3. alec ident: interview with author stephen kelman

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Podcast for Vision 56, Oct/Nov 2012


2. Nicky: Hello and welcome to this Vision magazine podcast for October and November. My name is Nicky Barranger and I present the audio magazine. This is just a taster of our audio version of Vision magazine, which is produced as a 78 minute long radio-style programme on CD. It includes news, features, letters from our members and competitions. In the latest edition of Vision magazine, we’re focusing on reading and writing. We hear an interview with Man Booker shortlisted author Stephen Kelman; in our technology column we have a review of “Georgie” a new app which is receiving lots of interest amongst blind and sighted people, and we have a moving letter about the RNIB talking books service. If you like what you hear, you could join RNIB as a member and receive six editions of Vision magazine a year. You’ll find details at the end.


4. NICKY: Stephen Kelman always wanted to be an author. After several jobs including working as a carer and in a warehouse – Stephen Kelman decided to focus on writing. The resulting novel Pigeon English was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year. Pigeon English explores the life of Harrison an 11 year old boy from Ghana who has moved to an inner city housing estate in Britain. The story unfolds as Harrison attempts to discover who was behind the fatal stabbing of a local boy. Stephen came along to our Vision studio and I began by asking him how it felt to be shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize for his first novel.

SK reads the opening passage from his book "Pigeon English":

You could see the blood. It was darker than you thought. It was all on the ground outside Chicken Joe's. It just felt crazy.

Jordan: "I'll give you a million quick if you touch it."

Me: "You don't have a million."

Jordan: "One quid then."

You wanted to touch it but you couldn't get close enough. There was a line in the way:


If you cross the line you'll turn to dust.

We weren't allowed to talk to the policeman, he had to concentrate for if the killer came back. I could see the chains hanging from his belt but I couldn't see the gun.

The dead boy's mamma was guarding the blood. She wanted it to stay, you could tell. The rain wanted to come and wash the blood away but she wouldn't let it. She wasn't even crying, she was just stiff and fierce like it was her job to scare the rain back into the sky. A pigeon was looking for his chop. He walked right in the blood. He was even sad as well, you could tell where his eyes were all pink and dead.

N: Thank you Stephen Kelman. Many congratulations first of all for being shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year. I went to see you at a talk and there you were standing up there with the heavyweights who had been shortlisted, like Julian Barnes. It must have been quite an experience - how did you feel?

S: It was a very weird and surreal experience and it's only in hindsight that I look back and believe that it was really me taking part in all that. As someone who wanted to write from such a very young age, you dream of moments like that, without ever expecting them to come true.

N: We know that you grew up on an estate like the one in the book, you must have been drawing quite a lot on your own personal experience for this?

S: I was and I consider myself very lucky that I was brought up on an estate which gave me such useful material for the book. It was around the time that Damilola Taylor's case first broke, around 10 years ago. And I felt that kind of story really needed to be told but nobody told it, nobody wrote about that.

N: Because what's interesting about the book is that here you are using the voice of a child to tell a pretty sensitive and brutal story - was it very difficult to get that voice of Harrison - because not only is he a young lad, he's also a young lad from Ghana and you come from Luton.

S: I do yes. It wasn't as difficult as I feared it might be simply because living on that estate and being surrounded by kids from all over the world, it was a very diverse estate, going back to when I was a youngster there myself. There were Ghanaian families around me, there were kids from all over. And [when I was writing] I had the fortune of living about 5 minutes from the local high school so If I popped out for a pint of milk, I could catch the kids coming from or going to school and listening to their conversations and absorbing their language and you become very enamoured of the colour of the speech. It's a very expressive way of talking that these kids have and it can't help but rub off on you I think.

N: But not all the kids in the book are from Ghana obviously, a lot of them are from the estate - how much of you is in the kids?

S: I think to a small degree the character of Dean, who becomes Harri's best friend and helps him investigate the killing - he's very loosely based on me at that age. I remember when I was 11, my best friend was from the Dominican Republic and some of the adventures and scrapes kind of made their way into the book at some point.

N: We've invited you here because we are launching the writing competition. You would say that drawing on your own experience is a very good idea, is it?

