Recent events in Egypt have exposed not just the chasms in our understanding of what’s been going on in the countries of the Middle East, but also the effects of changes in how the BBC is spending the licence fee on reporting ‘fast-breaking’ stories.

Recent events in Egypt have exposed not just the chasms in our understanding of what’s been going on in the countries of the Middle East, but also the effects of changes in how the BBC is spending the licence fee on reporting ‘fast-breaking’ stories. Instead of ‘stringers’ in the field, kept ticking over in foreign parts on a modest retaining fee to become deeply versed in the language, the politics, the macro-economics and the ordinary lives of the people among whom they live, the big names are now flown in for a few days of commentary. It’s more noticeable on TV, but also evident on radio where last week Jim Naughtie was given leave-of-absence from the Today studio and sent off to Cairo to report from Tahrir Square.

Naughtie is a wise listener, an empathetic interviewer, a welcome voice in the morning, but I felt very uncomfortable listening to his reports from Egypt, especially last Friday morning, which was dubbed (by whom?) the Day of Departure and thought at the time to mark a turning point in what was going on there.

I didn’t want to hear a Westerner giving his views on the situation, no matter his experience as a journalist, his ability to communicate with a radio audience. I wanted only the voices of the Egyptians who are calling for change, and of those who are refusing to give it. I needed to try to understand what’s been going on under President Mubarak that we have not been hearing about. I wondered whether what’s going on is like the Velvet Revolution in Prague or more ominously the precursor of a French-style massacre of the ancien régime.

Instead we had Naughtie, talking, it is true, to some of those who have been in the Square, but from his perspective as an observer from London, not as someone who knows much more about Egypt than I do. I felt like a tourist as I listened, not a traveller, jetting in for a few moments while I ate my bran flakes, as if this was Excess Baggage, not Today. It’s not informed news, nor in-depth documentary, but a kind of voyeurism.

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Call me old-fashioned but I’m really enjoying The Far Pavilions on Radio 4 (Monday to Friday mornings at 10.45 and repeated in the evenings). When the novel by M.M. Kaye was first published in the late-1970s it was thought of as ‘a Gone with the Wind for the North-West Frontier’. This great wrist-buster of a romantic saga is set in the foothills of the Himalayas in the days of the Raj. I confess that I loved the first 500 pages, but a telltale bookmark in the dust-infested paperback suggests that my wrists gave out on page 676, collapsing under the weight of all that luscious detail.

Kaye’s hero, Ash, is born to an Englishwoman just before the Great Mutiny, but is soon orphaned by cholera. He survives the uprising against the British only because he has been fostered by his Indian ayah and has turned native. Yet when his foster mother dies he ends up back in England with his birth family (the plot contortions are Shakespearean in scale), who educate him for a career in the military. When Ash at last sails back to his beloved India, he’s no longer Ashok but Ensign Ashton Pelham-Martyn, whose role in active service is to keep the natives under control.

By some ingenious fluke of fate, he bumps into the Indian princess of his childhood, now grown into a tall, doe-eyed, gently spoken beauty. This is of course an epic, so crossed love is inevitable. How can Ash and Anjuli bridge the chasm that now exists between them? An English officer born and brought up in India, with a native understanding of the country but a posh English accent, and the bewitching Anjuli trapped into a loveless engagement to the Rana of Bhithor.

At first I was put off listening to the first episode by the idea of yet another huge fiction being squeezed into the bitty format of just ten short episodes. Only the clichés tend to survive such brutal compression. But most unusually the dramatist/adapter, Rukhsana Ahmad, has been given the luxury of 20 episodes to tell the story in all its ravishing richness of setting and character. Narrated most elegantly by Vineeta Rishi as Ash’s mother, speaking from beyond the grave, the story takes on a magical hue, and when by chance I happened to hear the very first few bars of Indian music and the rush of dramatic events, I was immediately drawn in and had to make sure the radio was on the next day in time to catch it.

The production (by Jessica Dromgoole and Marc Beeby) takes me back to those serials we used to listen to on Children’s Hour. Charged with atmosphere, a cast of great radio voices, and a story so powerfully told that you’re there, right there and yet so far away, lost in the pavilions of the mind.

There is a saying that art in restaurants is akin to food in museums. You know the feeling: the attendant monstrosity on the wall peers over your shoulder, wrecking your appetite. But times are changing. Independent galleries have faded under recent financial strain, and the upward pressure on shop rents continues. Denied their premises, dealers are using new spaces and have reached new markets in the process.

This is what brings Thomas Ostenberg’s Equilibrium to the Mint Leaf Lounge, 12 Angel Court, London EC2 (until 27 February). Ostenberg is a former vice-president of Citibank who had a Damascene moment in the Rodin Museum and vowed to become a sculptor. Plenty of dissipated financiers have similar impulses; few share his talent.

This exhibition is fantastic in an exact sense. Its centrepiece is ‘Ladder’, in which three mythical beasts, like a circus act from a Greek fable, form a shaky pyramid, balancing precariously on a ladder. In other bronzes, svelte ballerinas glide within the confines of an almost perfect circle.

Ostenberg casts figurines of innocence, a triumph, he says, over narcissism and materialism. So it seems perverse to put them in a louche bar — his joyous work would be better served by a gallery, but artists and dealers must earn their keep. Besides, the Mint Leaf’s felicities are equally joyous, though in a very different way.

– David Blackburn

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Arts reviews, BBC, Current Affairs, Egypt, Radio 4