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Reviewed: Lyrical Journey on Radio 4

The sunshine boys.

Lyrical Journey
Radio 4

A new series of Lyrical Journey (Sundays, 1.30pm) – each episode travelling to the geographical setting of a famous song in the company of the songwriter – opened with the Proclaimers’ “Sunshine on Leith”, an imploring sea shanty that starts like an inner groan silently rising (“my heart was broken”) only to reach a euphoric place commemorating new love (“thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you”).

Released as a single in 1988, it reached just 41 in the UK charts but has since become the anthem of fans of Hibernian FC and is chosen as the first dance at one in 11 Scottish weddings. The presenter, Jonathan Maitland, pointed out that Withnail and I (released just months before) is another cultural product snubbed on release but now covered in glory.

Maitland stood overlooking Leith, the port district of Edinburgh on the shore of the Firth of Forth, with the Proclaimers – the Reid brothers, Charlie and Craig – whose permanently blushing-plum complexions and thick-rimmed specs have always given them the look of men who prefer to smell out those with similarly tender hearts. Long before international airports and “all that nonsense”, said a local historian standing with them, with a sigh heavy as a cannonball, Leith was the inspiration for Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather built the lighthouses across the Forth, and Leith was a seaman’s den, seething with sailors from all over the world.

Memorably, Craig Reid – prodded by a sweetly fan-boyish Maitland – spoke about writing the song. “To be honest, I don’t know how I wrote it it. Or really remember getting it,” he started. From his lips, almost uniquely, this didn’t sound smug or unlikely, or an attempt to distance himself from the rest of the world living quieter lives.

There was no hint of the terrible, self-congratulatory way that some writers hint at “voices descending”, as though all this was all beyond their control, entirely unbidden and not ordered. Reid shrugged off hints of anything mystical – instinctively knowing that some things are better left unsaid – and just put it perfectly: “I think if you work at something hard enough and often enough you will get something eventually that feels like divine inspiration. Whether it is or not, I don’t know.”

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 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on