RADIO / Hunt for a Birt-free zone

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A SMALL man appeared in a tattered vest, pushing something. The heat-haze gave his outline a shimmering sparkle that hardened into the unmistakable form of a supermarket trolley, full of plastic bags. Two dogs on leads trotted amiably beside it while huge lorries threw up clouds of dust as they swerved past. He proved to be a jolly Frenchman on an 8,000km stroll through the East. Whatever else Simon Dring expected to encounter on the road to Damascus, it was nothing like this long-distance bag-person, but the fact that he was a godsend was blindingly obvious.

Radio 4 has packed its bags and headed for the outback. Every few minutes, it seems, somebody is on about travelling (could this be something to do with hunting for a Birt-free zone?) Dring has gone further than most, and fared better. In On the Road Again (R4) he is reliving his teens, following the road to Kathmandu along the hippy trail. On Thursday he reached the halfway point, having seen the sun rise in the desert outside Aqaba. There's a valley there called Wadi Rum, which runs between vast, red, striated rocks. Its magnificence silenced T E Lawrence, but a girl called Kate was voluble. She'd sat on the top and looked at the world and seen absolutely nobody. 'You remember how big the world is,' she said, 'and that's a really comforting feeling.'

Dring didn't mention the Camel Corps post in the Wadi which is labelled Rum Police

Station, but some of his fellow- travellers were odd enough to belong there. In among the super-fit Lycra-clad Germans on mountain bikes was a couple of self- confessed wrinklies up from Ramsgate on a motorbike, and an Irish pair who got everything wrong. They were useless at barter, they hadn't got the right visas and when they hitched a ride on a pilgrim bus, it proved to be smuggling; happily the contraband substances were not deadly narcotics, but dangerously illegal prayer-mats.

The Irish were visited at home by another traveller, Robin Neillands. In Walking through Ireland (R4), he showed how easy it is to do this kind of thing badly. Managing to avoid every real Irishman in the place, he talked to tiresome tourist-trappers whose only aim was to advertise their wretched heritage-centres. The best moment was his description of climbing over a fence into a bog. He sank as if descending in a lift and was only halted when his rucksack hit the surface.

Not to be outdone, Radio 3 went travelling with early tourists. In Before Thomas Cook we heard of the hard time Pastor Moritz had when he left Germany in the 1780s. Pelted with oranges at the Haymarket, unable to find a decent cup of coffee anywhere and reviled for his dirty shirt,

this enthusiastic anglophile still marvelled at all he saw. He became most rhapsodic over a cave in the Peak District, perhaps not grasping that it was known locally as the Devil's Arse.

The best traveller went to China. In The Great River (R4) on Friday, the estimable Philip Short gave a picture of Shanghai in which every detail mattered, from the futuristic new Volkswagen factory to the joy of a brilliant bargain. He sought out Gung Yi, the Yehudi Menuhin of China, a virtuoso of the most difficult classical Chinese instrument, the gu-chin, a type of psalmody or lute. During the Cultural Revolution, this man had picked up a gu-chin for pounds 30 which proved to date from the time of Kubla Khan. He had recognised its voice, he said.

Melvyn Bragg is also away and the mice playing in his spot are having a lovely time. Emma Freud and Richard Coles started the week with Live Wires (R4), a magazine programme that dared to ask disaster-prone Dylan Winter to interview the unluckiest man in Britain. When they finally sorted out the ensuing muddle, they asked the Yehudi Menuhin of the recorder to join in. Dr Carl Dolmetsch, recorder in one hand, phone in the other, showed that the time-signal pips have recently descended to B flat, which offended his perfect pitch. This delightful man suggested raising the tone. If the pips went out at A440, all musicians would be able to tune their instruments to them, everywhere. Now that would be a real world service.

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