real thief of time. They want you there hours beforehand for making up and mike-ing up, and I always feel cross and tired for the rest of the working day afterwards.
Radio, however, is a lot less faff. Also – in this case – I liked the topic. I’m interested in the history of women. I’m a noted consumer of tea myself, with the capacity of a drain. I’d even written a chapter, in my book If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home, on a similar subject.
In addition, I realize that the Today programme are rightly trying really hard to get more female commentators. When I say ‘sorry no’, I often feel slightly guilty because of this (and look at this great project that’s been set up in response).
So, I said I was in, and sent the researcher the chapter of my book … and then kind of forgot about it. Because often producers change their minds, or something else comes up and that’s the end of it all.
However, on Tuesday afternoon, they called back, and said it was all definitely going to happen. At that point I gave a mental groan. I had definitively let myself in for the preparation and pain! I consulted my colleague Tracey the head of the press office at Historic Royal Palaces about what I might say and how I might make mention of exhibitions we have on at the moment, but we agreed that it would be difficult to work in any connections. (However, there’s no stopping me from giving gratuitous plugs on my own blog! So please do visit Princess Victoria’s Christmas at Kensington Palace – it’s fabulous.)
Home I went from the office on Tuesday, and spent a couple of evening hours reading, reminding myself of the research I’d done previously, and making notes on what I might say. Then I did an hour’s ironing to try to turn off my brain before bed.
I treated the driver to a 45-minute lecture on the connections between tea-drinking and feminism to warm up my croaky old vocal chords.
Then, in Chelsea, we got stuck behind a procession of horses, and I realized that we were cutting it a bit fine to get to the studio in time for our 8.50 slot. At that point my heart began to go pit pit pit, and I took some deep breaths to try to calm it down.
Once the horses were out of the way, the driver asked me please to shut up about feminism so that he could get to Television Centre as quickly as possible. We skidded up to the Stage Door at 8.45.
Rather disconcertingly, the place was completely deserted. At that point my heart began to go thump thump thump.
But then a lady appeared and took me to the dismal Green Room – familiar from Twenty-Twelve and The Thick Of It. I had my picture taken for the Today programme’s Twitter, and through the window I could see a lot of people in the studio talking about fracking.
By now my poor old heart was going THUMP THUMP THUMP.
After having been in the Green Room about one minute, I was whisked into the studio. I sat down at the table, and started to feel a bit better. Sarah Montague and Evan Davies, total professionals, were relaxed enough to joke around a bit while a report was played.
Then at 8.54 we began. Sarah started asking questions – in her Rolls Royce of a voice – of Helen O’Connell, who was being very knowledgeable and cool as a cucumber in a studio in Durham. Once we were underway, I began to enjoy myself terrifically, and to say some of the things I wanted to say, and ended up making a slightly naughty point about Starbucks.
In just a couple of shakes it was all over, and I came out blinking into what was now daylight. I switched on my phone and hoped that some of my friends might have heard me and sent me a text message.
Indeed they had …
‘hurrah for tea and feminism!’
‘sounds like you’ve still got a cold’
‘tea drinking did nothing for the women of Ireland. What about Mrs Doyle [the housekeeper from Father Ted]?’
A footnote: unfortunately in all the excitement I left home without my keys, and this caused trouble later on. Darn!