RADIO / Sounds of silence

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The Independent Culture
A FINN rang his friend and asked to meet him for a drink after work. When he saw him come in he asked how he was. 'Look,' said his friend, 'are we here to drink or to talk?' That story did not appear in the first of The New Europeans - Big in Finland, Radio 4's attempt to fill the aching gap before Desert Island Discs on Sunday mornings. If this is the best they can do, they should bring back Pick of the Week, a much more congenial background to beating the Yorkshire pudding.

What we were offered last Sunday were the thoughts of Neil Hardwick, who went to Helsinki 25 years ago. Hardwick is a bit of a Yorkshire pudding himself, dreaming of returning to his roots and leaving the Finns to get on with it. His portrait only served to show how hard it is for a foreigner to understand Finns. He described a people oppressed by German religion and Russian bureaucracy, more given to hugging trees than each other, who live in snow and silence. The only native Finn given a chance to speak was charming: 'We are very deep,' she said. 'We don't manage to float on the surface very good.'

The surface was only scratched, and that rather horribly, by an American photographer who appreciated his own ability to exploit the sexuality of Finnish women. There was not even a mention of Sibelius, who tells us more about the place in a few minutes than they could manage in half an hour.

Martin Wainwright gives much better value. He was on Radio 4 twice this week. First was Born to be Mild, a British radio attempt at a road movie, in which he set off down the A34 from Manchester to Winchester in a Reliant Kitten. Not a car built to impress, it braved the challenge of 'tough zee-bends on the Sierra Congleton', making a sound like ripping canvas through every puddle. Wainwright, another Yorkshireman, is no Kerouac, but his journey proved to be much less whimsical and more fun than you might imagine.

Receiving a wave of recognition from an invalid-car, he left Manchester for very posh Wilmslow. There, he was made over by a hairdresser more used to the weekly wash-and-manicures of local women who have never bought shampoo in their lives. He sold a china horse-and-caravan in a car-boot sale in Stoke-on-Trent to the only punter who didn't already own one. He arrived at a retirement caravan park, where Tudor gables decorate immobile homes.

It could have been dire, but Wainwright's style is jocund. Neither patronising nor matey, he exhibits polite curiosity and enthusiasm everywhere he goes. In Missions Improbable (R4), he told the story of Walter Whitmore Jones, hereafter called Walter (you'll see why). Walter had a friend called Dickens who enraged him by smugly pointing to the name over the store in Oxford Street that gave him precedence. Having established that nowhere was there a shop called Dickens and Whitmore, he changed his name to Walter Jones Whitmore and became famous as the man who sorted out croquet.

In an elegantly written, often hilarious talk, Wainwright catalogued the man's inventions, from automatic bootlace-winders to explosive bell-pulls for use by ladies on trains. At last the glorious day dawned when the Field's croquet correspondent fell into a pool and drowned. Walter took over and the vicious anarchy of Victorian garden parties collapsed under the rigid tyranny of his handbook, The Croquet Field Rules (1866), complete with handy aphorisms like 'scatter your enemies' and 'keep your balls together'. When you think how ruthless and violent a game croquet still is, just imagine how it might have been without Walter.