Ayesha Hazarika Unputdownable Podcast

Jeffrey is joined by broadcaster, journalist and political commentator, Ayesha Hazarika, as she reveals which book and TV series she believes are ‘unputdownable’.

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Jeffrey:  Hi. I’m Jeffrey Archer, and I’d like to welcome you to my podcast Unputdownable. We celebrate and revel in those works of art and literature that are quite simply impossible to put down. So I ask my guests to choose their favourite book and one other piece of culture.  It should be something that grips them and always leaves them wanting more. And I will also be offering up two of my own recommendations.

In this episode, I am joined by the broadcaster journalist who of course, has a passionate love of politics, which she won’t be able to hide, and indeed, I won’t be able to always agree with her.

But we will find common ground. We’ll find it in our love of literature and other culture. Her talent for writing stretches from politics to comedy. Some may feel that’s the same thing. And in 2020, she was one of the launch presenters on UK’s digital radio station Times Radio.  I am, of course, talking about Ayesha Hazarika.

Lovely having you on the show, Ayesha. First, tell me, how are you?

Ayesha:  I’m well, Jeffrey. I’m very well. It’s been a busy time with me. Lots going on, lots of media work, lots of politics.
How are you?

Jeffrey: I’m very well indeed. I’ve had my booster jab, so I’m ready for you. What have you been doing the last few days?

Ayesha: I have just returned from conference season, Jeffrey. I’ve been in Brighton and I’ve been in Manchester, so I feel slightly broken because, as you know, the conferences are quite heavy going.

Jeffrey Archer 02:00
Well, I always loved them because it was the one chance you actually got on the ground with the people, other than actually walking in their constituencies. So, no, I’m a conference man. Of course, you will remember the days when you were advising two Prime Ministers, first Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown.

It must have been very different now, going to a conference as a journalist and having to report both on the party you support and both on the party you don’t support, rather than sitting in a quiet room saying to the Prime Minister, it might not be wise to say that, Tony.

Ayesha Hazarika 02:39
No, absolutely. As a journalist, I’m always looking for the conflict or the row or the gaffe, or the drama. And when I was an advisor, I wanted everything to be as boring as possible and everybody to stick to their scripts and not cause any trouble.

But of course, as a journalist, it’s very different. But it’s fascinating, isn’t it? And it’s a chance, really, for everybody to get together, particularly after the pandemic. And anyone connected in politics has the gift of the gab.

They like chatting; all the business done in the bars and the clubs very late at night. So, there was a lot of fun that was had, and a lot of karaoke was performed on both sides. I think karaoke could bring the two parties together.

Jeffrey: You’re talking about on the stage or in the bars at a later time?

Ayesha: Well, maybe on the stage. A lot of karaoke was happening in the bars and the parties. Maybe they should have, instead of Prime Minister’s questions, we should have, like, a sing-off in the House of Commons, it might be more interesting, might be more fun and illuminating.

Jeffrey Archer 03:32
Now, my podcast is going to ask you two things, Ayesha. It’s going to ask you a book you found unputdownable, or has lived with you, or you have read more than once; a very special book in your life is the first choice. We can discuss that, and then I will tell you a special book in my life, and we can discuss it. But you go first.

Ayesha Hazarika 03:55
Okay, so my really special book is actually a grouping of four novels together, called The Neapolitan Novels, and the first one is called My Brilliant Friend and it’s by an amazing woman, we think called Elena Ferrante.

Jeffrey: Forgive me for interrupting you. Why do you think she’s a woman?

Ayesha: Because Elena Ferrante is a secret identity.  Nobody knows the real identity of this author. It’s a pseudonym. This author has maintained muscular privacy and has said, nobody needs to know who I am. They just need to know my stories and the characters.  And in fact, this person, we think it’s a woman although there have been rumors that it may be a man. Their privacy and their secrecy is so guarded that many journalists have tried to find out who this person is.

And people have really pushed back against it, because I think it’s a she because this person writes so intimately about the female mind, but it adds to the mystery.

Jeffrey:  I didn’t have any doubt, actually, when I read it.  She’s writing about two women, two very remarkable women in their own way. One extremely clever, one extremely hardworking. I thought she caught two young women in Naples brilliantly.

Ayesha: I agree. I think she has this brilliant way of writing about women which really just takes you into the female mind.  And as you see that the novel spans this amazing 50-year friendship. And it’s sort of born out of the kind of dust and chaos of this very poor neighborhood where there’s corruption and violence and poverty and you have these two very bright girls who form this friendship, and they want to escape their background and they want to escape their poverty. And it’s very interesting about how their lives sort of, you know, they start together and then their lives kind of diverge and they weave in and out of each other’s lives.

