A Salute To The BBC Where Every Word Counts

Jim Naughtie’s Atonement moment concerning the Culture Minister has titillated the Twittersphere all week. I saw him that evening and commented that the slip-up would probably dog him for the next three months. “The rest of my life, more like,” he replied gloomily.

If he’s right then he would join a select band of people who are especially remembered for their one-liners.

People like Stevie Smith, whose “Not Waving but Drowning” has reverberated through the culture in headlines and pastiches and was explored in the first of a new series of Adventures in Poetry. One thing BBC radio is really good at, witness Soul Music or The History of the World in 100 Objects, is taking a microscope to iconic artefacts and subjecting them to intense analysis. Could this 12-line poem, published in 1957, possibly expand to fill half an hour? Need you ask? As Peggy Reynolds explained, the number of negatives in the poem give it a “dark power”. According to one sports editor, it’s popular for sports headlines because “professional sport is about the appearance of strength and people don’t see sportsmen struggling to cope.” Kevin Kirwan the director of Bristol Samaritans, even uses it in training. “The phrase ‘I was much further out than you thought’ is particularly apt,” he said. There was endless debate over who the drowning man was supposed to be, with some people suggesting it was Christ. “How could they think that?” said Stevie Smith incredulously. “It’s obvious that it’s everybody.”

Another person remembered for one-liners is Socrates, who has been the subject of a fabulous Book of the Week on Radio 4. As a child, Socrates’s intelligence disturbed his parents enough to take him to the Delphic oracle – the Greek version of the child psychologist – who advised them to leave him alone. Famously ugly, with “a pot belly, thick lips, swivelling eyes, pug nose and broad nostrils, and a wit that struck home like the touch of a stingray,” he was eccentrically grubby, hung out with Euripedes, Aristophanes, Herodotus and Plato, fought in the Peloponnesian wars and fell in love with a man half his age. He was eventually tried by Athenians for corrupting the younger generation. Yet it was the detail of everyday life in fifth century BC Athens that made Bettany Hughes’s book come alive. Some of it – like the fact that 18-year-old men had to race naked through the city while spectators slapped their bottoms – sounded especially fun.

John Lennon, you might think, would have no problems with posterity, yet I can’t be the only person who choked during a recent edition of University Challenge when the assembled teams failed to recognise “(Just Like) Starting Over”. The world is now divided between those who remember exactly where they were when John Lennon died, and those who don’t remember John Lennon. Radio 2 clearly has more of the former among its listeners, hence a comprehensive Lennon week to mark the 30th anniversary of his death. Susan Sarandon was the celebrity host of John Lennon: The New York Years, though her delivery was probably a little ponderous to British ears. Lennon loved New York. “All the different nationalities, it’s like a festival and I just dig it,” he said. He met Bob Dylan, who introduced him to marijuana and he began to reject celebrity. “One has to completely humiliate oneself to be what The Beatles were and that’s what I resent.” He also composed his iconic song “Imagine”, so good that the FBI tried to have him deported for it. “They considered it an conspiratorial communist socialist scary song,” said a friend. “It turned out to be the anthem of his life.” The one thing this compilation did effectively was to bring vividly back Lennon’s wit, intelligence and common sense compared to many of today’s singing celebrities. X Factor he wasn’t.