Friday, June 29, 2012

My friend the Radio

“Cause when you can’t find a friend
You’ve still got the radio”*

Gingham slippers, dusty poetry books and a 1950’s Parker Knoll fireside chair. Does the combination of these images hint at what has become my daily passion as I slide down this slippery slope into old age? Think for a moment. Crack cocaine? S / M? No, nothing that exciting, or damaging. I’ve discovered the pleasure of radio, specifically BBC Radio 4. Over the past five years, since I started working part time, I’ve grown very fond of Radio 4’s steady presence in my life and, if I’m honest, in my heart.
Each morning I’m eased into the day with a large cup of tea and the shipping forecast, which I catch the last few minutes of as I wait for the 6.00am news to begin. Something in me lights up as I hear the pips followed by the reassuring tones of Evan Davis, Justin Webb or John Humphreys announcing the start of the Today programme. Even the most ominous news, chaos in the markets, new government offensives against the poor and vulnerable, rising unemployment, or ongoing torrential rain, is cushioned by the ordered and seamless way in which it is presented over the airwaves. Evan, Justin and John are usually the first to tell us about chaos and catastrophe but there’s a calmness in their presence that soothes the listener and convinces us that it can’t really be that bad after all. 
         Some of the interviews broadcast on Radio 4 have made such an impression on me that – even years later - they stand out in my memory. It was on the Today programme that I heard Lawrence Anthony, the South African conservationist, interviewed about his role in saving a herd of wild elephants. I was walking to work at the time and listened to him, fascinated, on the radio of my Mp3 player. His guilelessness and humility, as well as his deep commitment to animal welfare, moved me deeply and occupied my thoughts for many days after the programme. I bought his book, The Elephant Whisperer, that afternoon.
Another interview broadcast on Radio 4 was life changing for me. One evening I was listening to All in the Mind when I heard the very wise voice of Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading proponents of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. He spoke principally of how just making the effort to be present in your everyday life can be a remedy for so much of what makes us unhappy. Shortly afterwards, a friend mentioned that mindfulness is the foundation of Zen Buddhism. Two nights later I knocked on the door of the local Zen group and now, almost three years on, I’m in the meditation hall every morning at 7.00 for the daily service.
One of the funniest men I’ve ever heard is the American David Sedaris, and I first came across him on his Radio 4 programme (Meet David Sedaris). Reading from his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris introduced us to his tyrannical French teacher and the daily humiliations endured at her hands in his battle to master the basics of the language while attending classes at a school in Paris. The story, as Sedaris told it, was hilarious, sad and sarcastic, a mixture which his deadpan voice manages to balance very well indeed:
Huddled in the hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overhead in refugee camps.
“Sometimes me cry alone at night.”
“That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People start love you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay.”

 I was in the living room doing yoga when I heard the programme and had to stop because I couldn’t hold the poses and contain my laughter without losing my balance.** At the time I was suffering from depression and I recall how strange it felt to hear the sound of my own laughter and to sense muscles around my jaw loosening up in a way they hadn’t done for a long time, possibly years.
There are many other programmes that I greatly enjoy listening to. On Sunday mornings I have Desert Island Discs to tune into. Kirsty Young must have the most pleasing voice of all radio presenters, ever. Jenni Murray (Woman’s Hour) is close behind her; but Jenni is my hero for another reason: she once put Michael O’Leary in his place on her programme for displaying the particularly vulgar brand of sexism for which he is renowned. Jenni didn't let him get away with it and her sharp response felt like a moment of personal triumph for me. I punched the air at the time, which I suppose was second best to punching the offender on the nose.
         I could go on an on about the many Radio 4 programmes that I’m addicted to. Audience figures suggest I’m not alone, that between 8 – 11 million people tune in daily to 96.10 FM. While Today is the most popular programme in terms of audience, it is clear that listeners have their own, often bizarre, preferences. The Shipping Forecast, which announces in sombre and serious tones the weather conditions in the seas surrounding the UK and Ireland is, on the face of it, the most boring 10 minutes on radio. No doubt, it is of great use to ships’ navigators, especially those that do not rely entirely on modern technology. Curiously, however, The Shipping Forecast has a sizeable following on land, maybe even a cult following that was mobilised and vociferous enough to launch a strong protest when rumours circulated some time ago about BBC plans to withdraw the programme. I, for one, am glad that those sombre tones continue to bring me news of gales and hurricane force winds blustering far out in the Atlantic and North Sea. Listening to them, I feel safe, cosy and paradoxically nostalgic for an era I never lived through: 1950s Britain.
My “relationship” with Radio 4 began in early 2007, just after my return from the developing world, Cuba to be precise. I’d spent six years on the island and discovered on my return home that I was overwhelmed by the media. Television and newspapers bombarded me with information, which I’d been deprived of while living on the island in the middle of the Caribbean. I couldn’t adjust to the pace of life back home and initially shut everything out to prevent information overload. Little by little I began listening to the radio for snippets of news and from there my interest expanded into just about every other programme R4 broadcast. The television set grew dusty and eventually I got rid of it. I don’t feel a need for it and I rarely feel that I’m missing out on anything.
More than once I’ve been accused laughingly of “Radio 4 speak.” “What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, who says, ‘chilling consequences’ or “extraordinary development” in real life? Those are the terms you’ve just used. You’ve been listening to too much Radio 4.”
I wasn’t aware that I’d perhaps been over indulging in R4 or that “R4 parlance” had influenced the way I express myself. I like silence too. 96.10 FM isn’t always switched on in my home. Sometimes the deluge of depressing news is frankly … just too depressing and certain Conservative politicians raise my hackles to the point where I shout, or rather snarl at the radio. That’s when I reach for the “Off” button or defect to Radio Ulster in the hope of some music.
Speaking of music, Nanci Griffith sings, “when you can’t find a friend you’ve still got the radio.” I’m lucky in that I have a lot of good friends but it is only the radio that I can unfailingly depend upon to brief me on the latest in world news and cultural developments at 3.00 am, just when I need a voice that helps me escape the incessant chatter in my head. Now that’s the test of a real friend.

*Listen to the Radio – Nanci Griffith 
** I’m a language teacher so perhaps this is why the story resonated with me so much.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece of writing, Karen. Today I listened to Radio 4 in your honour.