Radio review: Malcolm Gladwell’s masterclass on listening

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

Out and about in Surrey on Sunday I happened upon a scene that could have been played out 77 years ago. It was mid-afternoon on that glorious sunshiny day. Lunch just about over. The pub had a large garden with tables neatly shaded by leafy pergolas. A family group had finished their meal but were still huddled round the table, on which in pride of place, amid the empty plates and half-filled glasses, sat a green-and-cream Roberts, aerial aloft. They’d taken the chance (the village pub had no TV) that from words and sound alone they’d not miss a forehand slice or backhand volley. They were confident that the Radio 5 Live commentary on the historic encounter between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic (by Jonathan Overend, with expert input from John Lloyd and Richard Krajiceck) would take them right into Centre Court and to the heart of the sportsmanship, the emotion, the sheer excitement generated by ball-on-racket and two pairs of incredible legs.

What a challenge for Overend trying to keep up a running description of that match with all those super-long rallies. How do you paint a picture of what’s going on as Murray is seemingly overtaken by a ball high overhead, only for him to fizz into action, catch up with it, and send it back across to Djokovic in such a way that he’s sure to win the point? It’s four-all in the third set, 15-all. ‘A lob comes up from Djokovic,’ continues Overend mid-point, having already gone through the previous 15 or so strokes, his voice rising another octave with each thump of ball upon the half-baked grass. ‘Murray turns round it and scores with the forehand. Djokovic nets. All around us people leap from their seats.’ Cue the extraordinary roar of the crowd as with one voice they cheered on the man from Dunblane. Overend explains, ‘The ball went over Murray’s head, he chased it back, he turned his body and he drove the ball as hard as he could.’ You didn’t need to watch it.

On Tuesday morning, on Radio 4, the writer Malcolm Gladwell gave us a master-class on listening. In Pop-Up Ideas, a new series of 15-minute shorts designed to make us think again, he argued that listening, truly listening, is a gift, an instinct, an intuitive art. He told us the story of Konrad Kellen who in the 1960s had been employed by the US military to find out what the Vietcong thought about the war against the Americans. How was their morale? Kellen interviewed captured Vietcong guerrillas from South Vietnam. He listened to a senior captain in the Vietcong army who when asked whether he thought the Vietcong would win the war said ‘No.’ But when asked whether he thought the Americans would win, he also said, ‘No.’

Kellen’s interpretation of what he had just heard was that an enemy who is indifferent to the outcome of a war is the most dangerous enemy of all. His bosses, though, thought exactly the opposite; they reckoned that if the Vietcong didn’t care what happened they must be demoralised and susceptible to defeat. Kellen stood up and insisted, ‘This is not a battle the US can win.’ He was ignored; his work rejected.

This was one of those rare programmes when I wanted to hear more. Fifteen minutes was just not enough time for Gladwell’s ideas to breathe, for his thoughts to come across to us as listeners trying to keep up. I also wished the presenter Tim Harford had intervened and asked Gladwell a few questions. What makes a good listener? How can you be sure that the listener has heard correctly? And was Gladwell really talking about listening? Or was he arguing instead that we’re far too prone to follow an accepted line of thought, rather than weighing up the evidence, accepting contradictions, allowing for two differing views to be true at one and the same time?

What’s long and thin and designed to make you believe you can walk on water? In the new series of Open Country on Saturday (Radio 4), Helen Mark took us to Somerset to visit three surviving piers, those skeletal reminders of the grandiose confidence of our Victorian forebears. At one time there were more than 100 piers around the country; now only 55 remain, many of them almost falling back into the sea. They were built to begin with not for pleasure but as landing stages for boats that carried goods and passengers around the coast. Soon, though, they were part of our seaside history, with theatres, bandstands, tea rooms, promenades, slot machines, funfairs, even miniature railways.

No day at the seaside would be complete without a promenade along those planked walkways, looking down through the gaps and into the swirling sea below. They’re a reminder of our island story, says Charles McCann of the National Piers Society, dedicated to preserving those that remain and to restoring those that are now derelict. A quirky blend of fun and function, the pier evokes memories, nostalgia, but should also inspire us to emulate that blithe confidence, surreal energy and technical brilliance.

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