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The Alternate Lavender Island

Marooned Guest: Ben Kearns

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This time, our marooned guest – Ben Kearns – is something of a media megastar. He claims not have had an interesting life on the level of Andy Cooke, but I’ll leave the reader to be the judge.


He’s worked in radio (wanting to work in that industry for almost as long as he can remember). Since he works in radio presentation, he’s likely to be better at telling this than I am. Totally coincidentally and not factoring at all into my decision-making process, it’s easier for me to hand over to Ben and let him introduce himself.


Who says an editor’s job is difficult? Ben, would you mind introducing yourself before we cast you adrift?

I’ve made appearances on, and have done some work at, the BBC, having cropped up on BBC Essex a couple of times and made a cameo appearance on Radio 4. I’ve also tried my hand at writing radio comedy and made a documentary about the late John Peel’s contribution to the emergence of Grime and Dubstep music (which was brand new/hardly talked about back then), roping in a couple of his Radio 1 colleagues in for interviews in the process.


There was also the time I tried to break the record for the longest ever radio show. I didn’t make it, thanks in part to doing my leg in during a fairly intense piece of exercising (while playing a song I must have either thought put the invention of sliced bread to shame, or loathed with a passion so great I was taking it out on my leg. I honestly can’t remember which), but I did make it to 90 hours of almost continuous broadcasting and received a message of good luck from a member of the Royal Family (to this day, I still feel guilty that most people have to wait until they’re 100 to hear from those guys directly, whereas I just had to stay up long enough to get a message).


I have also in the past worked at Ealing studios, getting a walk-on part in a film that was being recorded there at a time when I was presenting a Breakfast Show. Every day on my way in, I’d walk past the filming. One day I stopped, talked to the people behind the film, and pestered them into allowing me to do it.


Nowadays I find myself working primarily in Chelmsford, which after all can claim to be the birth place of radio. I particularly enjoyed taking part in the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the first radio broadcast from Chelmsford (which featured Nelly Melba), back in June 1920.


One more point about me generally before moving onto AH proper (and it’s not something I find particularly interesting about myself, although I know others do and I don’t think listeners to my AH podcast would necessarily know) is that I’ve never seen an Alternate History map in my life... or much of anything come to think of it, as I’ve been blind since birth. I think that’s the reason I don’t find it especially interesting myself, as I “don’t know any different”, as they say.


How did you come into the AH genre?

I stumbled upon the genre by accident, as I explained in my previous interview with Sealion Press. To cut a long story short, I discovered it purely by accident, as a result of wondering how history could have been different without really knowing there was a specific genre based on that very idea. My reason for starting the Alternate History show is pretty self-explanatory: I guess it’s a subject I’m passionate about and I believe I have passable enough presentation skills to guide an interesting discussion or two on various AH topics, as well as interviewing other members of the AH community about their work. I aim to appeal not only to those interested in AH, but people who may have an interest in history, who have never heard of AH as a genre but may have wondered about “what might have been.”


Moving on to your AH choices. You mentioned that it was traditional for certain items to be given gratis – in Desert Island Discs, that was the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Never being one to deny tradition, I think we can give you (and subsequent guests) Agent Lavender. With that in mind, what’s your first choice for an AH book?

Fight and Be Right by Ed Thomas. This was probably one of the first, if not the first, fully fleshed out pieces of AH I remember reading. I think I must have come across it in Timeline form on not long before he’d finished it. At that time, I was a lurker, not a member of, but I remember being pulled in by the writing and always going into Oliver Twist mode whenever he’d finished an update.


I was especially struck, even back then, by the seeming insignificance of the POD – a mislaid letter – and how the world changed drastically from there.


A comparable timeline I came across “back in the day” was one involving someone having the presence of mind to knee Gavrilo Princip in the groin before he could assassinate Franz Ferdinand, thereby unknowingly preventing World War I as we know it and all that followed on.


On the subject of Ed Thomas, I also adored A Greater Britain (it was interesting to see a convincing portrayal of Prime Minister Mosley and I’ve yet to see it done with such aplomb since).

Picture courtesy Amazon.

