YOU know that it is meagre pickings in the radio schedules when
your reviewer has to look to Radio 4's Afternoon Play
strand for inspiration. Nevertheless, the promise of an "Original
British Dramatists" season, and a "lyrical drama" by Rachel Connor,
offering rare insights into the world of the convent, seemed like a
good excuse to return to weekday drama.
To be fair, The Cloistered Soul (Radio 4, Monday of
last week) was a good deal better than it might have been. The
soundtrack of polished singers chanting the Office made one expect
the worst clichés; but then the richly textured voices - without a
Julie Andrews among them - and ambivalent relationships that we
were encouraged to have with the main protagonists, suggested
something more interesting. And the story kept us guessing until
At the centre of it all was Sister Agatha: mature, educated, and
experiencing doubts as to her calling. So far, so predictable. But
the story picks up with the appearance of Bridget, a postulant,
whose manner would be enough to drive you nuts, whether or not you
had to teach her Latin and chant the psalter with her six times a
Connor managed to capture something of the girls' schoolyard in
the gossipy, antagonistic, but ultimately tolerant Sisters'
relationships; all the while giving us enough backstory to power
the narrative engine forward.
It was refreshing to encounter a group of fictional nuns who did
not talk constantly about gardening. It is fair to say that
gardening shows have about the same appeal for me as afternoon
drama. The Essay: The meaning of trees (Radio 3, weekdays
last week) was therefore another reluctant pick last week - and
another pleasant surprise; for Fiona Stafford's series is about
cultural history, folklore, literature, and music, and not a hint
If you have read W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn,
you will know what I mean when I say that Stafford's essays have
the same quality as Sebald's writing about herring. Every kind of
cultural connection is referenced; and the eclecticism becomes the
fascination. Stafford, on the poplar, takes us from the Crucifixion
(Populus tremulus: the Aspen Poplar, constantly shivering
with the guilt of having been used for Christ's cross) to Billie
Holiday's chilling rendition of "Strange Fruit"; from the marching
armies of northern Europe, shaded by the Lombardy variety, to the
construction of bellows and matches - the poplar's high-moisture
content being ideal for such purposes.
I am still not sure I would recognise one if I saw one, but I
have more than enough to keep me going at a dendrologists'
speed-dating party; and a lot more than I took away from Sir Tom
Shakespeare's A Point of View (Radio 4, Friday of last
week). The initial pitch - why we should be religious, not
spiritual - was an intriguing one. After all, the
self-identification "spiritual, but not religious" is so common now
that it features as an acronym (SBNR) in personal ads.
But Shakespeare did little to promote the cause of the RBNSs,
except to say that Church of England pews are full of them. If only
they were, Sir Tom!