The Manifold Ghosts Of Christmas: In Wales, Dickensian London… And Space.

Hello You. Hope you have had a splendid Christmas with lots of family, food and fun in the correct ratios. I got two whole days off and spent them mostly outside surrounded by a blur of dogs, so I was happy. I was even happier on Boxing Day, which brought glad tidings of not one but two lengthy packages aired by the BBC that evening, in spite of my being ensconced up in the hills of Cumbria in the midst of the aforementioned canine-blur. Thanks to these tidings, I’m able to finally share with you a short radio drama I produced a few months ago with award-winning Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor. It’s a piece of fiction she wrote inspired by a particular 419 Scam letter that went viral earlier this year.

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419 letters, a kind of ‘phishing scam’ designed to trick gullible people into parting with their money, are a common enough occurrence, of course. Shortly after the death of Michael Jackson, I received an email that purported to be from his Doctor, claiming that as the King Of Pop™ was now unable to complete the ‘charity tour’ he had been planning, this had somehow freed up millions of dollars that he now wished to donate posthumously to sad orphans with leprosy or something. It speaks volumes that this arrived in my inbox at roughly the same time as the quack in question being sentenced to jail on prime-time US television for the involuntary manslaughter of the most famous person EVER. Most 419s are more sanguine and keep their feet firmly on the ground: they are generally written by pastors or exceptionally pious widows who happen to find themselves sat on a veritable goldmine that they can’t access due to a cruelly bureaucratic twist of fate – and only a random internet user like YOU can save the day. Generally banal but not inconceivable, it’s certainly true that very few of these letters play quite so fast and loose with the outer limits of plausibility as this one from a Mr. Bakare Tunde:

I am […] the cousin of Nigerian Astronaut, Air Force Major Abacha Tunde. He was the first African in space when he made a secret flight to the Salyut 6 space station in 1979. He was on a later Soviet spaceflight, Soyuz T-16Z to the secret Soviet military space station Salyut 8T in 1989. He was stranded there in 1990 when the Soviet Union was dissolved. His other Soviet crew members returned to earth on the Soyuz T-16Z, but his place was taken up by return cargo. There have been occasional Progrez supply flights to keep him going since that time. He is in good humor, but wants to come home. In the 14-years since he has been on the station, he has accumulated flight pay and interest amounting to almost $ 15,000,000 American Dollars […]

You get the idea – it’s basically a piece of science fiction that has now inspired another. Produced over the course of several weeks during the summer and with a voice track recorded from Lagos down the world’s worst ISDN line, ‘Afrofuturist 419’ was finally published a month or so ago in science fiction journal Clarkesworld Magazine, who very kindly allowed it to be broadcast on the BBC World Service’s flagship news programme Focus On Africa in celebration of Nnedi’s recent awards success. Here, Focus presenter Audrey Brown introduces  the story:

It’s traditional to tell each other spooky stories at this time of year, but today we’re bringing you something a little bit different. The Nigerian American writer Nnedi Okorafor has had a particularly busy year, with her science fiction story Binti winning both the 2016 Nebula and Hugo Awards for best novella, adding to the long list of accolades for her stories that explore other worlds and fantastical realms while retaining a strong connection to her Nigerian heritage – part of a wider tradition that has become known as ‘Afrofuturism’.
Here she presents her own take on a rather less noble form of storytelling that also got a lot of attention in 2016 – a so-called ‘419 scam letter’ begging for help in getting a stranded Nigerian Astronaut back to Earth. Recently published in celebrated American journal Clarkesworld Magazine, this audio version stars famous Nollywood actor Tchidi Chikere, members of the BBC’s Hausa service – and our own Robin [The Fog] on hand to provide the Sound FX. It’s not for the faint hearted… 

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Incidentally, it may interest you to know that the various sounds of ‘The Thing’ that features in the story were largely created with handfuls of paper and soap, while the bleeping spaceship atmosphere was provided by analogue synth tinkerer Mr. Jonny Stutters. You can find the transcript as it appeared in Clarkesworld here. The post also features the original audio files of the story, which can be accessed directly here. But for the full effect, listen again to Focus On Africa’s Boxing Day edition here for the next thirty days or so. Extra special thanks to Nnedi and Tchidi for being such a pleasure to work with, Haruna, Maura and Rachel from the BBC’s African services, Jonny and his magic bleeping boxes and of course to Clarkesworld Editor-in-Chief Neil Clarke for allowing us to broadcast it in the first place. Much obliged to you all!

All this excitement was followed a few hours later by something much more earth-bound and traditional, a seven-minute report I produced on the history of audiobooks at Christmas that closed that evening’s edition of The World Tonight on Radio 4. Introduced by Matthew Rubery, author of recently-published The Untold Story Of The Talking Book, it features numerous ghosts of Christmas past – quite literally with the inclusion of a 1934 recording of perennial favourite A Christmas Carol as well as the vintage voices of Charles Laughton and Dylan Thomas bringing us some festive tales of days gone by. You can listen to the feature as it went out on The World Tonight on the BBC website here (about half an hour into the programme) for the next few weeks, thought it’s probably best consumed within the next day or so, while savouring your last vestiges of Christmas cheer.

Speaking of which, while it doesn’t have much to do with our business here today, I used my Christmas gift token to buy a copy of the new Oxygene 3 album by Jean-Michel Jarre. Dear old Father Fog used to play me a cassette of the original Oxygene to calm me down as a baby, in doing so perhaps unwittingly kick-starting my complete infatuation with all aspects of electronic sound. It’s a work I’ve always loved and this latest volume is a most worthy addition to the series, but I can’t help feeling that someone in the packaging department might be harbouring a grudge against the Gallic synth master:

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Not very respectful, but it did raise a giggle or two when shared on Facebook. Don’t worry, M. Jarre. I still love you! I really do, actually…

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