RADIO / Pedalling dreams: Robert Hanks on the cycling socialists of Fresh Air and Sandals and a nostalgic revival of Julian Slade's post-war musical Salad Days

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The Independent Culture
It isn't often that form chimes with substance as harmoniously as it did in the case of Fresh Air and Sandals (Radio 4, Friday): the subject was rambling, and so was its treatment. The theme of Bea Campbell's series is the legacy of the Utopian Socialists, supposedly; but you had to take that on trust, since Utopian Socialism barely figured in the first programme. You were left short of clues as to whom Campbell included in that category (after all, if you stand far enough to the left, the label 'Utopian' can apply to any socialist organisation you like), or how this nebulous grouping saw the connection between political thought and the great outdoors. What you did get was a disjointed procession of sketches illustrating in aggregate the decline of rambling, cycling and youth-hostelling from idealistic mass movements in the 1930s to market-driven leisure industries in the 1990s.

So the Clarion Cycling Club, founded a century ago by enthusiasts who wanted 'to propagate Socialism first, and to do it on bicycles seemed a very pleasant way', now suffers from internal divisions between an old guard that still regards politics as the priority, and modernisers who see the club as a cycling organisation first and foremost. The Youth Hostel Association has already fallen to the duvet tendency: it has tossed out the traditional scratchy blankets and scowling wardens in favour of comfortable bedding and a friendlier, more 'professional' approach.

As a chronicle of a democratisation of the countryside in the 20th century, Fresh Air and Sandals lived up to the implications of its title by being full of holes; and nobody ever taught Bea Campbell about the importance of keeping a map and compass with you at all times, to judge by the lack of direction here. But as a barbed allegory of what's happened to the Left in this country, it was nicely aimed and beautifully timed: what better metaphor for the apotheosis of Tony Blair could there be than the triumph of the duvet - warm, comforting and shapeless.

The thing that made the programme likeable and memorable, though, was the remembered youthful idealism of survivors from the Thirties, for whom the countryside offered a release from the dehumanising life of the city. At home they were 'office fodder'; on a hike, even when there were hundreds of them, they became individuals. One ex-member of the Woodcraft Folk, the co-educational, anti- militaristic alternative to the Scouts, talked of how the organisation had taught him the value of co-operation and collective action while purposely fostering idiosyncrasy and rebellion. Modern political discourse seems to find that pairing hard to swallow. Still, at least the duvets are nice.

The tenacious optimism of the Thirties, as displayed here, looks all the more fresh-faced set against the ironic, washed-out post-war optimism of the Fifties that's exemplified in Salad Days (Radio 2, Saturday).

It's easy to dismiss Julian Slade's musical, now 40 years old, as a mere tissue of whimsy. For one thing, it has no more than the vestiges of a story - a mess of pastiched daftness and outright original idiocy, taped together flimsily by a magic piano and multiple eccentric uncles, that you might call an apology for a plot if it wasn't so thrillingly and utterly shameless. I wouldn't make large claims for the music either: there are a couple of nice tunes, but otherwise it's so generic that it hardly even qualifies as pastiche.

Beneath the meringue exterior, though, there is a serious theme. The real hazards confronting Jamie and Tim, the two recently graduated heroes, are boredom and aimlessness. And these are treated not as preludes to drink or drugs, but as unbearable evils in themselves. That, more than the insouciant discontinuity of the plotting, is what gives it some impact today. It's probably fair to say that Salad Days is not so green as it's cabbage-looking.

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