Radio: Lest the promised land be forgotten

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Is that thing recording?" the ancient asked, sounding anxious, "Only I just said bullshit". Don't worry, sir, you're only an innocent, amateur broadcaster. They can't get you for it.

The old man was a Jewish resident of the East End; he was being interviewed by Alan Dein for After You've Gone (R4). It was Dein's personal crusade (though that's a pretty inappropriate word, when you think about it) to record the voices of the last survivors of Israel-in-Stepney, where he lives. The kosher shops that once dominated those streets have virtually disappeared, and Yiddish is all but forgotten. Most of the descendants of the original immigrants have melted into the gentrified suburbs and only a few remain, but those few - like Joe the Baker and Sadie the barber and quondam beauty-queen - leapt at the chance to reminisce into Dein's microphone, often sounding like an unlikely cross between Topol and Alf Garnett.

Like the wobbly, grainy video, the home-made radio programme has a certain charm. There is a rough immediacy to it, and a democratic sense that anybody could join in. "What you gonna call the programme?", Sadie asked Dein. He told her, and asked if she knew the Yiddish for it, but she didn't. All she could manage was a translation of "Where are you going?". Dein, clearly a romantic, seemed moved by that.

I had more trouble warming to Chris Harbon. He too was off on a personal quest with microphone in hand, this time determined to bury Molly's Ashes (R4) in Gibraltar. Molly had been his mother, though her name was actually Doris. She had been confirmed in an Anglican church on the Rock, as Chris discovered when he found the certificate. Why on earth hadn't he known that sooner? Well, in fact, careful listening elicited that he probably had; she had longed to go back there. Why couldn't he have taken her when she was still alive?

Chris had recorded his old mother a year or two before she died, and occasional snippets of that conversation cropped up in the programme. The most upsetting was the moment when she said that she'd always wanted to talk about her life, but he wouldn't listen. So there he was in Gibraltar, trying to discover what he had only needed to ask - and, incidentally, enjoying himself. The only time Molly really came alive was when he discovered an old lady who had been looked after by her as a child. Molly had been keen on dancing the Charleston, we learned, and had sported an Eton crop and saucy red sandals.

The actual interment, in what was described as a nice little resting- place, was hard to follow. Chris was whimsically preoccupied with what to do with the pink plastic bag in which he'd been carrying the urn. He was also having difficulty, he said, coping with tape-recorder, prayer- book and emotions: we had difficulty hearing, as the nice little resting- place seemed to be immediately under a flight-path.

It was a disturbing, prurient little feature. I wondered why Doris had become Molly. Could it have been a wild attempt at identification with James Joyce's Molly Bloom, who famously yearned for her erotic girlhood in Gibraltar? That, however, was one of many questions provoked but not addressed by this unsatisfactory jaunt.

Another Molly appeared in a much better context on R3. She was the heroine of Brian Friel's superb play Molly Sweeney. Again, the shadow of another famous Irish writer haunted this story. In The Well of the Saints, JM Synge describes what happens when a miracle gives sight to a blind couple: what they see is so inferior to the world of their imagination that they long to be returned to the dark.

A similar thing happens to Molly Sweeney. A well adjusted, contented blind woman in her forties, she is persuaded to undergo operations on her eyes by her affectionate but otherwise useless husband, and by the ambitions of a thwarted, unhappy surgeon. Though her sight is partially restored, the difficulty of re-learning all that she had come to know by instinct is too much for her. Written as a series of three inter- cutting monologues, this was a polished, professional piece of broadcasting, beautifully produced by Roland Jaquarello. Sorcha Cusack, as Molly, gave the kind of performance that will linger on in the memories of those lucky enough to have heard it, for years.

Both these Mollys, as well as Alan Dein and his EastEnders, are preoccupied with shifting, aqueous pictures of themselves. Matters of identity have loomed large this week. Sara Parker's series about pretence, The Front (R4), tackles the issue head-on. In the first programme, we heard about a man whose middle name is Brian. He doesn't like it so, when asked what the B stands for, he insists that it's Beauregard. And there was a woman who fell so in love with Browning as a teenager that she acquired breeches and a green velvet jacket and would only answer to the name Robert.

On Friday, Parker was asking people to talk about their relationships. It seems that we all pretend, to some extent. The most productive kind of self-delusion comes when each partner slightly idealises the other: that seems to bring out the best in both. The worst story was about a man who worked irregular hours mending lifts. He ran two entirely separate households, manufactu- ring arguments every Christmas so as to escape from one to the other. Lord, what an effort; it's hard to believe it was worth it.

And talking of how we deceive ourselves, by some extraordinary trick of the light, last week's column suggested that the charming and gifted poet Simon Armitage, presenter of R4's prestigious Stanza series, had strayed into Ambridge and started to wreak havoc. It's not true. It was, of course, Simon Pemberton who has earned the wrath of the nation. I must have my eyes tested.

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