Keeping up with the Joneses

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The Independent Online
In my year at college there was an earnest lad called Paul Pond, whose passionate desire was to obliterate his public-school past. While the rest of us listened to jazz, he went out and did it, and it was no surprise when he got sent down for persistently failing exams. But he stayed on in town, defiantly playing his mouth-organ in pubs: how we laughed! Next thing we knew, be was wearing red wellies, fronting a band called Manfred Mann, and fighting off the fans. And he'd changed his name to Jones. He went on to win stardom on stage and screen, and then got religion.

But he never broke faith with his real religion, as witness the wonderful three-hour blues-binge to which he treats Jazz FM listeners every Saturday morning.

Last week, in a Fistful of Dynamite (Radio 2), he went back to his roots with a history of the harmonica. His claim that this is the most versatile and evocative instrument ever invented was amply borne out; it can do just about anything you want (unless you're Bob Dylan, in which case it does very little, very boringly). Jones and fellow-blowers explained how to bend notes, how to choke them, and how to vary your wah-wah-wah; while the chromatic instrument (with a lever) permits cleverness, the simple "diatonic" harmonica is what you need for the blues, a sound that goes straight to the heart.

That same day, David Owen Norris had given us a crash course in hurdy- gurdy studies But I Know What I Like, (Radio 4, Tues) with the aid of hurdy-gurdist Nigel Eaton. A hurdy-gurdy is a series of strings "bowed" by a handcranked wheel, and it sounds like a wheezy orchestra; Eaton and Norris were hazy about the instrument's origin - they should look it up in Grove (from the Orient via Byzantium and Muslim Spain) and their demo tracks went on far too long.

But the documentary immediately preceding this was a disgrace. Imagine An Onion was a "sound-portrait" of the glass-towered bibliotheque de grande vitesse - Mitterrand's answer to our orange-brick monstrosity in London's Euston Road. Like its British counterpart, the French library has a sound- archive: cue a cack-handed collage of creaky pianos and cracked voices (none of them named). Cue some hashed vox-pops of stunning banality, including (I kid you not) an American academic researching a Renaissance essayist called "Montaggner". And cue a vacuous commentary which complained that the place was miserable, wet, and windy, so unlike the dear old library in Rue Richelieu, where you could nip out for a coffee, a gauloise, and - ho ho! - the solace of a local fille de joie.

Mon dieu! This was Radio 4's pathetic stab at an intellectual subject: as one might have predicted, the Radio 1 documentary on Star Wars was a model of intelligent rigour. I never could take this glorified kids' film seriously, but Skywalker (Sun) taught me respect for its maker. George Lucas is secretive, inarticulate, and gets minions like Richard Dreyfus and Harrison Ford to pursue unquestioningly his bold, original visions. This programme anatomised that mysterious process.

I tried - really tried - to enjoy David Pownall's vision of Salvador Dali giving Winston Churchill painting lessons (The Curves of Clio, Radio 3, Tues), and Pownall's yoking of Ezra Pound and Monteverdi (Pound on Mr Greenhill, Radio 3, Sun), but was defeated each time by the hysterically mannered tone. Director Cherry Cookson, meanwhile, brought Dickensian fire to Trollope's Framley Parsonage (Radio 4, Sunday), and thereby improved it no end.

Listening to Desmond Tutu in Paths of Inspiration (Radio 2, Fri) was - well -inspiring. Ian Hislop's Sentimental Journey to Hong Kong (Radio 4, Sun) where his father had died when he was 12 - was sadder than either Hislop, or his host Arthur Smith, or the programme's chirpy format, seemed able to cope with.

Robert Hanks returns next week

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