BBC Radio Northampton spotlights guests from Northampton, Massachusetts

  • Abington Park Bandstand, Northampton, England. PHOTO BY HELEN BLABY

  • BBC Radio’s Helen Blaby and Abbie Eaton, Northampton, England. PHOTO BY JOHN ALEXANDER.

  • Guildhall, Northampton, England. PHOTOS BY HELEN BLABY

  • Abington Park Museum. PHOTO BY HELEN BLABY

  • BBC Radio’s John Alexander and Helen Blaby in Northampton, England. COURTESY JOHN ALEXANDER

  • National Lift Tower, Northampton, England. PHOTO BY HELEN BLABY

  • From left to right, in Northampton, England: Franklin’s Gardens rugby stadium; BBC Radio host Helen Blaby and race car driver Abbie Eaton, both Northampton, U.K. natives; and Guildhall.

For the Gazette
Published: 7/2/2019 2:30:04 PM

Every guest Helen Blaby welcomes onto her radio show becomes her new favorite person. The Northampton, England native especially loves her guests’ accents — American accents — and she has spoken to enough people at this point that she can hear different regional inflections.

For several weeks, Blaby has been presenting a show for BBC Radio Northampton in the U.K. in which she interviews people from Northampton, Massachusetts to find out more about the U.S. city.

So far, she has interviewed David Narkewicz, the mayor of Northampton; Caroline Powers, a reporter at Western Mass News; Anne-Marie Moggio, director of parks and recreation for the city; Jody Kasper, police chief for the Northampton Police Department; and Brooke Hauser, editor-in-chief of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

On Friday, Blaby — whose bio describes her as “a keen lawn bowler” with “a love of pickled eggs” — and her producer John Alexander talked about their radio show, what surprised them most about Northampton, Massachusetts and where exactly in Northampton, England a person can jump off the side of a 418-foot-tall building.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you come up with the idea for your show?

John Alexander: It was all my idea.

Helen Blaby: John’s a genius! (They both laugh.) Well, it seemed like an obvious thing to do because Northampton in Massachusetts is obviously going to be different from our Northampton. And we’re finding out that’s the case, just talking to people from there. We thought that maybe we should find out more about the people that live there, the stuff that goes on — stuff that people in Northampton, U.K. would want to know about, too.

How do you find people to talk to?

JA: What really surprises me is that people in Northampton (in Massachusetts) take a phone call from somebody like me, who says, “Do you want to be on this radio show that you’ve never heard of on the other side of the world and talk to my presenter about who you are and what you do?” And they all say, “Yeah, sure.”

HB: I can’t imagine someone doing a radio show over there and them finding people to talk to over here, for some reason. I don’t know why. Maybe we’re a little less friendly than you are.

Did you know anything about Northampton, Massachusetts before you started your radio show?

JA: I knew it was in America.

HB: I didn’t even know whereabouts! Every time I hear “Massachusetts,” I hear the Bee Gees song going through my head. But aside from that, I didn’t know anything about it at all, if I’m honest.

JA: I’ve been to Boston.

HB: Well done.

So what’s your impression of Northampton, Massachusetts now, after learning a bit about it?HB: I love the sound of it! We talked to Ann-Marie Moggio a few weeks ago, and she was just telling me about all the green spaces that you’ve got, and I just thought, “You know, it really sounds lovely!” Our Northampton is very green, too. The thing I like to trot out every now and again is that we have the highest amount of green space per capita in the U.K., in Northampton. When you talk to our Borough Council — the people who look after all this — they’ll tell you that they have 1,500 bits of grass they need to mow every month. But when I was talking to Ann-Marie, she just painted such a lovely picture of the place, how friendly it is, how inclusive, how there’s a lot going on. It’s definitely on my itinerary to come visit in the not-too-distant future.

And what has surprised you the most about Northampton, Massachusetts?

JA: I think it was hearing about the cannabis dispensary.

