THE CRITICS: Heroes break their silence

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A SOLDIER, released after years as a prisoner, bought a bar of chocolate in Yokohama. A little girl watched him taste it, then shyly accepted some from him, pulling an ornament from her hair to offer him in thanks. Fifty years on, he still marvels at her charm: "You couldn't blame the children," he said quietly. The bunting is up all over the place again, but in our village VJ Day is being commemorated, not celebrated. R2 agrees. Their programme, VJ Day Homage, allowed the soldiers of the forgotten army to have their say, at last.

It was powerful. We were warned that they would talk frankly, and they did. They remembered the hideous treatment they had witnessed and received: the beatings, the torture, the little nasty cruelties. One recalled the day when a huge pile of longed-for mail arrived in their camp, only to be burned before their eyes as a reprisal for some minor offence. Another spoke of his shame at being so puny and weak when the strapping paratroopers came in to release them. Food parcels had been dropped, and "some joker had put in some condoms. So we blew 'em up and decorated the camp". A welfare worker spoke about reaching Hiroshima. She was nearly stumped for words, even now, remembering. Then she said: "It was just rubble. Rubble, I was sick at heart. Nobody has a right to do that to anyone."

The impression left was therapeutic all round. It was important that these people should be allowed to express what they had been through. When they returned, the war seemed to have been over a long time and their own traumatised state often silenced them. On Today (R4), on the anniversary itself, a woman put it simply. "We don't want people to hate the Japanese," she said, "just to be nice to us."

Last weekend's Letter From America (R4) tackled the same subject. Alastair Cooke is little short of miraculous. He appears to have total recall of every major event this century, and he sounds more lucid than ever. He judged it to be the right time to tell the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, a narrative of consummate irony. It would never have happened had the scientists involved not been Jews escaping from Germany. Once made, the decision to use the bomb was carefully calculated. The Japanese territorial conquests were vast. Had conventional warfare continued over that battleground, the biggest in history, millions more lives would certainly have been lost. It is the conventional justification, much denigrated now, but to hear it patiently explained was to begin, at least, to understand.

Last night's Burma Star Association's Final Concert (R2) was a tear-jerker, largely because of the emotional regimental music. Nobody who saw The Bridge on the River Kwai could fail to be moved by such a crisp, jaunty rendition of "Colonel Bogey". There is something about a military band that defies logical analysis. Irene Thomas knows all about that. A bandsman's daughter, she chose several military pieces for her Private Passions (R3), including a piercingly sweet, sad song from the American Civil War, about the death of a single picket, one misty night on the Potomac: "It's nothing. A private or two now and then/ Will not count in the news of the battle./ Not an officer killed, only one of the men/ Moaning out his lonely death-rattle."

Private Passions is one of R3's real successes. The combination of Michael Berkeley's gentle, knowledgeable interviewing style and a careful selection of interesting guests is making it as unmissable as Desert Island Discs. Irene Thomas, in her time Brain of Britain and now a stalwart of Round Britain Quiz, was perfect. Modest and dismissive of her own enormous intellect, her every sentence is full of fascinating information. She was once in the Covent Garden chorus, where she watched Kirsten Flagstad placidly knitting in the wings, and proudly displaying family photographs to anyone who would look. But the great Norwegian "hit you in both ears" when she sang, with a voice "like an angel's trumpet".

Nearly every radio station has a programme rather like this, though none as good. Striking Chords (R4) is yet another. Paul Gambaccini invites two guests to choose two musical snippets each, and then to discuss what makes them memorable. My head is still ringing from the discords in Brian Eno's choice, a song by the Velvet Underground in which singer and musicians chose stubbornly different keys. It was horrible. Politely, they tried to appreciate each other's treasures, but they weren't convincing. Classic FM's version, Celebrity Choice, had Arthur Scargill in the hot - well, lukewarm - spot. It was, as usual, all frightfully friendly, and, again as usual, the music chosen was heavily influenced by childhood memories. What a responsibility parents bear, especially when their receptive tots are going to grow up to be Radio Celebrities. The only problem with this one was that Paul Callan is not the man to ask the question we all want answered, viz: why on earth doesn't Mr Scargill do something about his hair?