All together in no man's land

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sometimes this job is really hard. Not that there's nothing to write about. On the contrary, the problem is what to choose. There was some marvellous radio this week, including three fine plays - Helen Kluger's Passionate Playing (WS), Anne Devlin's After Easter (R3) and Diane Samuels' Swine (R4). There was an extremely funny first edition of an Asian show called Goodness Gracious Me (R4) and a fascinating series about very early Christian liturgy called Music Through Stained Glass (WS). Also crying out for attention was the 30th anniversary edition of Outlook (WS), devoted to the Kashmir hostages and presented by the Beirut hostages who had, themselves, been sustained in captivity by this series - such broadcasts underlie the passionate, if desperate, zeal of the Campaign to Save the World Service, which lobbied Parliament on Tuesday.

But all these things must, for now, step aside in favour of something that happened 80 years ago. The youngest of a handful of survivors of the Battle of the Somme is 97 and it's high time to pay tribute to them.

A friend of mine went over the top into that deadly gunfire on 1 July 1916. Before long he was wounded. His brother was among the 21,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed that day. In his memoirs, he wrote that he would draw a veil over what his parents had said when they visited him in hospital in London. Curious, I asked him to tell me and he sighed as he said that it was what he already knew, that the wrong brother, the lesser man, had come back. Rendered permanently deaf by the artillery, he lived another 75 years with that sadness.

Various reporters marked the anniversary, many of them interviewing other veterans who told their own sad stories of young men killed. For Today (R4), Kevin Connolly spoke to Donald Hodge of the King's Own West Kents, whose job it had been to follow white tapes into the battlefield, bringing up reinforcements. He never even saw the tapes. Asked what it was like, he suggested that we imagine a combine harvester at work, an efficient machine mowing down everything that stood.

Like Connolly, Ben Bradshaw used his spot on a news programme to good, if harrowing, effect. On The World This Weekend (R4), he read a letter from an infantryman that described the scene in no man's land in graphic, gruesome detail. And he interviewed Robert Dogget, who had been a Co-op delivery boy when he signed up. Now 100 years old, he was too frail to get to France for the ceremony, but one of his colleagues, a sprightly 99-year-old, gave the old trooper's song "I want to go home" everything he'd got, and a lot that he'd once had.

A Shadow Down the Future (R3) adopted a more whimsical approach, suggesting rather oddly that the war had been fought almost in order to be remembered, that it had always happened in the past even when it lay in the future. That was pretty silly. Then there was a portentous reading of Wilfred Owen's sombre and elegiac "Anthem for Doomed Youth", which actually got a line wrong, leaving out a couple of words and spoiling its sonorous rhythms. Strangely, the same omission occurred in the title of Bugles Calling from Sad Shires (R2), but nothing else at all was wrong with Ruth Prince's superb programme.

Tony Robinson narrated it. The unpretentious, enquiring innocence of his voice, familiar from his days as Blackadder's butt, Baldric, was exactly right. He told the story of the Somme, helped by archive recordings, by a remarkably astute, articulate old soldier called George Morgan and by many more people who try to keep hold of the truth as living memory slips away, inexorably, into history.

One remarkable recording consisted of the precise, careful account of a German MO, posted to the front line just before the battle. So unrelenting and heavy was the week of incessant bombing that presaged the attack that it could be heard as far away as Hampstead Heath. As this doctor described its devastating effect on the German lines, the awful thought began to form that, had the British kept it up just a day or two longer, there might have been no machine-gunners capable of staggering out to accomplish the slaughter. As it was, 75 per cent of his battalion perished.

Robinson talked to Bill Tidy about his hero Bruce Bairnsfather, whose cartoons became such icons of the battle. If you know of a better 'ole ... then you haven't seen the Lochnagar crater, the largest dent ever made in the earth by man in anger, and now owned by an Englishman. Wild flowers grow there, many of them extinct elsewhere. They seeded themselves from the pathetic little bouquets brought there by widows in the Twenties. Never was there a better context for the poignant ballad "Where have all the flowers gone?".

We went to Belloy, a little town beloved of the poet Alan Seeger, who died in its defence and who left us that great prophetic poem beginning "I have a rendezvous with death," read with steady, steely nonchalance by Paul McGann. We went to the Ulster Tower, built to record the heroic deeds of Ulstermen who won nine VCs that day, and talked to Jean-Philippe, the French grandson of a Tommy, who looks after it. We went to Stokesley in Yorkshire, many of whose men died in a Pals Battalion. Each man, regardless of rank or status, has a decorated page to himself in their handsome book of remembrance. We went to the infamous Mametz Wood, where a red Welsh dragon records the deaths of many soldiers of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and where a male-voice choir was practising its heartbreaking harmonies, ready for the anniversary concert.

Finally, we went to Thiepval, whose quiet farmland is dominated by a huge Lutyens arch, inscribed with the names of the 73,077 men killed on the Somme whose bodies were never found. One of them was George Butterworth, whose peaceful, pastoral music floated over the gentle landscape. It is an awesome, unimaginably haunting spot. When I was there, years ago, the visitors' book recorded the comments of an earlier tourist: "Very nice," he had written. That was a hopelessly inadequate tribute: this programme, miraculously, was not.

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