Radio : Two poets and a silence on the ceiling of the world

TWO poets are having lunch. One bravely tackles a peppered womb- of-lamb, while the other toys with dried and hammered catfish: it's quite nice, he says, rather like that plasterboard he used to partition his bedroom. Anyway, to quote a great Icelander, he's started so he'll finish. Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage were in Iceland for a fortnight, boldly going where Auden and MacNeice went 60 years ago. A Second Draft from Sagaland (R3) made for a week of wondrous broadcasts, full of volcanoes, hot springs, cloudy oceans of glacier suspended above the mountains, and echoing silence on the ceiling of the world.

They used their time well. Standing on the desolate plain where two vast continental plates are constantly pulling away from each other, peering into the cosy parlour where Reagan and Gorbachev held their momentous summit, or examining the parchment on which are recorded the doings of Erik the Red, they made you long to visit this daunting and distinctive land whose inhabitants, long ago, braved the Atlantic to discover America - and left it as they found it. Our poets were severely tested by a wild trip on a trawler. Lashed to the mast, Maxwell watched aghast as millions of cod were landed, slugged and gutted. Seagulls, too busy to shriek, snatched giblets from the bloody sea, while Armitage, prostrate below decks, saw nothing but yesterday's supper and a passing sailor chewing a carrot. Reviving in sight of land, he asked, "Have they caught some fish?"

Also far from home is ex-king Constantine of Greece, who was interviewed for About Face (World Service). From the age of 12, his father prepared him for kingship, as he now prepares his son. We Greeks, he said, are exceptionally homesick people; clearly, he still actively awaits his recall. He's been waiting since 1967, while the government steadily removes his belongings, his house and his citizenship, to his increasing rage. In an interview as searching as the circumstances allowed, we got the strong impression that his ex-title is his most important possession. It was oddly pathetic to hear him addressed as Your Majesty.

One thing he may be glad to have escaped is the Greek national anthem. The longest in the world, it contains 158 verses. For this and many other recondite facts, we are indebted to Ma'am, They're Playing Your Song (R2), in which Bob Sinfield failed to stand respectfully silent through dozens of patriotic songs, but especially our own, now nearing its 250th birthday. He didn't mention that it was actually the only music that George V enjoyed, but he did say that Queen Victoria especially relished the bit of the second verse about scattering our enemies. I enjoyed the moment when Adrian Boult consulted the Master of the King's Music about the correct, authorised version. So impenetrable was Elgar's writing that his reply apparently read: "Dear Android, National Arheim boot adolf any jet-foam budget, love and perjury, Elwood Edgar."

Finally, something strange is happening to two R4 national institutions. Start the Week is imploding and Midweek developing gravitas. Melvyn Bragg, merciless interrogator and scourge of many a timid theorist, allowed Oliver Stone to get away with gratuitous murder. Stone blathered on unchecked about how marvellous it was that Charles Manson - yes, Charles Manson - can now "articulate his position" and all Bragg did was praise his beastly film. Melvyn, really!

Meanwhile Libby Purves has given up eccentric vicars and fire-eaters in favour of an increasingly interesting line-up. This week's star was Irina Ratushinskaya, whose Russian soul spills over into her slow, thoughtful sentences, full of subtle irony and gentle wisdom. She really does know how to articulate her position: her whole life has been a parable. She was imprisoned for not writing political poetry, and then the poetry she did write led to her release just before the Reykjavik summit. Which is another reason to be grateful to Iceland.

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