Pelicans, postures and small Fry

Robert Hanks the week on radio
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The Independent Online
Revelations rarely live up to their billing: a decent concealment is usually just as informative and quite a lot more interesting. Take Stephen Fry's appearance on In the Psychiatrist's Chair (Radio 4, Sun): in advance, all the publicity was about the intimate revelations that Fry would be vouchsafing the world, care of Dr Anthony Clare - of a near suicide attempt, of the entry of romance into his life. In the event, hearing these turned out not to be especially exciting, drained of drama by foreknowledge and by Fry's own lack of urgency: these weren't confessions dragged out of him by the tortures of his conscience or Clare's expert interrogation, but stories he'd already incorporated into his repertoire.

As it turned out, this was one of the better In the Psychiatrist's Chairs, not because of its dramatic content, but simply because it became a recognisable conversation. At some point, the pretence that this had any psychiatric content shrank (though "shrink" seems precisely the wrong verb) away, leaving you instead with a sense that this was the way clever, successful and reasonably egotistical men talk to each other: competitive, a touch impatient, but both still wanting to be liked. You didn't find out what Fry is like stripped of all his posturing (which, if he was giving anything like a true picture of the state of his psyche, was a good thing: the naked Fry thing would be far too distressing and ugly); you did get an idea that this is how he postures in private, and that's probably more of an achievement for an interviewer.

More posturing, I think, in Better than Sex (Radio 4, Wed), the series in which literary types rhapsodise over some particular pleasure: this week, Howard Jacobson on his lifelong infatuation with pelicans. He claimed to detect in the pelican's slow, sad smile a fellow-feeling, an acknowledgement that we were in it together - "it" being "existential loneliness". His passion was finally consummated when he was allowed to feed one, deep- throating it with his arm, an experience he compared with seeing the face of God.

All this seemed monstrously improbable. That Jacobson likes pelicans, and even seeks out their company, I can swallow; but the idea that he might sincerely ascribe any mystical significance to them chokes me like a large fish. But this didn't detract from the programme's appeal: such straight-faced eloquence in a sincere avowal of love would have been embarrassing, in service of a thudding lie, it was pure pleasure.

The awfulness of revelation was the theme of this week's edition of Your Place or Mine (Radio 4, Thurs), "Vicarage Allsorts", a silly and condescending title quite out of keeping with the programme's wide-eyed gaze of dismay. Sara Parker reported from a Norfolk parish riven by a schism between the traditional wishy-washy Anglicans and charismatics - I suppose that's the word, though they struck me as singularly charmless. There were several chilling moments, among them a woman showing off her "gift of tongues", which turned out, naturally, to be a meaningless jabber: "God's language" she called it.

What is so repellent about this brand of religion, based entirely on personal revelation and expressions of ecstasy, is its creation of a God who has nothing to do with the real world: it makes other people's feelings, the mysteries of creation, all the things that have inspired Christians in the past, less important than the miracle of one's own feelings. Stephen Fry at one point told Anthony Clare how, as a teenager, he believed that nobody's sensibilities were as refined, nobody's pain as acute as his own. That was exactly the case with the arrested adolescents: their God was introverted, irrational, self-obsessed; a pelican would be better than this.