London: Another Country? Radio 4
When a listener is tired of the London season, he is tired of radio
Sunday 11 July 2010
As a teenager growing up in Lancashire, I knew I would end up in The Smoke.
It was where everything worthwhile seemed to happen. I now admit this to be a tad tunnel-visioned, but it's true to say that we Londoners, homegrown or incomers of long-standing, take the ethnocentric biscuit. Radio 4's London: Another Country? season, though, has something for everybody, even the most sneering of capital-haters.
One of BBC radio's biggest strengths is pulling together material from disparate sources and fashioning it into pleasing seasons, and so far they've done the city proud. Particularly affecting was Street Cries (Monday to Friday), which juxtaposed extracts from Henry Mayhew's monumental oral history from the 1840s, London Labour and the London Poor, with first-hand accounts of life on the streets today. The overwhelming impression was of how little progress we've made: the Mayhew extracts were read by actors, otherwise it would have been hard to tell which was 19th-century and which the 21st-.
Stick, who's been on the streets for a decade, observed that the homeless sleep differently: "You're aware peripherally – you've got sonar going 24/7." She likened her life to that of a jungle forager, rooting out nuts and berries. You get to know when sandwich shops do their chucking-out, which supermarkets have particularly well-stocked skips – "it's like knowing the seasons".
There were all kinds of angles throughout the week. In Monday's The London Story, the actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah went back to Southall, where he grew up, and recalled the disturbances of 1979, when a National Front meeting sparked riots and his father took him to watch the local pub burn. In The London Nobody Knows (Wednesday), the historian Dan Cruickshank used Geoffrey Fletcher's 1962 book of the same name as a springboard to explore some of the city's hidden bits. He urged us to follow Fletcher's advice in exploring the city: "Go offbeat, find the nooks and crannies where time has congealed."
The biggest love letter was Andrea Levy's daily magazine London Nights. Among the items in Monday's entertaining package was a police helicopter crew ("male on Tower Bridge hanging over the edge"); the Zimbabwean couple farming 60 acres of white maize in Enfield, just inside the M25; and a poignant piece with Evening Standard vendors on the last day before the paper went free – "once this one's gone, I'm gone" said one, with the very last Standard he'd ever sell.
As a chippy counter-balance, angry Scot Stuart Cosgrove detailed the resentment the rest of Britain feels about the capital's solipsism in There's More To Life Than London (Wednesday). Particularly irking, it seems, was the obsession with Willie the Thames-locked whale, who hogged the headlines a couple of years ago, not long after that similar incidents elsewhere, such as a pod of killer whales massacring seals in the Firth of Forth, passed without even a paragraph.
The locals he quoted didn't have much of an opinion of their home city, either. Chewing gum, black snot and dog poo were the main complaints. And crime, though that was lower down the list. Cosgrove did include the testimony of Derek Walker, the Glaswegian designer for whom life began when he came down south. "A Pandora's box of dreams", he called the place: just about the best description of London I've heard.
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