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Radio review: The Moral Maze, Fümmsböwö (Or What is the Word), and Slow Radio: A sonic journey to the edge the universe

07 January 2022

Alamy

Will Self expressed despair about the future in The Moral Maze (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week)

Will Self expressed despair about the future in The Moral Maze (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week)

AS A New Year message of despair, it takes some beating. “The world is going to hell in a handcart”, Will Self declared at the conclusion of a special, end-of-year edition of The Moral Maze (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), “without any of us being able to make any impact on it.”

The subject of the discussion was nothing less than the meaning of life; but so fixated with climate catastrophe was Michael Buerk’s stellar line-up of guests — featuring also Lord Williams, Alice Roberts, and Bonnie Greer — that one was tempted to think that it was the very prospect of ecological disaster itself which gave the programme its meaning.

In fact, in the prize for Sage of Doom, Mr Self had some competition from several participants, including Martin Palmer, who relished the opportunity to remind us that “we live in an insignificant solar system in the armpit of the universe.” Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that it was between these two that the only significant flare-up of the show occurred, Mr Self questioning Mr Palmer over the number of air-miles that the latter had clocked up since the Kyoto Protocol.

It took the former Archbishop to return us to the issue at hand. The meaning of life, he argued, is not a question that is native to the ancient religions, but, rather, is a creation of 19th-century philosophy. Of the wise men on show here, I know whose gift I prefer.

Perhaps meaning is overrated, anyway. There is too much of it in contemporary life; and it should be regarded as a praiseworthy skill to be able to create something that has no meaning at all. In Fümmsböwö (Or What is the Word) (Radio 4, Sunday), Jennifer Walshe explored the work of the Dadaist poet Kurt Schwitters, whose masterpiece of “sound poetry”, Ursonate, is 100 years old. A 40-minute vocalisation comprising a stream of nonsense, Ursonate is a joyous celebration of language solely as timbre and texture.

It reminds us of the vocabulary of children, of Pentecostalist glossolalia, and of the grunts and fillers of phatic communication — which is not to say that Ursonate is uncontroversial, as the poet and performer Jaap Blonk can testify, having been almost lynched at a recitation he gave in the 1980s. But, most crucially, the work reminds us that all poetry is “sound poetry”; and that a great deal of song comprises melody accompanied by text from which all lexical meaning has been squeezed.

Once upon a time, the music of the spheres was a purely theoretical concept, imagined by astronomers as the contemplated planetary orbits. Now, with the help of digital resources and imaginations implanted with the musical scores of science-fiction TV shows, we can indulge in aural fantasies such as Slow Radio: A sonic journey to the edge the universe (Radio 3, Sunday). The earth’s magnetosphere might sound like a high-pitched TARDIS; but if this eerie and beautiful soundtrack is what it takes to lift our gaze above the “armpit of the universe”, then who are we to sneer?

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