RADIO / Making their excuses: Robert Hanks reviews On the Ropes and Jack's Last Tape

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The Independent Culture
THE AIRWAVES hum with the maundering of sad men making their excuses, which is a good reason for avoiding Prime Minister's Questions. In On the Ropes (Radio 4, Monday) John Humphrys asks men (never women, it seems) about their career troughs, and they explain that they have nothing to apologise for.

In the first programme of this series we had David Mellor saying that any public declarations of regret for errors of judgement would be a sop to the disgusting tabloid editors. Then there came George Walker, who made it clear that the financial troubles of Brent Walker came about because of the treachery of bankers, and despite his having pumped pounds 30m of his own money into the company. Two days after the interview was recorded, he was arrested and charged with theft. And yesterday, Gilbert O'Sullivan said that he was proud of the navety that had led him, by devious routes, into a multi-million pound lawsuit against his former manager.

Since O'Sullivan won the case, you could see his point of view: otherwise, there's a slightly perturbing sense that the whole programme is turning into a kind of Coueist therapy session - Coue being the man who popularised the idea that by methodically repeating 'every day in every way I'm getting better and better' you could hypnotise yourself into being a better person. That's understandable, but wearing; you start to long for a straightforward admission of failure.

Which is one reason why Jack's Last Tape (Radio 4, Sunday) was so refreshing. This was a rambling memoir composed from fragments recorded by Jack Trevor Story during the last two years of his life (he died at the end of 1991).

At the time he was debt-ridden and holed up in a farmhouse just outside Milton Keynes, living alone for the first time in his life: 'It's a horrific situation to be in. It's Edgar Allan Poeland to live in a place like this, on lithium tablets, you know. And all your wives gone into the past.'

The house was formerly an agricultural museum, a situation with plenty of metaphorical potential: old-fashioned writer hammering out determinedly 'naturalistic' black comedy and autobiography (with Story, you gathered, the two genres were never easily disentangled) on traditional typewriter, while the outside world has succumbed to VDUs and post-modernism. All this inside a place devoted to antique tools and a vanished rural life tucked away next to this country's most notoriously modern urban environment.

Even if he didn't spot the lurking irony, he knew that he was on his way to museum-piece status. He told a story about a bailiff (one of many) bringing his wife and small son along to see a real writer at work. They just sat and watched him typing, their thirst for curiosities apparently satisfied. Most people, Story said, 'can't believe an old geezer living in a farmhouse can be doing anything except talk about the past as though it's still happening'.

He did a fair amount of that, in fact, humming hits of the Thirties (shades of Dennis Potter in his choice of tunes), listening to old tapes of himself, mourning those vanished wives: 'I lost Maggie in 1972. It's the living that make the ghosts, really. I see her everywhere. I see her as policewomen, traffic wardens, bus conductresses. I see her in the wallpaper. I see her in the lino in the lavatory.' Mostly, though, he was getting on with the present, hustling, scribbling, muddling through.

All the same - laments for lost love and frustrated talent, flipping from present to past through old tape-recordings . . . the student of Beckett will recognise, in line with the title, something Krappy about the whole enterprise.

But the resemblances were misleading. Story's situation was hopeless, but not existentially desperate. Cheerful incidents jollied him up - an undertaker and his wife took him home from the pub and cooked him an omelette - and underneath his slow, rasping delivery there was a suppressed energy audible in the way he pounded his typewriter, rattled his pill bottles and slammed tapes into recorders.

The whole thing had a scrappy, unfathomable structure: but, as with the apparently fortuitous Beckettian echoes, you suspect that a great deal of art had been pressed into service to create the impression of randomness, and that the producer, Alastair Wilson, was covering up his tracks. When Story switched on his old tapes, the one we heard most frequently was part of a radio discussion in which he was one of a panel of writers discussing autobiography - how reality is transformed into art, and how writing an autobiography added something to your life. You wondered if this was Wilson's quiet way of excusing himself for telling too clean a story.