Kate Chisholm

Selective memory

Plus: Kate Chisholm’s experiences two can’t-get-out-of-the-car moments on BBC Radio this week

Selective memory
Text settings

It’s 70 years since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and yet there has been no rush to commemorate this anniversary. It’s perhaps not surprising. Who would choose to recall the events of 6 August 1945 when the world first witnessed the effects of nuclear warfare? Yet the absence of date-setting, the annual forgetting, makes it appear that we’re much less keen to remember something that might make us feel uncomfortable or discredit us.

One exception was on Radio 4 on Monday morning, when, in Under the Mushroom Cloud, Shuntaro Hida, a 98-year-old survivor of Hiroshima, told us frankly and without sentiment his memories of that day in August 1945. The interview was short, lasting only 15 minutes, but was so shocking, so vivid, nothing more was needed to illustrate Hida’s message that ‘human beings cannot co-exist with nuclear power’.

He was in a village a few miles away treating a sick child when the bomb was dropped at 8.15 a.m. That saved his life. Otherwise he would have been at the epicentre of the explosion, working as a doctor at the hospital on the military base in Hiroshima, the bomb’s target. He had been up until after one in the morning drinking sake with some high-ranking military officials who were visiting from Manchuria. At 2 a.m. he was called out by the grandfather of the child and, still drunk, had to be strapped to his bicycle to make the journey. He had just finished treating his patient when the bomb fell out of the sky.

Even though some distance from the city, he was buried with the child under a heap of rubble as the house collapsed, but not for long. Hida decided to go back to the city to see what help he could give. ‘When I came maybe about halfway back, I saw something weird, something strange, something black approaching me. There was a head and a shoulder and legs, so I thought OK this is a human. But she was all black. She came in front of me and she fell down towards me and died.’

No pictures were needed. His voice, weak and gravelly with age, was enough to convey the horror, each detail still so real in his mind. Hida has devoted the rest of his life to treating A-bomb victims, and he was arrested many times for constantly talking about the prolonged (and continuing) after-effects of the radiation, something, he says, ‘the Americans didn’t want people to know’.

On Thursday itself, Radio 5 Live, a lone witness, broadcast a special programme ‘live’ from Hiroshima, presented by Peter Allen. Hiroshima 70 Years On included interviews with survivors and also memories of those Americans who had devised and dropped the bomb. Did it end the war? Was the price worth paying? A debate you might think we should conduct each year, if only because there is no simple answer to a question that affects each and every one of us.

Last week’s defence of Radio 3 in the Times from a bevy of British composers, including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Judith Weir (Master of the Queen’s Music), was intriguing because they did not, as you might expect, praise the station for supporting their music and premièring their works but instead drew attention to the way Radio 3 has been crucial to their musical education. It was, they collectively agreed, ‘a ...formative influence in our lives, growing up as we have done in a country where classical music — and particularly contemporary music from overseas — was not always readily accessible’. Expanding our minds through music is what it’s about. And this does not just apply to Radio 3.

Last week I tuned in to Jo Whiley’s night-time slot on Radio 2 while driving home after a long and tiring day. She was at Maida Vale with Mumford & Sons, hosting one of her regular live sessions at the revamped BBC studios in north-west London. Whiley’s warm voice and enthusiasm is infectious and the chat in-between, as she and the band talked about what it takes to be a musician, the touring life, and how their music happens, kept me listening.

Before the end of the show the band was asked to fulfil a test: to play live a cover version of an Eighties hit that they had never performed before. Nothing special, you might think, especially when their chosen song was the Eurythmics’s 1983 classic ‘Sweet Dreams’, whose basic melody is surprisingly bland. But something happened ‘on air’, as it does every so often when there’s a live music performance. An electrifying moment, when everything around you recedes and your focus is purely on the music, that voice, the edginess of performance. It kept me sitting in the car — one of those can’t-get-out-until-it-stops moments. At the same time the next day, it happened again, this time on Radio 3, with Alina Ibramigova playing Bach on solo violin. You can’t put a price on it.