Radio: A week to remember, as if we'd forget

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Teachers, finding the concept of irony hard to define, often resort to example. This was a week overburdened with such examples. The weightiest came at 11.02am on Wednesday, when R4's two-minute silence was broken by a news bulletin announcing another military build-up against Iraq.

The Flanders mud clung heavily to the schedules. Under the umbrella of a "Remembrance" season, James Wilby read the morning serial: Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (R4), with elegant restraint, though it was a mistake not to preface it with the first volume of Sassoon's great trilogy - as it was to reduce it to five short episodes. The season's Book at Bedtime: Le Grand Meaulnes (R4), Alain-Fournier's much shorter adolescent reverie, received twice as much time.

But the umbrella was superfluous in the Great War deluge flooding the airwaves. It cropped up on Start the Week (R4), Woman's Hour (R4) and Brian Hayes (R5). Every bewildered or defiant ancient in the land was wheeled out to straighten records: "The men were very rowdy," said Elsie Worthington, 102, on The World at One (R4). It even slipped into Round Britain Quiz (R4) in the answer "Rivers", the name of the psychiatrist who treated both Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

It began to feel - if you'll forgive the word - like overkill. Those angry, haunting poems endlessly recited - even during Choral Evensong (R3) - too often, with more sentiment than sense. It became extremely irritating to hear each performer adding his own whimsical inflections. Since Pat Barker appropriated these poets for her novelistic needs, their lives and words are becoming, like Classic FM's playlist, diminished by repetition. Maybe some listeners could suspend disbelief during Strange Meeting (R4), Peter Wolf's dramatic imagining of Owen's last day, but I found it banal. The last line of the poem which inspired this piece is "Let us sleep now." It's time to heed it.

And yet, and yet. In this nostalgic free-for-all there were some treasures. One was Swan Song (R4) when David Owen Norris and Ian Partridge performed songs by European composers killed in that war. Butterworth was there, and Denis Brown, who died at Gallipoli after burying his school-friend Rupert Brooke on the way. But the non- English musicians were marvellous too. The wistful "Heimat" by Rudi Stephan, killed by a Russian sniper on the eastern front, sounded like early Britten; Andre Caplet's song, scrawled on an envelope in the trenches to words by Joachim Du Bellay, was wincingly lovely. Poor Caplet. He had been a conductor before volunteering and he lingered until 1925, his lungs flayed by poison-gas.

Tubby Clayton, a stout little army chaplain, lit A Small Flame in Flanders (R4) when he started a club in Poperinghe, near the Ypres salient. Talbot House grew into a worldwide movement for reconciliation. The rule was: Abandon Rank All Ye Who Enter Here and the house was full of home comforts, of easy chairs, open fires, music, plays and debates, on the very doorstep of Armageddon. Malcolm Brown visited it and met Jeanne Bateux, who had been a guest at a children's party there in 1916. She spoke warmly of Clayton, "a golden man", but the memory that has haunted her for 80 years was of an English 17-year-old, shot for desertion, who died crying out for his mother.

Ruth Prince, who produced this, always makes reliably sensitive and informative programmes. Another of hers described the selection of The Unknown Soldier (R2). Un-identified bodies were brought from the major battlefields, wrapped in Union Jacks and laid out in a French chapel. At midnight on November 7th 1920, a blindfolded Brigadier General selected one, which was transported, with elaborate ceremony, to Westminster to represent all the nameless dead. This starting-point led to a wonderfully thoughtful programme, rich in anecdote and narrated with unselfconscious charm by Tony Robinson.

Another winner was The Girls They Left Behind (R4) which followed a group of bright Edinburgh teenagers to the battlefields. It was extremely moving to hear their reactions to each site, their understanding perceptibly deepening. They were shocked to learn of the execution of deserters and lingered over the tombstone of one, a Scottish boy who had just walked away after three years in the trenches. On it was carved, in defiance of official attitudes "Fondly remembered by a sorrowing mother". Looking at the graves of a father and son, aged 44 and 19, killed on the same day, one girl thought of her dad and brother. "They're so close - it just tears you apart."

And of course it is right to remember, and to impress upon succeeding generations how futile were such deaths. But we must also educate ourselves into the culture of peace. This was the message of Sir Joseph Rotblat, who chose his Desert Island Discs (R4) last Sunday. World wars have dominated this extraordinary man's life - the first destroying his childhood, the second killing his wife. Since then, he has worked tirelessly for the elimination of nuclear weapons and towards the use of peaceful negotiation to settle disputes. Amazingly - and exhilaratingly - he thinks we're getting there. He said this quite without irony.

His careful choice of music was:

John Ogden: Polonaise in A flat (Chopin)

Joan Baez: "Where have all the Flowers Gone?"

LSO: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Dukas)

Pablo Casals: Kol Nidrei (Bruch)

Paul Robeson: "Ol' Man River"

Pete Seeger: "Last Night I had the Strangest Dream"

RPO: Symphony no 9 (Beethoven)

Swedish Physicians in Concert for the Prevention of Nuclear War: "A Rill will be a Stream, a Stream will be a Flood" (Tessin/Larsson)