Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Summer Listening

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Summer Listening

Article excerpt

Just back from a few nights in Sweden to find the perfect programme on Radio 3. It was one of those interval shorts that are always such a nightly bonus during the Proms season. That 20-minute space between concert halves is the perfect length for listening. On Sunday night it was Kate Clanchy's turn to fill in between Sibelius symphonies and what better topic than The Summer House (produced by Julian May), or rather the stuga , mokki , sommerhus or dacha beloved of Scandinavians and Russians, where Sibelius would retreat to write those symphonies redolent of dark woods and deep waters. Here the hassle and routine of city life are abandoned and days are spent chopping wood, gathering cloudberries or just soaking up the long-awaited sunlight.

We don't really have a word in English to describe them. To us a summerhouse is usually a folly on a lawn, a creosoted doll's house for adults, somewhere to store the croquet set or have tea on a dismal afternoon. In Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia, though, it's always a real house, a place to go back to every year, where you spend time with family and friends and get back in touch with what matters. There's nothing posh about them, says Clanchy. One third of Sweden's population have access to a family stuga , to these clapboard homes where there's nothing to do except hang out on the deck or lose yourself in watching the clouds moving across a startling blue sky.

She reminded us of Tove Jansson's haunting evocation of the experience in The Summer Book . A grandmother leaves the city behind to spend the summer on a tiny island with her granddaughter Sophia. It takes only four and a half minutes to walk round the island in the gulf of Finland but to the reader the distances travelled each day by Sophia and her grandmother appear much, much longer because of Jansson's imaginative freedom, her willingness to explore inwardly.

'Are there ants in heaven?' asks Sophia. 'No,' says the grandmother, bluntly, before telling Sophia, who is lying beside her on the grass, to stay still and listen to the insects. 'You could hear thousands and millions of them.'

Saturday afternoon's dramatic performance of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (Radio 4) was a welcome reminder of Bernard's Spectator column, last seen in 1997. That ability to turn a life of doing nothing into 800 or so words of razor-sharp wit smacked of some kind of literary genius. He always made you laugh even while appalled by his apparent behaviour. And not just laugh. He also made you wince; wonder whether perhaps you might be that ice-cold harpie, or dyed-in-the-wool toadie. …

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