The Week in Radio

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The Independent Culture
AS A well-chosen primer for Lauryn Hill Live (Radio 1, Sunday), Trevor Nelson played "Vocab", a Fugees track lifted from a 1994 BBC session. The tune's insistent nodding rhythms prepared the ground for an outstanding live performance by the young singer and MC, who has now gone solo. Lauryn Hill describes her music as honest and spiritual, and before taking to the stage she spoke with poetic reverence about some of the artists who inspired her. Whitney Houston, she said, possesses an "anointed voice", while Aretha Franklin was her teacher and didn't even know it. Miss Hill has her own accomplished way with words, but she pointed to Curtis Mayfield as the guy whose lyrics were "prettier than all the world".

Another master of the vocab was Matthew Arnold (1822-88), and his poem "Dover Beach" opened a new series entitled Clouded Hills (World Service, Monday). In this first programme, Richard Holmes planned to read aloud on the very beach that inspired the great work, but, as he himself pointed out, the problem these days is to find it. Searching for something poetic in modern-day Dover turned out to be quite a challenge as he battled between columns of freight trucks bound for the Continent. Eventually, however, he made it on to the shingle. Then, his voice almost lost in a bitter wind, he began reading. Somehow it seemed worth the struggle.

When a father observes his son asking for the undertaker's autograph at a funeral, you may expect him to find it mildly disturbing. Especially when the boy's own grandmother just been buried. Yet in Kit Wright's short story This Thing of Darkness (Radio 4, Saturday), the offspring's growing interest in bereavement is positively encouraged. While Dad scans the papers for forthcoming sad events, his son takes a Saturday job at the local funeral parlour, whose proprietor declares gravely that "the industry must adjust itself to the times or die". The tale, read by the author, had a perfect ending that cannot be revealed here in case of repeats.

The next story is, apparently, true. The two companies that built the Transcontinental Railroad across the United States in the last century were making so much money that when they met in the middle, they both refused to stop. Instead, they kept going for another 100 miles each, leaving a big overlap of unwanted track.

This was one of the facts unearthed in Behind the Iron Horse (Radio 4, Saturday). The railroad allowed Americans to travel west and "finish the landscape", as one contemporary put it. Cavalry posts were established to protect the construction workers from Indian attacks, and special railroad towns were built to cater for the workmen's basic needs, with separate winter quarters set up for the Chinese and Irish labourers. Then, when all this hard work was eventually finished, America decided that it preferred cars and aeroplanes after all.

Who needs land anyway, when you can occupy cyberspace? That was the question explored in Virtual Spires (Radio 3, Saturday). Accompanied by a Dutchman called Simon Says, the listener entered a virtual world accessible only on the computer screen. As a piano plonked eerily in the background, we heard Simon Says describe the pretend world that he and his virtual neighbours have created. "It's very nice scenery," he said. "All snowy." There were cathedral walls he could fly through, if he so wished, and breathtaking architecture within. Obviously, of course, we couldn't see any of this on the radio, and had to rely entirely on what Simon Says said.

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