RADIO / Laughter, learnt of friends, under an English heaven

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The Independent Culture
THE RAILWAYS were chaotic that August night in 1914. Myfanwy Thomas remembers it well: it was her fourth birthday and she and her family were trying to get to the Cotswolds. Her father, Edward, was already there, but war had just been declared and suddenly the trains were full of soldiers. They were turned out at Malvern, so they set off in a horse-drawn cab, descending from the hills at midnight to reach the village where a small group of writers - The Dymock Poets (R4) - were about to enjoy one last, glorious summer holiday.

'I would have an iron pot on the fire with a duck and some green peas stewing in it,' said Catherine Abercrombie, 'and John Drinkwater and Wilfred Gibson would sit around and read their latest poems to each other, as I lay on a stoup of hay and watched the stars wander through the elms, and think I had really found the why and the wherefore of life.' Catherine's husband Lascelles (it rhymes with tassels) was the big name in poetry then. We tend, these days, to dismiss the Georgian poets as irrelevant, but her measured, archive voice reminded us that they were the contemporary avant-garde, full of zeal and courage.

Robert Frost arrived at Dymock. Again the archives came up trumps as his New England drawl explained why. You see, it was cheap, and his wife fancied a spell under thatch (the thatcher's trade, like everything else that summer, was still unsullied by later associations). Together, they decided that poetry should look no further than the strong rhythms and cadences of everyday speech. Edward Thomas, said Frost, was a natural poet and should get on with it. Then along came Rupert Brooke, the loveliest lad in England, and they decided to publish his sonnets. A third old lady's voice broke in. She

is Brooke's cousin Winifred, who was three when he chased her down the steps that year, but she remembers it vividly. You bet she does.

She must have been telling that story for 80 years.

Julian May's absorbing programme (a Kaleidoscope feature) was fraught with the poignancy of what was to come. It wove fine strands of memory back to a generation only just out of reach, whose youth belongs to a remote and different world. In this setting, the last lines of one of those sonnets became earthed in a new reality. Those few weeks, all those years ago, were a time for 'laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, / In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.'

There is not much to laugh about when you're adrift at sea. Thursday morning brought news of the rescue of a sailor after three weeks in a powerless motor-boat. This chap lived on beans, but so what. That's nothing. On Survivors (R4) we heard the story of Bob Tininenko, and it was really something. Twenty years ago, three people set off for a fortnight on a trimaran. It capsized and only Bob survived, living in a hole he cut out of its hull, with virtually nothing to eat, for three months. His brother-in-law, a deranged fundamentalist, jettisoned their food, believing that God would provide and failing to realise that God already had. In the end, Bob lived only because his freakish metabolism could accept sea-water. Today he seems calm, happy, successful, but he is prey to sudden, harrowing grief when he remembers being unable to save the life of his young wife.

The survivor is no hero, said Bob. The hard part is coming back alone. This is even truer of someone who actually wanted to die. Tom Robinson, who has lived through it himself, talked to five other people who know about Surviving Suicide (R4). This is the same Robinson who presents the network's smuttiest magazine programme, the one that makes half the population heave a sigh of relief to be female. He was almost unrecognisable. On the evidence of this programme, he should slam the door on The Locker Room and throw away the key.

These people had all reached the edge of the abyss and jumped. The parachute that saved them was a slow-dawning awareness that they mattered to other people, that they still had a contribution to make. Robinson's sympathy was almost tangible and they blossomed under it, sending out a message of hope, born of real despair. The Samaritans were poised to answer calls from any one listening in the same, shipwrecked boat.

Over on Radio 2, Hot Chocolate were singing 'Put down your tablets and take up your pen, and I'll put you together again'. On this occasion, the fractured listeners were sufferers from heart disease. It was Heart to Heart time - I'm sorry if this is all a bit bleak, but it's been a tough week on the airwaves. Again, the survivors were hurling out lifebelts and experts were there to field calls (and there were 3,000 of them). A lot of excellent advice about exercise, diet and so on was slightly undercut by news of the death of the oldest man on earth (153, in Tehran, since you ask), who claimed to owe his longevity to fatty dairy products . . .

I hope Steve Wright (R1) was listening. His 'posse' was blathering on about healthy food this week. Wright claimed to be mystified by the fact that his fruit pastilles contained no fat but were fattening. No, how astounding] This posture of ignorance is unconvincing and irritating. Who is he kidding? Or is he really that stupid?

I was prompted to listen to him again by the repellent Chris Morris (R1), who claims to be 'basically Steve Wright on a one-legged horse vomiting spinach into a pram'. Sorry, Chris, you're flattering yourself.