RADIO / Jazz release for an old toad

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The Independent Culture
IN A FEW weeks time Philip Larkin's grave will be trampled on by the British press. With the publication of the poet's letters - a complex blend of wit, wisdom, savagery, and casual racism and misogyny - a storm, whose first squalls have already been felt, is set to engulf Larkin's memory. The leader-writers and columnists would do well to listen, before pontificating, to Peter Dickinson's perceptive Larkin's Jazz (R4). By studying in isolation Larkin's attitude to jazz, Dickinson provided a portrait that defied the easy labels - 'reactionary', 'conservative' - that are likely to be tagged to him.

The prejudice of the letter-writer is in part contradicted by the appreciativeness of the critic: Larkin was 'equally open to white and black musicians'. Jazz was both an escape and a creative source: for the young man it provided independence, shared experience, and the rawness and lyricism of poetry; for the older it represented youth and nostalgia. Dickinson argued illuminatingly that Larkin's antipathy to modern jazzmen - he was notoriously blind to the merits of Miles Davis - was symptomatic of his attitude to all the arts, a disillusionment with the 'irresponsible exploitation of technique in contradiction of natural life'.

The programme was well-served by David Killick's readings of Larkin's jazz writings for the Daily Telegraph. It would have been easy to have someone aping the gloomy old toad, but Killick caught the sprightly enthusiast inside the lugubrious buffer.

We were spoilt for choice with readers of Tennyson, the 100th anniversary of whose death was celebrated in a series of programmes on Radio 3 (with the departure of John Drummond, date-based scheduling is breaking out again). There was even, in Portrait of a Poet (R3), a snippet of Tennyson himself. Ever intrigued by scientific advance, he had agreed in 1890 to be recorded by Thomas Edison, as one of 'the three most famous Anglo-Saxon people'. What we heard was a rushed, crudely melodramatic rendering of a stanza of Maud, so electronically disembodied as to seem hardly human - like Peter O'Sullevan declaiming through a voice disguiser. John Betjeman, presenting this archive programme, gamely pointed to 'a slight Lincolnshire accent'.

There was also a beautiful reading by Peggy Ashcroft of The Lady of Shalott. This standard recitation-piece, with its galumphing repeated title-line, is almost unreadable, but Ashcroft brought it off: each time we returned to the Lady, the great actress made the line unexpected but natural. The surprise of the Tennyson week was Robert Donat (remembered for his Hannay in Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps) giving a reading from In Memoriam of weary intelligence bordering on despair ('Behold, we know not anything').

It rather eclipsed the John Gielgud renditions of the same poem and The Lotos Eaters, which were the celebrations' centre- piece. This column bridled a few weeks ago at the poet Tom Paulin talking of the damage to poetry done by the 'clapped-out elocution' of Gielgud's 'national heritage of sound' voice. But in these recordings you could see Paulin's point - the arbitrarily applied and predictable vibrato, the distracting bombast. The poetry seemed to speak less clearly than in Donat's rendition, muffled by Gielgud's performance. Does any other actor tread so thin a line between the sublime and the ridiculous?

In remembrance of things past, BBC radio is on a par with Proust. The latest throw-back series is Cold Print (R4), which looks at deceased newspapers and magazines - ephemerals that proved more ephemeral than they bargained for. The first two, the Children's Newspaper and the Sketch (not the Daily Sketch, but a society tattle-sheet), both failed through being out of touch with their readers. The Children's Newspaper's brand of trainspotter trivia and improving fervour was never very popular with children; the paper was bought for them by their parents, and perished at the onset of Beatlemania. The emetic brew had been concocted by one Arthur Mee, physically an 'English Poirot' and an impromptu and manic dictator of articles and moral precepts, described by a dewy-eyed contributor as 'one of the most successful journalists of all time'.

The Sketch was a more cynical operation, produced by young left-wing intellectuals busking to subsidise their novel-writing. 'You must never underestimate the aristocracy for being really cheap and stupid,' said the novelist John Bowen, asked about the paper's appeal.

Christopher Matthew trawled through all this with engaging wit (the Sketch's readers were 'the strapless and the chinless'); the feeling was less of nostalgia than of good riddance to old rubbish.

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