Radio: Tony, John and Paddy: get thee to a nunnery

One of his batty listeners wrote to Terry Wogan asking where to get a pair of these election earrings everyone is talking about. Such ornaments might sell, but you can't help thinking that election earplugs would do better. On the radio, the principal soapbox is Today (R4). It is consistently contentious, whatever the season, but in what is known as the run-up to an election it becomes a parody of itself. Incidentally, there is absolutely no running involved, unless it be on the spot. Every little issue is masticated aggres- sively for hours until, attenuated like very old chewing gum, a tiny blob of worthless matter has been stretched to grey, brittle, tasteless transparency.

This is no arena for sensible debate: too often it is an absurd playpen, wherein virtually interchangeable politicians scrap and bicker like naughty toddlers with interviewers of uncertain temper, three or four times a morning, six days a week. In this profoundly unedifying milieu, it is impossible not to feel irritated, as, time and again, the long- suffering listener is insulted by flagrant appeals to (and on behalf of) self-interest, or offered veiled and generally ludicrous threats about what might happen should the other fellows win.

Rarely does irony sneak in, but one such moment did occur on Tuesday. A businessman had telephoned pointing out that, as any trader knows, the way to sell a product is to pro- claim its qualities, rather than to decry its opp- onents. In earnest, grateful agreement, Peter Mandelson launched into another howling tirade against the Tories for doing just that.

The sad thing about all this is that it is so important. We need to be properly informed, but this is not the way to do it. I tried Talk Radio. Lorraine Kelly was having fun with Paddy Ashdown, suggesting flirtatiously that Harrison Ford would be the man to play him in a film (he happily agreed), and then slipping the knife in with uncomfortable reminders of old scandals. You can tell when he's rattled because he says "Listen..."

Tony Blair says "Look..." On Wednesday, he said it dozens of times to Sybil Ruscoe on Five (R5), when she went for the jugular with questions about his betrayal of socialism, his phoney smile and his naked ambition. This woman uses a fine and steely stiletto, as opposed to the bludgeon which is the favoured weapon on Today.

The leaders she interviewed at length this week might have thought it would be easy, talking to an ex-Radio 1 DJ and a girl at that. They'd have been wrong. She is charming, well-informed - and tenacious. Time and again she asked Paddy Ashdown whether he would take a seat in a Labour cabinet. Eventually, his refusal to say yes or no became an answer in itself. John Major sounded tired, pausing too long before answering, getting testy and referring her to the bishops when she asked about morality. And we still have nearly a fortnight of all this to go.

It's a relief to turn to other things. A promising new series has a self- explanatory title, You Probably Think This Song is About You (R4). The first song really was about Lucy in the sky with diamonds. Lucy was at nursery school with Julian Lennon, and it was his portrait of her - not an LSD trip - that inspired his father to write his dreamy lyrics.

The real Lucy is in her thirties now and sadly suffering from the Dennis Potter illness, psoriatic arthritis, probably brought on by the stress of her job nursing handicapped children. She only recently saw the eponymous portrait, and marvelled at its skill. Though she has, these days, nothing in common with its creator, she really liked his mum. Her family, she says, call her Lucy in the sky with psoriasis, but they probably know that she's a real diamond.

And this week there were, happily, two superb features that made the best possible use of the medium. In the first, produced by Matt Thompson, four blind people were offered an extraordinary treat: to try their hands at Touching the Elephant (R4) at London Zoo. First, they spoke to Kim Normanton about their difficulties imagining elephants. Would they have tails? Were their ears pricked and pointed, like those of Alsatians? Did they have faces? Would they be as big as wardrobes?

We didn't have to close our eyes to picture their responses to the beast itself. We could hear the ecstasy. One giggled nervously at the thought of elephantine reproduction which, he surmised, was a bit more hectic than lambing; another, who tunes pianos, marvelled at the resonance in the trunk, which reminded him of a wind instrument. A gorgeous 10-year old said "Phwoah! What a tummy!" - but it was actually the animal's head. And I've never heard anyone so delighted as the fourth who just gasped and, I think, wept. It was an object lesson in not taking things for granted.

Fiona Shaw learned the same thing when she spent two weeks in Tyburn Convent, a house of enclosed Benedictine nuns at Marble Arch, in Taking the Veil (R4). It was fascinating to hear how she progressed from stroppy rebellion to real admiration, as she whispered each night into her tape- recorder. The food sounded dreary, the housework exhausting, her knees impressively bruised. She got deeply fed up with it - with turning up to church seven times a day, with the intense boredom of it all. She even startled a workman by telling him how she wished she could run away with him.

Some time, soon after watching the nuns strenuously skipping and indulging in a tug-of-war, she began to change. The place, she said, was working its magic. It was like the best theatre, by-passing the intellect and going straight to the emotions. She marvelled at the miracle of being able simultaneously to yield all authority and yet retain power over yourself and by the nuns' adoration of a God you could never feel, touch or smell. Finally, she even came to admire the tradition of falling to your knees if you feel you've sinned, and she plans to practise it. ''If all of us knelt at the moment of sin, how many of us would check a much bigger sin that's just around the corner."

Just imagine: suppose we had no control over it and were hurled to our knees willy-nilly by an omniscient God - if, for example, we told the odd lie. How completely gripping the hustings would be. Few of the candidates would ever stand up.

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