The BBC Radio 3 broadcaster, writer, Norwegian arts enthusiast and Reading Fringe Festival curator Fiona Talkington still lives near Christchurch Green, Reading, in the home in which she grew up. Her house was, as it should be for a music presenter, almost knee-deep in CDs, although Fiona did confide that the CDs also met an insulating role where they lined inside external walls.
Living in Reading
“I love this bit of Reading near Christchurch Green shops,” said Fiona. “I’m close to the hospital as well as the university and the area has got real character, and a sense of heritage and history.”
“I was born on Redlands Road, and although I have often been away, it’s always brought me back. My parents were renting nearby when I was born, and when I was little we moved to this family house, and my mother lived here until her death.”
“There were no buses on this road when I was growing up, but things have changed in more recent years,” she said. Fiona had an old photograph of a very quiet Redlands Road without traffic except for a parked-up push bike. “Both the buses and lorries are a bit of a problem now – but we could talk about traffic in Reading for hours!”
“The Redlands conservation area is full of people who are passionate about it. Several people from the area have done very detailed historical research, which is great for the rest of us,” she said.
The former home of former Reading MP Gerard Vaughan is nearby and Fiona says she remembers that one of the community’s earliest campaigns was to fight a huge planning application he had submitted to make drastic alterations to his property.
“Some of the villas in this area have stunning brickwork as well as fish-scale tiles on their rooves. If you’re coming into the conservation area from Christchurch Green, the buildings are sort-of the overture, with houses that speak to and engage with each other.”
“It’s a really diverse community. In summer, you can hear people in their gardens talking in their different languages, cooking and creating their various smells; it really fires all your senses.”
“You get a lot of people passing through here because it’s near the university and the hospital. Sometimes, the people who only thought they were going to be here for a couple of years find they have small children and have bought a house.”
“I don’t know how many languages are spoken in this town, but I love the musicality of walking down Broad Street and hearing all these different languages. ”
The former site of St Joseph’s school.
“I went to school at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, which was then on the corner of Northcourt Avenue and Shinfield Road. It’s now a block of flats and it’s funny looking at them thinking that’s where the sandpit was.”
Fiona recalled when Christchurch Green and surrounding gardens had more orchards, crab-apples and plum trees than traffic lights. “There were two sections; you’d have to cross from the house on the corner to the first bit of the green and then there was another bit of road and then another bit of green… ”
“I remember the majestic old buildings on Southern Hill before they became dilapidated, and were demolished. One end of it used to be an old people’s home and I recall going there with my mother to have tea with ‘matron’. She must have had another name, although I don’t know it, and her lovely sitting-room was filled with long, long windows.”
“That’s my daughter in front of Peskett’s Pharmacy on Christchurch Road. I think she was doing a school project about the shops and had a picture taken with Mr Peskett. It’s now Lloyd’s, but it belonged to the Peskett family for years.”
“The old greengrocers Franklin’s is now Cintra Estates. When I was little, Mr and Mrs Franklin doled out bananas to small children, and when I had my children they gave bananas to them too. The post office was behind the shop in a sort-of cupboard.”
“The shop was sold only a few years ago, but within six weeks, the new owners had removed all the original front doors and windows, and now Cintra Estates is just a modern block. There was no opportunity for local people to ask if they could keep the doors or windows; it just went.”
“I had my first Saturday job at Budgens, which is now occupied by a restaurant. I used to work stacking shelves when I was 16 or 17. I felt very grown up!”
A career in broadcasting
I asked Fiona where she had got her perfect BBC diction.
“My mother was Irish; she came to England when she was quite young to train as a nurse. I think she learnt English properly and good old elocution lessons from St Joseph’s helped for me. I’ve still got the book of poems somewhere in which I had to write out the correct accents, stresses and breathing.”
“If I went on holiday to Ireland with my mother, I would always tell her off for sounding more Irish than when she was at home with us. I couldn’t understand her! My father’s family was from East London and Kent. He was in the army as a young boy, and his father was a drill instructor at Eton. I think he spoke nicely but not poshly.”
“I fell into broadcasting by complete accident,” said Fiona.
“Music had always been part of my life. It was natural as breathing that one should play the piano; I started piano lessons when I was four. I didn’t know what I was going to do with music, but I didn’t especially want to be a teacher.”
“I was the concert organiser at Reading University’s music department [now closed] for a while. I got to know local media quite well, including Radio 210 [now Heart FM] because they advertised the concerts. One day they said to me well you’ve got a nice voice so why don’t you do a programme?”
“The Radio 210 classical program at the time was presented by Tony Stoller, the then managing director of the station, a fantastic historian of radio and a great classical music lover. He went on to write a book Classical Radio in the United Kingdom 1945-1995. When he left, they offered it to me, so off I went and just played music for people on independent local radio [ILR]. It seemed to go down alright.”
“But ILR policy changed and they scrapped all the specialist shows. I sent a demo tape to BBC Radio 3, and they invited me to do my first show on 14 November 1989, 30 years ago this year.”
“I started with a drive-time programme called Mainly for Pleasure with about eight presenters on a rota, of whom Richard Baker was one. I felt very honoured to be the new girl on the same roster as Richard Baker.”
