radio review

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The Independent Culture
The great question about race (not that it that leaves the BNP wrestling with its conscience) is what the word actually means. Do the Welsh count as a race? If so, how are we going to define them: by place of birth, by parentage, by language, by accent, by choice of rugby team?

Radio 5 found an elegant way around the problem of definitions in its Race around the UK season: it accepted all of them. In nine days of programmes, ending yesterday with a debate on Britishness, almost every possible racial issue and ethnic subdivision was touched on. Naturally, there were programmes on police attitudes to young blacks, immigration law and education. But even Cornishidentity was covered under the race umbrella (there may well have been something I missed about Truro's struggle to maintain its cultural traditions in the face of an all-enveloping Cornish hegemony).

The extremes of definition seemed to come with the smallest ethnic groups. In "White skin, black masks", a gypsy poet described how gypsy pride in pure blood had faded. "I like to think that a gypsy is somebody who recognises themselves as a gypsy," he said, which was good. I've always liked to think of myself as being a bit of a gypsy, in a free-wheeling, radio-reviewing sort of way.

That was the liberal extreme; at the other end of the scale sat the Welsh nationalists who haunted "The other Welsh", a programme about the hardships of being a non-Welsh speaker in parts of Wales. Even a Welsh-speaking teacher who spoke out against compulsory Welsh-language education, on the grounds that it was making life worse for English-speaking children with learning difficulties, found herself counted as the enemy. The vehemence of opinions was counterpointed unnervingly at one point by a Welsh-language news broadcast on matters in former Yugoslavia.

Generally speaking, social action seasons on the radio leave me feeling slightly embarrassed: there's always a sense that they have more to do with discharging the BBC's obligations than with producing something the public will want to hear. Race around the UK had its embarrassing moments; too many short programmes were slapped in anyhow around the schedules, with no regard to context. More than once, though, it challenged certainties you might have had about what race is and how you define yourself. Not bad going.

ROBERT HANKS

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