Once upon a time in the east

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE'S a dinner-lady in the East End with a heart of gold. When an imam needed a lift to the mosque during Ramadan, it was Denise who offered to take him, wait outside and drive him home again. But also waiting, lurid and lascivious in their Datsuns, were the simmering sirens of Aldgate, primed to distract any young Muslim from the ritual celibacy of the season. Denise, a friendly soul, found herself waving cheerily at the religious vigilantes appointed to identify these shady ladies. They assumed the worst: she's expecting the police any minute.

If there's trouble, she'll certainly call on Margaret. Marg-arets tend to be formidable: this one is the queen-pin of the Kitchen Cabinet (R4). Every week, seven women meet in her sister's house, in the lowering shadow of Can-ary Wharf and the company of Susan Marling, to discuss whatever takes their fancy. Women together practise what has been called "supportive interruption": they tend to agree and move the argument on in the same breath, developing a thread they can follow and tie up. It makes for vagrant, volatile radio. This week's thread ended knotted round the neck of Toby Jessel MP and his ridiculous suggestion that everyone should have an allotment. They thought he was shovelling fertiliser.

These seven are an exotic racial mixture, but their mutual support is heartening. It is the opposite of what happened to Kuba Wistreich, a Polish Jew buffeted down the decades of our troubled century, across the shifting boundaries of central Europe, by wars and persecution. In What I Remember (R3), he described the worst moment. Naked, alone, waiting for torture, he sprinkled his single glass of water around his cell while chanting the plagues of Egypt. And mysteriously he heard the voices of his wife and brother, felt the warmth of a shawl wrapped around him by his mother and knew that he would survive. As indeed he did, living into old age as a GP in Kilburn.

This was an inspiring story, told simply and with the awful impact of accuracy, about a little-known hero. At the same time young Laurie Lee had just got back from Spain. His luminous autobiographies have made him a familiar figure, but now, nearing 80, he has more to say. In The Art of Travel (R4) he was asked about the effects of his campaign with the International Brigade. Poor man, he was haunted by one event. His company had commandeered a chapel and he spread his coat on the altar to make a bed. He regrets trampling on a symbol of centuries of belief. "That profane act," he said sadly, "has stained me ever since ... " You could only hope that such a confession gives him some comfort.

The BBC started the war on the wrong foot, eschewing classical music for the cinema organ, which gave nobody much comfort. In "The Forties" season, Wartime at the National Gallery (R3) described how the situation was righted. Largely thanks to the pianist Myra Hess, daily lunch-time concerts were arranged, and ultimately broadcast, in the stripped gallery. My mother went to them and still remembers how encouraging and uplifting they were. Hess's radiant presence and her playing of the Beethoven Appassionata reduced half the audience - of thousands - to tears. It seemed to assert unassailable, eternal values. Even listening to a scratchy old recording, you could still catch a trace of its impact.

Finally to another formidable Margaret, another much-loved and therapeutic symbol. Margaret Rutherford was the subject of the last and best of R2's Comdiennes. In Congreve or Coward, as Miss Marple or Mrs Malaprop, she was supreme. We heard snatches from them all and could visualise those five chins that she knew were her hallmark, quivering with the perfect clarity of her diction. Like all great clowns, she was prone to depression. That surprised an unidentified suave young interviewer who said disdainfully, "one never expects a funny person to become ill". She showed her mettle. "Don't you really?" she asked, with apparent fascination, adding with infinite regret, "You, with your intelligence . . ."