“IF ONLY every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus [could be] sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!” What did George Orwell have against Welwyn, that he wished on it all the cranks and crazies of the Socialist movement? It sounds deeply incongruous now that the Hertfordshire new town, a comfortable Conservative seat since 2005, should have originated as a planned utopia.
Yet remnants of the cultic still remain, as we discovered in The Patch (Radio 4, Friday): a vehicle for Jolyon Jenkins’s particular form of quirky investigative radio, in which a small area of the UK is chosen by a random postcode generator, and a reporter — in this instance, Jenkins himself — is sent to find the stories behind the letters and numbers. Last week, the computer threw out AL86: and the story was of the religious organisation Focolare.
Founded in the Second World War by Chiara Lubich, Focolare has its UK headquarters in Welwyn, next door to the oldest Roman Catholic church in town. The organisation is dedicated to the quest for “unity”, although this ambition is significantly constrained by its distaste for same-sex marriage, divorce, and abortion. Unity, in the quasi-mystical pronouncements of Lubich, is brought about by a form of dialogue, in the course of which protagonists empty themselves of preconceptions and become nothing.
We heard from disgruntled former members of Focolare, who told stories of emotional control, the requirement for total obedience, and strict financial obligations. That the Vatican has recently intervened to impose stricter oversight over Focolare contributes to the sinister impression. But, since this is a programme whose guiding principle is that there is a story to tell about every patch of British soil, then one should not be encouraged to damn the organisation on the basis of this single assessment.
One of Focolare’s detractors quoted the legend of St Francis and the cabbages. Were the fictional ex-Prime Minister Henry Tobin, the anti-hero of Radio 4’s new comedy Party’s Over (Friday), to demand that his followers plant their cabbages upside down, he would get a mixed response. That is to say, his devoted personal secretary would obey, and everybody else would just laugh.
Tobin, played by Miles Jupp, is the shortest-serving PM in British history. His eight months in office were characterised by incompetence, hypocrisy, and craven opportunism. But the short premiership casts a long shadow, and Tobin is destined to be frustrated.
Writers Paul Doolan and Jon Hunter prove fleet of foot in this first episode, managing to mirror the Dominic Cummings revelations in their own storyline; all of which adds to the delight of the studio audience, who whoop at every contemporary reference — validation which this script does not require.