This week’s column is dedicated to my mother who loved her radio and encouraged us to be listeners. Without her, I would not be qualified to do this. My earliest memories are of sitting under the table while my mother sewed and the theme tune of Listen with Mother echoed through the house. The radio, an old valve model which took a while to get going and whose half-moon dial promised to send us signals from Lahti and Motala as well as Reykj’vik and Kief, was switched on not all the time, that would have inured us to its pleasures, but on and off for a regular sequence of programmes, day by day. We read, of course we read, but it was radio that really lit up my imagination, stories of Roman soldiers transplanted to Northumberland, of the robin singing in a secret walled garden and the strange world that sickly Tom entered after the midnight bell had tolled.
My mother, meanwhile, listened to the Third Programme, avid for Bach and Beethoven, Delius and Dvorak, and to Mrs Dale’s Diary (she was never converted to those upstart Archers), Woman’s Hour and the plays that were a regular slot on Saturday nights. Radio was her entertainment, her companion (with young children, and a husband who worked all hours as a parish priest, her evenings could be long) and her education. Speech radio was lost to her for many years once she became too deaf to pick up voices, but until the end she never missed Choral Evensong, always her favourite because of the familiar patina of the service, the clarity of plainsong, the soaring, uplifting quality of the singing.
How will children now be inspired to become listeners in a world where radio is heard if at all mostly on the move and via visual tip-offs, where radio also has to compete with so many other kinds of stimulus, and where the BBC has shunted all children’s content off the standard networks and into that linguistic ghetto, CBeebies? There’s nothing on Radio 4, or Radio 3, for teenagers, let alone the under-teens. My nephews were once keen listeners but have long been lost to Snapchat, Facebook and Spotify. The nieces likewise. Radio 2 has made a stab at connecting with the under-teens through the 500 Words competition, the winners of which were announced last Friday by the Duchess of Cornwall, an honorary judge. But even then the emphasis tends to be on writing the stories rather than sitting and listening to them. You can listen to all the winning stories via podcasts on the website but could they not be given slots within the schedules on 1, 2, 3 and 4, so we can all hear what the children are up to?
To resurrect now the old Home Service Children’s Hour would be like bringing back to life the dinosaurs. It’s such a throwback to an earlier era of children sitting still, families gathering, nothing else to do (not even reams of homework); no TV, no messaging, no books to read. Much has improved since those spartan times. But what treasures were there for us, captured in a simple wooden box. Radio gave us facts as well as stories, but above all it taught that valuable skill, to sit still and listen, without visual distraction, and to imagine ourselves in another place or inside another person’s skin.
That’s the key to the success of Catherine Carr’s series for the World Service, Where Are You Going? (produced by Anne-Marie Cole). Carr wanders the streets with her microphone and recorder asking passers-by one simple question. Out of that singular premise is then crafted a programme whose resonance is out of all proportion to its deceptive simplicity. As Carr herself says, ‘Every interrupted journey is like a portal, a glimpse into someone else’s life.’
This week she’s been in Hong Kong and in a taxi queue meets a man who is on his way to work, at the hospital. What does he do? ‘I’m a cosmetic surgeon,’ he says. What kind of operation will he be doing today? ‘A breast reconstruction after cancer.’ As Carr says in farewell, ‘Someone is waiting for you.’
Another man won’t give her any slack. It’s Sunday morning and he’s just nipped out of his apartment to buy a coffee. What will he be doing today? asks Carr. ‘Going to work,’ he replies. But when she tries to guess at who his employer might be, he replies, ‘The government won’t allow me to talk to the media.’ To which, quick as a flash, Carr responds, ‘I’m just going to think you’re a spy.’
On the edge of the city in a leafy-green park she meets a group of tree-huggers. ‘What does it feel like?’ asks Carr. ‘I feel connected,’ says one woman. ‘This tree is old enough to be my grandmother.’
My favourite encounter, though, is with a man who’s carrying a shopping bag. ‘What’s in your bag?’ Carr asks. ‘A potty,’ he replies. For a child? she wonders. ‘No’, comes the reply. More I cannot tell you. My mother simply would not approve. But check him out on iPlayer. It will be worth your time.