A brief encounter with Radio 4’s Any Questions to gauge the measure of opinion in the shires after the referendum result was enough to convince me we are entering even more torrid times than during the campaign. For some mysterious reason both Harriet Harman and Alex Salmond, billed in Radio Times to appear on the panel alongside Ken Clarke and Chris Grayling, had reneged on their promise and been replaced by Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP who got into trouble in 2014 for her white van man tweet, and Steven Woolfe, an oxymoronic Ukip MEP. The audience, judging from the applause, were pretty much balanced between the Leavers and Remainers but within minutes Thornberry and Woolfe were at each other’s throats, their venom poisoning the airwaves, each asserting a superior claim to council-estate compassion. With relief, when I switched over to Radio 3, I discovered that it was Bridget Kendall’s turn to introduce Saturday Classics as her swansong before she leaves the BBC to take up her new position as Master of Peterhouse at Cambridge University.
Since she first began reporting from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Kendall has always been a calm voice of reason in a troubled world. Clear-sighted, with the authority of an intelligence that never cuts her off from those with less brainpower, she reassures, not with false promises of what will happen but because whatever she says is underpinned by the necessary inside knowledge. On Saturday, for example, in between the music she played, chosen as a brief narrative of her working life, she told us how she had spent a year in the mid-1970s living in a nondescript industrial town in the heartland of Brezhnev’s Russia. It sounded pretty grim and gloomy, with little in the way of culture and an atmosphere of stark oppression. But it does explain why ten years later Kendall always sounded so convincing when she was reporting back to us from Yeltsin’s Moscow. She’d really lived the experience.
Typically, on Saturday, she focused on the music, not personal reminiscence, saying very little between her chosen excerpts (Shostakovich, Bach, Gershwin, Shchedrin and Tchaikovsky). But everything she said had meaning, nothing was superfluous. Her favourite composer turned out to be Dvorak, not because of his Slavic roots but because, said Kendall, ‘his music seems to transcend nationality’. Could she, so measured and well travelled, so experienced at dealing with censorship, have been sending out a coded message?
Later on that day, The Slow Machine on Radio 4 suggested a novel way to escape this post-referendum turmoil. Retreat to the canals, those long-defunct arteries of our industrial heritage, now taken over by bulrushes, kingfishers and a canal laureate, Jo Bell. She took us with her on her last journey on Tinker, a 67-foot narrowboat, before she swaps it with a new, specially built boat.
For the past 13 years, she and Tinker have meandered up and down the hundreds of miles of canalways, her days punctuated by the sound of ducks, ‘the dreary necessity of emptying a chemical toilet’ or ‘looking for a mooring after a long day’s boating’. She’s been travelling an alternative map, often alongside motorways and rail tracks and to the same places, but by a different route, the slow way, less direct, not destination-led.
With specially commissioned music from the Cabinet of Living Cinema, complementing her poems about the way the boat adjusts to her weight, shifting underfoot, the smell of hemp and Brasso, the magical engineering by which her boat navigates uphill through the locks that made the industrial revolution possible, this was a perfect antidote to the gathering storm.
Bunk Bed is back, Radio 4’s slightly weird late-night show in which Patrick Marber and Peter Curran pretend to be two old codgers mulling over smoking in the bath, being male, what it might be like to be a Hollywood star while just about to drop off to sleep. On Wednesday night they were joined by Kathy Burke to make a threesome, which I thought would puncture the finely tuned atmosphere that Curran and Marber have created. You can really imagine them lying there, smoking a last fag and saying out loud anything that comes into their head in that post-busy day, pre-dreamlike state, just before switching off the light. But Burke immediately fitted in, her lazy, droll, deep voice starting them off by saying how she has a love/hate relationship with being over 50. Don’t we all? She worries that if she does anything too strenuous, ‘it will wear my joints out’. Next thing we know Curran and Marber are talking about their regular prostate checks and what it must be like for the people who spend their working lives probing around inside people’s guts with a miniature camera and ‘trying to express genuine wonder at my colon’.
It’s not so much what they say but their way of putting thoughts together in that random way our minds work when allowed to freefall and not be processed or damped down by outside influences. We’re going to need a lot more of this in the next few months.