"BLAMING myself has kept
me going. . . It keeps the fire alive." Rarely have I heard a more
despairing sign-off to a radio show than Ralph Bulger's at the end
of Remembering James Bulger (Radio 4, Tuesday of last
week). Twenty years after the murder that challenged the moral
assumptions of a nation - most notably the innocence of children -
James's father still lacerates himself with guilt.
It is a story that, as
the presenter, Winifred Robinson, admitted, holds no comfort. Mr
Bulger and his wife, Denise, separated, he turned to drink, and
there is no redemptive final act.
Part of the unique moral
challenge here is the fact that, in almost any other circumstance,
a father would have some sympathy for the ten-year-old killers;
but, however ashamed you might be to hate children, "you feel the
way you feel." It would have been easier to hate were they grown
men - and, as Robinson pointed out, the sentencing would have been
more straightforward, too.
The toing and froing over
Thompson and Venables's detention only added to the sense of
injustice, as Mr Bulger and his family started to feel as if the
judicial and political classes were ignoring their opinions.
This was a powerful piece
of radio. My only qualm was the way in which Robinson's narratives
occasionally overstepped the line between reportage and dramatic
reconstruction. Having her tell us that Mr Bulger, after having the
death of his son confirmed, splashed water on his face and looked
in the mirror adds nothing but a queasy sense of melodrama to an
already punishingly emotional story. The texture of Mr Bulger's
craggy, care-worn voice was all we needed.
Sometimes, all that is
necessary for a compelling programme is a compelling voice. And, in
the case of Islam Without God (Radio 4, Tuesday of last
week), the producer seems to have found him - but too late.
Abdul-Rehman Malik's exloration of Muslim identity among those who
are, at best, half-heartedly religious was hardly revelatory in its
analysis; but I could have heard much more from Moez Masoud, the
young Cairo preacher who shares his thoughts with more than two
million young Muslims via Twitter and Facebook.
Masoud engages with
Muslim agnosticism, encouraging doubters to express their doubts.
Living in a post-Mubarak Egypt, he is well placed to see the
fractures that are appearing in Islamic beliefs; Islam, he says,
must "Wake up and smell the hummus" if it is to adapt to the new
One of religion's newest
Tweeters is soon to be closing down his apps. It is a mixed
blessing to be able to read your obituaries; for In Search of
the Real Pope Benedict (Radio 4, Saturday) was a standard
obituary job, with superior commentary by Ed Stourton.
It was good to hear from Professor Hans Küng about his early
faith in Josef Ratzinger as a radical; and the importance of the
1968 student protests as a turning-point in Ratzinger's thinking
was usefully highlighted. But Stourton could not hope to supplement
the acres of coverage already expended on this subject, and the
only small mercy that this programme afforded was that it displaced
a repeat of The Moral Maze.