S: I think at least for a first novel it's good to have that grounding and that familiarity with your material. And also being close to a subject, you have an empathy for it and you care about the characters you're writing about. And I certainly found that. When I was writing Harrison he flowed so naturally simply because I had that affinity with him and that love for him. Yes, I would say that writing what you know will generally put you in good stead

N: Let's talk about the art of writing and the routine - I know a lot of writers like to write early in the morning. Kate Mosse, the writer, writes from about 4am in the morning from what I understand. You don't start that early do you?

S: I'm not quite as early a bird as that! I put myself in front of the computer round 9.30am in the morning and I don't really leave it until something passable has come out of me. I may get up for the odd tea break etc but I try to keep as disciplined as I possibly can.

N: So you're your own disciplinarian! What about before you became published, did you enter any writing competitions to motivate yourself?

S: The first writing competition I entered was quite a way further back when I was 16 I submitted to an advertisement in my local newspaper, for a collection of short stories that was due to be published. And I got chosen to appear in that anthology and at that young age it was quite a heady feeling to know that I'd been chosen from I don' t know how many submissions they must have received. And from then on I guess I honed my craft in isolation. I wrote for pleasure without really having the confidence to show my work to anyone else, not believing it would be good enough.

N: Obviously Pigeon English isn't going to be your first and only novel, you’re writing a second novel - can you tell us a bit about that?

S: I am yes. This is completely different to Pigeon English. It's based loosely on the life of a good friend of mine who lives in Mumbai. He's a journalist for The Times of India and quite a straight laced conventional, middle class family man. But in his spare time he breaks world records in weird and wonderful feats. And it's about a meeting of minds between him and an English character who finds himself adrift in Mumbai.

N: So you're actually taking something you know and you're embellishing it and changing it and finding different ways into the story.

S Again yes, I suppose It's a formula that has worked for me once before, so why not try it again!

N: Look fwd to your second novel

5. NICKY: Thanks to Stephen Kelman for that interview. “Pigeon English” is available from RNIB on loan as a talking book and also in giant print and Braille. Please contact the Helpline on

0303 123 9999 or email helpline@rnib.org.uk


7. NICKY: In our technology column for this edition Robin Spinks, RNIB’s manager for Digital Accessibility, tries out a new App called Georgie which was designed by people with sight loss for people with sight loss. He tells Vision Editor Clare Conley, about it.

8. Robin: An app, or application, to give it it’s proper name, are little programs that run on modern smartphones. Now this all might sound a little bit high tech but actually we can simplify it by just thinking about it as a program that does something for you on your phone. So an app would be something that you’d touch on the screen and it would open and do something for you, like an app might tell you what the weather is like. There are literally hundreds of thousands of different types of app available for doing all sorts of different things, so above all it’s about making life easier by providing quick shortcuts to the things that you care about.

Clare: And what do you need to have to use an app or get an app?

Robin: So you need to have what we call a smartphone to run apps.

Clare: And so today we’re going to look at a particular app, and that’s called Georgie. So just generally, what is the Georgie app?

Robin: So the Georgie app is an interesting new development. Georgie is a suite of apps that allows a blind person to use an Android smartphone. So Georgie would present a simpler interface than you would typically find on a modern smartphone. Smartphones have been getting more and more complex as time’s gone on. What Georgie does is an overlay and it simplifies the interface of the smartphone. So I can just demonstrate here, I have a regular off the shelf smartphone, in this case it is an HTC smartphone running Android, and we’ve downloaded the Georgie app onto the phone, and instead of having lots of buttons and sliders and so on, on screen, we’ve actually got a very simple interface, which literally consists of, in this case, 8 separate blocks and if I run my finger over them (here the phone speaks “Georgie news and help, phone, contacts, texts, more apps, settings, places, call log”) so you can hear that as I move my finger around the screen, what is under my finger is spoken out. Now it’s important to explain that this is a flat surface, it’s a touch screen phone like most phones are these days, and I’ve been running my finger across that surface and I’ve actually had what’s under it spoken out, which makes the whole thing much much easier than using a traditional interface.

Clare: And for partially sighted people is that grid quite accessible?

