Radio Therapy 5

Letter from America

I planned to write about a loved radio programme for each of twenty treatments for prostrate cancer. I managed just four before other demands and maybe some side-effect fatigue crowded in. The treatment is finished now but I wanted to record some precious radio memories jogged by an American friend who spent part of her childhood in 1970’s England.

For my friend’s family, I can only imagine the importance of tuning in to hear from home; there was no CNN or internet for most of the programme’s run. For its own part, my small English family listened rapt each Sunday morning to Letter from America by Englishman Alistair Cooke. Post-war Britain was in awe of its affluent ally over the pond; land of skyscrapers, ostentatious, winged automobiles, colour TV and refrigerators. We wanted to know what might be coming our way as well as try to understand how the final of the National Baseball competition came to be The World Series.

Letter from America was first broadcast in 1946 and Cooke broadcast his weekly, 15 minute, letters until shortly before his death in 2004 aged 95. His voice had acquired a soft, mid-Atlantic twang but remained recognisably English. His subjects ranged across topical, mundane, obscure and quirky. The Presidential Election campaign sat comfortably alongside the evident relief the broadcaster felt as September arrived in New York City and cooler, fresher air replaced the stifling humidity of summer. There was always an undertone of dry humour. His love of golf also came to the fore in quite a few of his letters.

The concept of a trans-atlantic broadcast correspondence pre-dated the Second World War, when Cooke was NBC’s correspondent in London. London Letter became Letter from America.

Cooke was able to provide a unique perspective on important parts of the history of the 20th Century. He was yards from Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated. He narrated the progress of the awful Vietnam war to a British audience that was happy, for once, to be mere onlookers.

Alistair Cooke was a prolific journalist and broadcaster. Letter from America represents a mighty legacy but just the tip of his output iceberg. Americans enjoyed his role as the host of Masterpiece Theatre, a Public Broadcasting showcase for British television which continues today. His character and this series were parodied in Sesame Street.

Cooke loved America but he never lost his English perspective and the ability to take a wry look at the culture of his adopted country. The admiration we felt for our cousins across the pond was nicely balanced by his reassurance that we still had the edge in the important areas of life; politics, sport, weather and our ability to laugh at ourselves.

Radio Therapy 4

I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue

I am writing daily, during my cancer treatment, about a radio show that has brightened up my life.

A Canadian colleague, when asked how he had enjoyed his first vacation to the UK, responded in mild outrage that he had been shocked by the state control of the media here and the dirth of anything other than BBC radio and television. Meanwhile, the ruling party is often complaining of the BBC’s left-wing bias. Perhaps that suggests they have it about right so I will not apologise for picking another BBC Radio 4 show for my fourth treatment.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, the antidote to panel games, was first broadcast in 1972, when I was well into my teenage years. The format consists of a series of absurd parlour games and the panellists must have lightening wit to survive. Like all the best panel games, the winning is of absolutely no importance. In this case, no points are actually awarded. The repartee that accompanies the games is all important. The audience is often reduced to stitches.

The programme was chaired by jazz musician, Humphrey Littleton, until his death in 2008. He loved a good, old-fashioned innuendo. The current chair is the Sahara dry Jack Dee. Panelists have included Tim Brook-Taylor, Willie Rushton and Sandi Toksvig. The scorer is the mysterious and “lovely Samantha” .

Of the several games played during each episode, Mornington Crescent is one of my favourites and perhaps the most absurd since it is entirely meaningless. The game involves a tour of London streets and its Underground system in which a logical response to the street or station suggested by the previous panelist is proffered after a, sometimes long, pause for faux strategic thought. The logic can be challenged at any point and the objective of the game is to avoid giving the game to the next panelist with an answer that can be unfathomably followed by “Mornington Crescent”. Sometimes the game is played to special rules which, of course, are doubly opaque and totally flexible at the chair’s discretion.

If you can listen to I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue and keep a straight face, you are already dead.

