The week in radio: A hut? Could you build one?

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The Independent Culture
I once met a young American Gulf War veteran. Fluent in Arabic, his task had been to visit nomadic Bedouin and persuade them to get out of the way of Desert Storm. It was pretty hopeless. The Bedouin care nothing for arbitrary boundaries: their wanderings are determined by the instinct of their camels to scent oases. He was flummoxed.

Tim Purbrick commanded a Chieftain tank in that battle. In New Radio (R4), he introduced a tape he had made while advancing into Kuwait. At one point, the whole mighty invasion force ground to a halt when just such a camel-train sauntered airily across its path. Yet this did not change the soldiers' attitude. Commenting on the crackly recording of his eager, younger voice, Purbrick shuddered to recall that he had thought it "good fun" to shoot at the enemy: "So removed were we from the explosive death that we threw at the Iraqis that our only emotion was elation."

Later, they stopped again. This time, a few Iraqi soldiers crawled out of a hole in the sand and surrendered - crying, terrified, defenceless. Suddenly, he knew the truth about war, in all its brutality. Inside the roasting tank, they were wearing chemical-warfare suits over flame-proof overalls, topped off with armoured helmets, flash-masks and radio head-sets; their senses were deadened by hefty wafts of diesel fumes, cordite, grease, ammunition, sweet tea and egg-butties. No wonder they'd lost touch with reality.

Purbrick's reminiscences formed part of the first of a series showcasing first-time broadcasters, under the aegis of Piers Plowright. This peerless producer retired last year to widespread lamentation. It is lovely to have him back, acting as godfather to another generation who will benefit from his imagination and expertise. Two and a half thousand people applied for a slot, of whom he chose a dozen to kick off with: judging by the quality of the first trio, New Radio will outlive New Labour.

You could say that New Music (R3) is "old radio": it is, simply, a story narrated by one voice. But when written by Carol Shields, read by David Threlfall and produced by Duncan Minshull, the form seems fresher than hot croissants. It began with a man on his way to a lecture on reinforced concrete, who encounters a music-student on the Underground. She tells him she prefers Thomas Tallis to William Byrd, precisely because she believes Tallis to be inferior. Fearing that he is second-rate himself, he finds this captivating. He goes on to become an expert on gravel resources, she the celebrated biographer of Tallis. Only when he says "More and more, he refers to himself in the third person," do we realise that the narrator is himself the gravel-expert, and her husband. It was a subtle, glancing account of the elusive, accidental quality of sexual attraction and the strength of domestic love. Broadcast during the interval of a live concert of fairly demanding new music, it made you glad to be at home listening, rather than struggling towards the noisy bar at the Barbican.

Now to some old music. Liliburlero (WS) is the jaunty tune that precedes World Service news bulletins, but it has a strange and shady history. At the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, it was played by King Billy's Orangemen; and it still packs a political punch. When I hear it, I automatically sing the nursery rhyme to the same tune - you know the one, about the old woman tossed up in a basket, 70 times as high as the moon.

Though this, oddly, wasn't mentioned, everything else was. The melody, we learnt, is indeed Irish, though first published in an arrangement by Purcell. The original words salute the vision of a prophet called Lillie, who foresaw the death of Charles I, but it became every soldier's marching song: in Laurence Sterne's masterpiece, Tristram Shandy, naughty old Uncle Toby is given to whistling it in moments of stress.

Then it disappeared until 1943, when it was revived by the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as their regimental march. But it's rather short, so they added a coda of, remarkably, the "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go" song of the Seven Dwarfs. This part was later, prudently, dropped, to be replaced by the more grown-up number "Aupres de ma blonde" - though they still do the "hi ho" in Sri Lanka.

The World Service currently makes this kind of feature better than any other network. Half an hour of such informative entertainment provoked only one cavil: the wretched tune is so damnably catchy that I had it on my brain most of the week.

The general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union was the latest Desert Island Discs (R4) castaway. But Bill Morris is a good deal more appealing than your average trade union leader: once again, Sue Lawley was audibly charmed. She's having an easy season: it's time they sent her someone of the calibre of Otto Klemperer, who famously chose all his own recordings and harangued Roy Plomley mercilessly: "A hut? Could you build a hut? Vy you are goingk red in the face?"

Lawley even let Morris get away with choosing PG Wodehouse's song from Showboat, about another lovable Bill, without any suggestion that this just might be bordering on self-indulgence. His choice of music was:

Rhythm Kings: "Cricket, Lovely Cricket" (Moore)

Cleo Laine: "Bill" (Kern & Hammerstein/ Wodehouse)

Bob Marley and the Wailers: "Is This Love" (Marley)

Grimethorpe Colliery Band: "Gresford" (Saint)

Nigel Kennedy: Winter (Vivaldi)

Bette Midler: "Wind Beneath My Wings" (Henley/Silbar)

Jacqueline Dankworth: "An African Elegy" (Dankworth/Okri)

Hugh Masekela: "Stimela" (Coal Train) (Masekela/Irving)