Reviewed: Our Lady of Paris on Radio 3

Beale's about.

Our Lady of Paris
Radio 3

“It’s a small kind of miracle, a building reaching into the clouds taking advantage of technological innovations to express the glory of God in new ways.” Simon Russell Beale is standing outside Notre Dame – 850 years old and in the midst of anniversary celebrations – and doing one of the many things he does so unusually well: making a script sound improvised without a hint of the faux casual (23 March, 12.15pm). Behind him a wintry Seine fiercely laps against stone and tourists chunter and hustle, but SRB maintains his usual quiet focus, a skill he transports directly into conversations with experts and historians that doesn’t dissolve even when he’s splurging out things like, “Oh, they’re singing in a boat! On the Seine! How sweet!” when looking at an 11th-century painting of musicians on the water.

Later, in this tender programme about the musical history of the cathedral, he quoted from bawdy medieval songs (“find here in Paris great joy/fine jewels/and honourable ladies/and others among them of the cheaper sort . . .”) without remotely changing the tone or emphasis of his voice and yet making it perfectly clear he was quoting. How does he do this? It’s as mysterious as the way he manages to appear on programmes on Radio 3 in which he is required to talk about himself personally (Summer Selection, Essential Classics, In Tune . . . Radio 3 would fall to bits without SRB, as would BBC4) and never, not once, sounding like an asshole. You try it. It’s impossible. Yet here comes SRB: not precious, not self-regarding, not nervous about his knowledge, just noticeably, always, great.

Actors moonlighting as presenters are usually required to be either twinkly and reassuring, or cynical and mysterious. With the lone exception of SRB they helplessly give off an air of (a) being barely able to wait to tell the next dirty limerick in the lunch truck, or (b) that they are only presenting this documentary because they want their life to come across as a sequence of unlikely but successful throws on a roulette wheel. And yet here is SRB talking about single-line plain chant and “exciting new worlds of sound” like the perfect presenter: a guy on whom absolutely nothing is wasted. Not just whole programmes but whole stations happily adjust around him.

Photograph: Getty Images

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times