THE CRITICS : One man's bile-duct goes to war


On what small matters do affairs of state depend. A documentary on Radio 4 this week came close to suggesting that the development of the entire Suez crisis - a war, that is to say - may have been intimately connected with the condition of one man's plastic bile-duct.

Sir Anthony Eden's replacement piping is perhaps common knowledge in bilious circles, but to me it was news. Apparently the duct - the original was severed in a surgical accident - worked well enough until the Prime Minister "began generating a lot of bile": which, unhappily for those around him, was rather often. Eden, we heard his press secretary complain in a wonderful piece of archive gossip, got "perfectly horrible" under pressure, though it was rarely the anger that bothered one so much as "the awful oleaginous apologies" that came later.

All this bile came out, so to speak, in Suez 1956: The Crisis. A shabby business, Suez, it must be said - as indeed just about everybody, except the late splenetic Prime Minister himself, did say. Eden's grand, archived vowels sounded resoundingly sure of themselves across the years. "We all know this is how fushist governments behave," Eden told the nation shortly after President Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal. "And we all know only too well what the cust can be in giving in to fushism." With the Second World War fresh in his memory, this challenge to British interests and world trade would not be appeased.

This was a fine documentary, with the simple virtues: tidy planning, clear script by Nick Clarke, nothing over-fancy in the editing. The cast of surviving witnesses was well researched, and the archive had been expertly truffled. "Do you think a few lights might brighten up Port Said?" a jolly British pilot crackled before dropping his bombs. "After all, it is November 5th!" Eisenhower gave the Brits a tongue-lashing, Michael Foot reminded us how we treated the Egyptians "as if they were scum". A shame that by contrast Suez 1956: The Consequences (R4), directly afterwards, was less searching. It was good on local sufferings of Brits in Egypt and on Egyptian politics post-Suez, but I longed to hear Robert Mugabe, say, or even Narasimha Rao, talking about what Nasser's nationalism had meant to them.

To return to the subject of scripts, Radio 3 this week had a dodgy one. "The girth of our culture conceals it, but at the root of not just our literature but everything worth thinking about is an idea, a thought, a cerebral fruit that fell off the back of a mind located well outside these islands." Hard enough to understand in print, but on air this was barely comprehensible. For Books Abroad, Tibor Fischer had produced a novelist's script stuffed with metaphor and sub-clause, which stood in need of production - ie. the red pen. Novelists, the producer might have told the presenter, may be good writers, but not necessarily good writers for radio, where sentences. Are often. No longer than this.

In spite of this, a new series devoted to "the best of writing beyond Dover" is a welcome addition to Radio 3, and Books Abroad promises to be a refreshing blast of foreign air in a xenophobic climate. "The definition of Turkish identity is its obsession with identity," said Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk with devastating clarity. Parisian bookshops are "crumbling", we learnt, under the weight of books by and about a dead President, sure sign of a fin de siecle mausoleum culture. British publishers allow too little sex in romantic fiction for the Caribbean market. All good stuff. But what was an item on American home bomb-making manuals doing in a programme devoted to "good writing"? Anything to be sensational these days, Radio 3.

Poet, ploughman, freemason, enlightened radical and, in a big way, ladies' man, Robert Burns died 200 years ago. The Tree of Life (R3) was a generous, impressionist portrait, produced in Scotland and crammed full of invigorating poetry and song, all nicely supported by sounds of whinnying horses and Highland winds. If you understood hardly a word of a poem like "The Old Farmer's New Year Morning Salutation to his Old Mare Maggie", the remarkable readings by John Hannah made you want to sing along for the joy of their sheer sound. Maggie baggie staggie naggie: they are rattling in my head as I write.

Ultimately, though, it was neither his "rhyming mania" - the poet's own phrase - nor his enlightened social ideas that convinced one of Burns's vital, individual flame. "I have fucked her till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory," the happy man exclaimed in a letter, after giving his wife, so he claimed, "such a thundering scalade that electrified the very marrow of her bones. O! what a peacemaker is a guid weel-willy pintle!" Again, you got the drift even if you didn't understand. It was good of the BBC to give us this generous taste of Burns's rude Scottish vocab, and allow us a teatime savour of so vivid an 18th-century life.

Barsetshire made a welcome return this week, with Dr Thorne (R4) off to a classic start at Some Squire or Other's Garden Party, may his son "live a thousand years and then never die", as one retainer put it. Cherry Cookson's production sounded dependable and stylish as ever. There was also a new series of myth retellings, New for Old: Myths Retold (R3). In the first, Ceres and Persephone had apparently been relocated to a British inner city. "Little bitch!" Ceres shrieked at her daughter. "Bitch!" Persephone snarled at Arethusa. This was, as Persephone observed, story-telling for those who find stories boring. Pseudo-modern lingo and once-upon-a-time coyness combined to render it barely coherent. Advice for next series: find good translations, hire decent actor, have thing read so everybody can follow. Radical, what?

Sue Gaisford returns next week.

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