Radio 4

One of the things about not having to go out to work is the radio. Until recently the radio was for in the car, the Today programme when making tea in the morning and in the kitchen while cooking.

It was always Radio 4. This was not entirely a matter of choice. When digital radio was new, we bought one. The instructions were more complicated than anything I had encountered since I was a child and my parents gave me a crystal set. In each case it was necessary to extrude a bare wire in the general direction of some constellation or other and wiggle it until something resembling the English language could be heard. Now, of course, the medium for the grunts and squeaks anterior, one hopes, to something resembling the English language is a nice set of speakers, whereas the crystal set came equipped with military headphones probably liberated from a locally-downed Heinkel.

Anyway, the upshot is that having achieved Radio 4 we stuck to it, not entirely for its intrinsic qualities but for fear of never finding it or anything else resembling the English language ever again.

Actually, the digital signal failed some time ago – the bare wire was knocked out of true in the course of a crisis involving the flooding of the household boiler, which was, as is its spanking new successor, situated immediately above the wire – but the radio has defaulted to analogue reception of Radio 4 and, since that too seems to be surrounded not by Classic fm or anything else friendly but by a wall of white noise, we have left well alone.

How very different, incidentally, from when one did go out to work. If anything technological there fails to achieve expectations, a nice young man comes and makes it better again.

In the car, at the weekend, in the past, Radio 4 was nearly always Gardeners’ Question Time. This is not the case during the working week. Now when you turn the machine on it is nearly always Woman’s Hour, and if it is Woman’s Hour it is nearly always Dame Jenni™ Murray.

What is it that one dislikes so much about Dame Jenni™ Murray? I have never met her and I am sure that in real life she is modest, humorous and kind. I should ask instead what it is that one dislikes so much about her performances on the radio. I have given this some thought, idly flicking the radio on while making cups of tea over the past month. There are various possibilities.

It is not, I think, her victim feminism, apparently preserved in (as those with a turn of phrase sometimes put it) aspic since the 1980s. Just because something has ceased to be fashionable that does not make it wrong. Cato the Elder, for example, would repeatedly remind the Roman Senate, even in the course of debates on quite different matters, ‘Carthago delenda est’, Carthage must be destroyed, and some historians regard him as right to have done so. Had he not kept banging on about it, Carthage might never have been razed to the ground and its people, the Libyans of today, sold into slavery.

Just so might Dame Jenni™ remark, ostensibly irrelevantly in the middle of a discussion about, say, badger culling: ‘But would they say that if it was a man?’

Nor is it her enormous self-satisfaction. One person’s self-satisfaction is another’s self-assurance. It’s a tough old world out there on Radio 4 and a person needs all the self-assurance they can get. Especially if they’re a woman.

Nor is it her habit of asking a question and interrupting half way through the answer. ‘Don’t ask questions if you’re not going to listen to the answers’ is a very good rule in life, not to mention basic good manners, but not necessarily in the media. If some woman being interviewed on the other end of the phone were more worth listening to than Dame Jenni™, for heaven’s sake, she would have been presenting Women’s Hour for the last twenty odd years. And she hasn’t: Dame Jenni™ has.

I thought that it might be her voice, but it’s not even quite that. To me it sounds like a smug hoot, but it has its fans. Charles Wheeler, a journalist, apparently said that she had “the most beautiful voice on radio, ever”.

The conclusion that I have come to is that what one dislikes so much about Dame Jenni™ Murray is very specific. It is the dying fall that she uses when she speaks. Her sentences typically rise to a climax and then tail off. The final syllable and particularly the final consonant evaporate into a sibilant little frisson of pure meaning. She is fortunate of course in having the confidence that the ends of her sentences are not going to be clouted by whoever she is speaking to – unlike for them, of course. Even if someone is so rude as to interrupt her, it can be fixed in post-production.

This intensely irritating mannerism is also occasionally to be found, talking of Radio 4, on Roger McGough’s Poetry Please, when people read their own poems and don’t trust the unvarnished words to get across the overwhelming importance of their own sincerity.

(Roger McGough is also very pleased with himself – I have met him – but he doesn’t hoot.)

The good news is that, now I have identified the problem, she can fix it and she and Radio 4 can go from strength to strength.

But will they listen?

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