“If you had the Sunday evening shift, there could be a concert, then a play, then a program about mountain music in Tibet and then, before close down – it doesn’t close down anymore but in those days it did – you had a five-minute news bulletin that you had to sight-read, starting with … and now it’s midnight and here’s the late night news bulletin.”
“If you were lucky, a messenger would have brought down a small rain-forest of paper a few minutes early so you could scan it for difficult pronunciations, otherwise you’d have to just read it and trust the journalist had written it properly. At the end of the news bulletin you’d say we’ll be closing down now and will be back in the morning, and I wish you goodnight.”
“It’s hard graft. You’d go to little hotel room just around the corner for a few hours’ sleep, and then you’d be back in studio at about 5.30am ready for the 6 o’clock news.”
“Late Junction began in 1999 with Verity Sharp and me. We presented it live, four nights a week, rotating a fortnight-on and fortnight-off. It was really hard work; we chose the material, did it live and got home late. I had small children, so then we started recording some of them half-live, and eventually they all needed to be pre-recorded.”
“I’m very proud of the legacy we created with Late Junction, playing music on the radio that just wasn’t getting any airtime, and providing another platform for musicians. It also gave me an outlet for my lifetime passion for Norwegian music. This year marks Late Junction‘s 20th anniversary, and next year marks 25 years of me working closely with the Norwegian arts scene. We were thrilled to receive a Sony Gold award for Late Junction, and my Norwegian work has been honoured with the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit.”
Reading’s Royal Berkshire Hospital (via Google Maps).
During her time working on Late Junction, Fiona was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I was doing a live afternoon show and I was really busy commuting on trains and looking after my family. I found a lump and then things escalated very quickly,” said Fiona.
“I remember coming out of the Royal Berkshire Hospital and starting up Redlands Road. It was February and the sky was blue; it looked the same as when I had gone in, but everything had changed. I felt lost; the shock was like being smashed into a concrete wall.”
“When I was in chemotherapy and was really ill, I was tied to the hospital. The Late Junction team used to record the programs at my house. It allowed me that essence of creativity which added to my sense of well-being. I think the team quite liked it because it got them out of the office; they’d bring lunch and prop me up on cushions.”
“I was in hospital for 11 nights during surgery. I had to adopt some anchor to real life, so once I could get out of bed, I’d change into day clothes. I had a brightly coloured sarong so it didn’t look like NHS grey, and I got my family to bring in new CDs and I would listen to them and make notes; I had my little working slot each morning.”
“It’s when all the big hospital treatments have finished that the emotional psychological stuff really hits; you feel lost and suddenly have to examine the implications of what happened.”
Fiona was in and out of the Royal Berkshire for seven years, and still suffers painful side-effects. “You evaluate your life and what you can do, but you still need to put food on the table and you need to carry on living your life.”
The Royal Berkshire Hospital has helplines for people on chemotherapy.
Culture in Reading
“It’s never been that there was no interesting culture in Reading, it’s just that newcomers to the town sometimes have to dig quite deep to find it, but when you do, there’s lots going on,” said Fiona.
“The visual arts community is really thriving here, as are bigger organisations like Reading Bach Choir or the Aldworth Philharmonic, who played Schumann at the railway station in 2017. Their musical director and conductor Andrew Taylor, who trains drivers at GWR for a living, is so passionate about giving people opportunities and is such a great communicator.”
“Since I started working with the Reading Fringe Festival, I’ve got to understand more about how much cultural energy comes about because of engagement with businesses and what they want to support.”
“Something seemed to hang on after the Reading year of culture in 2016, such as the internationally exciting reopening of the Abbey, and all the chat about what might happen with the prison.”
“The Rising Sun Arts Centre is hugely important to the town’s music community. My daughter plays in Dolly and the Clothes Pegs, and they expect they’ll play at the Rising Sun every so often. It’s a beautiful building, with those gorgeous floor tiles.”
“I also love the South Street Arts Centre and I’m proud that we kept fighting for it. It’s director John Luther is a very astute programme organiser; he’s well-tapped into national scenes and knows how to draw audiences.”
“I’ve just been hosting the Reading Cultural Awards Ceremony. It is a real celebration of the arts scene here and a reminder that fantastic arts events happen in so many places across the town.”
Fiona Talkington is guest curator at this summer’s Reading Fringe Festival. In conversations with trees on Friday 26 July, she will be bringing together her close relationship with Norway, in the form of drummer Thomas Strønen, with two outstanding UK folk musicians, Jackie Oates, (artist in residence at the Museum of English Rural Life – MERL), and Hannah James, whose project with clog dancing was commissioned by the MERL.
Hannah will be giving a free clog dancing workshop at the MERL on Thursday 25 July. Author Helen Jukes (A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings) will join Fiona at conversations with trees on 26 July and the author will be at Reading Library on Saturday 27 July.
- Fiona Talkington…
- The Reading Fringe Festival
- Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra
- Rising Sun Arts Centre
- South Street Arts Centre
- Reading conservation areas
- A walk around the Christchurch conservation area
- Chemotherapy helplines at the Royal Berkshire Hospital
- Museum of English Rural Life