Radio

Kate Chisholm connects to her inner tortoise

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

Of course there’s a future for digital radio, it’s just that we’ll probably be listening to it online, or on the phone. The wireless set, tucked on the kitchen shelf, beside the bed, among the vases in the lounge, permanently tuned in to Aggers or Humphrys, Livesey or Lamacq, will become a museum piece, an object from the past. Instead we’ll be going back to the future and walking around with a smartphone plugged to our ears as if it were an old transistor radio. But with a difference. Aggers and co. will have to compete with the constant chatter of online life. No longer a dedicated stream of wireless talk but a babble of disconnected thoughts and ideas.

But that’s still in the future for most of us (though not the 15- to 24-year-olds who are fast discovering smart radio). In the meantime, on Saturday evening Radio 4 gave us a haunting. Only one voice could have pulled it off — Ivor Cutler. He would have been 90 this year and David Bramwell, friend and fan, devised a party trick in celebration, rescuing Cutler clips from the archives. But it was uncannily as if Cutler were performing for us right now in real time. He speaks so directly into the mike, his Scottish voice, though softly burred, is so persistent, he bores his way into the brain, willing us on to his wavelength.

Cutler in his prime was an acquired taste (after all, boring has two quite different meanings). He banned children from his stage performances as a one-man musician, poet, raconteur. He was notoriously demanding about his conditions of work — absolutely no background noise, no interference with his scripts, everything on his terms. But there is no one else like him (you can’t possibly talk of him in the past tense, he’s such a vibrant force). A bit like Edward Lear, perhaps, but with an edge, a vibrating sense that he’s just about to go over the wall, only to rein himself back just in time.


‘I’m sitting on top of the world,’ he burbles, ‘with my little black buzzer beside me.’ Cue a stream of Morse Code signals whose meaning we never discover. ‘My bum is cold and my face is white. It’s very cold up here.’ As words on the page it’s not at all funny. You had to hear him, with the inflections, the pauses, the deliberation. And the fact that he always knew when to stop, often mid-thought, leaving us to make up the rest. His job was to get our imaginations working, to wrest us from the mediocre.

His long-time radio producer and collaborator, the great Piers Plowright, recalls on Ivor Cutler at 90 (produced by Sara Jane Hall) how one studio manager was seen banging his head on the piano after a session with the uncompromising Cutler. You can sympathise, at the same time as laughing out loud. It was the way he gives the mundane such extraordinary meaning, his portable church harmonium burbling on inanely underneath. ‘Though your skin’s like wool, you’re the one for me,’ he croons. Who could resist?

Why is ‘slow’, as opposed to fast, now thought of as being bad, lazy, boring? What makes us go helter-skelter through the day while continually complaining there’s no time to relax, to think, to make the right decisions? Three volunteers for Radio 4 offered to be guinea pigs in an experiment to find out whether they could slow down, live at a different pace, discover that fast is not necessarily the most productive or fulfilling way to be. On Monday we discovered how they’re getting on.

The Slow Coach, presented by Liz Barclay (and cleverly produced by Tessa Watt), introduced us to Steve, the businessman, Lizzie, the working mother, and Scott, the volunteer who’s not learned how to say no. What they wanted to know was whether it was possible to slow down and yet still achieve the same results. The trouble is being busy gives our lives meaning, makes us feel indispensable and makes other people think we must be very important. How do you give up such an addiction?

Our three guinea pigs were given some practical tips by Carl Honoré, who has written a book, In Praise of Slowness (for a fast, cutdown version you can find him talking about it on YouTube). He noticed that Lizzie packed her diary too full. Why not give yourself more time between commitments? Instead of rushing, those few extra minutes will give you space to pause and talk to your children. Steve needed to clear his desk of screens, iPhones, keyboards. Switch off for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, he suggested. Give yourself time to walk round the factory. Scott was told to find some kind of ‘slow’ activity that will force him to shift down a gear. This will help you to connect to your ‘inner tortoise’, encouraged Honoré. I’m off to do that now.

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