And what I loved about this book is sometimes when female friendship is written about, it can be done in a kind of slightly sacchariney way. But I felt what was so great about this book is that it was very raw.  It captured complex, flawed female relationships which can be full of jealousy and rivalry and insecurity.

Jeffrey: I thought the envy and the jealousy were obvious. And I thought as they grew older, it kind of became more tense the way they parted but came back together.

Ayesha Hazarika 06:49
Yeah. And I think that’s what a lot of women really love about these novels because female relationships can be complicated. Female relationships are intensely close, but they can be quite flawed. And I think what was also great about these characters is that they were so layered. They had a lot of love for each other, but there was often kind-of moments of intense conflict and that often happens in relationships. These were not saints. These were not kind-of good girls. These were interesting, complicated, red blooded, intelligent, ambitious women. But there was also the kind of burdens they bore as women, particularly women from poor backgrounds. Violence, subjugation, not being able to be independent, having to really sort of fight to assert themselves as well. Very patriarchal structure, particularly from their neighborhoods, where there was a lot of violence, there was a lot of sort-of gang structure.

Jeffrey: Very Naples.

Ayesha: Yes, very, very Naples. And I think that’s the other great thing about the book as well, the four books. It captures the really interesting time, the backdrop of Italian politics, and how the economy was changing and how society was changing as well.

Jeffrey:  I felt also, when I was in Naples a couple of years ago and I read it two or three years ago, she caught that brilliantly because I walked from where, in theory, her home was down to the waterfront, which we see so brilliantly described in the book.
And I thought, wow, I’m in the middle of the book again. Can I ask you one impertinent question, if I may? Ayesha, dare to ask.

Ayesha: Go on.

Jeffrey: Impertinent question. You were invited to take one book. There are four. Did you find that one was I mean, one is the beginning of their youth, when they’re both in their homes up in the hills or up in the tenement blocks and not living a very good life. And it’s not until book two that we really see them go their separate ways.

Or are you being typical, Ayesha and going to say, I want all four books?

Ayesha: I want all four, Jeffrey. I want it all. I demand my right. I’m an ambitious woman. I want more for myself. And I think you have to take these books. It’s almost, I didn’t feel like it was four separate books, actually, because I galloped through them so much. So, I started reading them on holiday a few years ago. And I had come out of politics and you know what it’s like in politics, you’re probably sort of slightly different.
But I find that I just didn’t have that much time to read really good fiction. I was so busy reading politics all the time and reading newspaper articles and academic papers. I just devoured these books and I felt like it was one big book.

I didn’t feel like it was four separate books. So that’s why I think they count as one book.

Jeffrey: Yeah. No, I think, to be fair, it is one very big book because it’s over 2000 pages if you take all four. And I agree with you that it’s beautifully written. She’s a fine writer and I think we should give great praise here and I always do it with anyone who’s had a book translated. We should give great praise to the translator because sometimes when I read a translated book, I think, I wonder what the original is like. I didn’t with this. I thought it had been done beautifully and she would be very pleased with it.

Ayesha: Yeah. And it’s interesting that she’s had this long-standing relationship with this particular translator, who I think also works for The New Yorker. And the translation, as you say, it’s very sensitively done and it works really well. And the other thing which I think is really interesting about her writing is that she manages to do, I think, two things.

She’s brilliant at writing with a kind of a sense of abandon on the one hand and kind of control on the other. And the yarn in itself is gripping,  the story, you know, it’s a page-turner, but it’s also very intellectually satisfying as well.

Jeffrey Archer 11:09
She’s been winning prizes all over the place. And so we must now move on to my book, Ayesha, which I chose, really. It’s a novella rather than novel. It’s called Reunion, and it’s by a man called Fred Ulman, who actually was an artist but wanted to write this book because it was, as so often, first books or novellas are very personal indeed.

And although I read it, I must have been over 50 when I read it for the first time, it was an eye-opener about antisemitism, because here we have a young Jewish boy who’s clearly very, very clever, very bright and doing well in his class.  And along comes a German aristocrat to be in the same class. And they’re most unlikely even to speak to each other, yet they end up the closest of friends. Why? Because the one thing they have in common is they’re both extremely bright and therefore enjoy each other’s company.

I’m not going to say any more about the book. I mean, I’m fascinated to hear your view. I’m not going to say any more about the book, except that the ending was remarkable and really woke me up to what a young Jewish person was going through in the late 1930s, the early 1940s.

But more important, that there were people with very high moral standards and courage who, despite not coming from a Jewish background, had the courage to actually do something about it.

