Radio review: The Money Clinic and Great Lives

16 August 2019

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“FOR richer, for poorer”: arguably the hardest requirement of the wedding vows. Counsellors will tell you that money is often the root of all evil — at least, when it comes to relationships — and being honest about your expectations of money is essential to survival. In The Money Clinic (Radio 4, Saturdays), Ruth Alexander is staging interventions in four relationships, and the results are salutary.

On Saturday, it was the turn of Fiona and her son James. The challenge here was not identifying the dysfunction in the relationship, but how to break the pattern. James fails to take responsibility for his financial situation. He gets parking tickets and his car runs out of petrol. His mother bails him out. He goes off on holidays which he cannot afford, even though he contributes nothing to Fiona’s household bills. On her part, Fiona is dreading the day when James leaves home, and gets himself into all sorts of financial deep water.

You do not need a degree in psychology to see what’s going on here. As the counsellor tells them, relationships are like a dance: if you break with the rhythm, your attentive partner will drag you back. In the case of Fiona and James, the dance began when Fiona divorced James’s father, money became tight, and the sense of guilt oppressive. James has taken the role of the naughty son, while his siblings (including a twin sister) appear to have coped much better with the same domestic privations. It is as fascinating as it is mundane: other people’s money, and how it antagonises every relationship.

The culture that we claim to like and what we really like is seldom exactly the same. The celebrity critic’s pick of holiday books will include heavyweight tomes that he or she has no intention of reading; and the politician on Desert Island Discs will pick tracks by trendy young artists whose names he or she struggles even to pronounce. So it was refreshing to hear that the contribution by the former Labour minister Ed Balls to Great Lives (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) was to feature the determinedly untrendy Herbert Howells, a composer whose genius radiates not far beyond church music cognoscenti.

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It is indicative, perhaps, of his retreat from front-line politics that Balls was happy to admit to his love of that English musical sensibility that others — his interviewer Matthew Parris included — might call “simpering Anglicanism”. Certainly, one cannot imagine how the strains of Howells’s evensong canticles might have harmonised with the strain of a wilfully secular governmental culture. But his love of works such as Hymnus Paradisi, composed in response to the death of the composer’s son in 1935, must be taken as nothing but sincere.

Sincere also is the affinity that Balls feels with Howells’s agnostic yearning, fostered by a lifetime of churchgoing and a willingness to believe. Indeed, at times, this programme was as much an appreciation of the Anglican temperament and the state of the Church of England as of Howells’s music — a testament to the iconic status of the music within the Church’s aesthetic identity.

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