Radio review: The Alien Balladeer - The naked truth about poetry and cheap food

 

Murray Lachlan Young caused a stir in the poetry world when he signed a million-pound deal with EMI. It went badly, and a financial settlement had to be reached. But he recovered from that episode to become a Saturday Live regular on Radio 4, and he's also 6 Music's resident poet.

He's firmly in the John Cooper Clarke gag-a-line school, but there was a pleasing depth to his work in The Alien Balladeer, in which he took five aspects of modern life – from pole dancing and paganism to the litter patrol at the Glastonbury Festival – as the subject of ballads, which he co-wrote with the musician Bess Cavendish. He kicked off with Stephen Gough, a man whose devotion to his particular cause is admirable, if slightly bonkers.

Gough is better known as the Naked Rambler, and he's spent much of this century in jail for refusing to cover up his bits. Young spent the day with him when he left jail last summer (Gough was allowed on his way by some delightfully good-natured Perth policemen, but rearrested in Fife a few days later) and, using the old song "The Turpin Hero" as a template, he crafted a surprisingly moving tribute to the former Royal Marine. But it was funny, too: "Up to Scotland did he go/With his head held high and his jewels on show ...".

There was an altogether darker poetic piece in the Between the Ears series yesterday (Radio 3). Inspired by cattle auctions, and the rapid-fire spiel of the auctioneers, and using interviews and overheard conversations, Sean Borodale's Mighty Beast quickly became a disturbing discourse on the shocking state of British agriculture: the farm clearances, the suicides, the catastrophic effects of foot-and- mouth – what it's like to stand by and see your livestock slaughtered.

Superbly read by Christopher Bianchi – he managed to imitate the auctioneer's patter while still being comprehensible – it was a bleak take on an endangered way of life. Supermarket price-squeezing is generally blamed for the parlous state of our nation's farms, but who buys from the supermarkets? As Bianchi declares: "It's everyone who wants his food at a lower cost than it took to produce." That'll be us, then.

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