Ayesha: Yeah, it’s interesting.  There’s a bit of a theme, isn’t there, from the last book we’ve discussed; really bright people and friendships being born out of intelligence and that kind of connection. I have to confess, I haven’t read the book, but I’m absolutely going to.  I’ve been researching it. I mean, it looks fascinating and heartbreaking and shocking at the same time. And it does remind me of other bits of dramatic narrative which have tried to depict that kind of friendship across the divide between Germans and Jews as well. I mean, it feels very timely, particularly because we are living in an era where there is a rise in anti-Semitism. We’ve seen it in politics. We’ve seen it on the left. We’ve also seen it in the hard right of politics as well.

I’m very keen to see it. I wonder if it has got echoes of the concept of friendship, as in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which is another…

Jeffrey: Yes, but this was written long before The Boy in the Stripe pyjama.  This goes back some years.

Number two, Ayesha, stretch your brain again. You can choose anything! You can choose a television series. You can choose a painting. You can choose a concert piece. The person listening doesn’t know which field you’ll go into and what you will discuss.  Over to you.

Ayesha Hazarika 14:23
So I’ve picked a television show which has kind of mirrored my life a bit. And as you know, Jeffrey, and we do met some things on TV together. I am a real politics geek. And so, the thing I have chosen is a television series, iconic political satire show.  I think it’s the 21st century answer to Yes Minister. I’ve chosen The Thick Of It.

Jeffrey Archer 14:44
Well, I admire you for that. And you clearly pointed to, very kindly to, my own era, which is about the 17th century, when, of course, I loved Yes, Minister, had the privilege and honor of knowing the two main actors in it, and two very great actors they were. So I’m afraid by the time I got to your choice, you will have to explain to me why you think it’s in the same class as Yes Minister.

Ayesha Hazarika 15:09
Because it’s one of these things which just so brilliantly captured what life was like as a civil servant, press officer, and, of course, as a special adviser.  And life as a sort of minister or cabinet minister in a sort of lower ranking department. And what was so clever about it was that it very much co-incided with the beginning of the end of the New Labour project.  So it ran from 2005 to 2012. And it just, particularly because I was working in politics at the time, I had been a civil servant, I then became a special advisor. The accuracy and even though it was really funny, there were episodes where it was so close to the bone for me, I was laughing, but I was also sort of dying inside because I recognized so many of the kind of turns of phrase or the ludicrous sort of cringy situations they found themselves in.
And it had a brilliant, brilliant writing team. Amando, Ianucci Jesse Armstrong, who has written Succession and Veep. Simon Blackwell. Brilliant, brilliant cast. Peter Capoldi, Chris Addison, Rebecca Front, Alex McQueen. Brilliant. Brilliant writing. Brilliant cast. They actually improvised quite a lot of the scenes as well, and it just worked really well, because I think to do satire well, it does have to be quite even-handed and it has to be quite close to the truth.
And they clearly spoke to a lot of people who worked within the civil service and within the political arms of political parties, so they completely nailed all the detail brilliantly. And it captured the sort of neurosis that New Labour had, which was trying to manage the media all the time, trying to manage and micromanage the message and getting absolutely hysterical – Malcolm Tucker giving people, like a hair drying if they’d had a bad outing on Newsnight. And it was so familiar because anyone who’s been a minister or a political advisor or been a communications part of the civil service just recognized all that micromanaging, and it was just brilliant. I don’t think anything has ever come close to it. And we do have a situation now when things happen in real life, people just go, well, that was like something out of The Thick Of It.

Jeffrey Archer 17:43
As they did in my time with Yes, Minister. Because I know Margaret Thatcher didn’t watch a lot of television. Well, that wasn’t her style. But she loved Yes Minister. And it was, as you rightly say, like your show, written by brilliant writers and acted by two of the finest actors in our country, both who won knighthoods for their performances, both, to be fair, as much on at the National Theatre as they became famous on television.  That’s the irony of television. But I’m bound to ask you, how did Tony Blair and how did Gordon Brown feel about the show?

Ayesha:  I can’t imagine Gordon Brown watching it. I have to admit, I think he was probably a bit like Margaret Thatcher.  He was too busy doing things I suspect the people around him did, and particularly the people around Tony Blair. I think Tony Blair probably watched it and probably quite liked it and probably thought it was quite funny because so many of the characters were sort of based on a lot of the characters around Tony Blair.  There’s no doubt that Malcolm Tucker has a lot of Alistair Campbell in him. The long-suffering civil servant press officer is definitely modelled and is a hybrid on actual sort of real characters. So, everybody I knew was working in Number Ten at the time and working at the treasury, everybody watched it and everybody loved it. But it did have these moments which, as I said, were just so painful, they were almost too close to the bone. And there were some spin-offs as well. So there was a film that was done afterwards called In The Loop where they all go on this trip to America. And if you have not seen it, Jeffrey, it’s absolutely clutch-your-sides hilarious. Again, there’s just so many moments of truth. So there’s one moment where the sort-of junior minister is desperate to hustle into some meeting in Washington where there are like sort-of senior American politicians and he wants to make a point, he wants to talk in the meeting, and a senior advisor has to tell him in no uncertain terms that he is what is known as room meat.

