Switch off for tea
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
ON LAST WEEK'S Feedback (Radio 4, Friday, repeated Sunday), we
heard from the stitching ladies of Hampton Court Palace about their listening
habits. They all agreed about depressing, tortured afternoon plays, typically
featuring storylines about rape and abuse: if anything like this comes on, they
break for tea.
The very next day, the afternoon play was Cast in Stone (Radio 4,
Monday of last week), about abuse and rape, set in medieval England. Had our
hard-working seamstresses continued to listen, they would have heard the tale
of Elfrede, a girl from the wild and pagan Chilterns, who travels to Wells in
the company of a group of stonemasons in order to pose for the statuary that
will adorn the new cathedral there.
It is not the most effective chat-up line ever: "Would you like to pose for
one of my gargoyles?" But Elfrede is a simple soul, and is initially flattered
by the attention. And then it all goes horribly wrong. In fact, Rachel Bentham'
s script turned out to be an interesting and even challenging portrayal of
pagan and Christian cultures, and of the communities they inspire.
At the climax, Elfrede models for a statue of the Virgin Mary, while the man
who abused her is miraculously crippled through the agency of pagan gods. I
fear the tea break at Hampton Court might have been longer than usual last
Nothing quite lightens the mood like a dose of bad poetry. In
The Great McGonagall (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), we had more
than a dose. William Topaz McGonagall is now generally regarded as the worst
poet of all time, and this documentary made the case for this status with great
conviction. In cases of such determined mediocrity, it must always be asked
whether he ever became aware of and exploited his own inadequacy. The answer
seems to be that he did not.
Indeed, one of his surviving relatives - one Mary Ross, née McGonagall - was
highly defensive when asked in the programme about her ancestor's talent. He
displayed - she argued - an admirable command of language for someone largely
It is the autodidact's enthusiasm for his craft that perhaps raises
McGonagall to the status of heroic failure. His recitals in public houses, as
part of a lifelong campaign against the evil that is liquor, were frequently
met with physical abuse, and, despite his showy appearance, McGonagall was
often in financial difficulty. Most importantly, his verse displays an
analysis-defying genius for the bathetic.
"Calamity in London" describes the death by fire of the Jarvis family. "Mrs
Jarvis was found with her child, and both carbonized, And as the searchers
gazed thereon they were surprised." The inability of the verse to rise a
millimetre above the banal is remarkable. Most writers, however poor, hit on a
poetic turn of phrase once in a while, if even just by accident.
In "Beautiful Crieff", McGonagall's shocking insensitivity to scansion is
wonderfully in evidence: "The climate is bracing, and the walks lovely to see.
Besides, ye can ramble over the district, and view the beautiful scenery." As
one eminent professor described it in The Great McGonagall, these
lines rattle down a meandering road like an old banger, before turning abruptly
into a brick wall of rhyme.