RADIO / Dedicated to the one you love

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The Independent Culture
I HAD a bad moment on Thursday evening. I turned on my radio and thought it was broken. Radio 3 appeared to be silent at 8pm. But then it turned into that particular silence that precedes the first, live broadcast of a new work, when you hear audience and orchestra alike sternly bracing themselves for the challenge. In this case, it was Mark-Anthony Turnage's Drowned Out, but, before a note was played, Simon Rattle spoke. They hastily turned up his volume and he was saying that he was about to play a version of 'Happy Birthday' written by Stravinsky, in 'cubist' style: 47 seconds in which all the bits were there, but not where you'd expect to find them. It was for his father, who was 77 today.

It's lovely to have the stature to be able to broadcast a tribute to somebody you admire. Brian Redhead was given just such an opportunity on Sunday when he delivered the first Priestland Memorial Lecture on Radio 4. It was preceded by a portrait of Gerald Priestland himself. He was the man whose account of his own religious journey brought him 20,000 letters of appreciation; who, in the Today programme's Man of the Year poll, won more votes than the Pope. His unofficial broadcasting motto was 'We hope it's the truth, we're sure it's not the whole truth, it'll be a miracle if it's nothing but the truth'. Yet truth, real honest truth, was what distinguished him and turned him, to his amazement, into a kind of unofficial bishop.

Redhead is no bishop. He is not even going to be a priest, as was confidently reported recently. There are plenty of people who find him irritating, either because of his frivolity or his sentimentality, but these weaknesses are, in theological terms, venial, and can even be seen as strengths. It was a strong and impressive lecture. It dealt with the search for truth and it was pithy, passionate and virtually impossible to summarise. He talked about the fact that theological language has been hijacked. Charisma now has less to do with grace than with the whiteness of a politician's smile: paradise is travel agent-speak for a fortnight at the end of a runway, and prophecy has become the 'compulsive anodyne bilge' of tabloid astrology columnists.

We are, he said, led to believe that the muscles of our reason are now so strong that we can walk towards truth without the crutches of faith. Yet in practice, we reach towards every new guru that arises, including the lunacy and blasphemy of the extreme electronic evangelists. He argued strongly that Christianity is not for perfectionists, but for those who can admit that they sometimes fail to live up to their ideals, are always ready to start again and who are not too proud to ride piggy-back on the great minds of the past. It was no sermon, this lecture, but it carried more force and conviction than many a sermon, and it was slap-bang in the middle of the runway marked out by the wise and witty Priestland. It will be a hard act to follow next year.

The great soprano Victoria de los Angeles puts a lot of her success down to faith. In the first of a series of conversations on Radio 4, she described her childhood in Barcelona, when her income of 10 pesetas a month, earned from broadcasting at the age of 15, kept her family from starvation. 'My infant days have been wonderful,' she said. 'Always I went to bed thinking I want to be good.' So well did she succeed that even the generally stern Natalie Wheen was audibly melted. As Father John McDade said, in Thought for the Day (R4), a sense of doing the right thing, whatever the cost, is the best way of being human.

From the sublime to Radio 1. Simon Bates left his mid-morning slot amid much lamentation. In a dazzling coup, he procured the services of the (counterfeit) Stones on Thursday before leaving for America on Friday, his last broadcast. We shall not see his like, nor hear 'Our Tune', again. Glory be to God. More of that next week.