Saturday, 30 November 2019

The Listening Post 

A collection of short stories. A collaborative binaural production by Elspeth (Billie ) Penfold  through Thread and Word .

A Review by the award winning poet and author Owen Lowery 

The Listening Post had its launch at The Book Buoy as part of the  Margate Bookie, at Turner Contemporary and is now at The Margate Bookstore until Saturday December 14th.

I am delighted to share this wonderful review by Owen Lowery  with   some photos of a busy few weeks with The Listening Post . 

"As a collection, I think that the stories are very effective and there is some lovely continuity between some of the stories, with the use of ambient woodland and beach/water sounds being extremely effective in helping to link the stories.  There is an otherworldliness to many of the stories, which certainly helps to transport the listener/participant, and demands attention. We are persuaded into a timeless environment, one far outside our normal experience, in which the magic of storytelling, the enchantment of the stories themselves, and their themes and subjects, become an escape in their own right."

 Now, taking each story one at a time, here are further thoughts from Owen:

A playlist

Story 1 – Melody. I really enjoyed this story, with its combination of ghostliness, eeriness, and humour. The voice chosen to read this story is perfect, and catches the wonderment of a childhood world in which anything is possible, and in which the veil between life and death is extremely permeable. The confessional and intimate nature of the voice successfully invite the reader into the story, just as the narrator is persuaded to enter the water by the ghostly and the increasingly real presence of Melody. The background soundscape adds a great deal of atmosphere, and creates quiet at just the right moments, adding to the sense of unease towards the close of the story.

Story 2 – What is Life. This story also considers the nature of the difference between life and everything that is not life, and uses a clear, if slightly disengaged voice. The voice though is that of intellectual fascination, rather than emotional fascination, which is in-keeping with the great questions that are asked. What indeed is life? That is the question that participants/audience are left to ask themselves as well. This supports the overall theme of the project, with its invitations to step outside of regular routines and consider what being and living actually mean. The ambient sounds of water again play a significant part, as do the background voices leading us into the next story.
Thank you for hosting us Rob.

Story 3 – Ponytail and Smokey Eyes. This is an interesting story with a good contrast between the past and present, the way in which the former continues to affect the latter, and the attempts of the narrator to escape her past and move on from a history of sexual abuse. This is a very brave subject to tackle, and I feel that it is handled extremely cleverly, with humour being used to underline the strength of character of the narrator, the means by which she has tried to move on after facing up to her demons. The public speaking environment is another fascinating challenge for the narrator, given the tendency for galleries to objectify. Despite this problem, the narrator is prepared to face these challenges on her own terms, which is in itself beautiful. The ambient sounds effectively evoke the very public nature of the speaking engagement, and the sound of children towards the end of the recording is particularly moving. Again, the voice is just right for this story and displays the strength and humour of the narrator extremely well.

Tuning in

Story 4 – Your Last. This story has an effective and strong reading, with the voice being both urgent and more than a little threatening. Again, we find ourselves in a world in which the boundary between life and death is paper-thin, uncomfortably so, given the expressed intentions, the ongoing possessiveness, of the ghostly narrator. I think I detected the sounds of soil being dug, which would be suitable, given that the narrator has a parallel existence as an inanimate dead person, and as a more mobile and transient ghost. This is one of my favourite readings.

Install at Turner Contemporary 

Story 5 – Night Going. Another of my favourite readings occurs in this story, with the beautiful delayed voice working perfectly alongside the piano. There is space for the reading and the story to breathe. There is time for the audience to think around the reading and around the words, which are in themselves extremely well-written. I particularly like the use of repetition towards the end of the story, underlining the inevitability of death and perhaps even the peacefulness of death. The use of ambient singing voices is also a lovely addition to this story, and adds to the magic of this reading and this recording. 


Story 6 – I Love to Dance. This story is a lovely celebration of the enduring strengths of the human spirit, and the ability of the human spirit to overcome all obstacles. There is defiance here, and passion, all of which are extremely infectious and uplifting. The way in which the granddaughter celebrates her grandmother, by dancing everyday, is a fantastic testimony to the importance of life and of actually living life, rather than simply going from day-to-day and giving in to circumstances. The clog dancing or tap dancing sounds towards the end of the recording are the perfect ending really, given the importance of rhythm and movement, rather than stasis and restriction. The reading voice does feel like that of relative celebrating the passion of another relative, and that is just what is needed.

Thank you for listening

Story 7 – The Trap. This is an interesting story of the tendency for violence of any kind, and in this case violence against rats, to dehumanise, two rob us of our emotions and breed more violence, perhaps. Again, the story is lifted by effective and engaging humour, and the use of natural sounds forms a very good contrast with the increasing tendency to violence, experienced by the narrator. It is also a good link to the next story. 

