Kate Chisholm

Word perfect | 12 January 2017

Plus: remembering the Kosovan civil war and the genius of Bowie

Word perfect | 12 January 2017
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All that’s needed for Radio 4’s One to One series (Tuesdays) to succeed is a sharp-eyed interviewer, ready with the right question at the right time, and an articulate guest, not afraid to speak freely and openly, but with integrity, all too rare these days. In the opening programme, Julia Bradbury talked to Dr Martin McKechnie, an A&E consultant, about the challenges he faces day in day out. It was a timely reminder that not everything in the NHS is broken beyond repair. Most striking, perhaps, was not so much Dr McKechnie’s calm fortitude in the face of terrible human distress (remarkable thoughthis was) but the way he casually dismissed the idea of talking about his work with his family. Why would anyone outside the hospital be interested in him moaning about what a terrible day he may have had?No whingeing, then, but rather a clear-eyed understanding of what his job involvesand an ability to withstand the demands of its responsibilities. Sometimes, he explained, doing nothing, allowing someone to die, is in the patient’s best interest, sparing them pain and/or indignity. ‘You have to be honest,’ he insisted. ‘You cannot lie.’

Even more extraordinary was the offhand way he revealed something about himself. After telling us that one ofhis most awful experiences was to have had to make the decision to stop resuscitating a young couple of doctor colleagues who had been involved in a fatal car crash on their way home from the hospital, brought back by ambulance just an hour afterfinishing their shift, and that his most recent challenge happened a few days before when he had to perform an emergency tracheotomy, not having done one for years, he said simply and matter-of-factly that a couple of years ago he’dbroken his neck and several bones in his back in a cycling accident. He added nothing about being in A&E, or how ithad affected him, merely wanting to explain why he was no longer seen out and about in ‘too much Lycra’.

The programme was produced by Sarah Blunt, better known for the sound quality of her natural-history programmes (with Chris Watson). Here she gave us carefully edited conversation.

On Kosovo Field, this week’s daily short drama on Radio 4 (directed by Nadia Molinari with a cast of cosmopolitan actors, fresh voices on air), took us back to 1999 and the civil war between Serbs and Albanians. The singer and writer P.J. Harvey has visited Kosovo several times, struck by the speed with which this violent episode so quickly disappeared from the news agenda. ‘Gathering information from secondary sources felt too far removed,’ she has said. ‘I wanted to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people.’ She discovered many stories of missing people, lost children and disappeared communities, and her songs and diaries form the backdrop of the drama, created by Fin Kennedy.

It tells the story (fictional but based on stories revealed to Harvey) of Rebekah and Dardan, brother and sister, who go back to Pristina as adults to find out what happened to their parents and why they were sent away aged five and three, travelling alone across Europe to end up in Manchester, England, where they spent the rest of their childhood in care. What would make a mother do that, Rebekah wonders in words that could apply today to mothers in Syria and too many other places. ‘It was the least worst option she had,’ Rebekah comes to realise. ‘Some life is better than none...’

Half of the people in Kosovo are under 25, and so were very young when the conflict took place. Their attempts to rebuild the country are frustrated by corruption and a government so fearful of its future that it’s very difficult to get a visa to travel beyond the borders. It’s been a tough week,’ says Rebekah. ‘Try living here,’ she’s told by her Kosovan guide.

On paper there’s very little reason to think that P.J. Harvey’s songs would work in a radio play but their mournful, melancholic tone and persistent repetitions do fit with the dialogue, enhancing the drama, giving it real body. She creates such an individual, unmistakable sound, justlike David Bowie before her, whose musicis being celebrated this week on Radios 2 and 6, on the anniversary of his death.

On Monday I listened to Exploring ‘Life on Mars?’ on 2 (with Martin Kemp and Tris Penna) intrigued by all the fuss about Bowie. Is he such a genius? What makes him so special? In an hour I was won over, not so much by the song ‘Life on Mars?’, although hearing about the way it came together added so much richness to hearing Bowie sing it, but by Bowie himself. His wry amusement that his English version of the French song ‘Comme d’habitude’ didn’t sell but it went on to become Frank Sinatra’s greatest hit, ‘My Way’. His dedication of the Hunky Dory album to Sinatra: ‘Inspired by Frankie’. His supreme self-belief yet self-awareness, too, saying that he liked other singers to sing hissongs because of his own ‘bleating kind of goat’s voice’.