Ra­dio Va­lerie Grove


‘Be­fore I snuff it, the whole Boil­ing will be bricked in.’

Philip Larkin’s thren­ody for ru­ral Eng­land, the poem ‘Go­ing, go­ing’, was pub­lished in 1972 in his col­lec­tion High Win­dows.

‘The whole Boil­ing’ was a per­fect id­iom. How sick­en­ing, 45 years on, to see the still deadly threat to London which suf­fers from Boris’s may­oral legacy: a for­est of va­cant tow­ers.

And how agree­able to hear Bet­je­man’s voice again in Pa­trick Wright’s Ra­dio 4 se­ries, The English Fix. A N Wil­son, Bet­je­man’s bi­og­ra­pher, spoke for JB, de­rid­ing ‘the plansters’, and lament­ing the mis­er­able con­se­quences of liv­ing with bru­tal build­ings that ar­rived in the ‘sec­ond Blitz’, money be­ing the sole mo­tive. ‘Money, mo­tor­ways and shop­ping malls have wrecked Eng­land,’ said Wil­son. ‘And the great­est crime that has been com­mit­ted is the de­grad­ing tower block.’

Lines from Bet­je­man’s poem ‘In­ex­pen­sive Progress’ – ‘Bestride your hills with py­lons, O age with­out a soul’ and ‘Let all things travel faster, Where mo­tor-car is mas­ter’ (from High and Low, 1966) – were quoted. For bal­ance, ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian Gil­lian Dar­ley dared sug­gest that Bet­je­man was guilty of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, even a bit lazy some­times. Bombed Ply­mouth, for in­stance, needed ur­gent re­con­struc­tion, as she pointed out, es­pe­cially in hous­ing, and JB was rather more fo­cused on the wreck­ing by mo­tor ve­hi­cles of his neigh­bour­ing Wan­tage. But for most of us, JB still wins the de­bate.

Wright’s English navel-gaz­ing be­gan in his ear­lier se­ries, which fea­tured the Na­tional Trust, Ch­ester­ton and Cob­bett. The re­cent se­ries started with Or­well and his old maids bi­cy­cling to Holy Com­mu­nion in the morn­ing mist, from his ‘Lion and Uni­corn’ es­say of 1940, and ended with two more au­thors: Robert Win­der, au­thor of The Last Wolf: The Hid­den Springs of English­ness, and Sir Roger Scru­ton, au­thor of Eng­land – An El­egy, which he orig­i­nally in­tended to call Eng­land – An Obituary.

Scru­ton moved to a Wilt­shire farm he calls ‘Scru­topia’ to es­cape the ‘con­stant neg­a­tiv­ity about this coun­try’ he found in academe. He broad­ened out the ru­ral/ ur­ban ar­gu­ment to con­trast EU leg­is­la­tion vs the ‘hig­gledy-pig­gledy hu­man­ity of English com­mon law’.

And he ended by declar­ing that it is now ac­cept­able to praise Eng­land: let us all hope he is right. The Oldie’s found­ing edi­tor, Richard In­grams, com­piled an an­thol­ogy called Eng­land in 1989, and wrote a life of Cob­bett. This mag­a­zine’s cur­rent Edi­tor, who is om­ni­scient, wrote in 2010 the de­fin­i­tive How Eng­land

Made the English. Ra­dio 4, cur­rently re­viv­ing dear old Ho­race Rumpole, that in­vet­er­ate re­citer of English verse, seems to be bat­ting for us.

Char­lotte and Lil­lian, a 15-minute sit­com writ­ten by Kat Som­mers and Holly Walsh, fea­tures Miriam Mar­golyes as Lil­lian, a crabby old trout vis­ited by a young girl vol­un­teer work­ing for an old peo­ple’s char­ity. The up­ward in­flec­tions and con­de­scend­ing man­ner of Char­lotte (He­len Monks) are guar­an­teed to in­fu­ri­ate Lil­lian (‘I’m an ac­tress, dar­ling’) and so is Char­lotte’s habit of for­ever star­ing at her phone.

When the phone emits its bird trill, Char­lotte tells Lil­lian, ‘Sorr--eee! It’s my phone – we have mo­bile phones now?’

‘I know what a mo­bile phone is,’ snaps Lil­lian. ‘I’ve got three of the BAS­TARDS in that drawer.’

This is one of the bet­ter new Ra­dio 4 pro­grammes green-lit by Sioned Wil­iam, com­mis­sion­ing edi­tor of com­edy, who is al­to­gether a good egg. She helped to cre­ate the Bar­bara Pym So­ci­ety in 1992, and be­friended Pym’s sis­ter Hi­lary. Then, when Hi­lary died, and Bar­bara Pym’s li­brary was sold in 2005, Sioned went to the auc­tion and snapped up a copy of Larkin’s High Win­dows, signed ‘from Philip to Bar­bara’. (It was Larkin, you re­call, who, along with David Ce­cil, re­sus­ci­tated Pym when she had been deemed too old-fash­ioned to pub­lish, by writ­ing about her in the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment.) And so, Larkin to Larkin, we draw the full English cir­cle.

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