RADIO / A new method for old bedfellows

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The Independent Culture
POETRY and radio are such old bedfellows - going steady since 1924 - that their relationship has begun to stale. Radio 3's Poet of the Month has just been axed, and the law of diminishing returns applies to the quaint perennials Poetry Please and With Great Pleasure, which seem to erect a mausoleum around the subject. Refreshment is now at hand in Stanza (R4), a late-night programme on Tuesdays, which, you might say, introduces Radio 4 to the rhythm method.

Debutant presenter Andrew McAllister, an engagingly unaffected Geordie, and this week's guest, Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin, concentrated on sound: 'All poetry has to be in touch with that deep-seated rhythm,' argued Paulin, after a class of schoolchildren had sung 'London Bridge Is Falling Down'. As they marvelled at a wide range of extracts - the kick and gelling of consonants in a Belfast street song, the demotic in Van Morrison - you felt that for once the horse was being put before the cart. Sound before meaning, appreciation before reputation.

At times an unwarranted militancy crept in. Paulin, who always seems to have a critical wrecking- ball close to hand, launched an attack on John Gielgud's rendition of a Shakespeare sonnet ('the national heritage of sound . . . clapped-out elocutionary voice'). It might have carried more force if his own aggressively rhythmic readings hadn't echoed those of the joke poet John Hegley. His allegation that Gielgud's manner had done 'a tremendous amount of damage to poetry' needed challenging, or at least discussing. His interpretations could also be rather pat - the piece was usually a 'parable', about 'fate and tragedy', 'emigration', or the like. But these are quibbles set against the unfamiliar virtues of a poetry programme that switches from Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit' to Gerard Manley Hopkins' sprung rhythm without trivialising either.

Poets and Places (R4) takes a more conventional, biographical approach. The first episode, dealing with D H Lawrence's love- hate relationship with his native Eastwood, was lit up by Lawrence biographer John Worthen's blazing commitment to his subject. But 15 minutes was too short for anything but a snapshot.

The appeal of What If . . . ? (R4), the series that wonders what would have happened if key historical events had turned out differently, is like that of science fiction: a glimpse of our own world subtly but significantly altered. This week Dr Christopher Andrew and guests supposed cannabis had been legalised in the Sixties. They imagined advertisements in which cowboys mellowed out under waterfalls, and golf tournaments that were sponsored by dope companies.

Agreement between the two experts ended about there. Griffith Edward, a professor of addiction behaviour, argued that legalisation would lead to greater drug use and harder drugs coming further into play. Anthony Henman, Executive Secretary of the International Anti-Prohibition League, felt things would be pretty much the same, and while we were at it we should legalise cocaine and heroin, too. The argument became a contrast in characters, realist taking on idealist.

Whenever Henman floated a utopian vision of his happily doped society, Edward clawed it to earth with scientific fact. Drugging and driving, Henman argued, wouldn't be a problem because people in their spaced-out hypersensitivity wouldn't want to take charge of a machine. But if they did, the professor countered, they wouldn't know where their toes were. When Henman argued a return to the system of doctors prescribing hard drugs, Griffith told a lurid tale of a doctor being paid in a cab in Piccadilly with threepenny bits, and putting them straight into 'a gambling machine'. 'I personally feel that opiates, like all drugs, can be used sensibly,' Henman drawled, making you wonder if he was practising what he preached. The professor, though less fluent, was more convincing, if only because you tend to believe the worst.

Last year What If . . . ? wondered about a world in which President Kennedy was still alive, and decided he would have floundered in a second term - chiefly for lack of a long-term vision - but would have probably made a better fist of Vietnam than LBJ. It was a balanced, perhaps over- generous assessment, but as nothing compared to the whitewash of As I Recall (World Service) in which Kennedy's adviser Robert McNamara was interviewed on the Cuban missile crisis. The Kennedy myth of firmness tempered by restraint was rehearsed, with no hint that it was Kennedy's brinkmanship that risked nuclear war. McNamara recalled thinking 'I might never live to see another Saturday night'. He should at least have been asked whose fault it would have been.