He is only there to fill up, he’s there to not have an opinion. And what was so funny is, after that film came out, I remember I was working for my boss, Harriet Harmon, at the time, and sometimes when we were going to a meeting, let’s say, with the Prime Minister, where basically we were just there to fill the numbers, I’d have to say to her, be very clear, this meeting, two words, room meet.

Jeffrey Archer 20:23
Yeah. The two of you, I might say, or did you on those meetings, I found when I had the privilege of being with Margaret Thatcher or John Major, you actually didn’t say a word. You sat at the back and discussed what the Prime Minister felt afterwards. Were you the same?

Ayesha Hazarika 20:37
Yeah, definitely. There were some meetings where you were just basically there to sort-of absorb what was going on. You were sort of seen but not heard.

Jeffrey: So I’m going on to my one, and this week I’ve chosen, because I love art.  There’s no city on earth I’ve been to where I haven’t been, to see their gallery. It’s the first thing I do. And many, many years ago, when I was in Copenhagen on a book tour, I went to the National Gallery and fell in love, really fell in love.

I mean, with one particular painting. And then I saw a lot of his paintings. Anyone listening to this podcast, I ask you to pick up your phone and look up the name Kroyer. And that’s spelt. K-R-O-Y-E-R. Kroyer. He’s a Danish painter who was born in the last century. And in fact, the piece I want you to look at is Summer Evening On The Beach, which is two ladies on the beach. And they are so elegant that it is so beautifully painted, it is now actually on the back of my phone. It’s whatever you call those things you put on the back of a phone. It’s now there because, you can talk about the great artists the world has ever produced.  But for me, Kroyer, Soroja and Tiso, although they’re, and it shows a weakness in my part, because they’re all romantic, are the ones, and they all paint women beautifully. But I think this is very special indeed and wondered what you felt about it?

Ayesha Hazarika 22:21
Well, I had to look it up and I was like, oh, what’s this piece of art? And then as soon as I saw it, I knew it, because it is in my parents house and it is absolutely…

Jeffrey: You’ve got the original! You’ve got the original in your parents house? I mean, it’s only worth 5 million. What are you doing with the original in your parents house?

Ayesha Hazarika 22:36
We don’t like to talk about it. We don’t like to boast about it. It’s such a beautiful painting Jeffrey, I completely agree.
I just feel instantly calm and soothed when my eyes fall upon it. And I love paintings that depict the sea. And these women do look very elegant. But the other thing I love about it is I love the light.  I absolutely love the light in this picture.

Jeffrey:  It’s northern Danish light in the way you sometimes see it in Scotland. And you see northern Scottish light. You will only get that blue and that change of blue from sky into sea in the very north of Denmark.

Ayesha Hazarika 23:21
Well, it’s funny you say that, because the light reminds me of, one of my favorite places, which is Orkney, where the light is very similar to this. It’s beautiful. It’s an absolutely gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous picture.

Jeffrey Archer 23:39
So we’re in agreement on that, although we’re rarely in agreement on much more. Can I ask, having found you out, what are you doing in life at the moment?


Ayesha: Well, I’m very busy with my media work, Jeffrey. Very busy on Times Radio, I present weekend drive every Saturday and Sunday from four ‘til seven on Times Radio. You have been kind enough to come on my program. I do a real mix of news, current affairs, a lot of political analysis and culture.

In an era where a lot of people are dumbing down on politics, we are nerding up on my show. So if you really like a good, fair, robust discussion about politics, you will enjoy my show.

Jeffrey: Well, I think nerding-up is a pretty good description of you, totally.  So, should you want to see here, listen to Ayesha again, the nerd of the century. You can capture her. Well, she goes on television and does the papers and she’s got her own program, as she points out, on Times Radio.

And you will get all her prejudices repeated again and again. Thank you so much for being on my podcast.

Ayesha: Thank you, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thank you to my guest Ayesha Hazarika, for joining me on this episode. And don’t miss out on any future episodes.  So please hit, follow or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Join me next time when we will try to entertain you again and perhaps surprise you with my special guest choice of book and other piece of culture.

And I hope you’ll forgive me for reminding you that my new book, Over My Dead Body is out now in hardback ebook and audiobook. I hope you enjoy it.

And until next time, goodbye.

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