Radio Therapy 3

Cricket commentator and author Leslie Thomas John Arlott OBE (25 February 1914 – 14 December 1991) sitting in the commentary box during his final Test Match commentary on the second Centenary Test between England and Australia to commemorate their first Test match in England in 1880 on 29 August 1980 at the Lord’s Cricket Ground, St John’s Wood, London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Adrian Murrell/Allsport/Getty Images)

Test Match Special

I am writing about my favourite radio programmes from a lifetime of avid listening. One show each day of my cancer treatment.

Test Match Special, from the BBC, covers international cricket matches. Ball by ball. For up to five days, depending on the format. The programme comes live from the ground wherever the game is taking place in the test cricket playing world; that can mean any of eleven countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

I first listened to TMS in the 1960s. In those days the game was shown free and live on (black and white) terrestrial television and, like other cricket lovers, I would listen to the TMS commentary with the TV sound muted. This is not so successful in the days of live streaming as the streams are usually slightly out of synchronisation. Sound wins over picture for me.

The games in these early days were graced with the likes of batsmen Ted Dexter, Colin Cowdrey and the young Geoff Boycott (now a grumpy, opinionated commentator himself). Bowlers included John Snow and Derek Underwood. The commentary team was headed up by the great John Arlott with his gravelly Hampshire accented voice and poetic descriptions of the game. A notable sidebar (find it on Youtube) was his description of a streaker who ran onto the pitch at Lords (HQ of the game in London) in 1975.

TMS typically has a team of rotating commentators who do a thirty minute stint in pairs. The ball by ball detail is handled by one of the core team members while a retired player usually provides some insights or banter between overs (six balls are bowled at the receiving batsmen to complete an over in typically three to five minutes). The core team is a mix of ex-professionals and sports journalists. The most important qualification is a deep knowledge of the game. The ability to entertain the audience through prolonged rain stoppages or periods of bad light is crucial. Humour and old rivalries provide an engaging backdrop to the game itself. The team is completed by a mostly silent scorer/statistician who is ever ready to answer deliberately obscure questions and announce records as they fall. Cricket was a game of statistics long before baseball.

Test Match Cricket, the best kind, is played over five days. The match situation develops slowly. There can be long spells of quiet, attritional cricket. The TMS team fill in the gaps with detailed descriptions of the pigeons, buses, trains and planes passing close by or over the ground. When commentating from oversees venues, there may be a little local colour provided, for example, by the grazing hadida ibis at the Wanderers in Johannesburg and their remarkable sangfroid when the ball is hit hard in their direction.

Another feature of the broadcasts are the luxuriant chocolate cakes sent in by listeners for the sustenance of the TMS team on languid summer afternoons when the players are beginning to tire and the action has fallen into a period of somnolence.

Recent years have seen the welcome addition of women to the TMS commentary team, reflecting the increasing importance of the women’s game. The likes of ex-players, Ebony Rainford-Brent and Alison Mitchell have eased seamlessly into the commentators seat.

Test Match cricket gets underway, without the crowds, on the 8th July when England meet the West Indies. Whatever your level of interest in cricket, give TMS a try.

Radio Therapy 2

This is day two of my cancer treatment. I am writing about the radio programmes that I have enjoyed since boyhood. One radio show per treatment.

I was lucky enough to live in the US for four years towards the end of my corporate career. I was excited at the prospect of moving to Northern Virginia and expecting to enjoy lots of things about the American way of life. I had rather low expectations, however, mostly confirmed by experience, about the quality of radio and TV that I would encounter. One exception was much of the content provided by NPR, National Public Radio. NPR is funded by corporate and private contributions; no licence fee in the States. One particular show, produced by NPR affiliate, WBEZ Chicago, was an important part of Saturday mornings in those days and I continue to listen back in the UK.

Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me is a current affairs quiz hosted by playwright Peter Segal. In normal times there was a live audience. The panel, appearing live or dialling in from distant homes, is made up of journalists, commentators and satirists of various colours. It leans rather to the left, at least by US standards. During the Trump Election campaign, there was a period of several months when the first question sought the identity of the perpetrator of some absurdity of the week. The answer was always Donald Trump.

