Miles Kington: There's nothing like a good old-fashioned argument

When they agree that a book is a damned good read, it is mildly interesting, but when they disagree, it is much more interesting
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The Independent Online

One of the great pleasures of listening to radio is that now and again you hear people talking. I don't mean talking at you, but talking to each other about something, just going with the flow of the talk, almost unaware of the microphone.

The kind of talk that sometimes occurs on Radio 4's A Good Read. It's a simple format. Three people each choose a book they like. They read each other's books. Then they come to the studio and have a three-way discussion about each book. When they agree that a book is in fact a damned good read, it is mildly interesting, but when they disagree, it is much more interesting.

Recently, for instance, the Irish children's writer Eoin Colfer chose J M Barrie's Peter Pan as a good read, a goody-goody choice which vaguely appalled his fellow guest Katharine Whitehorn and the presenter, Sue McGregor.

(Colfer defended himself quite wittily by saying that his discovery of the fairy Tinker Bell had been a revelation to him, and had a direct impact on his writing, because it was the first time he had encountered a fairy who was violent, spiteful and malicious. "Tinker Bell actually wanted to kill Wendy. That was very important to me." And if you have read any of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books, you will have met many fairies, all far worse than Tinker Bell.)

Another good moment cropped up when A Good Read was chaired by Martha Kearney. Her choice was one of Carl Hiaasen's uproarious Florida crime novels, and her two male guests - Antony Julius and Sarfraz Mansoor - condemned her taste and said they both hated such escapist literature. What was the point of reading pure entertainment...? She was gobsmacked by their utilitarian prissiness, and so was I, but the exchanges made for wonderfully prickly conversation.

You don't have to disagree to get good talk, of course. There was a series recently on Radio 3 called Arrangers Anonymous, in which Russell Davies chatted every week to the arrangers Barry Forgie and Steve Gray about one example of the unsung art of writing for a big jazz band.

Last time out they were discussing a record I didn't know, a 1949 version of "The Continental", arranged by Bill Finegan for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, a piece of writing so intricate and finely wrought that all three of them fell over each other to point out hidden gems in it. For half an hour they discussed what after all was only a three-minute-long bit of music, pulling it to bits, playing counter-melodies on the piano, illustrating Finegan's ingenuity...

"Now here," said one of them, "the note in the melody is G, but Finegan has the trumpet section play a D flat chord against it..." I couldn't believe my ears. Three guys actually discussing music, in musical terms, on national radio, and getting really excited about it. It was a riveting half hour, and when they played the whole of the record again at the end of the programme, I heard it through completely fresh ears.

The trouble is that good talk is so hard to plan. I remember once watching Dennis Potter, Rene Cutforth and Colin Wilson in a TV chat programme which meandered on amiably until Potter was galvanised by one of the other two saying he had no interest in politics. "But everything we do is political!" cried Potter. "All the choices we make are, when it comes down to it, political! Not party political, but political in the broad sense! Life is politics!"

Come off it, Potter, the other two said, counter-attacking heartily. Politics is a dogfight, an unpleasant smell... and the ensuing argy-bargy, between the believer and the two agnostics, was wonderful and unforgettable.

Now, how do you plan something like that? If I knew the answer to that, I would be a rich man. No, hold on, that's wrong. I wouldn't be rich at all. I'd be a producer at the BBC. I'd be poor. Phew. I'm glad I don't know how to plan good talk.