Ali Smith, Elon Musk and football: A Week in Radio

LISTENING to the radio you would need to have been on your toes – or at least handy on the dial – to avoid sport this week. Wimbledon, cricket and the football dominated so much of the week’s broadcasting, constantly invading news broadcasts and turning up in the interstitials on music shows. Especially after Tuesday night’s win for England over Germany.

It’s one of those regular football summers when the BBC turns into the EBC (on Wednesday morning every news bulletin led with the football). A good reason for the existence of Radio Scotland on its own, you could argue (though even Connie McLaughlin’s phone-in was discussing Scottish attitudes to the England football team on Wednesday morning).

For many, of course, sport is an escape from reality (me, I love the football). But how, if you want to, do you escape from sport?

Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday) offered some respite. Scottish novelist Ali Smith was the guest for this special show to mark her success in winning the George Orwell Prize for political fiction with her most recent novel Summer. The last in a quartet, Summer, like its predecessors, reflects the world at the time it was written.

As a result, it takes in Covid-19, Australian wildfires, Brexit and the murder of George Floyd. As Smith, speaking from her home in Cambridge, told Andrew Marr, the book exists “where the novel meets time and time meets the novel.”

Smith is always a vivacious, engaged interviewee. When she read from the books or raved about the energy in the poetry and letters of Keats and the paintings of Pauline Boty you could feel the charge of the words fizzing through you.

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Now and then, there was also a fruitful friction between Marr’s journalistic preconceptions (inevitably binary) and Smith’s belief in the wider realm of art. When Marr tried to nail her to a particular political outlook in her work, she ghosted around the question like a literary Raheem Sterling.

“Fiction is political, but you can’t sit down with an agenda, otherwise it’s not going to work,” she pointed out. “There just won’t be a story. Story isn’t like that. Story works because it’s revealing rather than because it’s forcing an agenda.”

In short, we are not one belief. We are human, and as a result we are legion. “A life is a multiple thing,” Smith argued. “That’s what’s exciting about us, we’re malleable beings.”

Maybe we can even end up supporting England.

There was more than a touch of fiction in Elon Musk: The Evening Rocket (Radio 4, Monday), the first part of Jill Lepore’s profile of the tech billionaire.

“The bare facts of Musk’s life, the way they’re usually told, make him sound a fictional character, a comic book superhero,” Lepore suggested. “But what’s the real story, the actual history behind the comic book?”

A mixture of sci-fi futurism, the influence of growing up in apartheid South Africa and Musk’s possible misreading of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it seems.

“Many men of course became extremely rich,” Adams wrote, “but this was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of because no one was really poor – at least no one worth speaking of.”

I guess you can take that sentence at face value if you try hard enough.

Listen Out For: Michael Palin’s Memory Palaces, Radio 4, Wednesday, 11.30am In which Palin sends his producer into the head of fellow Python Terry Gilliam to explore his memories. That’s the advantage of radio, isn’t it? No CGI required.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992