Robin: So Georgie presents a grid which is a very large font and also the colour contrast is good so in this case I’ve got white on a mid blue colour with big icons, bigger than you’d normally expect to find, but you can change that to make it work to your own individual needs. Now I should stress that I’m using an HTC phone in this case, you can use any Android phone, a modern Android phone, to run the software, so actually the key here with Georgie is the app or the software rather than the hardware.

Clare: So what sort of things can you actually do with Georgie?

Robin: So you can do things on here, like you can tweet if you’re interested in doing Twitter, or micro blogging, you can blog by using your voice, you can send messages, you can get news, you can find out what around you, and I can also mark points of interest as well, so a really good example that was given is that if you know streets where there are overhanging branches for example, you can mark where those are using your phone so that the next time you walk down there you’re alerted to those branches before you get to them. You could mark where your pharmacy is, where your bakery is that you go and visit, so all of those things you could provide a landmark, this just links in to the Google database and gets all of that information (Robin again touches the screen and the phone speaks out the names of the apps) it does sound like it’s got a bit of a sore throat that voice, doesn’t it, but you could add other voices if you wanted to at a later date. It’s a really good development for people who want a simplified interface on an Android phone and who want to have something that’s easy to use. A nice feature about this as well is instead of having to double tap like you do on some smartphone platforms, you literally run your finger over this and when you hear the beep it will take you into the menu, so it’s a slightly different interaction from what people would do if you’ve used, for example, an iPhone, what you would do is you would tap and if you hear the name of what you’re looking for spoken, you double tap and it will take you into that, so this is just a different way of doing it, this is press and hold, and wait for the beep.

Clare: So who do you think this will be most useful for?

Robin: I think Georgie will be most useful for the older person who perhaps is getting a smartphone for the first time and who is losing their vision and who wants something that is going to be easy to use and easy to learn and helpful on a day to day basis.

Clare: And have you spotted any sort of downsides or things that you think are missing so far?

Robin: I think that, as with any new technology that is designed specifically for visually impaired people, this is quite expensive, let’s be open about it, it’s about £150 for the app and then you can add various additional apps to that afterwards, and then of course the cost of the hardware, so it would be possible to have it for about the same price as an entry level iPhone like an iPhone 3GS, so it’s not cheap but we’re certainly encouraged by what we’re hearing from people so far.

9. NICKY: Thanks to Robin Spinks and Clare Conley for that. Georgie is available from Sight and Sound. There’s a video demonstrating the App on their website at sightandsound.co.uk

Please note that the Georgie app is not available from RNIB.


11. NICKY: One of our most popular sections is our letters and tips where members call with helpful tips and observations. In keeping with our theme of reading in this edition - we received a moving letter from Viv Davies In Brighton.

12. About three years ago my world fell apart because I could no longer read. Even the large print books were a no-go, and I was absolutely devastated. All of my life I have been part of schools and the library service. My last job was school librarian and expert literary assistant and reading has always played a major part in my life. I was put in touch with a lovely guy, [inaudible], who signed me up to the RNIB scheme Talking Books. And it’s been an absolute lifeline, I just can’t praise the RNIB enough. I have, on loan, a Daisy Machine, which all my books are played on now via CDs. I can choose myself different genres and categories, and one of the books that they sent to me was by somebody called Jan Morris and it was about a guy who had a sex change. This was well-written, no sensationalism whatsoever, very poignant. This was the book that, had I seen the title and the blurb on the bookshelf I would have dismissed it. So it’s broadened my horizons bigtime. It’s an amazing service.

13. NICKY: Thanks for that letter Viv Davies and Viv wins the star letter prize of a talking calculator with alarm clock. And if you want to find out more about the talking books service call the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999 or go to rnib.org.uk/library

Well that’s it for this edition. We hope you enjoyed this taster of Vision magazine. If you'd like to join RNIB as a Member and get the full 78 minute magazine on CD or in another format, six times a year, plus a range of other benefits, please contact the Membership team on 0303 1234 555 or email membership@rnib.org.uk For all other queries concerning any aspect of sight loss, please call the RNIB Helpline on

0303 123 9999.

Copyright RNIB October 2012.

Registered charity number 226 227.


Logo – RNIB supporting blind and partially sighted people

Registered charity number 226227


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