And the second AH book you’ve selected?

The End and Afterwards, by Andy Cooke. I thought long and hard about bringing The Fourth (and Fifth) Lectern to the island, but I don’t think I have room to. This one, however, really shows Andy’s versatility as a writer, plus reading an AH dystopia serves an obvious practical purpose as a reminder that no matter what’s going on in the world, things could always be worse, as Andy so excellently illustrates. I also had the pleasure of having Andy appear as a guest on the show about a year ago.


A copy of the Protect and Survive Timeline would also more than suffice in this regard as well. It’s also extremely well-written and I think that it was the first AH timeline I put my head above the parapet to comment on, so it has fond memories for me – but let’s go for Andy’s work.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Moving on to your third book. What is it?

Through Darkest Europe, by Harry Turtledove. I must say, I’m a bit of a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to the delights of Turtledove and I have not yet read this book. However, the premise greatly interests me and, given I’ll have all this time alone on Lavender Isle, I’ll have plenty of opportunity to read it.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Can you talk about your fourth book?

The Limpid Stream, by Jack Tindale. I’m a huge fan of the comedy creator Chris Morris (particularly Blue Jam and Brass Eye) and I don’t think I’d be able to forgive lesser skilled writers for mercilessly killing off these works of genius by making Morris an MP in the For the Sake of a Shower timeline, as Jack did.


However, I’m also a big fan of Jack, and the TL itself (and especially this book) more than made up for it.


I typically prefer alternate World War I scenarios to their World War II equivalents as the former just don’t get done as much and definitely not to this high standard. The Limpid Stream takes a POD that is often touched on (Lenin not making the train and Kerensky’s government limping on), but the AH discussions I’ve seen fizzle out before they get anywhere, and this is by far the best fully-fledged work I’ve seen on the subject. A favourite moment of mine is what he did to Trotsky!

Picture courtesy Amazon.

What’s the fifth and final AH book you’ve chosen?

The World’s Other Side, by Daniel M Bensen. So, I’m bending the rules a little here with a book not yet properly released. However, I’ve read it and it has a great deal going for it. Like the Turtledove book listed above, it involves a reversal of cultural norms (and cultures coming together, clashing and ultimately learning from each other in an even more culturally polarised world than our own). Add in crime on a pretty epic scale and the possibility of grappling with inter-cultural romance and it all amounts to a fantastic page-turner. You’ll also be struck by the striking similarities between this world and our own as well as the obvious differences. What’s more, he’s appeared as a guest on the AH show recently to talk about it. Although I’d include it even without that fact, it sure doesn’t hurt.


You’re also allowed one history book of OTL history. What will you be taking?

Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, by Frederick Lewis Allen. I think this was the first history book I ever read after discovering AH. What interested me is that at the time of writing, the Roaring 20s was as recent as Covid is to us today (or back then, as recent as the Bush/Blair years were to us in the late 2000s). The author clearly realised that the Great Depression had swept away the seemingly care-free 1920s and had hit America particularly hard compared to other countries at that stage and nothing was going to be the same afterwards. It was interesting to read about the events of what can now be seen as something of a transitional decade for the States (and the world) through the perspective of someone who had almost literally just experienced it all unfold first-hand.


However, what was obviously not clear to him were the more long-term ramifications stemming from the Wall Street Crash (Franklin Roosevelt and The New Deal, the rise of Nazism, and the pivotal role his nation would play in that war and the future of the 20th Century and beyond).


Those are your books. We move on to the section that seems to cause a lot of people trouble. Music. What AH music would you like to have with you?

I can well believe this has caused some consternation!


Personally, I find a good sign an AH book has hit the right note (pun intended) with me at least is that I start to imagine what the music would be like in that TL. I thought of going down the route of having any number of musical genii not dying prematurely (Jim Morrison, Otis Redding, Amy Winehouse, the guys from Viola Beach, Eliot Smith...) surviving to (hopefully) make more great music, but there’s no guarantee that’ll happen and I figured that’s the avenue most guests go down.


