The Week in Radio: Jarvis Cocker's night crossing is the stuff of dreams
I'm not quite sure how I missed Radio 4's Wireless Nights the first time around. This is the late-night, awards-strewn show in which the Pulp frontman-turned-national treasure Jarvis Cocker reveals the peculiar stuff that British people get up to under cover of darkness. (Oh, stop it, not that).
Wireless Nights is a catalogue of witching-hour weirdness and it's just my kind of show. It could actually have been pitched to commissioning editors with a picture of me, all sleepless and needy, hoisted on to a mood board. In the last fortnight, I've been catching up and it's been wonderful. I suspect I've spent more time with Jarvis lately than his own nearest and dearest. Many is the evening that I've been tucked up in bed, lights off, with him murmuring woozily into my ear.
In the first series, he could be found lurking in an allotment with a Hastings schoolteacher and waiting for badgers to emerge, which is not a euphemism and is pretty much what you'd imagine a man like Jarvis to be doing with his evenings, radio show or no radio show. He has also shadowed a shepherdess watching over full-to-bursting ewes in lambing season, loitered with all-night poker players and hung with pilots on the red-eye from Las Vegas.
More recently in the second series, he has ensconced himself on Hampstead Heath with 28-inch telescope for a night of stargazing –"Well what else did you think we were going to get up to in the middle of Hampstead Heath at this time of night?" he smirked – and has helped track foxes with a farmer in Essex.
Most alarmingly, he has stood in as the night watchman for the 36-floor Euston Tower in London. I say alarmingly not out of any terrible incident, but because of the chilling isolation of a job that entails pointing torches up and down blackened corridors at night and staring at a series of screens showing pictures of empty rooms. "It's all too much like The Shining," he observed nervily, possibly before whimpering for his mummy.
This week, in an episode entitled "Nights of Passage", Jarvis was on a night ferry from Dover to Calais. "Tonight, we make a night crossing under cover of darkness," he said spookily. He introduced us to Billy, a retired fisherman who was sailing for 50 years and worked on summer nights catching sole. "I get frightened in the dark," Billy said. "There's no street lights out there, you know."
He also heard from Jeni, a young woman who had been travelling on a night ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam two years ago when, while looking out to sea, she leant on the railings and tumbled overboard. Jeni described the terror, the isolation and the appalling sense of insignificance as she watched the ferry chug away from her, a tiny speck on the surface of the North Sea. Then she described the sudden whoosh of cold air as she was hauled on to a lifeboat and then into a helicopter. Her friends had been told she couldn't live for more than a few minutes in the water and yet, for half an hour, billowing air pockets in her jumper had kept her afloat.
These aural portraits of people's everyday lives are startling and wonderful, not least because they are, to the majority of us, so very far from the everyday. There is rarely any glamour to these tales and yet they are as strange and unlikely and otherworldy as if we'd passed through the wardrobe into Narnia. They are the best kind of bedtime stories – heart-warming and yet tinged with darkness. Sweet dreams.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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