Radio; The Idea of North; Radio 3

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Given his notorious aversion to cold, muffling himself up in scarves and sweaters even at the height of summer, it's odd that Glenn Gould should have been fascinated by the North - which in Canadian terms means the far north, the vast sub-Arctic and Arctic regions that take up most of the country. What fascinated him, though, as revealed in his celebrated 1967 radio feature The Idea of North, was not the land itself, but the thought of solitude.

The Idea of North, given a belated British premiere on Radio 3 last night, was an exercise in what Gould termed "contrapuntal radio". It's a rather unhelpful term, suggesting something far more obviously musical than we get. True, voices weave in and out of each other some of the time, in a way vaguely reminiscent of counterpoint; the main effect of this, though, is to make chunks of the programme more or less inaudible (in spite of Gould's firmly held belief that the human mind is capable of listening to far more than it usually allows itself).

But if some of Gould's editing tricks are irritating, overall The Idea of North is a clever, drily funny piece, with a huge density of ideas. It takes the form of an imaginary railway journey North - the rattle of the train on the tracks is another bit of audio clutter you have to live with - in the course of which old Northern hands talk about the sheer remoteness of life above the 60th parallel. Mostly, they are in the business of puncturing myths: the myth of "the wide open spaces", for instance - the immensity of the landscape scares most people into sticking within a few hundred yards of their cabins, for fear of getting lost. Or the myth of the purity of Eskimo life - most Eskimos live by doing jobs too badly paid or degrading for white men. (There's none of this modern nonsense about Native Americans or Innuit here; none of this rubbish about respecting nature, either: nature's there to be tamed.)

The biggest myth to get this flattening treatment, however, is the idea that in the North you can be truly alone. In fact, as speaker after speaker tells you, you are forced to be with other people in the North more than anywhere else: "When you're living in a big city in the South you can always retreat, when you fail in your relations with society you can go away and nobody really knows the difference." Up North, there's nowhere to hide.

The most powerful demonstration of the effects of solitude, though, is not any one thing that's said, but the whole manner in which they say it: Gould's interviewees delight in paradoxes and quibbles and over-calculated facetiousness. The programme is full of things like the geographer explaining that geographers have no sense of direction, just as sociologists hate society and economists can't manage their own money. All these people are, in different ways and to different degrees, bores; what makes them interesting is the ingenuity and the attention to ideas with which their chatter has been packaged and structured. In that sense, at least, it was music to the ears.