Caught by the River

A Week In Radio. November 24 – 30, 2014.

Sue Brooks | 10th December 2014


Sue Brooks tuned in:

My name is Jarvis Cocker and tonight we’re going on a musical journey. It’s Saturday evening and I’m tired. I switch on the radio absent mindedly and hear those words. I’m catapulted back into Class 1V at my Primary School listening to a schools broadcast on the Home Service. “ Singing Together”.

Jarvis Cocker has a wonderful radio voice – soft, confiding, an adult’s voice but you can hear the child behind it. He’s right between my ears telling me about something that means a great deal to him, something he has researched with intent, not just in the bowels of Broadcasting House, but through a radio appeal to listeners. He discovers a whole community of “Singing Together” addicts who share their memories and one who has unearthed some recordings in her school’s music cupboard. ( although the programme was broadcast live for over 50 years, only three episodes exist in the BBC archives ) Hhmm….cassettes. I haven’t seen these for a while.

He plays the one with the North Country voice I remember – William Appleby – inviting me and thousands of other school children across the country, to join in with the chorus. “Singing Together” started in 1939 to help children evacuated from their homes, living with strangers, finding themselves outsiders in the local school, and continued into the 1990s. One of the few programmes without any overt “teaching” purpose, not marked, not assessed. Radio for pleasure, and there was no doubt about its popularity, despite Establishment disapproval. Voices phone in to describe how much they enjoyed it, how much the children looked forward to it, how much it helped. A truly subversive piece of Radio history: by the people for the people and the reason why I and countless others know all the words to “ Green Grow The Rushes O “, “Shenandoah”, “ Bobby Shafto” and “Molly Malone”.

Jarvis Cocker sings “ Molly Malone” solo to introduce the journey and signs off with an invitation to the listener to join William Appleby and Co. singing it together. I did, of course. Thank you Jarvis.

Click here to listen to an edit of this show on the BBC iPlayer.

Earlier in the week I tuned in with great anticipation to Radio 3’s “The Essay”. 5 x 15 minute talks with the Tim Dee hallmark in the title – “ Shaping The Air”. A celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas, one of the most distinctive radio voices of the century. 5 writers and broadcasters telling us what radio means to them, each with a different perspective and a different voice, especially the voice of Local Radio. If you want to know about Liverpool – a city on the edge – tune into Radio Merseyside and listen to Roger Phillips’s conversations with his callers. There are between 20 and 150 every day. He’s been doing it for 30 years and is always hoping that one or two of the 350,000 Scousers who make up the audience but have never been on air, will pick up the phone. It’s their programme and it will MAKE THEIR DAY. He’s just the presenter, and as Fi Glover tells us the following night, radio presenters do not have capital letters, they are just like us. They are using the power of connection between an ear and a voice, and they are our friends. The BBC leads the world in this. We make speech radio like nowhere else. And she’s right. I’m listening and nodding my head. And so, my radio friend, the journey begins. Another journey, another voice, by the people for the people. Is there some hidden message in the airwaves this week? Now it’s David Hendy’s turn. Hhmm, this is different. Radio presenters are performers – highly tuned to their audience. We, the listeners, faced with the voice, are less critical than readers.

Listen or download The Essay.

I’m going to listen very carefully to the next one. It’s a collaboration between Tim Dee and Paul Farley, the first of a new series of “ The Echo Chamber” on Radio 4 which showcases modern poets. It’s inspired by the moment they shared in the Zoology Museum at Cambridge to commemorate the death of the last passenger pigeon on September 1st 1914. Tim Dee wrote about it for Caught By The River. On the radio there’s the rustle of rubber gloves and Paul Farley’s voice whispering reverently ….it’s as light as a feather…..we should hold a minute’s silence….it’s an honour…..there’s nothing to say. But he’s said it all in his rich Scouser’s voice: much more Scouse than Roger Phillips: a voice from the edge. He’s excited about the pigeon and about the poets he introduces – Fleur Adcock, Sean O’Brien, Greta Stoddart – but there’s something else that doesn’t quite fit. Something that isn’t about extinction, more about bringing the dead back to life. He drops hints. A snatch of music, a Mambo of unknown origin. It’s written on the bones. Very cryptic. I’m intrigued and listen more carefully, but there’s nothing about Mambos or bones until the final minute of the programme.

Listen here.

Scratchy big band music from what sounds like an old 45 rpm recording of Lullaby of Birdland to bid farewell to the passenger pigeon. Paul Farley’s voice slows and becomes more deliberate. He’s letting us into the secret of the Mambo Of Unknown Origin. Lullaby of Birdland and the Mambo are examples of a secret method of sharing music that developed in the Cold War Soviet world. It was discovered that x-rays could be used to bootleg records and these flexidiscs became known as “bones” or “ribs” as rock ‘n roll infiltrated the Soviet headspace on the cracked metatarsals and fractured skulls of its unsuspecting citizens. The voice is thick with delight and irony. He gives us the website to check it out ( x-ray audio…..) and bows out with…see how you blow you bones: spark, you ash-turned air. Such strange and haunting words, almost whispered. Where did they come from? Did I hear them properly? I had to listen again to find out.

Next week Tim Dee and Paul Farley are doing “The Knowledge”. A special performance, just for you, my radio friend. Don’t miss it.

Sue Brooks archive.