Kate Chisholm

Hooked by chance

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I know we’re all supposed to be taking advantage of the new technologies and listening to whatever we fancy on the radio whenever we like. But I reckon you have to be under 25 to really get the hang of listening by download, podcast and stream rather than at the switch of a button. When, in any case, are we supposed to find the time to download it all and catch up with what we’ve missed? It’s like the conveyor belt in The Generation Game. By the time you realise you’ve missed something vital and/or desirable, the next week’s goodies are on offer. That’s why I’m still a switch-it-on-and-see-what’s-on listener, for most of the time. Chance, serendipity, happenstance are much more interesting than anything preplanned.

Last week in the car I happened upon Ruth Wall playing a specially adapted Scottish harp live in the studio for Sean Rafferty’s In Tune on Radio 3. It sounded so odd, a bit oriental in its staccato, bell-like clarity and yet too rhythmical to be from the East. What on earth was it? A John Cage piece for ‘prepared piano’, which Wall plays on the harp by blocking the strings with rubber bands, hairbands, Blu-tack, ‘anything that works’. I was hooked — especially when Wall went on to play Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Farewell to Stromness’. He wrote it out of anger when the Orkneys were under threat from a mining company keen to make money out of its uranium deposits. But it doesn’t sound angry; more like a spirited sea dashing against a rocky shoreline. For a while the humid heat inside the stationary car evaporated and I was walking along a windblown cliff, underneath a steely sky.

‘This is not a very large room and I’m wearing 12 and a half shoes,’ said Roger Law at lunchtime on Monday. The puppet-master from Spitting Image was feeling uncomfortably big-footed as he clomped round a tiny private museum just out of Shanghai, close to the airport, filled with 1,000 pairs of antique embroidered shoes no bigger than three inches long. The owner, Mister Yang, has been collecting them obsessively since the 1980s, relics of the barbaric custom of binding girls’ feet until they couldn’t walk. ‘As a foreigner,’ says Law, ‘I find this very strange.’

He’s been in China on a mission to find the oddest of museums and this week he’s been telling us about them for Roger Law and the Chinese Curiosities (Radio 4, atmospherically produced by Mark Rickards so that we hear the rain falling, Law’s shoes on marble floors). Law visits the oldest surviving opera house in China and tries to understand what’s going on. It’s really hard to appreciate the sharp, wailing sound of the soprano. ‘Do you find it catchy?’ he asks his prim-sounding Chinese guide. ‘Not really,’ she is forced to admit.

He travels to a museum devoted to tobacco. It’s vast, he tells us, and reeks of cigarettes, like one of those rooms that the hotel receptionist swears is non-smoking but you know immediately the previous occupant has been a chain-smoker. Tobacco is still promoted in China as a brilliant way to relax. ‘I’m not in a hurry to go back,’ says Law. But at the Museum of Ethnic Costume he discovers tie-dying that ‘bears no relation to those ghastly T-shirts we had to wear in the Sixties’. He looks at some needlepoint, blue on white, stitched on cloth that’s as ‘thin as a dragonfly’s wing and must have been as soft as fog to wear’.

The 15-minute lunchtime slot on Radio 4, after the extended The World at One, has proved difficult to fill. Too serious and it’s hard to stay listening. Too lightweight and you switch off, needing some meat but not too much. This five-part series was just right. A bit of escapism, with a serious bent, giving us a brief but vivid insight into the strange world that is China on the move, reshaping and resurrecting its past by creating hundreds of new museums.

On Radio 4 Extra they’ve been celebrating Tom Stoppard’s 75th birthday. I deliberately set out to listen to his first-ever drama, a 15-minute radio play, The Dissolution of Dominic Boot, from 1964 (directed by Glyn Dearman). Dominic (masterfully played by Derek Fowlds) has been forced into a taxi by his demanding girlfriend (Maria Aitken) because of the rain. He’s got no cash but daren’t tell her. In just 15 minutes Stoppard twists us all into knots as he plays with words, dialogue, thoughts, swirling them round to see if we can still find the meaning behind them.

By chance afterwards I caught a magical little poem, ‘Modern Secrets’ by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, introduced by Sophie Taylor as part of the Poetry 2012 season (originally broadcast on Radio Scotland). The poem, she says, always takes her back to her childhood in Kuala Lumpur, hiding in a cupboard from a house full of older children. Cocooned in the darkness, warm and secure, she found there peace and quiet and time for herself: ‘Last night I dreamed in Chinese…’