How good is Radio 4?

When I first lived abroad, one of the things I missed the most was tuning in to my favourite radio station and classic, timeless shows like ‘I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue’, ‘Just a Minute’ and, of course, ‘The Archers’.

Radio Scotland is all right I suppose, but let’s face it, you’d have to be a rabid one-eyed tartan-clad bigot not to concede that R4 consistently pisses all over its Scottish counterpart in terms of programme content, quality and range.  (Feel free to write in and disagree if the rabid one-eyed tartan-clad bigot cap fits by the way.)

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Even now, with online streaming and podcasts ensuring the familiar sound of Radio 4 is never more than a deft mouse click away, the sombre incantation that is the shipping forecast consistently reduces me to a warm, nostalgic yearning that’s neither readily explainable nor even completely understood. 

‘South Utsire, North Utisre, Cromarty, Forth, precipitation veering 4 or 5, squally, poor becoming moderate’

I really haven’t a clue what any of that means, but how I love the sound of it. 

Quite simply, it does things to me being reassuring, comforting and evocative all at the same time, like being tucked into a warm cosy bed by your Mum on a freezing winter’s night. 

Because of the time difference, I like to go to sleep with Radio 4 playing in the background these days, lying there in the Australian early hours, with the R4 afternoon play or ‘You and Yours’ burbling away in the background.  There’s nothing quite like it.

And that’s how I happened across a R4 discussion programme about the Welfare State and dole cheats, a familiar and perennial media topic which has endured longer than the mystery of the Loch Ness monster and is only slightly less divisive.

Now the first thing I’d have to say is this: I have personally known people who’ve been claiming the dole whilst doing a bit of work on the side.  As I have known blokes on the Disability Pension who nevertheless were star performers on the 5-a-side team down the Sports Centre of a Thursday night. 

We’ve all known the odd one.  In fact, probably quite a lot of odd ones.

Less common, though still apparently substantial in numbers, are those highly creative individual fiddlers who manage to fund holidays to Puerto Banus out of their dole money.  Personally I’ve never met anyone like that – though their regular appearances in the tabloids confirm they do exist – I mean The Sun doesn’t lie does it?

Broo money, it used to be called.  The Giro.  A pal of mine from Newcastle used to refer to it as ‘The Nat King Cole’, which used to freak me out when he’d enquire of his wife with reference to that morning’s post – ‘H’away pet, did I get me Nat King Cole?’

(Too much information for people from the West of Scotland.)

I used to be a Welfare Rights Adviser, many years ago in the East End of Glasgow.  The job entailed maximising the income of claimants, in the long gone days of Supplementary Benefit. 

I can assure you that, back then at any rate, for the vast majority of people, getting a little bit extra in their dole money wasn’t a licence to order in the Beluga caviar and Richebourg Grand Cru but merely assisted them (and crucially their children/dependants) to better keep body and soul together in the face of undoubted adversity and genuine hardship.

Nobody was brazenly screwing the system – pretending to be skint whilst at the same time larging it to the max, as far as I could tell.  Most, if not everyone, was doing it tough.

Anyway, the discussion I was listening to on R4 focussed on the fact that it is now 70 years since the publication of The Beveridge Report, which established what’s become known as The Welfare State.

The Beveridge Report, in case you didn’t know, was intended to tackle 5 identified indices of poverty - Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. 

Given that this was in 1942  and things may have changed a tad since then, perhaps it’s reasonable to assume that a radical structure re-think is required, even though poverty – relative poverty, I hasten to add – is alive and well in the UK and in fact, may even be on the rise.

A number of contributors outlined their visions for reform, including, depressingly, the usual suspects who seem to live in a world where everybody on the dole is having a great time, coining it in without deigning to get their fat lazy bum off the mattress in the morning. 

More balanced contributions came from commentators who suggested various changes, including a shorter working week, employment insurance, more focussed public spending and a deliberate policy of positive motivation – the tasty carrot, as opposed to the riding crop.  (Which personally I think has a decent chance of success, but doesn’t generate much approval in the tabloids and, therefore, is almost certainly doomed.)

I’d like to tell you how the discussion developed and concluded, but I’m afraid I can’t, because I fell asleep (it was 3 in the morning after all) and by the time I awoke, the next show was on, an Arts programme called – I kid you not – ‘The Arse that Jack Built’.

But that’s Radio 4 for you.  Diverse, entertaining, stimulating and memorable; occasionally wistful and challenging.

Oh,and the Shipping Forecast. 

I mean, how good is that?