The Week on Radio

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STATISTICS, AS Fisher Dilke was pointing out on Living by Numbers on Radio 4 on Thursday, are tricky things. They may look nice and precise and reliable, but what they mean can be very fuzzy. For example, when listening figures for the last quarter were announced a couple of weeks ago, Radio 4 announced that 90 per cent of listeners had stayed with The Archers when it had changed its time slot, which was good. Somebody else, though, might point out that The Archers audience had just dropped by 10 per cent. It's difficult, isn't it?

The main topic of Living by Numbers, a four-parter on how mathematics affects the real world, was "regression to the mean" - life's tendency to gravitate towards a happy medium.

You can see this at work in all sorts of fields: extremely wet years are generally followed by ones that aren't quite so wet; economic booms tend to give way to busts; really, really tall people have children who grow up to be not quite so tall as their parents. Most significantly, an age of flame-haired heroes and giants will in all probability be succeeded by an age of cowardly people who are about five foot eight inches tall and have mousy hair.

Dilke's proposition, then, was that the universal sense that things used to be better is a temporary illusion produced by a misunderstanding of statistics and probability: things may well have been fantastic at one point, but what we're seeing now is not terminal decline - we're just settling back down to the average.

It's an interesting idea. I don't buy it, though, simply because the idea that things used to be better is universal: past times may have been awful, but they still look better than the present; hills always look nicest when they're blue and remembered.

All the same, I don't want to deny that "regression to the mean" is a powerful tool for understanding our experience. What the idea does imply, it seems to me, is that there is no long-term escape from the average; we are trapped by mediocrity.

This is also the idea behind The Goldfish Bowl (Radio 4, Wednesday), a potent meditation on futility and happiness masquerading as a comedy. Anton and Liam (Hamish McColl and Sean Foley) are goldfish: Anton is a soi-disant intellectual, fluent in several languages and sophisticated in his tastes. He has aspirations, and life in a goldfish bowl is torture to him. Liam, on the other hand, takes life as it comes, aware of - and perfectly happy with - his limitations.

The dynamics of Liam and Anton's relationship are nothing new: the same basic contrast underlay Desmond Olivier Dingle's relationship with Wallace in the National Theatre of Brent, for example. But the first episode came to a surprising end with the entry of the humans - a rowing couple, whose argument turns out to hinge on the death of a young child.

Instead of a metaphor for the meaninglessness of human existence, the goldfish bowl suddenly became a bleak, petty contrast to real life, with all its possibilities for tragedy and forgiveness. The mood-switch didn't come off because the dead baby felt too much like emotional button-pushing; but it was a brave try nevertheless, and suggested that The Goldfish Bowl has ambitions of its own.

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