Thank you for great feedback

Story 8 – Agnes and the Woodman. This story is a little like a fairytale, with its beautiful combination of darkness and fun, plus its magical ‘landscape’, in which it is perfectly possible for dead spiders and dogs and birds not only to communicate, but to take part in wine-sipping encounters with the narrator. Background sounds are very important in the story, as they move from woodland birdsong, to the snapping and popping of flames as the story reaches its conclusion. The woodman is an extremely well-created character, capable of crossing from the magical world, to the regular world, and back again, but also suggesting that in fact the magical world is the more natural of the two. There is a contemporary poignancy to this story and the preceding story, given their concentration on the relationship between mankind and the natural world. This is certainly something that we will need to think about.

 A taxonomy of all things lost
Story 9 – Not Anymore. Once more, there is an engaging and inviting continuity between this story and the previous two stories. The reading is very effective and reflective. This is exactly as it should be, given the retrospective nature of the story, the manner in which it looks back towards a world in which the connection between the narrator, and therefore all of us, with nature, has been severed, partly through the need or compulsion for classification. Taxonomy seems to have stifled natural processes and growth. Perhaps once we name animal and plant species, we rob them of a little of their life, even though the process of classification in this story also represents the narrator’s former love of the nature around her. The paradox is an interesting one, and is expressed with moving simplicity and economy in this story, and in this reading of the story. I think there is a little of what Ted Hughes was getting at in his nature poems. For example, when Hughes writes about a pike or a hawk, it is not simply as taxonomy would describe it. It runs far deeper than that. It exists beyond the definitions and the words.

Lost in listening.

Story 10 – Always. This story touched me, from a personal perspective, because of the synergy between the rhythm of breathing, and the rhythm of the sea, as represented both in the story, and in the wonderful background soundscape. For obvious reasons, breath is something that enters into my poetry quite a lot. Here, the sea seems to become a means of escape into another world, again underlining the themes of other stories in this collection, and of the project as a whole. The clear ironic tone of the narrator is a very effective counterpoint to the importance of these themes.

A workshop encouraging listening.

Story 11 – Beach. Once more, the continuity between this story and its predecessor is extremely effective, particularly when supported by the continuity of the soundscape, the sounds of waves, the way in which they move, their rhythm, their complexity and simplicity. This story is the perfect reminder of the importance of our environment and other things that we so often take for granted, when we have ‘no time to stand and stare’, as it were. The story, and the soundscape, and the reading, the uniqueness of the sea, the manner in which it is always and always changing, its essential paradox are all there in this recording. Once more, the importance of seeing and listening actively, of experiencing, rather than simply remaining passive, is reinforced, and the connection with the audience, which is in itself an active audience, is underlined.

Story 12 – Island. The sounds of the sea are also emblematic of this story, which is effectively a miniature murder mystery, with a delightfully open ending. I like the fact that we enter this story on the terms of the narrator/ speaker, as she allows us into her private world, with all its dark magic and its secrets. Here, the relationship between the sea and the narrator replicate the relationships of Greek tragedy, with the sea serving as a Chorus, an insistent truth, and the protagonist seemingly certain to be found out at some point. Once again, we move between worlds, and what we have ‘seen’ and heard and experienced cannot be undone. We are transformed as we move through this collection. There is also an effective sensuality about this story, as all of the senses are invoked. We even smell and feel the beach and the sea.

Convivial sharing at The Margate Bookie

Story 13 – May and Amy. I love the characterisation in this story. The matriarchal grandmother figures are very well created and are worth celebrating in their own right. There is something essential about them, or even elemental. They are almost ethereal, but simultaneously real, as they continue to exert an influence on the present, reaching forward from the past, beyond themselves.

Storing memories like Magpies

You can listen to all these stories here linked on Sound Cloud :

Story 14 – Magpie Girl. I love the way in which this story is supported and perhaps even saved by the use of ambient sounds. The ‘voice’ of the magpie is such a vital part of the story and adds so much to the drama. With hindsight, I think I should have used a female narrator, preferably a young female narrator, so that the narrative voice would reflect that of the girl at the heart of the story, but I still like it as a story. 

I am just delighted that the story is part of such an amazing project. Thank you so much for allowing me to take part. “

Owen Lowery 


With thanks to all who have contributed and supported this project, it is wonderful to collaborate with you all. With particular thanks to Owen Lowery for writing this review.

If you'd like to hear more about the Margate Bookie and events here a link to a great review:Nothing The Rule Book by Mark Bowsher

You can follow Thread and Word on facebook , linked in , twitter and instagram see website links.

This project was made through the generous  financial support of :

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