RADIO / Different strokes for different folks: Robert Hanks on Gerry Anderson's Surviving in Stroke City and The Thin Blue Line

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'IT'S STRANGELY exhilarating to play piggy in the middle,' according to Gerry Anderson in Surviving in Stroke City (Radio 4, Thursday). He was speaking from a position of authority, as a disc-jockey on Radio Foyle, the BBC's local station for Derry / Londonderry, a city where every conversation with a stranger is a small game of codewords and shibboleths designed to check which side of the Loyalist / Protestant-Republican / Catholic divide the other person stands on. You can't even mention its name without landing yourself in some kind of trouble (roughly speaking, Republicans / Catholics call it Derry, Loyalists / Protestants go for Londonderry): hence 'Derry-stroke-Londonderry', hence 'Stroke City'.

Anderson's daily show is done off the top of his head, with virtually no preparation; this programme was prepared, though, and while Anderson's script and delivery were faultlessly elegant - fastidious, even - it is, to be honest, not a patch on his rambling. Still, the first of Anderson's four talks on the art of speaking your mind in a place where 'a man's only as safe as the last word he's uttered' conveyed nicely the thrill of extemporising your way through minefields that are shifting as you go ('diverse ears hear different things').

It's a thrill that seems to infect others, judging from the tone of James Naughtie's new documentary series on the United Nations, The Thin Blue Line (Radio 4, Thursday and Sunday). At times, the relentless optimism of UN officials seemed overwhelming, as well as barely explicable by the turn of events. As Naughtie pointed out, there's a paradox that just as the UN is coming under a hail of critical fire across the world, and more and more demands are being placed on it, the mood within the organisation has swung sharply up.

That's partly explained by the end of the Cold War, which has freed the Security Council from jail, according to the Australian ambassador, and left everybody putting on a warm front ('We're friends,' said Yuli Vorontsov, the Russian ambassador - 'Best friends,' was the phrase used by Madeleine Albright, his American counterpart). For the first time in its history, the UN has a chance to define its role and carry out its duties, no longer having to play up to the old polarity.

Still, it was hard to see what cause there was for celebration when, as everyone agrees, budgets for the peace-keeping forces are ridiculously inadequate - smaller, said one official, than the budget for the New York police department: 'Somehow, governments seem to accept the fact that war is expensive, defence is expensive - but peace, somehow, must be free.' The budgetary problems are compounded by inefficient bureaucracy - Boutros Boutros-Ghali is trying to reform that but at present, as Marrack Goulding admitted, the UN is essentially geared up to organise conferences, not armies. It takes three to four months just to sort out the composition of a peace-keeping force, who's in charge, who will transport it, before it can even be put into place.

And even when it gets there, it's hamstrung by the old-style procedures, designed for more civilised situations: 'Can you do peacekeeping,' asked one of their men in Yugoslavia, 'where there is no peace to keep?' He pointed out that 'Scouting for Boys is not a big seller in ex-Yugoslavia. There are no boy scouts around here.'

Even in that quarter of hell, Naughtie found officials ready to say that UN operations were 'by any standards' hugely successful - a controversial judgement, to say the least. At a guess, it's their acute sensitivity to paradox that keeps them so cheerful. Catch-22s surround them on every side. On the one hand, the organisation relies for its influence on being non-partisan; but having to stand back from conflict puts sharp limits on that influence. It needs television to gather public opinion on its side; but is terrified that they might come to the point where absence of pictures means there's no situation. Knowing that they can't possibly win this game of piggy in the middle, they're inventing new definitions of winning.

This was an excellent opener for the series - slickly done, managing to combine overview with a sense of urgency, an unexpected feature in a programme that was essentially about bureaucracy. The press release said that it was being edited up to the last minute, to keep up with latest developments, though it seemed the producer, Anne Sloman, had decided that the last minute was never going to be up-to-date enough to cope with the slow death of Srebrenica, and that situation was conspicuously omitted. Perhaps that was one point where the exhilaration had worn too thin.