I’m willing to bet it’s only on the BBC’s Radio 3 that you’ll find yourself listening to a programme quite like Words and Music (Sunday evenings). You might want to disagree. Surely, it’s just a few bits of music stuck together with some poems and other readings on a random theme dreamt up by the production team? How easy must that be to pull off? Seventy-five minutes (or sometimes even longer) of dirt-cheap radio, quick to make, very few overheads, involving just a few hours per programme of research (nowadays so easy on Google) and a dead-simple edit job splicing everything together. But name another station anywhere that could make it work week-by-week with quite the same style, panache and sheer brio of the team at Radio 3.
It’s not just the selection of items that matters; although that in itself is mighty impressive, taking us in seconds from Chaucer to Austen, Forster and Jerome K. Jerome via the Blind Boys of Alabama and Percy Whitlock’s ‘Spade and Bucket Polka’. No, what makes it such a pleasure to listen to, such an immediate and effective escape into another world, is that nothing is allowed to get in the way of either the music or the spoken words. There’s no announcer telling you what you are next going to hear, no explanation of why this music is here, that poem there, no justification for it, no intrusive dialogue. It’s completely unadorned. Given to us straight. Just exactly what it says on the label.
You could let yourself get sidetracked into playing the game of what was that? Who’s singing? Who said that? Can you remember what that piece of music is? But really you should just sit yourself down comfortably, shut your eyes and let the programme take you away into another sphere, swept along by the stream of thoughts, ideas and melodies, effortlessly interwoven into a seamless whole. It’s so countercultural to focus on a single theme and let it wash over you, not engaging but just experiencing. Yet it becomes almost meditative, the imagination wandering at will. Who needs drugs? Or, in the case of Sunday’s episode (produced by Elizabeth Funning), who needs a holiday?
You may be thinking we’re reaching the end of summer; the leaves are beginning to turn, the swifts have departed, the first Cox’s apples have arrived at my local greengrocer. But Radio 3 has other ideas. ‘I need a holiday’ was inspired by Solomon Burke and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s song about needing to get away from the same old ground, the same old places, the same old faces. Perhaps it had such a vivid, visceral impact precisely because summer is now fast going. But listening to Whitlock, and Reginald Dixon on his Wurlitzer, merrily swinging into ‘Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside’ it was as if there was salt in the air, a wind at my back and the tide on the wane, lapping against the shore.
I loved the way the programme focused not on holidays per se, but on the thorny question of why we sometimes have such a horrid time when we’re away, and, before a couple of days have passed, are dying to get home again. ‘How strange this yearning for being elsewhere. Doing nothing,’ wrote Mark Haddon in The Red House, questioning the whole routine of the annual summer break. (No, I didn’t know it was Haddon, but you can always check on what you’ve just heard by looking up the programme on the Radio 3 website. Phew!) Haddon was looking back on the summer holidays he spent as a bored teenager. Who doesn’t remember ‘the terrible weight of hours’ and ‘the glacial movement of a watched clock’ as the rain streams down the windowpane and you’re cooped up in a strange house with the same old faces.
But we also heard from Robert Louis Stevenson’s freewheeling vagabond, Chaucer’s pilgrim, Bill Bryson’s exhausted hiker: ‘It was hell. First days on hiking trips always are… There is always more hill’, and E.E. Cummings’s gondolier on the receiving end of the mania for holidaying and the coming of the Americans, ‘particularly the/ brand of marriageable nymph which is/ armed with large legs rancid/ voices Baedekers Mothers and kodaks…’
The readers, catching so cleverly the swift changes in mood and attitude, were Jemima Rooper and Scott Handy. But John Betjeman himself gave us his characteristically droll ‘Beside the Seaside’, packing the family into the Morris Eight, reversing with care out of the garage and heading for the sea as he (and everyone else) leaves England’s centre ‘for her tide-line’. Philip Larkin, too, was heard in person, in surprisingly cheerful mode, as he looks to the sea: ‘Steep beach, blue water, towels, red bathing caps,/ The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse’. But don’t take my word for it. Go listen.