The Lunatic Line, Radio 4, Monday
How Dolly Got Rotherham Reading, Radio 4, Saturday

Bloodthirsty workers, man-eating lions...it was just a job to John

Tactics employed by objectors to the mooted high-speed rail link between London and the Midlands have so far amounted to getting a bit of telly coverage and urging the setting-up of an independent review. All highly commendable. But where are the man-eating lions? That's what they need.

The Uganda Railway was built between Kenya and Uganda between 1896 and 1929, to tighten British control over East Africa. It became known as The Lunatic Line, with its soaring costs and rapidly accumulating corpses. In the gripping first instalment of Ayisha Yahya's two-parter, a hero emerged. It drew on The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, the memoir of Lieutenant Colonel John Patterson, in which he came across as almost hilariously plucky. Workers disgruntled by his insistence on a fair day's work eschewed normal channels of negotiation, resolving instead to kill him when he visited the quarry the next day, and blame it on lions. He was tipped off the night before, but decided to go anyway.

When he got there, there were hundreds wielding crowbars and hammers: "I stood still, waiting for them to act," he wrote, showing more sang-froid than a fridge in a blood bank. One of them rushed him; he threw him off then sprang on to a rock – "and before they had recovered themselves I had started haranguing them in Hindustani". What a man. And they listened: crisis averted.

Then there were the lions. For nine months, two prize specimens treated the construction site as an all-you-can-eat carvery; at one point, work halted for three weeks. "Their methods became so uncanny and their stalking so well-timed that the workmen firmly believed they were not animals at all but ... devils in lions' shape." The programme's on iPlayer, so I won't tell you how it ended. Have a listen – it's terrific. And Patterson's book is available free online.

Not quite as gripping was How Dolly Got Rotherham Reading, which didn't start promisingly: "Think of Dolly Parton and two things spring to mind," said presenter Sarfraz Mansoor. But in fact he was an engaging presence in Rotherham, where children are beneficiaries of The Imagination Library, Parton's grand plan to boost literacy, in which children are sent a book a month by post.

Sadly, it was a bit ho-hum. Surprise, surprise, the project increases the time parents spend reading with their children; and one of the best indicators of academic achievement is the number of books in the home. But, Mansoor wondered, why not use the library? "It's about the books dropping on the doormat with Michael's name on them," said one father. The books are all "age appropriate" and "culturally progressive", but I have only one question: how old do they have to be to get The Man-Eaters of Tsavo? That'll get them into reading.

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