It's My Story: The Long Walk, Radio 4, Monday The Spirit of Schubert, Radio 3, All Week

Need a steady hand and a cool head? Over to Schubert
  • @cmaume

It's hard to think oneself into the mindset required of a bomb-disposal expert. It must be something along the lines of "Que sera, sera. This may be the last few seconds of my life. Hey ho ...." Usually, according to Peter Gurney, former head of the Met's Explosives Squad, you have to be "cold and impersonal", but on one occasion, he told Mark Devenport in the extraordinary It's My Story: The Long Walk, he let anger take over.

It was the triple IRA bomb attack on Oxford Street in 1981. His friend and colleague, Ken Howarth, had just been killed by a bomb in a Wimpy Bar, and Gurney went in to see what evidence he could retrieve – including a remnant of the old cardigan that he and colleagues used to rib Howarth about. Having done that, he had his own bomb to defuse in Debenhams; anger, he said, was his motivation, to try to nail his mate's killers.

There were also what you might call lighter moments. In a programme full of amazing stories, he recalled the mortar attack on Downing Street in February 1991. One of the bombs lay unexploded in Horse Guards Parade. With a spanner borrowed from No 10's boiler room, Gurney sat astride the mortar to steady it, but as he unscrewed the top he gave a yelp of pain – it had been smouldering inside and was extremely hot. "I rushed over to a little snowdrift, undid my trousers and packed snow inside," he said.

The programme's title referred to the long walk the disposal man takes towards the bomb while everyone else is heading in the opposite direction. It's all about calculations, Gurney said – "if it's 40lb and it goes off now I should be all right".

He recalled the tapes he and his colleagues made of their assignments, and we heard one, of him sorting almost breezily through an IRA arms cache in a Northamptonshire forest. They had been advised to put the recorders on a belt next to their spine – "because this is a part that normally remains whole" in explosions.

For all his seeming matter-of-factness, Gurney did have nightmares for a while, he said, usually involving a colleague taking the long walk towards a bomb that always went off. But that was easily dealt with: "My wife told me to talk about my work more, and the nightmares stopped."

The music of Franz Schubert would surely have helped him, with its soothing, intense beauty. And Radio 3 has done the business with its Spirit of Schubert season. It was all go on Monday, with Tom Service and Felicity Cloake cooking strudel in the "Schubert Lab", and later on, in a section called "Schubert Remixed" in the requests programme Play Schubert For Me, the jazz pianist Jason Rebello performing an exquisite To The Moon, Schubert's homage to his hero Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

As is usually the case with such large-scale BBC projects, it's comprehensively done. One nice little feature are the inserts, scattered about the schedule, containing nuggets about Schubert's life; one referred to his syphilis. Mercury was the usual treatment, leading to the popular saying that "a night in the arms of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury".

It's My Story: The Long Walk

Radio 4, Monday


The Spirit of Schubert Radio 3, all week