Radio 4

Rushdie on how the best magical realism transcends fantasy

Ask the man in the street to quote a line from one of Salman Rushdie’s novels, and he might struggle. Ask him whether he’s heard the phrase, ‘Naughty but nice’, specifically in the context of cream cakes, and you will probably make his day. It was Salman Rushdie who came up with that slogan in his early career as an adman. Remember the ‘irresistibubble’ tag for Aero chocolate bars? He was responsible for that, too. ‘I feel at bottom that I’m still that boy from Bombay and everything else has been piled on top of that’ If there’s any embarrassment on Rushdie’s part (and why should there be?) that some

Under the Taliban, Afghan light entertainment accrued unusual weight

For a television talent show, Afghan Star had unusually high stakes. When it first hit Afghanistan’s screens in 2005, four years after the fall of the Taliban, it represented the triumph of music over those who had attempted to smother it. Even from the show’s somewhat chaotic inception, it galvanised a nation, sending supporters out on to the streets to canvas for their favourite performers. When the Taliban first swept into town, people were overjoyed: they were seen as ‘angels of peace’ The first winner, Shakib Hamdard, certainly deserved some luck: he had lost his father to a suicide bomb and his brother to a rocket attack, and was driving

The jaw-dropping story of the British Museum thefts

It’s August 2023 when news breaks that artefacts have gone missing, presumed stolen, from the British Museum. I’m about an hour into investigating the story for a feature when a suspect is named in the press. I know him. He’s the curator I was seated next to at a British Museum dinner nine months earlier. Listening this week to three preview episodes of Thief at the British Museum, an electrifying nine-part series on Radio 4, I kick myself for the second time for spending most of that evening talking to the professor on my left. What can I remember of the man on my right? He was quiet. Ruddy-faced. Nothing

A gripping podcast about America’s obsession with guns

The love affair between so many Americans and their guns – long a source of international fascination – appears to be getting more painfully intense. The greater the publicity over gun crime, the more Americans think they’d better acquire a firearm to keep themselves safe. There are now roughly 400 million guns in the US – but most citizens feel more unsafe than ever, and with some justification. Last year featured both the highest level of gun ownership in US history and the highest recorded number of mass shootings. This really is one to listen to in bed, in the pitch dark – even better, pretend you’re in a couchette

How to live off the land for a year

Could you live off the land for a year without buying a single thing to eat? This was the challenge a retired journalist set himself on Radio 4 this week. Max Cotton lives on a five-acre smallholding near Glastonbury in Somerset with his wife Maxine, two pigs, two dozen hens and a Jersey-Friesian cross named Brenda. He also has six adult sons who, as far as this project is concerned, ‘prefer to pontificate than help very much.’ Cotton’s hopes for peas by April were even less realistic than I thought Cotton conceded at the outset that he would allow himself to purchase salt as a necessity. For everything else, he

How did the internet become so horrific?

I can dimly remember the internet getting going, gradually staking its claims on our attention with hardly anyone except tech nerds – and famously David Bowie – realising what was going on. In our defence it was the 1990s and we had a lot else to think about: Britpop, The End of History, lads’ mags, guacamole, supermodels, Tony Blair, Monica Lewinsky, etc. But here we all are now, in a world where I can do my banking from bed, America is fragmenting like papier-mâché in the rain, and primary school children can get porn on their smartphones. Can anyone recall the incremental steps that brought us here? If not, it

Fascinating: Radio 4’s Empire of Tea reviewed

I can scarcely remember a time before tea: I started drinking it at around four, at home in Belfast, as a reward after school. Before long I was as fiercely protective of my right to a brew as the workers of British Leyland’s Birmingham car plant, who were famously spurred to strike action in 1981 when the management proposed cutting tea breaks by 11 minutes. Decades on, my passion is undiminished. There is no problem to which tea is not at least a partial solution: it restores flagging spirits, calms the over-excited, warms in winter and refreshes in summer. Sathnam Sanghera’s recollections in his Radio 4 five-parter Empire of Tea

I’m not convinced Thomas Heatherwick is the best person to be discussing boring buildings

Architects are often snobby about – and no doubt jealous of – the designer Thomas Heatherwick, who isn’t an actual architect yet still manages to wangle important building commissions. And he knows this. In his documentary for BBC Radio 4, Building Soul, where he examines what he calls the ‘blandemic’ in today’s architecture, he asks to interview fellow Spectator writer Jonathan Meades, who responds: ‘The last person who should be doing a series on urbanism is a designer.’ Heatherwick wears this as a badge of honour. Indeed, qualifying as an architect is no guarantee of quality – check out the past nominations for the Carbuncle Cup, the now defunct prize

What happened to the supermodels of the 1990s?

‘What advice would you give to your younger self?’ has become a popular question in interviews in recent years. It’s meant to generate something profound but, musing privately, I always find it a puzzler. Sometimes I think that maybe I shouldn’t have wasted so much of my twenties talking nonsense in pubs, but on the other hand I really enjoyed it. So I usually settle on: ‘Don’t buy a sofa bed, especially not the kind with a concealed metal frame that you pull out.’ Unbelievably, I’ve done this twice. These vast, unwieldy contraptions cost a bomb, weigh a ton, make a terrible sofa and an uncomfortable bed. If you’re 16

Enjoyable and informative but where’s the drama? Political Currency reviewed

The first episode of George Osborne and Ed Balls’s new podcast, Political Currency, opened with an old clip of the pair arguing across the despatch box. Osborne had described his latest Budget as ‘steady as she goes’ and Balls was having none of it. ‘What kind of ship does he think he’s on, the Titanic?’ If producers hoped that the duo would bring something of this, er, biting dynamic to their podcast, they were in for a surprise. The opening number saw little in the way of sparring between the former opponents. Seated in a studio in east London, they spent most of the time doing what so many in

