TWO POWERFUL women marched into our small village bookshop. They were loud and tweedy - not exactly bookish, probably old chums with time to kill on a rainy day. Dismissing my offer of help, they began turning over books in an unconvincing way until one picked up a slender volume by Camille Paglia, studied it for a moment and then boomed "Is this the Camilla we're all supposed to be so interested in?"

Clearly it wasn't. My customers need pay no heed to this Camille: her kind of feminism has nothing to say to the likes of them. Paglia faced a comparatively respectful audience when she came over from America to give the third Sounding the Century Lecture (R3, Sat) on "The Modern Battle of the Sexes", but the battle she engendered was within her own sex. Chairing the event was Bea Campbell, who presented her with a flourish as "extreme, eccentric, outrageous and obnoxious". Seldom can a speaker have been so accurately introduced.

Yet Paglia sounded nervous at the beginning, enunciating with exaggerated care as she identified herself and Madonna (huh?) as two lapsed Italian Catholics who respect "the deep, dark earth rhythms" as well as the phenomena of glamour, the idolatry of stars - this last, she said, was a taste they shared with gay men. Her audience began to stir ...

But on she charged, leaping from hobbyhorse to bandwagon to conclusion. The male contribution to procreation she dismissed as "a mere pinprick" (this prompted a ribald guffaw), yet feminism has been unfair to men: "sad, pallid and puny" boys are intimidated by and desperate to meet female sexual demands - indeed, most men are cowed by women; girls develop eating disorders because motherhood is no longer a primary goal for them - this brings about a deep disturbance in their female sexual identity,

rooted in their ambitious, demanding and overprotective families.

As this spirited, if illogical, discourse ended, it was warmly applauded. Paglia flattered her "very literate" British audience, shared some of her penile jokes with them, deplored feminists who argue with each other and took Bea Campbell's subsequent comments in good part (these were cleverly framed, along the lines of "Camille, help us with this ... "). But questions from the floor began to rattle her. To us at home, they seemed reasonable enough, sensibly querying some of her madder pronouncements, but to her they were incend- iary. The audience was no longer clever: they were whingeing, not impressive, amateur, appalling, she'd heard better on "an Ivy League campus in 1990" (this insult lost something in translation). And then, like a bubbling Icelandic geyser, she blew - emitting one furious, staccato, hissing growl before striding away from the stage and leaving the excellent Campbell alone, offering thanks to her departed spirit.

Shame on Paglia not to have learned enough self-control by her age to be able to argue her case. Still, as the producer Abigail Appleton wisely realised, such rage made riveting listening by virtue of its dangerous unpredictability.

Unscripted debate can go anywhere. It can be destructively obscene (who could forget that first caller on the very first Anderson Country, who blighted the whole series?); it can be banal or aggressive (especially if it involves David Starkey); it can be deeply boring - but then, what kind of person would want to Call Ed Stourton? But if you collect enough articulate people with knowledge and commitment it can be magnificent. Jo Pilkington and Jo Bishop gathered an impressive crowd into the BBC Radio Theatre on Sunday night to talk about Drug Taking - Law Breaking (R1). It could have been pandemonium, but it proved to be the very opposite.

It was preceded by Sorted - the Drugs Lottery (R1), a documentary about inconsistencies in the punishment of people caught in possession of Ecstasy. Some 50,000 a year get only a caution while others are imprisoned - it seems to depend less on suspicion of trafficking than on where you live. While this is clearly not fair, half an hour was too to long labour one point. By sad coincidence, the programme went out as another teenager died after taking the drug.

The subsequent debate, however, made dozens of points. A telephone poll had revealed that 84 per cent of callers voted "yes" to the question should people have the right to take drugs? In a commendably balanced and lucid discussion, there were six main speakers, including the Creation Records supreme Alan McGee (in favour) and Gene frontman Martin Rossiter (against). They spoke of the danger to the public of people high on drugs, or desperate for the cash to buy them; of the likelihood that part of their attraction is that they are illegal (it'd be much less sexy, somebody said, if you got it from a chemist); of the unknown long-term risks run by young drug-users; of the fact that it happens anyway and we really should regulate it; of the chance of legalising and taxing drugs and spending the income on healthcare and education; of the intense self-centredness promoted by drug-culture - and much else.

An hour later, R1 announced that a further poll had shown a slight fall in the number of listeners answering "yes". This didn't seem to tell us much, but anyone who heard the programme will at least have been given plenty to think about.

Tomorrow will bring news of the new R4 schedules. At the moment, rumours abound of unpopular cuts in staffing, cash and programmes, though, since James Boyle's plans were announced last year, several of his proposed changes have been abandoned - Start the Week, for example, is to be cut by only 15 minutes rather than rethought as a half-hour show with a single guest. In all the current uncertainty, one thing is sure: if the R4 listeners don't like it, they'll get it changed. They - we - are the most vociferous and persistent audience in the world, and we're often extreme, eccentric, outrageous and obnoxious as well.

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