Don't cry for me: Elaine Paige in full flow performing a song from Evita at the 2012 Olivier awards. Photo: Getty
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The day Elaine Paige went quiet

She had you longing for the days when she would just pipe up, laughing dementedly, or refer to herself in the third person.

Elaine Page on Sunday
BBC Radio 2

Among the questions nagging the listener after the annual Radio Academy Awards a few weeks ago – in which a special prize was given to Nick Clegg’s jockstrappishly uncomfortable and now possibly redundant call-in show on LBC – is that of Radio 2’s inexorable rise. Taking home the UK Station of the Year award for the first time since 2005, it currently has more than 15 million listeners a week. Pick of the Pops, Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs, Sounds of the 60s – all of them are slam dunks. It’s inexplicable beyond, perhaps, a subtle upping of the ratio of music to chat during shows. I don’t think I’m imagining it. Sometimes the station has the air of Magic 105.4 FM: a glassy, do-not-disturbness to the playlists, a sense of the spoken word being ushered off.

Even Elaine Paige has picked up 19,000 more listeners for her 1pm Sunday show (ten years old this September) featuring hits from musicals. Although still conducting the occasional sympathetic interview,  these days she seems to be doing less – creeping on to confirm that, yes, that was indeed Howard Keel singing “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”, then creeping off again, like an iguana. One wonders (and not for the first time) how Paige occupies herself between links. The other day she admitted to making her way through a plate of sandwiches, which sounded innocent enough and had you longing for the days when she would just pipe up, laughing dementedly, or refer to herself in the third person. I liked to picture her sitting with a large bag of Haribo, CCTV cameras mounted in her tiara. There was a crazed edge.

This episode, she roused herself momentarily to articulate a bat-squeak of desire for Hugh Jackman (“a busy boy and terribly talented”) – but otherwise all the life in the show was located in the messages left on its answerphone by amateur singers plugging local shows, relayed to listeners in a section called “Break a Leg”. “Hi Elaine! My name is Samuel and I’m playing Nanki-Poo, a wandering minstrel, at the Cotswold Savoyards’ 100th show . . . Bye, Elaine!”

“Byeee,” responded Elaine, with what sounded like increasingly heavy eyes. “Or rather goodbyeee. Whatever.” A drowsy bee seems to have found welcome in Paige’s bonnet. And still the ratings rise.

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 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.