Word Of Mouth

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The Independent Online
Bring back Uncle Mac

What is it with the BBC? It produces some of the best television and radio in the world, yet has a hang-up when it comes to catering for children on radio.

Remember Children's Hour with Uncle Mac and Toytown with Larry the Lamb and Mr Grouser? If you do, you must be getting on a bit, because they were all killed off years ago. And Auntie has been phasing out the few remaining children's progs ever since.

Why? And why do we always need to fight the plebeians at the top of the Beeb to get anywhere? Not that long ago, the Corporation tried to strangle Radio 4 long wave and it took the concerted effort of thousands of listeners, particularly the expats abroad for whom Radio 4 is the only true link with home, to change its mind. Now a group called Children 2000 is sharpening its claws to wage battle and bring back BBC and commercial stations' children's radio programmes.

These campaigners are not fuddy-duddies but distinguished educationalists, psychologists and broadcasters. When they met at the House of Lords towards the end of May, the meeting was hosted by Baroness Warnock, past Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, and chaired by Gillian Reynolds, the radio critic. Susan Stranks, director of Children 2000 and co-ordinator of the Children's Radio Campaign, said 45 MPs had signed an Early Day Motion supporting the launch of a children's network on the spare 225kHz long- wave band.

And how did the BBC moguls respond? If children want to be entertained, let them buy tapes, they said. I don't suppose the denizens of Portland Place even know that one in five of the population is aged under 15.

Every decent children's programme has been axed. Children's Hour was killed in 1964; Listen with Mother went in 1982; Cat's Whiskers died in 1990 and Children's Radio 4, which was a half-hour slot on Sunday nights, was no more after only four years.

Nothing sparked my own imagination more than children's radio when I was in short trousers. It also encouraged me to read. Indeed, Sue Palmer, Government adviser on reading, blames a lack of listening skills for the decline in reading standards. "If they don't hear the sounds, they can't learn to read," she has declared. I gladly add my faint voice to the campaign to resuscitate children's radio.

Making a meal of it

And while I'm in Mr Grouser mood, whatever happened to cosy family meals round a table? Our streets are, as he might have said, disgr-r-r-aceful, littered with empty burger or fried chicken boxes and tin cans. Sit on a bus, train or Tube and watch our fellow travellers graze their way through mountains of junk food.

Well, from Monday it's Focus on Food Week, and an expandable pantechnicon complete with fully equipped teaching kitchen will be wending its way around the country's schools to teach children how to cook decent dishes.

The Cooking Bus is to tour schools for 42 weeks of the year to promote the importance of food education. According to Focus on Food, 70 per cent of households no longer sit at a table to eat, and, although 85 per cent of primary school children can use a computer keyboard, fewer than half can chop a carrot or peel a spud. And shame on Manchester, my home town, where 11- and 12-year-olds admitted that they could not set a table.

Prue Leith, Antony Worrall Thompson and Sophie Grigson are among the many cuisine gurus supporting the campaign. I just hope a few parents will also lend it their support.

Any schools wishing to register for a visit from the Cooking Bus should first phone 01422 383191 for more information.

Keeping in fashion

Last week was the annual graduates' fashion show, so I went to the East End to see what the clothes of tomorrow might look like.

What a show it was! Loads of universities exhibited their wares and I sat in on the show mounted by students of the University of East London. The audience of students and parents all clapped and screamed their approval as even the drabbest bits of cloth made their way along the catwalk.

Look out for Samantha Green, whose bolero jackets cocoon the body like the emerging butterflies that were her inspiration. Her use of colour - green and burgundy - and cloths - chiffon, velvet, taffetas and satins - brought her a well-deserved accolade.

Others who should be designing for the new millennium included Emma Gurd, whose collection was influenced by the Masai warriors of East Africa and the Wodaabe nomads of northern Nigeria; Linh Chu, whose menswear made me wish I was young again; and Natalie Downes. Her icy-blue, two-tone weaves and wrap-over skirts certainly proved to be the erotic highlights of an exciting show.

Rhodes to the Woods

Only by improving education can racism be eradicated - so said Neville Lawrence, father of the brutally murdered black schoolboy, Stephen, when he recently addressed a meeting at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

By coincidence, David Woods, Vice-chancellor of Rhodes University - once one of many whites-only universities in South Africa - put forward a similar message on a visit to London. Education, he said, will have to be improved if there is to be a halt to the rising crime rate in South Africa, created jointly by unemployment, misery and poverty.

There is a shortage of teachers and few black youngsters are going into teaching. Why? "Teachers' pay is bad and the conditions are poor," Dr Woods told me last week. Pupil-teacher ratios in South Africa average 60:1. "At Rhodes, a small, residential university, we have a ratio of 14:1. We are doing our utmost to upgrade the teaching profession, particularly in maths, science and technology, to avoid a teacher crisis in five years," he said.

Dr Woods, who is 59 next month, is one of those rare academics who now heads the university from which he graduated. Apart from comparatively brief spells elsewhere - as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and a lecturer in microbiology at Queen Mary College, London University - he never turned his back on South Africa or Rhodes, where he also took his doctorate, and worked his way up from senior lecturer to professor, head of microbiology - and vice-chancellor.