The Cave - review

Tales from underground move Antonia Quirke with their strange delicacy

The cave of Osselle in Eastern France. Photo: Getty Images

The Cave, BBC Radio 4

A week of short, illustrated monologues on the subject of the cave (25-29 June, 1.45pm) ranged in references from Plato to Henry Thoreau but two contributors stood out: the naturalist Paul Evans talking about the 13,000-year-old cave painting of a horse in the Creswell Crags in Derbyshire (discovered in 2003) and the wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson in the Waitomo caves in New Zealand.

Evans described Creswell as a “hobbity place” and pointed out that the horse in the painting has a full belly (“possibly carrying a foal”) that points towards the “arse of East Anglia”. He likened the image to something drawn by a child in a cupboard under the stairs or a prisoner in a cell, a horse “frightened by a lion, a horse devoured by a lion” in a cave still littered with the bones of cave lions. He implied an image that roared alive, like a sea. George Stubbs, the great painter of horses, once lived near this cave, as did Byron, whose poem “Darkness” might have been written for the place (“The winds were withered in the stagnant air/And the clouds perished”).

Although the monologue was lyrical, it was not, as these crafted things on Radio 4 can be, overly self-conscious of its virtues but detached and involved and concentrated on meaning rather than sounding dazedly, wraptly pretty (that dread tone that infects all Radio 4 drama and frequently bleeds elsewhere on the station).

Watson’s piece the following day was perfection. On location in the Waitomo underground canyons, he went to a cave where he claimed he could sense the lowest intimation of an overheard conversation . . . which he simply could not record. A deep murmuring that felt to him “like a tiny beating on the chest and face” – this was infrasound, below hearing, detected but not heard. There are ways, said Watson, of navigating in the darkness with sound. This is what the crayfish pool sounded like. And the footbath. He spoke of coming across the bones of a great bird that went extinct in the 15th century and the seemingly fresh graffiti of a British naval party lost in 1857. The whole thing was so interesting and meticulous that it left you a bit battered – as though you’d swallowed a lump of Otorohanga, that only gradually dissolved over rest of the afternoon.