Greatest Hits No 4: Songs My Mother Taught Me By Chris Brookes

  • 22.08.2023

For the latest instalment in our Greatest Hits series, showcasing the audio that made us who we are, Andrew Dickson celebrates the remarkable talents of the innovative Canadian feature-maker Chris Brookes

Newfoundland feature-maker Chris Brookes. Collage: Novel
Newfoundland feature-maker Chris Brookes. Collage: Novel

Audio-makers obsess about the power of the cold open: the piece of tape – the sound, the scene – that grabs you by the ears and forces you to listen. In some ways, I guess, it comes from working in radio, where your listener is most likely doing the washing-up, sitting in traffic surfing stations, often barely listening at all. These folk are fickle: if you don’t grab them in the first few seconds, they’re gone.

I remember with surprising precision when and where I heard the opening seconds of Chris Brookes’ Songs My Mother Taught Me: some time in early 2006, driving down the M4 en route to Dorset with a friend. I was starting to get properly interested in feature-making; the word “podcast” was in its infancy, but another friend had downloaded some favourite radio documentaries to my still-new white iPod for us to make the journey bearable. We had somehow convinced it to talk to the cassette player in the car. (Distant times.)

I remember where I was because, when we pressed play, I nearly swerved off the motorway, and not just because the volume was way too high. An angry-sounding beep – a screech, really – then the sound of a woman’s voice raging into an old-style answerphone. “I think you’re a cruel, selfish, heartless man,” she spits. The line goes dead. There’s another beep. “You’re also blind, stupid and inconsiderate.” Yet more angry things are said. “And, before you start shirking your responsibilities for the way you treat people and blaming it on your mother …”

The tape abruptly halts, scrolls back and repeats. “Blaming it on your mother … blaming it on your mother.” 1940s music gently fades up. Finally we hear a man’s voice, wry and long-suffering, an audible shrug. “It’s always like this,” he sighs. Beat.

I’ve listened to those 53 seconds many times over the years, and I still think they are an unimprovable way to begin a story. Who is the woman, and why is she so angry? Who’s the guy? Who’s the mother? The scenario sounds like radio drama – it’s as beautifully shaped and spaced as musical composition, as you can see if you read the script  – but it’s also intensely real. And you can’t do anything but keep listening.

The man who made this hour-long piece, the revered Canadian producer, sound artist and theatre maker Chris Brookes, died earlier this summer at the age of 79 . Over a 40-year career, Brookes rewrote the rules of documentary-making and won pretty much every award going. Operating since the late 1990s from a closet-sized studio in his home in St John’s, Newfoundland – close to Signal Hill, where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901  – he crafted thoughtful, beautiful, theatrical and incessantly absorbing pieces of audio that sit somewhere between documentary, drama, confessional, sound art and many things in between.

Songs My Mother Taught Me, made for CBC and first broadcast in 1999, is, for my money, one of the greats. The title is borrowed from the nineteenth-century composer Antonin Dvorak, who used it for a collection of wistful, elegiac folk songs he learned at his mother’s knee . As we learn as this “documentary novel” progresses, in Brookes’s case the inheritance is more tangled and emotionally fraught. Phyllis, his mother, born into a working-class English family, met his father Lewis, a captain in the Newfoundland regiment, while he was stationed in the UK during the second world war. They got married quickly; when Brookes was born in 1943, they brought him across the Atlantic as an infant and set up home in Newfoundland.

This glamorous wartime match turns out to have been bitterly sad – and, given those opening 53 seconds, it’s no spoiler to say so. “War bride” Phyllis, who came of age in the danger and thrills of wartime London, was lonely and savagely unhappy in this windswept outpost of Canada. Lewis apparently hadn’t been open about what their life would look like. They say that truth is the first casualty of war, and so it proved here.

The fascinating twist is that Phyllis wasn’t being totally honest either. Doing her best to escape from the shackles of the English class system, she did plenty of biographical editing of her own. It turns out her real name wasn’t even Phyllis. “I don't think it ever came across to us … that Auntie Elsie was embroidering the facts,” says a Cockney cousin Brookes tracks down decades later in London. If that opening sequence is any guide – the woman we hear on the answerphone is apparently an ex-girlfriend, or well on the way to being one – the effects on Brookes’s own psychology and relationships marked him for life.

The material is powerful – what a tale! – but it’s the way Brookes shapes it that will have you yearning to find out what happens next. This feature is a masterclass in making history feel as vivid as something recorded yesterday. With access to his mother’s diaries (suffice it to say that dating during the Blitz lent a certain intensity to proceedings), he has an actress voice them up so that we experience the story through her eyes. There are many beautifully modulated sequences and montages coloured with music, films and actuality from the period.

Sure, there are BBC Radio 4-style historians and sociologists telling us how the war turned women’s lives upside-down,  granting them precious opportunities and undreamed-of freedoms – a timely corrective to male-centred accounts of conflict. But Brookes never lets historical context swallow the emotional truths of his narrative. Courageously, he also turns the microphone on himself; alongside those answerphone messages (authentic, as far as I can make out) he drops in clips from his own therapy sessions, beautifully if heart-rendingly woven into despairing excerpts from his mother’s diary ("No future. No present … I am keen for divorce …"). Another former war bride he interviews talks movingly about the effects of what we now call PTSD. "Why weren't we all mad?" she asks. "Oh, I expect we were."

In Brooke’s extensive back catalogue, there are numerous excellent things to hear, and fortunately a number of them are online, if you dig in the right place. An eight-part CBC series called The Wire: The Impact of Electricity on Music , co-produced with Paolo Pietropaolo, won a Peabody and a Prix Italia in 2005; it’s imaginatively made and full of fascinating corners. Another single feature, 2001’s The Letter S , is a poetic rumination on the life of Marconi (a geographical coincidence Brookes clearly relished) and explores the history of wireless communication.

One of my favourites – which I heard go out on BBC Radio 3 in 2009, I think – is the remarkably adventurous 45-minute documentary Hark: An Acoustic Archeology of Elizabethan England , co-produced with Pietropaolo and Alan Hall. It attempts, and somehow manages, the impossible: to capture what the world sounded like, centuries before anyone had the technological means to record. In all the good ways, it beggars description. But if you’re looking for a place to start exploring Brookes, Songs My Mother Taught Me is the one, I think. Just try not to swerve off the road.

Listen out for: The moment when it becomes clear what exactly has happened to Phyllis/Elsie’s parents, not invited to their wedding.

Hit replay: An astonishing sequence focusing on the story of one of Phyllis’s former loves, an airman who goes missing.

See also: The Rest is History, Bad Women: The Blackout Ripper, most things by Falling Tree.

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