HB: Yeah, actually. Every time we ask someone what’s the big thing that’s going on, they talk about the cannabis dispensary. It wouldn’t happen here because it’s illegal, so it kind of brings alive the difference between the two cultures. And when I was talking to Chief Jody, I asked her about gun crime, but she told me that the problem here wasn’t with guns but with narcotics.

JA: The other thing that struck me was that, for a country that’s become very reliant on a car, Northampton has a lot of bike trails and places you can go cycle quite safely, rather than having to rely on your car.

​​​​​​So what tends to surprise your American guests about Northampton, U.K.?

HB: Oh, the National Lift center, every single time. The fact that there is a tower that just sticks up in the middle of town. You can throw yourself off the side of it, should you want to.

JA: Every weekend people are abseiling. It’s 418 feet high.

HB: It was commissioned in 1978, and it was opened in 1982 by the queen. The Express Elevator Company tested their lifts there. It’s been five or six years since they’ve started to let people abseil off of it. A lot of our local charities will get a group of people to do it … People get sponsored to do it, and they raise a lot of money.

What are some of the biggest similarities you’ve noticed between the two Northamptons?

JA: We both speak English. And we’ve got the same name.

HB: Do you know there’s not that many similarities? I know we both have the Pride festival at about the same time, and ours started slightly after yours. Northampton, Massachusetts is very gay-friendly, and Northampton, U.K. has been trying to follow your lead. So we have that, but aside from the fact that people in Northampton, Massachusetts and in Northampton, U.K. both drink beer, there’s not a great deal of similarity, to be honest.

How would you describe Northampton, U.K. to someone who hasn’t been there?

HB: Well, it’s my favorite place in the world. It’s a place with a heart of gold, but you have to go looking for it. The people are friendly once we get to know you; we can be a bit standoffish from time to time. But most of all, it’s a town set in the most beautiful countryside. If you go five minutes outside the town’s center, there’s a fantastic countryside.

Other than the lift tower, are there any major landmarks?

HB: Yes! So our Guildhall is particularly lovely, which is where the Borough Council have their offices. All Saints’ Church is lovely. Franklin’s Gardens (rugby stadium), too.

Any annual events there?

HB: We have a carnival every year. There’s all kinds of things happening. There’s a Northampton marathon.

JA: Northampton Shoe Day.

HB: Yeah, that’s something the radio station organizes. The patron saint of Northampton is Saint Crispin, who’s the patron saint of shoes — because Northampton is famous for its shoes — and his saint day is October 25. So we used to hold it the weekend of October 25, but it was always freezing and wet, so we moved it up a bit earlier. We do it in September now, generally. We’re lucky to have a lot of specialist food producers in Northampton. There’s great food and drink produced here, so on Shoe Day we get the best of it together at one of our historic houses, and we get lots of entertainment and things like that.

What makes the shoe industry in Northampton so great?

HB: The shoe industry in Northampton goes back years and years and years. If you are a Northamptonian family, as I am — if you look into my family history, pretty much every single relative I had worked in the boot and shoe trade at some point. Big names come from Northampton, so Church’s shoes come from here, Tricker’s shoes are made here. The Japanese are particularly interested in our shoes. There’s a lot of local shoe shops here that have boutiques in Japan at the moment. But it’s just an industry that’s gone back hundreds and hundreds of years, and it’s very artisan. There are specialized guilds as well.

JA: It’s predominantly men’s shoes as well.

HB: If you buy yourself a pair of Church’s shoes as a man, you probably won’t ever have to buy yourself another pair of shoes in your life.

Are there any famous people from there?

HB: Yes! Uh, let’s have a think here. Francis Crick, the father of DNA. Matt Smith (the Emmy-nominated actor who plays Prince Philip in the Netflix series “The Crown”).

JA: Loads of Rugby players.

HB: And me, obviously!

JA: Can I have your autograph?

HB: Yeah. I will charge you, though.

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