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Radio review: The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed, Analysis: Identity wars, and The Archers

05 June 2020


In The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed (Radio 4, Saturday), Simon Armitage spoke to Professor Laura Ashe about his translation of The Owl and the Nightingale

In The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed (Radio 4, Saturday), Simon Armitage spoke to Professor Laura Ashe about his translation of The Owl and the N...

POETS must be used to long periods of isolation; and the announcement that The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed (Radio 4, Saturday) should come as no great surprise. But this is the season for making a virtue out of necessity — and, if you can get a com­­­­­­missioned radio series out of it, all the better.

Simon Armitage certainly ranks high in the league of lockdown virtue: he is translating the 13th-century moralistic poem The Owl and the Nightingale, a follow-up to his successful renditions of Gawain and the Green Knight and other medi­eval masterpieces.

To share in his reflections on the challenges of the pro­ject, he invites a weekly guest, and, last week, we heard from Professor Laura Ashe, who knows a thing or two about med­i­eval Eng. Lit. Best of all, she makes a convincing fist of declaim­ing it, although she admits that most of the pronunciation is made up.

Armitage’s 14th-century author had a lavatory humour all his own, revealed through the contrast of prud­ish Owl and worldly Nightin­gale. And yet neither bird is a simple archetype: their range of characteris­tics are more nuanced, providing Armitage with the excuse to play an “Owl and Nightingale” game. Are you: night or day, north or south, Woman’s Hour or In Our Time? Through identification with a suc­ces­­sion of apparently random polar­ities, we might establish character and affiliation far more accurately than asking direct questions about wealth, education, or politics.

This is the approach increasingly taken by sociologists who are ex­­am­ining attitudes to Brexit. In Analysis: Identity wars (Radio 4, Monday of last week), we heard about the “values scale”, which does a much better job of correlation than tradi­tional psephology. Brexit was an issue which, far from representing a class division, exposed differences even within families; and as such,
as the presenter, Professor Anand Menon, argued, is reminiscent of the enduring divisions revealed in France a century ago by the Dreyfus Affair. Such experiments in his­­tor­ical comparison are somewhat hit-and-miss, and it was noticeable that few of Menon’s guests were prepared to indulge the analogy.

The Archers (Radio 4, weekdays) are getting so bored during lock­down that they have started talking to themselves. Having been stalled with back-catalogue editions, devo­tees last week were treated to soli­loquies from David, Josh, and Tracey on topics ranging from the proper dispersion of silage to the futil­ity of existence.

Streams of con­sciousness are not a natural feature of the Borsetshire psychological land­­scape, and, in cre­ating them, the scriptwriters have drawn inspiration from an eclectic group of engineers, including Dylan Thomas and Alan Bennett. And, in David’s med­itations, are we not hear­­­­ing the strains of Samuel Beckett, his determination to “keep battling on” a version of Beckett’s heroic cry, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on”?

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