I have always regarded the radio as a constant companion, a close friend and a source of information and entertainment, more so than the television. It was that old stager Alistair Cooke, the broadcaster best known for his Letters from America, who quoted a little boy in a survey of children’s tastes in television and radio, who said that ‘he preferred radio to television because the pictures were better on the radio.’ Cooke’s 15-minute weekly broadcasts ran from 1946 until 2004, and were glorious in their variety, wit, insight and political savvy, that invariably started with an anecdote about, say, golf, segued sideways into the chicanery of the Republican Party, a discourse on American mores or manners, and ended up back on the golf course with a punchline that came out of the undergrowth. He died aged 95 in New York, where he had lived since 1937, having made 2,869 programmes over a period of 58 years.
In the past few weeks, much has been made of the fact the deadly corona virus has permeated virtually everywhere on the planet, except Ambridge in Borsetshire. One frustrated listener thought it would a great place in which to be right now, as the Bull was still open serving Shires Ales and Wayne Tucson’s artisanal food, but he couldn’t find it on his sat-nav. Apparently, BBC Radio 4 has said that they will introduce the pandemic into the storyline sometime at the beginning of May. As the BBC website states, ‘After that, The Archers will be temporarily changing. Storylines will continue and listeners will still hear about the comings and goings of Ambridge residents, but instead of multiple characters interacting each episode will have fewer characters who will be sharing more of their private thoughts with the listener.’ Sounds like self-isolation to me.
One usually reliable programme is Start the Week, hosted by a number of different presenters, including Tom Sutcliffe and Amol Rajan, but since 2002, Andrew Marr was in the chair, until 2013, when he had a stroke and had to curtail his appearances. Kirsty Wark stood in for him until he had recovered sufficiently to make a reappearance. She hosted a programme at the beginning of April on the subject of gender. One of her two guests was Gina Rippon, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of The Gendered Brain. The other was Sharon Moalem, who has just written a book called The Better Half: On the Genetic Superiority of Women*. Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? Except Sharon is a bloke! Dr Moalem is a physician, scientist, neurogeneticist and evolutionary biologist, whose book they were also discussing. Rippon was saying that, once we acknowledge that our brains are plastic and mouldable, then the power of gender stereotypes becomes evident. Right from the earliest of days, a boy or girl is going to be influenced by such common things as toys, clothes, books, parents, families, teachers at schools and universities, employers, friends, social and cultural behaviour, and, of course, gender stereotypes, which can all signpost different directions for different brains.
She went on to say that perhaps it was time for us to abandon the age-old search for the differences between brains of men and brains of women. There just are not any significant differences based on sex alone. One major breakthrough in recent years has been the realisation that, even in adulthood, our brains are neuroplastic, continually being changed, not just through education, but also by the jobs we have, the hobbies we do and the sports we play. Brains reflect the lives they have lived, not just the sex of their owners.
Andrew Marr was back the following week with two other authors, Sue Stuart-Smith with an intriguingly titled The Well-gardened Mind, and Jonathan Bate with his wholesome biography entitled Radical Wordsworth. There then followed an apposite conversation about mindfulness, nature and that being outdoors is good for our mental health, something gardeners have known for centuries. Using contemporary neuroscience, psychoanalysis and storytelling, The Well Gardened Mind investigates the fact that working with nature can radically transform our health, wellbeing and confidence. Prisoners given the chance to grow plants are less likely to reoffend, while elderly people who garden live longer and have a better quality of life. Something that was a revelation to me was that, in the First World War, soldiers in the trenches were sent seedlings from home from which to grow and nurture plants, and that some of the land they were digging up, may have once been French cottage gardens.
William Wordsworth was one of the founders of English Romanticism and one of its most central figures. He is remembered as a poet concerned with the human relationship with nature and a fierce advocate of using the vocabulary of common people in poetry, which he began writing as a young boy in grammar school. Before graduating from college, which Bate rather flippantly called his ‘gap year,’ he went on a walking tour of Europe, which deepened his love for nature and his sympathy for the common man, both major themes in his poetry. Bate said he saw Coleridge’s friendship as crucial to the period of Wordsworth’s greatest creativity; this, and his celibacy between the age of 22, after his affair in revolutionary France with Annette Vallon, with whom he had a child in 1792, and 32, when he married Mary Hutchinson. He thinks, not unreasonably, that the poet’s sexual frustration was sublimated into his verse, but he also postulates that Wordsworth anticipated Freud by writing the first fully autobiographical poem in English, in the form of The Prelude, a work that positively oozes with a powerful sense of the eternal. Bate ended up by saying that it was shame that he had not died at an earlier age in an ice-skating accident as, after such triumphs as Tintern Abbey, Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude were behind him, he continued to write some truly dreadful verse, and became an irritable old bugger, in spite of being made the English poet laureate in 1843.
Another brilliant show on Radio 4 is In Our Time, introduced by that great Yorkshire polymath, Melvyn Bragg, who asks the sort of questions we the listener are dying to ask, in a languid manner. I am sure that Melvyn is such a consummate broadcaster, he would not want to appear to be too much of a clever dick and compromise the knowledge of his expert guests, who mostly come from the groves of academe. However, we don’t want a dimwit, either, and one imagines that he has been well-briefed by his researchers before he even sits around the table. Topics are as wide-ranging as a dropped shoe-box full of notes, newspaper cuttings and memorabilia, and include such subjects as the 18th century gin craze to George Sand, Catullus to Doggerland, and from the great Irish famine of 1845 to pheromones. There are 900-odd podcast episodes to choose from, whether one is interested in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9AD between the Germanic Tribes and the Romans, or Hildegard of Bingen.
Cicero perhaps summed up our quest for knowledge in these round-table intellectual discussions, with his observation, ‘There is no statement so absurd that no philosopher will make it.’ Listeners are encouraged to come up with future topics for discussion, and some accepted views render the word esoteric beyond abstruse. Take, for instance, the Mytilenean Debate, as to ‘why the Athenians decided to send a fast ship to Lesbos in 427BC, rowing through the night to catch one they sent the day before. The earlier ship had instructions to kill all adult men in Mytilene, after their unsuccessful revolt against Athens, as a warning to others. The later ship had orders to save them, as news of their killing would make others fight to the death rather than surrender. Thucydides retells this in his History of the Peloponnesian War as an example of Athenian democracy in action, emphasising ‘the right of Athenians to change their minds in their own interests, even when a demagogue argued they were bound by their first decision’. Phew! Thank you Melvyn, for making that abundantly clear.