Radio review: The Patch, and The Number One Ladies’ Landmine Agency

30 November 2018

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“WILL suffering ever end: Yes/No/Maybe?” The multiple-choice question comes, apparently, from a Jehovah’s Witnesses leaflet. In its reductionist treatment of an existential phenomenon, it tells us something about the mindset not only of the institution that delivers such materials, but of that institution’s attitude to the mindset of its potential converts.

Perhaps that was the problem that Malcolm James had from the outset: that he does not do nuance. This is why, as reported in The Patch (Radio 4, Saturday), the locals in Rannoch found him aloof and uncaring. The fact that he and his family — the main landowners in the area — were Jehovah’s Witnesses made them seem even more peculiar.

Each week, The Patch tells a story of local intrigue. The investigator-in-chief is the presenter, Polly Weston, but at the end of a phone line is the executive producer, Jolyon Jenkins; and, if you have ever heard one of Jenkins’s documentaries, such as Out of the Ordinary, then you will be familiar with the air of whimsy which also prevails here.

The guiding conceit is that “The Patch” is chosen using a random postcode generator, sending Weston to anywhere in the UK to find a story — the underlying assumption being that you can find an interesting story anywhere so long as you ask the right questions.

It is not clear how many lifeless, storyless postcodes Weston and Jenkins have had to investigate to create this series, but Rannoch certainly provided all the right ingredients for a modern Gothic novel.

The three deaths designed to hook us at the outset ended up being less important to the narrative than a social and economic environment in which locals were working night-shifts for £8 per hour, and had to cope with private water supplies. Thus it provided an elegant case-study in the interplay of personality and politics; which sounds a lot less exciting than the tale of a reclusive landlord and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A more exotic location still, for another tale of personalities and politics: this one involves the Western Sahara, a long-running dispute between Morocco and an independence movement, and a group of women working in the world’s longest minefield.

If one could overlook the glib title, The Number One Ladies’ Landmine Agency, last week’s Documentary Podcast (World Service, released Thursday) presented a richly textured portrayal of some extraordinary Sahrawi women who have taken it on themselves to clear some of the estimated seven million mines that litter the region: the legacy of a war that began after Spain handed over the territory in 1975. Most of the team are young, living in refugee camps and working in temperatures which rise regularly into the 40s.

This is a society in transition, where gender roles are being reassessed within the Muslim community, in recognition of these women’s preparedness to get themselves blown up in the pursuit of peace.

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