Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Rod Liddle Is Wrong about Radio 4

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Rod Liddle Is Wrong about Radio 4

Article excerpt

I don't know which day Rod Liddle travelled down from the northeast and found nothing but women's voices cluttering up Radio 4, as he wrote about in last week's magazine. But his description is not one I recognise. If anything we still hear too much from male commentators, male presenters, male writers, male comedians. In recent years, for instance, the gender-balance of contributors to the Today programme has improved from the 18 per cent of female guests just a decade ago, but there's still a long way to go before we need to apologise for wanting to hear more from women.

Very often they speak truth to power (because not in power themselves) as did Vera Brittain in her searing account of the impact of the first world war, Testament of Youth. She lost all the young people close to her, including her brother and fiancé, killed in terrible conditions (her brother had already been wounded in Flanders and went back only to be shot dead by a sniper in Italy): 'Everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished.' She herself gave up the chance of an Oxford education to become a nurse, helping the wounded on their return from the battlefields.

In Edward Brittain and the Forgotten Front (produced by Sarah Shebbeare), Allan Little travelled to Asiago in northern Italy to the spot where it is thought Brittain lost his life while British troops were fighting alongside Italians against the forces of Austria-Hungary. With him was Edward's niece, Shirley Williams, the veteran politician and outspoken advocate for women. Her mother Vera's life was shaped by what happened on that mountainside, says Williams; and when she died she asked that her ashes should be scattered in the small cemetery where Edward was buried. She was, says Williams, 'more than an Englishwoman', her heart always with her brother in Italy.

Vera and her friends were very young, and very idealistic, growing up in comfortable middle-class England, tennis parties in the summer, musical evenings in the winter listening to records by Caruso. When war was eventually proclaimed they were not frightened by what it presaged. On 3 August 1914 Vera wrote in her diary, 'Today has been far too exciting... one of the most thrilling I have lived through.' She was looking forward to 'Armageddon in Europe'.

She even persuaded her parents that Edward, their only son, should enlist. That's what makes Testament of Youth so poignant, as Brittain exposes how their naivety was brutally crushed. The book became, says Williams, 'the voice of that depleted generation'.

Even sadder is the discovery that Edward possibly invited his death at the hands of the sniper, acting recklessly because he knew he was facing court-martial, accused of having homosexual relations. …

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