Earworms, Radio 4, Monday Foreign Bodies, Radio 4, Monday-Friday
A curious week of Maigret and Bananarama
Only dimly aware of Bananarama's 1988 cover of the Supremes hit "Nathan Jones" until last Monday, I now have it stuck in my brain. Shaun Keaveny has a lot to answer for.
As has listener Martha, who recounted in Keaveny's Earworms the story of how the song – in fact, just the one line, "Nathan Jones, you've been gone too long" – entered her head as she went in for her chemistry GCSE more than 20 years ago. And it's been a regular visitor ever since at times of stress: wedding day, childbirth.... "The one line ... drives me up the wall."
The programme arose from Keaveny's 6 Music Breakfast Show: several years ago he asked listeners for their earworms, and was flooded with them. A Goldsmiths psychologist, Dr Lauren Stewart, was listening, and the result is a 10,000-tune database she and her fellow boffins are furiously analysing. They're concentrating on the music, on what gives a particular tune earworm potential, but ignoring another obvious trigger: words. I speak as one afflicted, and, although Keaveny advises us to love our earworms – "It's like having your own private band in your head" – sometimes the sound of silence is better (here we go: "Hello darkness my old friend …").
It's something of a truism that literary critics can be sniffy about detective fiction, but there are enough high-minded enthusiasts, such as Mark Lawson, to remind us of their depths. His 15-part series, the snappily titled Foreign Bodies: A History of Modern Europe Through Literary Detectives, is advancing that viewpoint in, er, forensic detail.
We learnt, for example, that Georges Simenon's Maigret books incorporated a running commentary on changes in French prostitution laws (he was an avid user); that the attitudes of Agatha Christie's posh types to their servants charted social changes in Britain, and that Nicolas Freeling's Van der Valk novels often turned on whether a character had been a collaborator or a resister in the Second World War.
But if detective novels are treasure- troves for social and national historians, in the end, their success depends on the genre's basic requirement – spotting a lie: "Nathan Jones, you've been gone too long ...".
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