Honorary mentions must also go to folks like Matthew Jay, who were on the cusp of ‘making it’ before dying too early and remaining unknown, or 60s bands such as The Penthouse 5 and Simon’s Secret, who didn’t break through for various reasons. I’d have also loved to have seen soul singers such as Mirri Clayton and Eloise Laws being bigger names than they actually were. The idea of the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac continuing also fascinates me, and I’ve always thought the ‘Madchester’ boomlet of the early 90s had a lot more potential (I’m boringly square as far as the pill popping is concerned, but I’m a sucker for the genre-crossing punk-meets-disco, music-is-music and we don’t care who listens to our music ethos epitomised by those bands, most notably Primal Scream) but then again, I think the spirit lives on to this day.


I also get misty eyed about the Soka hype that never materialised in the early 2000s (musical theorists attribute 9/11 for putting paid to that), and I can’t get the more whacky idea of my own, featuring Ivor Cutler, Sid Barret, and Venetian Snares embarking on a collaboration for as yet unknown reasons. Don’t ask me why I think that’s work, and there’s absolutely no evidence that it would have ever happened, I just do – at least for my ears.


In the end, though, I decided to plump for a bit of Northern Soul in the shape of The Tomangoes (though in an ATL where they made more music, they probably wouldn’t fall so neatly under the Northern Soul banner, but that’s by the by). In truth, I’d love to wax lyrical about them, but it’s remained a bit of a mystery regarding who they are to this day. I Really Love You is one of their only known recordings and, judging by this stonker of a tune, they could have made a lot more beautiful music together in an alternate universe somewhere – and I’m itching to get to Lavender Island to be able to hear it whilst reading my AH books! Plus, I flat out adore Northern Soul generally, again in part for its reputation for sweeping away cultural boundaries.


One question of my own, though. Can I take all this never-made music from The Tomangoes back to OTL with me after my stay on the Island and play it on my radio shows?


I guess the question was inevitable sooner or later. The traditional answer would be that you can, but it would represent a POD for this world, and you’ve already highlighted how small, seemingly insignificant changes can have a major impact on the world. The final item you are allowed is a luxury item taken from Alternate History. What have you chosen?

Another book, for practical reasons. I know you’re a prolific author, David (amongst other things)...


Why do I have a bad feeling about this?

... and I know that you’d know a thing or two about surviving on a random island somewhere – and it will be reasonably priced in all good Alternate History bookshops (and online outlets). Still, I’m willing to bet that with all the other things you’ve packed into your life, you haven’t gotten around to writing it. With that in mind, I’d love (and would probably need) to take The Complete, Definitive Guide To Surviving On A Random Island In The Middle Of Nowhere For An As Yet Unknown Length Of Time by David Flin, please? You can rest assured that it’ll take pride of place on the island while I’m there!


If I can’t have that, I’ll take my collection of Bill Hicks stand-up comedy gigs (all after 1994, of course). There’s an ATL somewhere where I have fond memories of going to see Hicks live and discovering, to my unbridled delight, that he really is as good “in the flesh” as he is while watching from afar and his content remains as hilarious as it ever was, to this day. To paraphrase the man himself: “I’m a dreamer, man. But I’m not the only one.”


Those are all your items. How well do you think you will cope on Lavender Isle?

I can deal with the alone time as I’m one of life’s introverts, believe it or not given my choice of career. As to practicality, see my answer in the previous question. I have faith in you.


So, no pressure on me, then.

Many thanks for inviting me to this island. It’s a lot more comfortable than I envisaged. Before I head off, can I say a quick word about my AH Show? So, the bread and butter of the programme features a discourse on a given AH topic. It’s usually pretty broad, so we can fit in plenty. Some guy called David Flin has appeared as a guest a few times. If you listen and find that you like it, all praise is welcome. Otherwise, you may recall that earlier on I did say I wanted to do radio for almost as long as I can recall. That’s because when I was a kid, I had a bit of an obsession with the London bus and, ironically given my total lack of sight, I wanted to be a bus driver. I guess anyone who doesn’t like the AH podcast (particularly those living in Essex) really ought to at least be grateful I’m driving AH discussions rather than actual buses.


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