A favourite panelist is cat loving Paula Poundstone who has had a chequered past herself but somehow has always bounced back perhaps simply because she is just plain funny.

Wait, Wait invites listeners to dial in and answer, mostly quirky, news questions, triggering some lively banter from the panellists. Success is rewarded with a personalised answerphone recording featuring the dulcet tones of scorekeeper Bill Kurtis.

An eclectic collection of guest interviewees appear as part of the show. Recent guests include actor Don Cheadle, astronaut Christina Koch and figure skater Adam Rippon. As well as answering their quota of news related questions, they offer insights into their interesting lives.

Brits tend to look down their noses at American humour (actually most sorts of comedy not invented here). Here is one way to put the record straight.

Radio Therapy

The Archers

Today I am starting a four-week course of treatment for prostrate cancer. I plan to track the course of the treatment by writing about my favourite radio shows. One radio show for each dose of treatment. Twenty then.

Throughout my life, radio has been an important influence and a place to go for respite from the stresses of everyday life. In the UK, we are very fortunate to have the most amazing BBC Radio 4 (previously the BBC Home Service) which is a companion for many people. Regular presenters become friends. Formats run for decades and attempts to remove them from the schedule are met with protest and outrage. Radio 4 is the anchor; the thing that does not change when everything else in life is in flux

Over the years, it has got easier to listen to radio wherever I am in the world. Twenty years ago, living in Brussels, it was just about possible to tune into the BBC on Long Wave on a real radio set. The reception was not great and highly weather dependent. The advent of radio streaming services changed everything. Now, I can listen to the BBC in a remote anchorage in the Andaman Sea or at home in South Africa.

Over the next month, I will trawl up memories of radio shows from the US, South Africa and elsewhere, but inevitably, I will often return to Radio 4.

For my first treatment, I want to share my love of The Archers. This radio soap started four years before I was born and in normal times features six, thirteen minute episodes each week and an omnibus edition on Sunday mornings. Its characters live in a fictional village, Ambridge, in the English Midlands, where I grew up. The Archer family at the story’s heart are farmers. The programme was originally devised with a public service sub-plot that was designed to communicate with and educate farmers in a post- war Britain that was struggling to adapt to the new world order and feed itself. In recent years, the story lines have broadened to include domestic abuse and gay marriage while still touching on Bovine TB and honeybee colony collapse disorder. The seasons are marked, of course, with lambing, harvesting, ploughing, and hedging.

Each episode is announced by the unmistakeable signature tune “Barwick Green”. The standard arrangement is occasionally varied to play out an especially dramatic episode.

The characters in The Archers tend to have very long lives. Jill Archer has been played by Patricia Greene since 1957. She is 86 in real life and her character is 90.

Joe Grundy, played by Edward Kelsey and two earlier actors, was 98 when he died in 2019. As I remember it, he had an old man’s voice from very early on and he suffered for years with farmers lung, presumably as a result of inhaling hay dust when he was not making cider.

The Archers is a celebration of Midland accents which are often maligned by other Brits; neither northern enough for a Lancastrian nor couth enough for the nouveau riche of Surrey. The rural accent of the West Midlands is softer than those found in the West Country. The urban Birmingham blow-ins have everso slightly sanitised brummie accents, perhaps to avoid putting off the national audience.

Like many soap operas, the pub is at the centre of the drama. Ambridge has The Bull which has followed the development of English hostelries from spit and sawdust to gastropub. The landlords recently employed a consultant who recommended changing the name to “The B at Ambridge”. Needless to say this did not go down well with the more conservative inhabitants and the old name is now back to stay.

That life in Ambridge is a little behind the times is best illustrated by regular appearances of the village cricket team on summer Sunday afternoons, the annual church fete and Linda Snell’s amateur dramatics.

For weeks, in the early phase of the Coronavirus emergency, Ambridge was a CoVid free oasis. Now it has evolved into a series of monologues from the village inhabitants recorded in their homes.

The Archers is a British institution. Listening everyday is preferred but a gap of a few days or even months can be quickly repaired by tuning into a couple of episodes. The pace of change is not rapid.

You can visit Ambridge by downloading the BBC Sounds App..

One down, nineteen to go.

Jozi Girl

The matriarch of my wife’s large family, has died in Johannesburg .

Zohra Rajah was born 89 years ago in the Garden City Hospital just a short distance from her last home.

Zohra’s lineage bears testament to the cultural melting pot that is typical of many South African families and perhaps counter to what an outsider might imagine. The family tree includes names like Knight, Maas, MacPherson, Scrimpton and Green.

Zohra, born Nora Knight, was brought up by her grandmother, Annie Scrimpton, and around the Alexandra Rajahs for whom some of her extended  family worked. She fell in love as a young woman with the dashing Ismail Rajah. This was complicated because she was neither of Indian heritage nor a Muslim. The Rajah family did not approve and the young couple were cast adrift when they chose love over convention and married.

Zohra had seven children; later twenty grandchildren and nineteen great-grandchildren. We are still counting. This, combined with what must have been a tough upbringing, shaped the feisty woman that she became. She would stand no nonsense, was often very direct and always fiercely protective of her children. She was well known in the community and was sought out for advice. She was known variously as Auntie Ba, Ouma Ba, Ma, Zohra and Nora to friends and family. Her home was open to all.

Life under apartheid was not easy for Zohra and her family. Educational opportunities were limited and there were times when the children had to travel long distances to school or make the move from their rural home to Lenasia Township, south of Johannesburg.

Zohra converted to Islam early in her marriage and fulfilled her obligation to make the Hajj pilgrimage, with Ismail, some years ago. When her own children attended madrassah, they helped her increase her knowledge of the Quran.

Amongst many happy family times, highlights include Sunday picnics at Lone Creek Falls near Sabie in the old Eastern Transvaal and weekend trips to Portuguese Lourenço Marques where the family could enjoy a respite from apartheid.

Although Zohra had little formal education, she was a fount of knowledge. She could name rivers by country across the globe. She enjoyed a crossword or word puzzle. She was a fan of Elvis Presley and the most handsome of the  lead men in Bollywood films. She was as comfortable engaging in a lively discussion with a lawyer or university professor as she was was with the gardener.

After 66 years of marriage, Zohra was widowed and the loss of the love of her life triggered a steady decline in her health. This did not alter the fact that wherever she was became the family hub. She was almost never alone.  Her instagram generation grandchildren were happy to sit for hours and be entertained by her stories or receive life advice. Friends from the old days would frequently visit on Sundays.

A small piece of the best of the old South Africa just left for a better place; resilient, self-sufficient, loving, generous and welcoming. She will be missed.

Written with the help of my wife, Zohra’s 4th daughter, Nafisa.

Transformation Fatigue

As I write, Jacob Zuma, the discredited President of South Africa, is considering his position having been recalled, finally, by his party. South Africa is in the third decade of one of the most ambitious change programmes the world has seen. Understandably, transformation fatigue has set in. People are disappointed by the lack of progress towards a more equal society and angry that the party of liberation, the African National Congress, has incubated corrupt leadership of which Zuma is the prime example. South African’s were not fooled by Zuma’s desperate, drowning gestures, for example offering free university education without a plan or funds.

Strong leadership with absolute integrity is critical to the success of the programme. Such leadership sets realistic expectations, sticks to the plan, defines tangible milestones and communicates relentlessly to celebrate even small successes along the way. A programme led by leaders that have lost the confidence of the people cannot succeed. Communications are ignored or discounted as lies. The vision is forgotten.

The saving grace for South Africa is its constitution.  This has (mostly) protected a free press, an independent judiciary and kept important powers for parliament. Contrast with Putin’s Russia, where the slide into authoritarianism has gone largely unchecked.

By the time you read this, Cyril Ramaphosa may already be the new President. The challenge he will face is enormous but the elements of a turnaround plan are not difficult to identify. He will need to reestablish the vision for South Africa’s weary people and to rally them around a common set of objectives and priorities to drive development over the longer term. He must clean out the mire of corruption (“draining the swamp” is somewhere else) in which his leadership team is floundering.  Only then can the resources be focused on driving change rather than accumulating wealth.

Change is good. Re-energising the people suffering from transformation fatigue is critical.

Peace Through Cricket

I have been looking for an antidote to the diet of disheartening news, real and fake, which is headlined by Trump, Brexit and international terrorism. I think I found it this week at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London; headquarters of the sport. The Afghanistan Cricket Team were participating in a little piece of cricket tradition by playing an invitation side representing the Marylebone Cricket Club,  MCC. I had been at a packed Lord’s two days earlier to watch the England side beat South Africa on the exciting fourth day of a five day Test match. My fellow English were of course vocal in their support but rather genteel when compared with the flamboyantly dressed Afghan fans 48 hours later. Despite the untimely rain, in scarce supply this summer, several thousand Afghanis feted their cricketing heroes and enthusisatically expressed their national pride by chanting “AFG” in the style of Americans at the Ryder Cup. National flags were confiscated at the entrance to the ground but enough were smuggled in to provide the necessary rallying points.

The National Flag flies proudly above The Pavillion at Lords

Afghanis have had precious little to shout about in the last few decades but the emergence of cricket as a national sport in only the last 20 years is a small but important miracle which they have embraced wholeheartedly. The national side has just been awarded Test status (alongside Ireland); something only 11 other countries can boast. Cricket is capable of drawing some of the largest TV audiences of any sport thanks partly to its obsessive preeminence on the Indian subcontinent. A typical series of 3 to 5 test matches each lasting up to 5 days has the potential to provide an absorbing diversion for a country that otherwise is cleaning up the terrible aftermath of the latest car bomb.

Change is good. Sport is a powerful agent of change.

Thirteen Moons

The northern spring has arrived in England so it must be close to the first anniversary of leaving the corporate world and entering the new, exciting, less structured phase of my life about which I regularly blog . It has been a tumultuous year of change for the world as a whole and a transitional one for me and my family. Reflecting on the last year, what seems important now?

Firstly, I acknowledge that I am unusually privileged. For the moment, I have my health; something I do not take for granted having had surgery to remove a colon cancer 5 years ago. I do not feel like a survivor or that I won a battle. More realistically, I had the benefit of early diagnosis, the power of prayer, world-beating medical care in the U.S. (right place and time), a supportive family, and a positive mindset. An alarming number of my friends and colleagues have not been so lucky even when they also had most or all of these advantages.

I also have the freedom that a generous (hard earned) company pension brings. This large slice of good fortune is increasingly rare of course. I have opportunities and choices that most people do not. The luxury of being able to work, write and enjoy life in the proportions that I choose is precious indeed.

The year which saw the start of Brexit, Trump elected and the boss at my former employer become US Secretary of State has been bewildering. Even those developments are perhaps not so important if you are unfortunate enough to be close to the Syrian Civil War, a Rohingya in Myanmar or eking out a living in famine struck parts of Africa.

When I retired from the corporate world, I was sure, to the surprise of many of my colleagues, that I wanted to continue to use my skills. I was not ready for a permanent holiday. I set up a limited company in the UK to provide a launchpad for that part of my plan. Running a small business is an education in itself. Negotiating the regulatory minefield is not for the feint-hearted. The end of the UK tax year, in early April, triggered a number of time critical activities and surfaced a few problems with the monthly reporting that we had been slavishly doing. Turns out that the Government’s basic PAYE software does not synchronise data between two, networked laptops used for reporting the same account during the year. Even though the telephone help desk talked me through the remedy with great patience, I am sure many small business owners in the same situation would have blown a fuse in the process.

Building and publishing a  website to showcase my business offer was relatively easy. Adapting it for mobile users turned out to be straightforward, as was linking the website to this regular blog. So far so good. Being heard above the din of the web and social media is more of a challenge.  My Google Ads are most often clicked through in Pakistan, Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea. No problem with that but the occasional view in Tunbridge Wells would be good too. Most of the people accessing my blog are hackers or people hoping to get comments published including embedded links to their own websites selling toddler stair gates. Russian IP addresses recorded against failed logon attempts are spookily frequent; perhaps the only thing I have in common with PoTUS. The amateur blogger is forced into a daily routine of blocking obvious hackers, marking unwanted blog comments as spam and checking the availability of new add-ons to reduce the risk of robot attacks.

My new, time-rich lifestyle is an opportunity to indulge in writing; something I have long wanted to do. In addition to this blog, I have published a short story; again something that proved to be much easier than I had expected. Thus encouraged there is more in the pipeline.

The paid work I did in the last year amounted to about 25 days in total. More would be good but nobody can accuse me of having lost sight of the life work (sic) balance that I am striving for.

I still spent enough time on planes to get to silver status with British Airways but pretty much all of that was with my wife and mostly for pleasure. A key message of the pre-retirement workshop that my wife and I attended was to make sure to spend a little of the pension pot and have fun. Check that.

Having fun is surely a critical ingredient in postponing old age. Others, not always fun, are suggested in Younger Next Year. I do not claim to have done everything the book recommends but I have stuck to my plan and I do feel that I can entertain, for the time being, the illusion of feeling younger, more relaxed and fitter, than this time last year.

Change is good.


50 Shades of Brexit

Today, the UK government, acting on the advice of its people in England and Wales, but against the wishes of those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, has sent notice that it will leave the European Union in 2 year’s time. It has triggered the now famous Article 50. Just as in real life divorce, none of the parties involved has any idea what the eventual cost will be and whether life will ever be better again. In future years, we will try to reassure ourselves that it could have been much worse but if we are honest we will have to admit it was painful. It may be that our country will not exist as a United Kingdom at the end of all this. As a nation and as a continent, we are in the trough of the change curve surrounded by uncertainty and reasons to be fearful. Unforeseen consequences lurk around every corner.

Is the uncertainty so essential to the experience? Why is the Government’s Change Management Team (prosaically known as the Department for Exiting the EU) not able to offer a realistic, straightforward and non-partisan description of the essential factors which will frame the divorce? It might also focus on outlining those many things that will stay the same. Hang on though; the need to admit that EU immigration will continue at much the same level as today makes that a bit tricky. But it surely will. The British economy is close to full capacity and we will need the young, hard working eastern European workforce to maintain its momentum and, by the way, pay for my future healthcare. I can already hear the howls of outrage from those that voted for Brexit mainly because they were fed up with multi-consonent, slavic tones in the doctor’s waiting room.

There is much discussion of the cheque that the UK will have to write to secure its freedom. Estimates range from zero to 60billion Euro. The idea that we can leave for free must be fanciful. The EU, like most national economies, is in debt in its own right; some estimates suggest to the tune of 300billion Euro. It is obvious that since the UK has contributed to the debt, then we will have to pay back our share, net of assets. More likely, we will refinance the amount and add it to our own sovereign debt. In the grand scheme of things, the amount involved is not large when compared with UK national debt which is measured in trillions. However, whatever the amount, it will certainly become the source of populist outrage and just maybe voter remorse of which there is currently no sign.

Another dark shade of uncertainty is that surrounding our future trade relationship with the EU. In trying to simplify this, pessimists paint a picture of day 1 of a hard Brexit in 2019 in which the ports of Calais and Dover are choked by hundreds of trucks waiting for customs clearance under World Trade Organisation rules. Has no one heard of the digital solutions which are already in every day use to handle such transactions?

The next 2 years and longer will be a rough ride for the UK and Europe. We could make it just a little less traumatic by replacing some of the politics with some honest communication underpinning well structured change management.