The week in radio: The week according to St Jeremy

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Last weekend, I was waiting for a train at a country station. A girl noticed a laden apple-tree just out of reach. She climbed over the fence, picked an apple and offered it to her righteous, disapproving boyfriend, just as the train came in. "The woman tempted me," I commented, getting on. They both looked at me as if I was barking.

I thought of this some 15 minutes into Start the Week (R4). AN Wilson had been talking about his introduction to the Gospel of St Matthew. Quoting Doris Lessing, he said that this generation had become detached from the past - from literature, culture, mythology and shared belief. Lessing may be right. It was certainly the first interesting remark that anyone had made, but it wasn't picked up.

It would have been foolish to expect Jeremy Paxman, the new presenter, to resemble Melvyn Bragg - and it is probably unfair to judge his performance on one edition. Yet he's had a long time to prepare for this and we might reasonably have hoped that he'd do better - and that his guests might have done a little more homework in advance. Martin Amis sounded astonished to be addressed at first, and could then contribute little beyond a silly remark about Jesus being a faith-healer in a pink nightie, a predictable rave about the poetry of the Authorised Version and some undigested, second- hand stuff about the Book of Job.

Marilyn Butler's turn came next. She was there to discuss her lecture on the intellectual revolutions of the late 18th century, when knowledge of major scientific discoveries was disseminated by means of learned journals. Paxman had read it but the others hadn't so we drifted into a pointless ramble about the internet. When it was time to talk about Amis's short stories, Butler remained completely silent and Wilson told a few anecdotes about Kingsley.

There used to be another, well-briefed interviewer to help things along but now everything depends on the host. The trick is to respond to unexpected stimuli while staying with the subject. Paxman hasn't mastered that yet. Maybe he's spent too long haranguing and finds it hard to adjust - after all, he won a prize for repeating the same question 14 times. Or maybe the guests were not of his choosing and he just doesn't care enough about the Bible, academic revolutions or contemporary fiction - quintessentially Braggish themes. He certainly sounded uneasy, even nervous. Under the old dispensation, debate was often so lively that Bragg had scarcely time to round up the show. This one petered out with Andrew Wilson's faint, fastidious voice intoning: "I think we'll all just drift into nothingness." Not a moment too soon.

Enough weedy weltschmerz. Buckle your chaps, slam on your stetson, sharpen your spurs, we're away to Idaho with the Cowgirls (R4). Jennifer Chevalier followed the amazing Jan Youren and her daughter Kristen into the ring at a real rodeo, the last rendezvous of the Old West. Jan has broken her nose (11 times), her cheekbones (eight times), both collar-bones, her arms, her back, lots of fingers, every rib but one, her toes, her hands, her feet and her ankles, and she's had a "c'lapsed lung and a bruised heart - jes' li'l things like that". She's had four husbands, eight children and 21 grandchildren. She's 54 and she's still the champion roughstock girl.

Such women get their kicks clinging to the bare backs of angry bulls and bucking horses. Sometimes a horse can buck 12 times in the six seconds it is ridden and often the riders are trampled. Jan rode even when six months pregnant and she's not ready to quit yet. You could smell the sweat in Nicola Barranger's magnificent production, but you couldn't listen without flinching and wincing at such extraordinary, mad courage. We heard Jan thud to the ground, dislocate her "good" shoulder and order them to push it back, and we went with Kristen to hospital with her crushed ankle. Incidentally, you may not be surprised to learn that real cowgirls don't waste time line-dancing.

Thursday was one of those Days. It was a big Day for independent radio, marked by a documentary - affectionate, nostalgic and defiant - on Talk Radio, Celebrating 25 Years of Commercial Radio and it was National Poetry Day. Classic FM observed this cheerfully, by broadcasting Mike Read's choice of a hundred best humorous poems read by celebrities between records. Radio 4 was more ambitious, commissioning Sean Street to write a sequence especially for the station.

When you get just one shot at the radio audience, you can't risk too much obscurity. These thoughtful poems, read without pretension, were accessible without being banal, striking immediate chords with regular listeners. As Auden once measured out a day in "Horae Canonicae", Street chose to mark a day's listening with the contemplative regularity of the monastic office: from "Tuning In" at primetime to the vesperal "Close- down", each poem reflected the network's different moods and functions.

Regular finger-posts were Thought for the Day "a rock in the rushing stream, to cling to for three minutes... a stasis before the next wave breaks"; the Greenwich time signal and the shipping forecast: other poems concerned the dramatic impact of the unscheduled, like the peremptory command of the news-flash "We interrupt our programmes..." and the desperate, urgent appeal of those SOS messages, broadcast when someone is mortally ill, in a last-ditch attempt to find errant children.

And there was one about the time Street spends sitting in a car outside his home while "the neighbours wonder why can't he face his wife" and he listens, spellbound, to the end of a play. In this, as in all the rest, he might have been spying on me. But then, as he said, "That's radio for you... seducer of the mind."