Radio: Sheer poetry in Andrew Motion

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"FOR AWHILE after you quit Keats," F Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter, "all other poetry seems to be only whistling and humming". Perhaps anxious never to quit him, Andrew Motion copied him: he set out from Tower Bridge and went Sailing to Italy (R4) on a fishing-smack built at the turn of the century. Motion's Keats might have been as sensitive and profound without this trip, but writing a biography is a grand and legitimate excuse for such glorious adventure.

The dying Keats set sail with his hapless friend Joseph Severn aboard the Maria Crowther, a twin-masted brigantine, in September 1820. The voyage through the Bay of Biscay, 175 years later, exerts comparable strains upon his pursuer, aboard a similar vessel. In a high wind, he watches the bowsprit "daggering" into deep waves, the sea charging at him from all sides with malicious indifference. Becalmed, the fishing-smack dawdles, bearing the moaning Motion - as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean; as he lies slumped in the stern, watching the wind "running its hands listlessly" down the sails, boredom digs holes in his brain. In a terrifying storm, he feels the little craft flying from the crest of an enormous wave then floating, unsupported, for several seconds, before crashing, sickeningly, into a rolling trough. The next day, they spot a yellow life-jacket floating, empty.

It made marvellous listening, slithering between the centuries from narrow cabin to storm-lashed deck, mingling the lyric and the prosaic, combining creativity with awe. The pale wraith of the earlier poet slipped through Naples and on towards Rome. Motion lingered at Pompeii, then followed him to that little flowered room by the Spanish Steps and finally confronted him in the Protestant Cemetery. The whole experience, he said, carefully, suggested that his life need not be the one he was living: it's an opaque remark, but understandable. Just hearing about that voyage provokes restlessness.

Eric Newby's first long trip, in his teens, was undertaken aboard an ocean-going sailing-ship, but this week's visit to Italy was more sedate. He took a Sentimental Journey (R4) to Fontellato where, 55 years ago, he was a prisoner of war. Arthur Smith has the jammy job of chaperoning the famous down various dappled and roseate memory lanes for this series. Though he sometimes sounds as welcome a companion as athlete's foot, Newby's remarkable charm reduced him to laconic admiration, interspersed with mild grumbles about map-reading and forgetfulness. "You bumble around ..." Smith began, tetchily. "Well I got you here," Newby replied, with sunny reasonableness.

It was, of course, a great story. The prison, still standing, was an elegant former orphanage where the detained soldiers enjoyed good food, ghastly wine, newspapers and the sight of lovely girls waving at them from below their windows. It was one of these, the resourceful, blonde and beauteous Wanda, who helped Newby to escape into the mountains, via an educational spell in a maternity hospital. Wandalust took him back to Italy after the war, when he proposed marriage at once and was accepted. Perhaps it was her - clearly still imposing - presence on this trip that subdued Arthur Smith.

Now for two more love stories, both rather sad. Monday's Short Story (R4) was The Matchbox Game. Joan's daughter Miriam likes to fill matchboxes with tiny treasures - feathers, berries, stones - for her beloved mother. When, at 18, she sets off on her gap-year travels around Europe, the boxes she sends home contain more exotic booty - olives, pine-needles, a tiny ring. But the mother becomes mortally ill and bedridden. As she marvels over the last box, her bossy tidying neighbour (who jealously disapproved of Joan and Miriam's mutual devotion) is downstairs, burning the collection. We were left hoping that the mother would die before discovering her loss, and grateful to be spared Miriam's return. With its small, sharp anguish, Tamar Hodes's story could have been written by Maupassant, so poignantly does it haunt the memory.

Last night's Between The Ears (R3) was originally by Cocteau, but The Human Voice - translated by Anthony Wood, updated by April de Angelis, given electronic ambience by Robin Rimbaud and performed by Harriet Walter - became timeless and stateless. A woman speaks to her distant lover on an unreliable mobile phone. At first resolute and resilient, then frank, suspicious and suicidal, she is frequently cut off, or interrupted by the sort of furious crackling noise that makes an attentive listener wobble her aerial, yet none of these sophisticated, purpose-built glitches could cover the howling despair of her betrayal.

It was like a sobering espresso, after the champaqne - no, the asti spumante - of Valentine's Day, and after this week's Book at Bedtime, The Nation's Favourite Love Poems (R4), which were more like continuous, intravenous Brandy Alexander. Mighty, marvellous, sublime, magnificent poems came in steady succession, night after night. Shakespeare and Herrick, Philip Sidney and Rossetti, Betjeman, Carol Ann Duffy and dozens more were whispered passionately and sensitively by the Nation's Favourite Dame Judi Dench, her husband Michael Williams and the excellent, intelligent Charlotte Attenborough.

Alas, the fourth member of the team, Paul Rhys, though handsome and undoubtedly fine on the telly, came from the El Dorado school of poetry-reading and made scrambled eggs out of this critic's favourite poem, Wyatt's "They flee from me". He did even worse with Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", even beginning to sound distressingly like Michael Howard. Lash him to the mast and launch him onto a sedge-free lake, where no birds sing.