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Radio review: The Reunion, Beyond Belief, and Sounds of Silence

28 August 2020


The trade unionist Derek Robinson (second from left) joins protests in Birmingham, in 1979, against his sacking from British Leyland. The collapse of the car manufacturer was explored in The Reunion (Radio 4, Sunday)

The trade unionist Derek Robinson (second from left) joins protests in Birmingham, in 1979, against his sacking from British Leyland. The collapse of ...

REUNIONS are not always happy affairs; but one might have thought, after all these years, that the parties warring in the industrial disputes of the 1970s and ’80s might have reached some kind of understanding. It seems that age has not wearied them — at least, if last week’s edition of The Reunion (Radio 4, Sunday) is anything to go by.

Around the table sat five veterans of British Leyland, the car manufacturer whose rise and fall tracked the fortunes of British manufacturing in general. The group included a former Austin Rover chief executive, Harold Musgrove, and a trade unionist, John Power. If you have ever felt nostalgia for the days when men in donkey jackets huddled round braziers, then this is the reunion for you.

Kirsty Wark is no mean chair, but, when Musgrove and Power got stuck in, no amount of social distancing was going to separate them. At least both could agree that neither Sir Michael Edwardes, brought in to British Leyland to knock heads together, nor Derek Robinson — the notorious “Red Robbo” of tabloid legend — were suitable leaders. Inevitably, the stories that one remembers are the most extreme: of night-shift workers taking naps on the assembly line, and of strike ballots so unregulated that any passer-by could participate.

But in the background was a greater story of industries in which dynasties were employed from apprenticeship to retirement. Whether or not one regards this as a laudable model for a manufacturing workforce, there is surely some nostalgia to be had in that.

What would George Orwell have made of the industrial landscape of 1970s Britain? A fulfilment, perhaps, of the perverse logic of ideology and power which is played out in Animal Farm, whose 75th anniversary of publication fell last week, marked by Ernie Rea and his guests on Beyond Belief (Radio 4, Monday of last week). A strand devoted to matters religious is not the obvious place for discussion of a book that is often regarded as anti-religious, whose author was described here as an “agnostic socialist”.

Most powerful here was the testimony of Maajid Nawaz, who attributes his conversion from Islamic extremism to Orwell’s fable. As a inmate in an Egyptian prison, occupying a wing run by fundamentalists, he experienced first-hand a regime not unlike that of Orwell’s Napoleon, in which what is perceived as virtue is turned on its head. Rejected by three publishers before it was picked up by Secker & Warburg, Animal Farm has something to say to every generation.

There has been much lockdown art of the kind showcased in Sounds of Silence (Radio 3, weekdays) last week: part of the BBC’s “Culture in Quarantine” initiative. Characterised by pious introspection, these portraits of artists pausing for breath give nothing but the vaguest sense of what musicians, painters, writers, and the rest of the creative community actually do. Nobody puts bum to seat and practises a scale or writes a sonnet — or, still less, applies to HMRC for Covid tax-relief.

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