Don't wait around - give up 'Today'

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For the next three weeks I shall be up at the Edinburgh Festival, the Atlanta Olympics of the North, contributing to the pandemonium by working at the Pleasance in a show called "The Death of Tchaikovsky - a Sherlock Holmes mystery" (advt). I am not going to miss more than a week from the Independent, but before I pack my bags, I think I ought to catch up on some unfinished business. In other words, to deal with some interesting readers' letters.

I complained the other day that I couldn't get World Service news on my radio and had to make do with the parochial and inferior Radio 4 Today programme version. I was rapped on the knuckles by Mrs Bidwell of County Durham, who says that all I have to do is get a satellite dish. "Tune in the relevant audio frequency on UK Gold. Use gadget on remote control to remove 'picture' telling you to insert card, and get restful green 'picture' and listen to World Service through TV set!

"Like you I'm appalled by the arrogant Birt - but get on to satellite and stop grumbling about reception (until recently we lived in the far north-west of Scotland so we know something about it)...."

Well, I wasn't really grumbling about World Service reception - I was grumbling about the Today programme, and I am not the only one. A well known writer sends me a card from the Garrick Club: "Bravo! About time somebody said how shallow and fatuous the Today programme can be. How DARE the sods try to level the World Service down to that?" I won't mention his name, partly because I haven't asked him if I can quote him, partly because if I refer to him as a well known writer you will all assume that he is even more well known than he really is.

Mr Coker of Wiltshire has an interesting observation. "Another curious point is that in the daily farming programme on Radio 4 at 0610 the views expressed by farmers, agricultural institutes, vets, research workers, etc, invariably flatly contradict those on food and farming put out in the Radio 4 news. They also (today, for example, 26 July) reveal items being concealed by the MAFF such as that some 10 per cent of our cattle now have BIV (this is the bovine version of HIV). Yet only one small herd has been selected for slaughter. The MAFF is keeping the news under wraps, presumably in the hope that there is no potential danger to humans and that, like BSE, it's all a storm in a tea-cup. Let's hope so."

I think the secret of the fatuousness of the Today programme lies in the way politicians often say that they always listen to Today as they get up. The clue is that Today caters for party politicians and for no one else. Nobody else need listen. It is turning into a game for interviewers and party hacks, a private talking shop, so that, for instance, when you hear an interviewer trying to get a leading Labour man to admit that a lot of pressure was put on some MPs not to stand for shadow office, the interviewer seems totally unaware that it is all of no conceivable interest to anyone alive except somebody who works in party politics.

Mr Heckels of Ipswich puts it another way. He says he gave up listening to Today after an interview between Sue MacGregor and Chris Patten before the latter went to Hong Kong. Patten was due to announce some new tax that afternoon in the House, but Ms MacGregor kept on asking him what it would be, although he kept saying he couldn't preannounce it. At the third or fourth time, Patten said:

"Look, you were told before I agreed to come on this programme that I could not divulge the figure in question and yet you have now asked me three times. Good bye."

Mr Heckel adds in a PS: "Do you have any idea why, when a constitutional matter arises, Lord St John of Fawsley is always wheeled out as a 'constitutional expert'? Does he have any academic qualifications to justify this description? I have always thought of him as a failed Tory minister."

No, sir, I have no idea why. Finally, thanks to all those who wrote in and said that there was a slang word for bicycles in living memory, namely in the Fifties when they were often called "gridirons" or "grids". Brian Dowling said that at Cambridge in the Forties they were called "bogwheels", which may have been shortened later to "bogles". And now I must pack my saddlebags, jump on my grid and head up the road to Edinburgh.