I’d been living in England for a year before I turned on the radio. For the next three years I never turned it off. Insomniac, I left it on while I slept, and it was on when I woke. Occasionally friendless, I thought of it as my best friend. Mostly single, I thought of it as my girlfriend. I thought of it as England itself, and I can’t say I loved it, only that it was what life was: rain falling outside the window, the fridge empty except for the ice trays, half a bottle of Irish whisky on the shelf, voices on the radio. I never changed the channel. The channel was BBC Radio 4.
By the end, I had come to believe the Shipping Forecast was fictional. Once in the morning and once at night (and once in the afternoon on weekends), the state of the seas around Great Britain is delivered in a code that mixes vague evaluations with arcane zone names. You hear of small and intimate drizzles and gales moving erratically southward. The zone names aren’t so arcane if you look at a map, which I never did until today, sitting across the Atlantic in Brooklyn: Southeast Iceland is where you’d imagine it; North Utsire and South Utsire are the fringe of Norway’s lower fjords; Viking is to their west; Biscay is off France’s west coast; FitzRoy expands from there into the middle of the ocean. Now that I know where these zones are I like the program less. I preferred imagining hardy mariners navigating stormy waters with visibility moderate or poor, becoming good, otherwise mainly fair or variable. The visibility forecasts are so vague any single one could stand in for all of Britain’s weather any of the time.
I wondered always if these sea dogs listened to the other programs I did. “Sailing By” is a waltz written in 1963 that has been played every night at quarter to one before the forecast since then, except for a much protested hiatus from 1993 to 1995. I often wished it was playing on a boat that would take me home to New York. After the forecast an instrumental “God Save the Queen” is broadcast before Radio 4 goes dark for four hours and twenty minutes, replaced by the World Service. I didn’t know what “God Save the Queen” was when I first turned on Radio 4 and thought it strange that they would play “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the end of every night. Was it a way of taunting lonely Americans?
There are two other classic Radio 4 songs you still hear (the old morning theme was scrapped in 2006). “Barwick Green” is a maypole dance from a 1924 suite called My Native Heath by Arthur Wood that serves as the opening theme of The Archers. Every day at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. there’s a fifteen-minute episode of this soap opera. (An “omnibus” collecting them all plays every Sunday morning.) It’s a soap opera about farmers. I have listened to hundreds of episodes, and I have no idea who any of the characters are, though there are a couple whose voices I recognize. I generally home in on a few recurring plotlines: a family controversy over one matriarch’s divvying up of the family estate, steering assets toward heirs who seem less able to support themselves, i.e., inferior farmers; younger cowherds having trouble making a living from milk; farmers having affairs with employees of the local farm store; heated birding competitions. The writers apparently draw on trends in agriculture and land use and UK government policies (badger culling, flood management, steps taken against the ash dieback plague) in crafting their plots. None of my English friends ever had a straight answer when I asked them where the people from The Archers lived, but they believed they were mostly voting Tory. (The literature has it that the show’s fictional Borsetshire is the real Dorsetshire, which the Tories did sweep in May.) I visited the English countryside only twice. Like the Soviet agent Kim Philby I had no feeling for it.
“(By the) Sleepy Lagoon” is the other old-timey Radio 4 theme, and it opens Desert Island Discs. This is an event, airing every Sunday morning at 11 and repeated every Friday morning at 9, that would always send me into a flurry of commentary with my friend L, an American formerly of West London, now residing on the Continent. What eight songs had the celebrity “castaway” chosen, what single one to really keep? What book (Dame Wendy Hall: complete printout of Wikipedia) or luxury (Malcolm Gladwell: golf clubs and balls)? Most of the time L and I barely knew who the English celebrities were. Most of the time our comments were along the lines of, “Did that champion cyclist just talk about first meeting his wife and ‘our song’ as a segue into ‘Sympathy for the Devil’?”
I’ll spare you extended remarks on the Today Programme, a morning news show that receives a call from the prime minister whenever he screws up; on the way the headlines seemed always to be about bad hospitals (medicine comes under more scrutiny when it’s run by the government), disinterred kings (they turn up in rural parking lots), or pedophilia (it’s like the rain); on Melvyn Bragg’s morning talk show In Our Time, which always seemed to be about things from before our time, like Kafka or dinosaurs; on Women’s Hour, the show with the two best presenters, Jenny Murray and Jane Garvey, offering the strangest mix of hard-hitting feminist politics and reports on trends in onesies, quinoa, and polyamory; on my loathing for the shows Moneybox and You and Yours and their dull consumer reports; on the soap opera Home Front, about what life was like on this day a century earlier while the First World War flared, the radio-drama manifestation of a nationwide death cult around the wars; on my favorite game show Just a Minute, in which the nonagenarian host Nicholas Parsons bids three contestants to riff on a subject for sixty seconds at a time and adjudicates disputes about repetition, deviation, or hesitation; on the channel’s longer dramas on Saturday afternoons and how I preferred when they were thrillers, especially if set in Scotland; on Radio 4’s constant memorializing of itself, as in a recently announced drama coming this fall about the making of an episode of The Archers from the 1960s in which Grace Archer, whoever she was (the actress who played her is still alive, age 90, and will star), died in a fire.
But a word about the show that fascinated me most and that I found almost completely incomprehensible: Gardeners’ Question Time. I have been trying to avoid invoking parallels to America’s NPR but I can only describe it as England’s version of Car Talk, except about shrubs instead of automobiles and recorded before a live studio audience and as polite as the other show was raucous. Its lyrical, aphorist power is best rendered in quotation. “If you resent having to do something in your garden, or begin to dread it, that tells you something about the nature of your garden.” “I don’t have anybody help me in my garden ever. Even my family are banned from it. But hedge-trimming I will pay somebody to do.” “Lavender is one of those plants that's well worth exploiting, whether for its stems or its foliage. Get it when it’s at its most potent.” “One of our sweet chestnuts has died. The other is suffering. What’s wrong with them?” “Growing large vegetables used to be a male-dominated world. Not any more.” “Many an ambitious gardener has dreamt of growing a giant onion.”
“I don’t suffer midwinter depression from the lack of light,” says Guðmundur Lárusson. “That’s doubtless been bred out of me, the way anything can be bred out of people. I might not be a barrel of laughs in the winter but I don’t get sad either. Still, I always keep an ear to the weather.”
Such must have been the scenery that greeted writer Winston Churchill when, in 1908, on his first African journey, he finally left the Kenya of cantankerous British colonial settlerdom and crossed into the British-protected African kingdom: “Uganda is from end to end a ‘beautiful garden’ where the ‘staple food’ of the people grows almost without labour. . . . Does it not sound like a paradise on earth?”