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The nuns’ story

30 May 2014

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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 the end.

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 day.

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 of mulch.

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!

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