The rise of vampirism in Silicon Valley

The Immortals, which begins on Radio 4 this week, is not for the faint-hearted. While it professes to be about the human quest for longevity and the elusive ‘cure’ for getting older, it focuses largely upon the transferral of blood plasma from healthy young people to reluctantly ageing people, or, as anyone with good sense might put it, the desperate descent from vanity to vampirism. I was on the verge of switching over to something more anodyne when a 46-year-old tech entrepreneur began talking about being injected with plasma from his 17-year-old son. Bryan Johnson, who sold his company to PayPal for $800 million in 2013, does not even sound

My run-in with Nigel Farage

To think I once thought cricket dull. For more than 40 days and 40 nights, I have been gripped by the Ashes. I still couldn’t tell you where short third man ends and deep backward point begins, but I have fallen in love with the rollercoaster ride that Ben Stokes and his team have taken us on. So much so that I covertly watched every ball of the final hour of the final day while on a family outing to Come and Sing: Abba. I could stand the tension no longer when the ninth wicket fell so made my excuses and left to watch the final act outside with a

Perfect radio for a nation of grumblers: Radio 4’s Room 101 with Paul Merton reviewed

Welcome back to Room 101, which has returned to the radio – after nearly 30 years on TV – and reverted back to its one-to-one format with presenter Paul Merton. The programme sits comfortably within that peculiarly British corner of the landscape that champions The Archers, the Proms, Rich Tea biscuits and knitted dog coats. And its success makes sense. A nation of good-humoured grumblers is arguably more likely to be excited by a list of common grievances than by, say, an overly jubilant selection of Desert Island Discs. Why listen to someone talk about what makes them happy when you can witness a guy losing it over the incomprehensibility

Looking for a male role model? Check out the silverback gorilla

One so often hears about famous people who are horrible when they think no one important is looking – barking at assistants, or snapping at waiters – that it’s heartening to learn of the opposite: kindness in circumstances that promise little obvious reward. The author and filmmaker Jon Ronson had just such a story last week about his pick for Radio 4’s Great Lives series: the late Terry Hall, lead singer of the Specials and Fun Boy Three, and an attractively morose and compelling presence on the 1970s and ’80s music scene.  The 12-year-old Ronson was at the front of an ‘excitingly feral’ Specials gig in Cardiff when he conceived

Prayer for the Day is the best thing to wake up to

As the owner of a radio alarm clock, I could theoretically start listening to the Today programme before I’m even awake, but I rarely do. I tell myself it’s too much for first thing; that it’s bound to put me in a bad mood with some interview or other; that Today can wait until tomorrow – or at least until I’ve had my breakfast and a blitz of the somewhat jollier Times Radio. The levée, I say in a Bertie Woosterish sort of way, demands something light. When you crave something thought-provoking but also comforting, nothing beats a few minutes of prayer But then I find myself waking up unintentionally

Elon Musk is right about BBC funding

The BBC has today been using its various news platforms to protest against being described as ‘government funded’ by Twitter. It has instructed Twitter to remove this insult ‘as soon as possible’ and its journalistic contacts have found a direct link to Elon Musk himself who, we are told, is a ‘fan’ of the BBC. So perhaps a quiet word with the right person in power can overcome this little hiccup. Radio Four even had a ‘debate’ which just featured one interviewee: Mary Hockaday, a former BBC executive. ‘As a BBC journalist, I care about accuracy,’ she said, ‘the simple fact is that to describe on Twitter the BBC as

Why does Jamie Oliver always get an easy ride?

There are many annoying things about the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, but none of them grates my gears as much as the media’s obsequiousness towards him. I suspect that his political campaigning is largely a self-serving gimmick to keep the Jamie Oliver brand in the public eye, but that is besides the point. The point is that he would be the first to describe himself an activist and yet he is never asked the questions that activists, let alone politicians, are asked. He gets the celebrity interview when he should be getting the political interview. He has never been hauled up on the facts. He has never been given a

The genius of More or Less

In a week of slim audio pickings, I spent time reacquainting myself with some of the BBC classics and can confirm that, yes, More or Less still warrants a place in that category. Like Thinking Allowed, which also drew me back, the programme works wonders with data and statistics, and benefits from having a calm and unobtrusive presenter. While most of the questions put to the stoical Tim Harford are delightfully pedantic, some have that special quality of convincing you that, while you’ve never given the topic a second thought, you are in fact deeply invested in it, and absolutely must know whether or not the thing that’s been alleged

BBC radio has excelled itself over the past week

Listening to BBC Radios 3 and 4 over the past week has been like meeting an old friend who, after decades of squeezing into age-inappropriate designer clothes, has suddenly reverted to a sensible wardrobe. It’s a pity that it took the death of our beloved Queen for this to happen, but I’ve been enjoying it while it lasts – because, like the miracle drug that Robin Williams gives his dementia patients in the film Awakenings, this dose of sanity will quickly wear off. Radio 4’s long-prepared tributes to Elizabeth II were, by the BBC’s standards, remarkably impartial. Even Saturday’s Today programme rose to the occasion. The Catholic journalist Catherine Pepinster’s

Hearing Percy Bysshe Shelley read aloud was a revelation

Last week I heard the actor Julian Sands give a virtuoso performance of work by Percy Bysshe Shelley to mark the bicentenary of the radical poet’s death this month. A couple of days later, I listened to a bit more Shelley, this time on the radio, and this time in the voice of Benjamin Zephaniah. Hearing his verses read aloud is so much more intimate than reading them silently. You may be sitting in a crowd, but as Shelley’s words fall into your ears, it’s possible to feel that you’re having a private audience with him. Reading the same poems in an empty room can be comparatively distancing. Zephaniah said