Before I begin I should make it clear that this post is not about to turn into one of those “isn’t everything about England great” rants. Lots of things about England aren’t great—like overcrowded roads, telephone boxes that smell of urine, Christmas cake, and the tiny sizes that deodorants come in (ok, those tiny deodorants are really quite cute). But something to be duly celebrated about England is BBC Radio Four.
Radio Four provides the soundtrack for my trips home, echoing through our house on three different radios, one of which always used to play at a slightly different pace than the others because it wasn’t digital. Radio Four is like NPR minus the pledge drive, the local phone-in shows with poor telephone reception, and the repeats, and plus oodles and oodles of literature. I mean no criticism of NPR—because, really, what would life be without it? But, apart from on the weekend (when NPR loosens its tie a little bit, and possibly changes from suit pants to neatly pressed chinos), it offers quite a serious bill of fare. Don’t get me wrong, Radio Four is deeply serious too, catering to the same demographic in England that NPR appeals to in America. But Radio Four wears literature like a jewel in its crown, instead of relegating it to 7.30 on a Sunday (or whenever it is that Selected Shorts is on). So if you need a little slice of drama, poetry, literature or comedy during your week, you should consume a little Radio Four.
For instance, Radio Four has a forty-five minute afternoon play every day and, since you can allow yourself an extra fifteen minutes of drama because it’s the weekend, a sixty minute play on Saturdays. Woman’s Hour, on every day of the week and not just for women, also includes a fifteen minute play. Sundays are particularly decadent, featuring an hour-long dramatization from the Classic Serial. Several times a week we can tune in for the Afternoon Reading, a fifteen minute extract from a novel or a short story. Every day we can catch a fifteen-minute portion from the Book of the Week, a serialized reading from a wide variety of genres. But my favorite has to be Book at Bedtime, a fifteen minute reading from a classic or a new work that airs at 10.45p.m. GMT. Because, really, where else outside of the nursery and creative writing events can a respectable adult get a bedtime story these days? (Although of course it would only be 4.45pm here in Texas, which is not an appropriate time to retire–but because you can listen again online, you can go to bed whenever you want and still have your Book at Bedtime).
If you like the soapy type of drama, or just want a bizarre listening experience, you should check out The Archers. This show began in 1950 as a vehicle to encourage farmers to do the work that would feed a Britain still under food rationing; the 15674th episode was broadcast on January 1st of this year. The content? Impossible to describe. It’s basically a soap set in a fictional village called Ambridge and features characters with an improbable set of regional accents struggling with such hot-button issues as who will star in the panto and what to plant in the top field.
If you prefer verse, you can tune in for Poetry Please, which, I have just discovered, has been running almost as long as The Archers at three decades.
Those who would rather hear books being discussed than being read should try A Good Read, Bookclub, With Great Pleasure, Off the Page and Open Book. This latter brings me to the second subject of my post: the Neglected Classics poll currently being run by Open Book. As the website reads, Open Book, with the help of ten lauded contemporary authors, is unearthing “books that have been overlooked or become inexplicably out of vogue.” Each author has nominated one book for consideration and, following an online audience vote, the winner will be dramatized on Radio Four next year. Fortuitously, this endeavor seemed to combine the subject of the last two posts by Desiree and Tim: prize-winning books and (perhaps justifiably) forgotten classics. Unfortunately we won’t be able to participate in the vote, since it closed at midnight GMT today. But we can still read the books and have our own poll of sorts. So I invite you to read with me and let the English Matters community know what you think. Or, if you have a neglected classic in mind that doesn’t appear on the list, tell us about it. The ten authors and their selections are as follows:
William Boyd The Polyglots by William Gerhardie
Susan Hill The Rector’s Daughter by F M Mayor
Hari Kunzru A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
Ruth Rendell Many Dimensions by Charles Williams
Colm Toibin Esther Waters by George Moore
Beryl Bainbridge The Quest for Corvo by A J A Symons
Howard Jacobson Rasselas by Samuel Johnson
Val McDermid Carol by Patricia Highsmith
Michael Morpurgo The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico
Joanna Trollope Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope