Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Serious Listening

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Serious Listening

Article excerpt

'Shhhh! Listen!' Peter White demands of us, his listeners. 'You're about to enter into a blind man's world.' White, who for years has presented the In Touch programme on Radio 4 on Tuesday nights and who is now a stalwart on You and Yours, has become such a finely attuned listener that he can tell whether a day is damp not by colour of the sky that he cannot see, or by smell, but by checking out what he can hear, the tick, tick, thump of raindrop on leaf as drizzle slowly envelops the street. In The Listeners (Radio 4 Extra, this Saturday) he takes us on his audio journey from Winchester up to Broadcasting House to make the programme we are about to hear, listening for the hum of the fridge, following the wheeze of the kettle, marking the click of the latch, which reassures him that his front door is shut. 'I listen for life, ' he says, 'I have to.'

Most people see their world first and listen later, rushing on and blocking out the humdrum sounds on which White has to rely. Those routine everyday sounds are for him vital clues, the aural signposts which help him to navigate busy streets, crowded trains, the journey to work. He hears the train coming before any of the other commuters on the platform, waiting for the whisper of wheel on track, the breath of breeze pushed forward by the advancing engine. He makes for the carriage door guided by the beeping sound, that high-pitched irritation that the rest of us struggle to blot out.

In his programme (finely produced by Philip Sellars and first heard on Radio 4 nine years ago), White asks us to close our eyes while he introduces us to three men who take listening as seriously as he does.

'How long will it be before you can see their faces?' he asks us, uncompromisingly providing us with no visual descriptions at all, no suggestions of what they might look like.

Yet simply by listening we can imagine from their tone of voice how they might look, their age and degree of amiability. One of them travels the world whenever there's an earthquake to offer his services as 'a listener', straining to hear whether anyone is trapped beneath the piles of rubble. Another spends his working life as a paediatric heart specialist, trained to detect through his stethoscope the slightest variation in pitch of a heartbeat. 'How much can you tell?' asks White after we've heard a booming, pulsing beat that sounds to me much like any other. …

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