The Lives of Others: A Maternity Leave Spent Wondering

After my second son was born, I pounded the same streets of London, rocking my baby to sleep in his buggy. Every day I walked past the same market stall holders, grandmothers, childminders, gardeners, bin men, teenagers. In my sleep-deprived state I was keenly aware that no one talks to each other in London, or more specifically I don’t utter a word to some of the same faces I see every day. But the magic of a tiny baby is that they connect people.

Soon I was talking to more and more locals and frankly I appreciated the chat. It wasn’t long before my staring (a problem since childhood) was out of control and I longed to ask people questions about their lives. I decided to do something I would call ‘The Interview Project’. A quick google revealed that David Lynch had got there first. However, Lynch filmed his interviewees and had not asked as many personal questions. Armed with a baby and a microphone I wasn’t sure whether people would be up for over-sharing with me, but I was certainly up for asking probing questions. So here is what I learnt:

1. If you want people to say ‘yes’, be confident.

On Day One I couldn’t have been more apologetic when I stopped people. I squirmed and apologized and this gave people the space to refuse. After three straight rejections I knew I had to give the baby to my Mum (childcare and radio don’t mix) and stopped apologizing. Getting people to talk to you is the same as dating: play it cool and they will come to you.

2. Most people are living a life they didn’t plan for or imagine as a child.

The majority of people were surprised by the life they were leading: their personal life or job had taken an unexpected turn.

3. The world is divided in to people who were loved by their Mother and people who weren’t

What’s your relationship like with your mother? This was the question that had the greatest impact – the joy or the sadness visibly changed people’s faces and at times it was incredibly moving to witness.

4. You never fully get over a divorce.

The people who had experienced divorce seemed shattered by it.

5. People want to talk about their feelings.

My fear was that people wouldn’t want to discuss their emotions but the opposite is true. I started to understand that few people actually get asked about their childhood, their fears, their relationships and what makes them tick. We think it’s rude if we probe too deeply and ask personal questions but my argument is people will always say ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ if they feel it’s inappropriate. I’m conditioned to be polite and cautious of others emotions but actually people were more than willing to open up. I only wish I had been bolder with my follow-up questions. I had to spur myself on to ask the really private questions so when I was given a revelatory response I retreated and felt it only polite to not push further. This is a mistake – the best interviewers are exceptional listeners and their follow-ups are always on the money (check out Anna Sale on Death, Sex & Money, Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs and Marc Maron on WTF podcasts).

6. You only ever hear the same voices on the radio.

I wanted to talk to people who were different from the same white male voices I hear on the radio every day. Where are the Black, Asian, Ethnic Minority voices, the working class, the teenagers, the elderly, the unemployed? In my job, stories are usually plucked from newspapers. But newspapers predominantly focus on the opinions, achievements and stories of middle-class, white men, hence the cycle continues. I felt it was time to search for stories in a new way. When I pitched the idea, another radio producer said ‘but you always need to start with the cast’. Surely by entering different spaces and meeting new people, not like you, you can cast from a wider, more diverse pool and find stories there?

7. Britain is class-obsessed

I live in one of the most extreme boroughs of London: severe poverty lives next door to the 1%. I fussed about seeming like some kind of middle-class tourist poking about in the personal lives of the less fortunate. I needn’t have bothered wasting precious months not starting the project because I was frozen by paranoia. That’s more patronizing. Class difference, racial difference, age difference: it all becomes meaningless when you make a connection with someone, laugh and share in something. There is so much fear and ignorance and certainly in my borough this could change if people just spoke to each other for one second.

8. You will fail, so embrace it.

An old classic, but true. The whole project took so many more months than expected and had to be done at night and during baby’s naptime. Editing my own voice is awful and I kept trying to cut myself out entirely. I still cringe at bits and there is always more to learn about listening, knowing when to shut up and when to ask a damn follow-up question. It’s all good learning and I think it is time to be brave and get on with it.