RADIO / A little Ray of sunshine: Robert Hanks on explorations in the Arctic and down the high street

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The real moral crisis this country faces is the incessant desire to draw morals from everything. Ethics is fine in its place (which is, so far as radio is concerned, The Moral Maze and Thought for the Day), but outside that it has a nasty tendency to get in the way of facts, analysis and entertainment.

Even the title of Jim Perrin's trilogy of features about exploration between the wars, Inner Journeys - Outer Shows (Radio 4, Tuesday), is faintly off-putting. It doesn't simply suggest that there's a moral aspect to the subject, it reduces the subject to nothing but morality: exploring as an outward sign of a purely internal drama. It denies the excitement of what actually happens.

In the case of H G 'Gino' Watkins, what actually happened was pretty striking. As a teenager, he climbed most of the big Alpine peaks without a guide (because, he said, he couldn't afford one). He led an expedition to Spitzbergen when he was 20, then went to Labrador with a mostly blank map because, 'No white man has ever been there.' He won medals, had mountains named after him, learned to hunt in an Inuit kayak, and generally played the hero of schoolboy fiction. He vanished in 1932 when he was 25, while hunting in a kayak in Greenland.

He was probably stupid to be hunting alone; but there was still something faintly impertinent about the way Jim Perrin turned his death into a homily. He had 'paid the price' of his ambition: 'I read Gino's words, and that tragic Greek concept of hubris echoes through to me behind them.' Once Greek tragedy had crept in, common sense was really sunk. So was restrained writing: 'For Gino, Atropos took the graceful form of an Inuit kayak.' Why the Fates, you wonder - whatever happened to accidents? This was a good story, mostly well told, but it ended by being alienatingly self-righteous.

Ray Gosling, on the other hand, is never alienatingly self- righteous, but he can be plain alienating, or even plain alien. Certainly he has the kind of boundless curiosity about things that you'd expect from a visitor from another planet, as well as a set of vocal tics that would stretch any normal terrestrial larynx. As for the alienating bit, the first in a new series of Gosling on the High Street (Radio 4, Wednesday) has already attracted complaints on Feedback.

Part of that programme, two weeks ago, had Gosling sharing lunch with the third Lord Leverhulme, to find out about his ancestor, the soap manufacturer and philanthrophist. In strictly journalistic terms it was a terrible interview - much of Lord Leverhulme's conversation consisted of monosyllabic grunts of assent in reply to Gosling's questions, or startled reactions to the bread-and-butter pudding; in between, there were long pauses punctuated by gobbling noises, and it was the noises that listeners objected to. Personally, I'd think twice before doing lunch with either Gosling or his lordship, but I thought the whole sequence was superb aural theatre.

There was nothing quite so striking in this week's programme about Frank Hornby, the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of Toyland, who invented Dinky Toys, Hornby train sets and Meccano. At one point, an interviewee explained Hornby had been encouraged by the Government to make trains after the First World War, because they didn't want the market dominated by German- made trains. The subsequent exchange went:

'The Government encouraged him?'

'The Government encouraged him, yes.'

'Beat the Germans.'

'Yes, yes.'

'Let's have British trains.'


'Made in Britain.'

Again, the technique is dreadful; but Gosling nearly always manages to pull something different out of his interviewees, even if it's only an unusual tone of voice (and he gets plenty of those). The highlight here was his visit to Pauline Greaves, Hornby's only living descendant. 'Have you any family, Ray?' she enquired. 'No, I haven't got any family at all, so I'm the last as well.' 'Ah, dear oh dear,' she said, sadly. He shrugged it off: 'These things happen.' 'They do, they do,' she said kindly, and allowed the subject to trail off, as though she suspected some private grief. Didn't have much to do with Meccano. Didn't much matter.