The Week In Radio: Memorable matters of life and death

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Idon't fear death, says Woody Allen, I just don't want to be there when it happens. But increasingly we do, it seems, want to be there when it's happening to others. The unflinching diaries of Ali Booker, who broadcasts each week on 106 Jack FM about living with terminal cancer, recently won both Sony and Arqiva commercial radio awards. And this week came another illuminating meditation from someone staring death in the face.

The history professor Tony Judt has motor neurone disease and is paralysed from the neck down. In a memorable edition of No Triumph, No Tragedy, he talked to Peter White about the process of living when there is not a single thing you can do for yourself. Even speaking is hard, as his halting, effortful delivery made plain, because since he was diagnosed 18 months ago, his diaphragm muscles are unable to function on their own. Most of all, he told White, he misses his legs. "I can do without the arms, and even rely on this silly breathing tube, but the legs are what enabled me to move to other places, travel on trains, walk on country roads. To feel I was a person that could be displaced physically as well as mentally." Then again, he mused, perhaps not. Because what he also misses is solitude. "I can never again go and have a cup of coffee, smoke a cigarette, read a book, or just be alone communicating with nothing but silence."

What made this a great programme was that on radio we never saw the inert body, only the strong and muscular mind, exercised by philosophy from Descartes to Emily Dickinson and honed with an "oriental" level of mental control. Especially fascinating were the strategies Judt uses to cope at night, based on the Renaissance technique of "memory palaces" where you remember thoughts by placing them in different rooms of a building. Judt said he had established a set of Swiss chalets where he has placed ideas in boot rooms and cupboards. "For each one of these I think a thought, and before I fall asleep I might have written an essay on the Green Line Bus or what it means to be Jewish or Paris in 1968."

He chose to speak to Peter White rather than other interviewers, because he said White, who is blind, would understand. This was a shrewd decision because White did an excellent job, remaining entirely self-effacing, and able, as ever, to talk about disability with an empathy that never tips into treacly sympathy, or dwells on special-interest agendas.

From the art of dying to dying in art is a pretty major step, but it would be a shame to miss Why Do Women Die in Opera?, Radio 3's exploration of a strangely unremarked cultural tradition. there can be no other art form with a higher female attrition rate. Heroines in 19th-century opera simply drop like flies, and Martin Kettle wanted to probe the idea that women like Carmen, Tosca, Salome and Mimi were being punished for their very expressiveness. According to academic Margaret Reynolds, these grand operatic deaths had their roots in male anxiety at a time of emancipation, what with the French Revolution, and women like Mary Wollstonecraft challenging traditional female representations. Puccini called himself an executioner and likened himself to Nero. "He was not terribly interested in a far reaching message but he needed to be cruel to find heart-aching music," explained the opera director David McVicar.

Curiously, Wagner's heroines die for different reasons, to do with redemption and erotic reunion. Wagner and his wife Cosima believed they would expire simultaneously and actually set aside a sofa in their house in Bayreuth for the purpose. Inconveniently, Wagner then went and died in Venice, leaving Cosima to be prised off his body, mystified to find that she had not simply ceased to exist. Yet another way, perhaps, in which death defeats everybody's best-laid plans.