Another side of John Humphrys

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

‘What can you tell me just now,’ asks Audrey Gillan. She’s talking to Tara, who’s been sleeping rough on Fournier Street in Spitalfields, close to Gillan’s home. Tara, aged 47, sounds like a man, so deep and growly is her voice, ruined by drink, cigarettes and the hardness of her life. Gillan wants to know how and why she ended up living on the street. But beyond explaining that she was slung out by her mum when she was 14 there’s little that Tara can or is prepared to tell Gillan.

In Tara and George on Radio 4 (produced by Gillan and Johnny Miller) we are taken on to the street and some way inside the lives of those we see nowadays in town, not even camping with cardboard boxes and newspaper but just lying on the pavement, no longer part of the whirling world around them, while we carry on, walking by. Gillan quotes statistics that suggest the number of rough sleepers in England is almost 5,000 and increasing rapidly year-on-year.

Tara has a friend George who’s known her for nine years. He, too, cannot really say why he’s living rough, except that he hates being shut inside and rarely sleeps in the hostel bed to which he is entitled as an ‘older, entrenched rough sleeper’. There are days when neither Tara nor George are lucid, but mostly they’re up for a conversation with Gillan who has been recording them for a couple of years. They have a radio, and listen to music, mostly love songs, ‘’Cos it’s all about love and friendship; it’s about knowing each other.’ Tara once went to prison for hitting George over the head with a bottle, but he stays loyal, believing he needs to make sure she’s still taking her medication for epilepsy. Tara insists that her childhood was happy, that she had special birthdays. But when Gillan makes her a cake with candles and presents it to her on the street (we can hear the traffic rushing past) she’s overcome, later berating Gillan and insisting she never made her a cake.

Mostly what’s being said feels true, of the moment, if at times a bit too manicured. There’s also an irritating musical soundtrack, which butts in every time George says something sentimental. What does work, though, is the unhurried pacing, the gradual reveal, as Gillan slowly lets go of what she knows over not just a single programme but six half-hour episodes. ‘Do you think your life is more complicated than others,’ asks Gillan. ‘Maybe so,’ says Tara, before adding, ‘When something goes wrong in your life, you’ll understand me.’

Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book sits on my bedside table as one of my favourite books, one of ten written for adults by the creator of the Moomin family. It tells of an elderly woman who spends her summers on a tiny island off the coast of Finland with Sophia, her young granddaughter, and Sophia’s father. It takes only four and a half minutes to walk round the island yet the book is full of adventures and things to spend hours exploring — a worm that gets chopped in two, the bilberry bog, a boat trip to the next skerry. It was not something I thought could be dramatised and listened to; it had to be read for its spell to work. But Amanda Dalton’s adaptation for Radio 4 (directed by Susan Roberts) exactly captures the relationship between Sophia — who’s just lost her mother — and her grandmother (brilliantly played by Grace Doherty and Eileen O’Brien respectively). Jansson’s niece Sophia, who inspired the book, narrates. ‘I’m going to have a rest and listen to the radio,’ says the grandmother after an exhausting morning trying to keep Sophia amused. ‘Draw something awful,’ she tells her granddaughter. ‘Draw the awfullest thing you can think of… and take as much time as you possibly can.’

The tone on Saturday morning’s Today programme (Radio 4) is always slightly different, more chatty and relaxed than during the week. But it was strikingly different on Saturday as John Humphrys launched a new long-running slot in which the presenting team will attempt to knock down a few sacred cows, those assumptions that are left unchallenged. Humphrys’s first target was religion, as personified by the Revd Dr Giles Fraser. Why should only religious people be allowed to speak on Thought for the Day, asked Humphrys. Why do we treat ‘religion’ with the ‘sort of reverence’ that we give to nothing else? He admitted to being ‘jealous’ of those who have the ‘comfort’ of religion. Each accused the other of sneering. Humphrys laughed — a lot.

It sounded odd and was odd, Fraser being interviewed at home with his 18-month-old child gurgling away on his lap while Humphrys carried on probing, eventually bringing up that thorny old question: where is God when bad things happen? He wants us to be more sceptical about religion. ‘But you’re not sceptical about capitalism,’ puffed Fraser.

‘We’re getting the old leftie priest here,’ huffed Humphrys. ‘That’s such rubbish. I don’t know where to begin.’

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