Arts: The week on radio

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The Independent Online
In The Third Man, Orson Welles compared Italy under the Borgias - 30 years of warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance - with Switzerland - 500 years of democracy and peace, and all they came up with was the cuckoo clock. The idea seems to strike a chord with many of us: order is stifling and dull, chaos is creative, even glamorous. After all, wouldn't you rather have Michelangelo paint your ceiling than have a cuckoo clock on your wall?

But really, chaos is far more stunting and debilitating than any amount of order. This turns out to be the case in Turkmenistan, as Tim Whewell discovered in this week's The Windy Sea (Radio 4, Wednesday), a four-part exploration of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea. Last week it was Azerbaijan, currently the scene of what will probably be the world's last great oil-boom; this week, he crossed the waters to Turkmenistan, another of the newly independent fragments of the old Soviet Union, which ought to be in the middle of a boom itself, given its abundant supplies of natural gas. Unfortunately, the only way of piping the gas anywhere useful is through Russia; and Russia will only send the Turkmen product to states too strapped to buy its own gas. In consequence, the Turkmen economy is rich in badly fitting military uniforms, the result of a desperate attempt to deliver payment in kind.

As Whewell roved around the country, encountering vast and theoretically prestigious hotel complexes in the middle of nowhere, built to accommodate an imaginary influx of foreign dignitaries, it became clear that the whole place has been arranged according to instructions in the Handbook for Third World Tyrannies. I know "Third World" is an unfashionable term, but this is a very unfashionable sort of politics, conducted in the unsavoury jargon of petty dictatorship: Western nations simply don't understand the development of Asiatic nations; democracy is our long-term aim; for the moment, a strong centralised government is necessary to ensure that development goes in the right direction. (Luckily for the Turkmen government, outsiders can still speak the same language: we heard the American ambassador explaining that his country had achieved a more "nuanced" understanding of the ex-Soviet states - diplomatese for "Human rights? I'm sorry, I think you must have the wrong number.")

Meanwhile, the race for national development has led to the neglect of individual development. While the government tries to do big deals for gas, food and water supplies remain chaotic, and one in four Turkmen babies suffers developmental retardation through malnutrition. Precious little creative or glamorous about this disorder; but observed with dry wit and an outrage more powerful for being withheld.

Still, the usefulness of chaos within limits is demonstrated in Songs from Saturn (Radio 3, Saturday), a homage to the great jazz musician and mystic Sun Ra, whose music, with its unearthly complexity and tonal delicacy, emerged from a studiedly anarchic lifestyle - one musician described how Ra's fridge was stuffed with music - and a rickety thought-system, marrying Einsteinian physics with science-fiction, black consciousness and Egyptology. Jez Nelson's enthusiastic, faintly awed commentary strikes the right note.

And more creative chaos in Up Against It (Radio 3, Sunday), a romping realisation of Joe Orton's unfinished script for a Beatles film. A Radio 4 feature a year or so ago offered fragmentary reconstructions which made it sound misogynistic and self-consciously rebellious and wacky. It turned out to be all that, as well as suffering from a corny sexual mysticism which probably owed as much to adapter John Fletcher as to Orton. But in a finely acted production, it was often hilarious - artistic archaeology at its finest.