RADIO My Father Said to Me (Radio 4) Parental advice to small children never changes, it seems. By Robert Hanks

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
You can try as hard as you like not to listen to what your parents tell you; it will catch up with you in the end. The subject of yesterday morning's My Father Said to Me was the advice that parents give their children and the way that it can stick in the mind, overcoming all adult reason and education. "Comic policemen, so to speak," suggested Edward Blishen, "plodding the streets in the moral quarters of our being."

Blishen is now 75, and is still haunted by the Keystone Kops homilies that his parents inflicted on him: he may no longer think that you can judge a man's character by the shininess of his shoes, but he's still unable to bear dirty fingernails. Listening to his amused, thankful response to parental injunction, 60 years after the fact, you saw the force of the police analogy: like policemen, these nuggets of advice may seem hostile and oppressive when you're young; but as you get older, their presence starts to seem reassuring.

The same mixture of gratitude and amusement was evident, too, in the recollections of the anonymous voices that appeared on the programme - they had had drummed into them the same values of thrift, chastity and politeness that Blishen had. Still, there was an odd mismatch between these off-the-cuff vox pops and Blishen's more studied, literary style.

To begin with, the contrast was disconcerting to the listener, and not flattering to Blishen; his commentary sounded contrived, and his attitude to the other speakers - "My voices", he called them - a touch patrician; it might have been better to have identified them individually. But those reservations were washed away, bit by bit. The tone was so sweet and thoughtful that it began to feel not so much off-key as quirky and fresh, a change from the self-consciously unvarnished style that's habitually applied to oral history on the radio.

In any case, this wasn't history as the term is usually understood; although the memories were drawn from a roughly circumscribed period, there was no attempt to pass this off as a picture of family relationships before the war. Rather, it was a denial of history, a sequence of proofs that there aren't any differences between the past and present; the same truisms get passed on, and while small things change, nothing really progresses.

One particular incident emphasised the point: remembering her mother's insistence that you should always have a vest on (in case of accident), one of Blishen's voices pointed out how much stricter an injunction that was in the days before washing-machines - "In those days they didn't change vests and that every day of the week, like they do today. Mind you, they don't wear them today, do they?" And then, trailing off: "Anyway, where's my pocket handkerchief?" There was an inconsequentiality about this, a sense that outside the little envelope of these memories life just carries on, that seemed to catch the heart of the programme; and it did have plenty of heart.