RADIO : Vindication of the rites of woman

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A GIRL in the year above me at school was a conspicuous success. Within a year of her expulsion, it was rumoured, she was in Playboy, her navel stapled through the centrefold. Such fame is seldom celebrated in school magazines, where the lives of old girls are chronicled in terms of respectable careers and marriages and the rocky moments go discreetly unremarked. In Thursday's Ribbons and Revelations (R4), the publisher Julia Mackenzie, a graduate of Smith College, returned to that illustrious all-female Massachusetts establishment to discover what had really happened to her contemporaries.

It was utterly fascinating. Americans have a much more formal way of reuniting old friends than our ad hoc arrangements. Every five years they have a reunion weekend, when women gather in year groups to process, sing and gossip together. Mac-kenzie's lot were comparatively young, but their weekend last May also collected graduates in five-year batches from 1919 to 1989. She talked to representatives of several groups, beginning with the class of '34 who remembered that they had been groomed almost entirely in order to ensnare successful husbands; "I missed a lot," said one, wistfully, "I would have liked to have a career."

By the Sixties, the women of Smith were really confused. Told that they were the brightest and best, they were still advised to master secretarial skills in order to infiltrate the business world. Their college, which produced Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, was powerless to adapt society in order to provide the opportunity of accommodating both career and family. The tension produced breakdown. One woman spoke of returning home distraught from her first reunion, soon after the birth of her handicapped child, having found no comfort among the successful achievers of her year: we were reminded that, after Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford, Smith also harboured Sylvia Plath.

And the youngest, post-feminist group has new problems. Determined to get through graduate school before even thinking of having children, one of them said: "I can't settle for Mr Almost-right-maybe-kind-of"; unlike her parents, who had married young and matured together, she knew that she was honour bound to forge her own life before "attaching somebody to it, independently, as an accessory" but she was uncomfortable with the prospect. The experiences of these intelligent, articulate women provided a moving commentary on the laborious process of emancipation. One quietly successful teacher spoke for most of them when she said that you might not be rich and famous, but just to play the hand you've been dealt could mean that you've done very well - even if it leads to nude modelling.

The class of '44 was seduced en bloc by a dazzlingly bemedalled lieutenant recruiting for the Army Signals Corps. Meanwhile, some of their men were away in Trinidad at the OS base, where they inadvertently facilitated the invention of steel bands. Cy Grant told that story in Panning For Gold (R2). "Pans" were the oil drums left behind by the GIs after the war. On VE Day, the excitement in the Caribbean was as great as anything that happened in Trafalgar Square. Though African drumming had been banned by stern colonial disciplinarians, nothing could suppress the rhythmic trad-itions that erupted that day, as people snatched up the pans and bashed them.

It is an extraordinary story. Grant mused whimsically on the ancient origins of drumming, blaming the god Pan for its wild music. In 1951 people smiled indulgently as the huge oil drums rolled off a lorry at the Festival Hall, ready for a performance by the Trinidad All Stars, but even then, the music had become amazingly sophisticated. Now, a good drum-maker is the Stradivarius of the Caribbean, finding as many as 32 notes in a tenor pan, which can reproduce a Cho-pin impromptu or the New World symphony as if the old Europeans had composed with drummers in mind. It made you wish that those All Stars could have played for your local street party.

Radio was the perfect medium for the VE stories. R1 stayed aloof, only mentioning a couple called Day whose unfortunate son was born that day: Happy birthday, Victor Edward. The old Home Service and Light Programme really let rip, offering us, in a welter of nostalgia, the confidential confessions of disgraceful spivs, in Coupons and Nylons (R4), and several fictional re-tellings of old battles. Everyone Needs an Ancestor (R4) and Generations (World Service) used the same device of a callow youth asking his grandfather about his experiences. In both cases, the boy got much more than he bargained for. Wogan (R2) went to Crewe, where Lionel Blue reminisced about his time as an evacuee, which, he said, changed him from a Yiddisher East Ender into an English gentleman in bits - and gave him his taste for awful jokes. Here's the very first he sniggered at: What happened when Hitler fell out of bed? He fell into Po-land. Oh dear.