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Cackling in the kitchen

Sixty-year careers offer glimpses into worlds apart, writes Antonia Quirke.


BBC World Service

A week of short character profiles of people who have been in their job for more than 60 years was the highlight of the twice-daily Newshour on the World Service (26 May to 1 June). Each person in the seven nine-minute slots was so perfectly chosen, the range so various, that one envisaged the many producers across the world honing lists into shortlists for months, occasionally throwing their eyes impatiently to heaven before sportingly continuing with the search.

A Russian nuclear scientist who has long outlasted everyone at his lab spoke of his love of the Thereminvox, an electronic space-age instru­­ment. Haji Warabe, a 115-year-old Somali nomad chief, has had the nickname “Hyena” since he  cunningly stalked and killed a camel rustler as a child. Everyone featured admitted never planning to work this long, but either actively feared retirement (unwanted proof of one’s mortality) or has not been allowed to step down. Hilmar Moore – a Texan mayor since 1949 – keeps having his application for retirement not just refused, but utterly ignored. A Republican-leaning supporter of Obama, he agrees with the death penalty and ownership of guns as passionately as he opposed the Iraq war (his contrariness, incidentally and crucially, was not remotely preening). Also a cattle rancher, Moore never much tended to pushing his product (“If people get hungry, they’re gonna eat beef anyhah . . .”). With no desk as such at City Hall and no personal keys to any government building – his own mayoral initiative – Moore rests easy that he can never be accused of cooking the books. He remembers thinking nothing of driving as a fat and happy child, even when too small to work the pedals properly, for three, four hours at a time, in one direction.

His slow-blooded vowels (heaven on the radio) seemed to imitate the scale and heat of Texas itself, just as Margherita Hack – an Italian astro-physicist with a star named after her – has a voice as sparkling and tough as the fragments of marble that dust Tuscan cities and their white cathedrals. When she spoke of the Big Bang, her sexy, casual-fluid pronunciation (“il big-a bang-a”) had me cackling in the kitchen. In that moment, she was as perfectly Italian as a memorable ice cream, and I as English as a sweaty-faced tourist counting crumpled euros on the via Valfonda.

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 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran