The radio column - Rachel Cooke

Sometimes an ad for a Saga holiday, or even a docile peal of pan pipes, is definitely welcome

Back to my hunt for breakfast listening. My boyfriend has a thing about Penny Gore, the velvet-voiced presenter of Morning on 3 - "Oh, Penny," he'll often say, out loud, to no one in particular - so, over the past few weeks, I've been trying to concentrate on her rather than retuning the radio every time he leaves the room. It's true that Gore has a lovely voice; she sounds to me like a young primary-school teacher, the kind who was born to read stories out loud. I like to think of her in neat cashmere. But she is too soothing, somehow, for weekdays. The 8am news on Radio 3 is, moreover, alarmingly brief. I miss it almost every day simply by clattering a mug at the wrong moment, and spend the next hour wondering what terrible events occurred in the night.

So, the search continues. Radio 3 still has much to recommend it. In some ways, it's hard to believe it exists at all in a world where George Galloway discusses breasts implants with Pete Burns on live television. In Alan Bennett's Untold Stories, an intermittent theme is the awfulness of Classic FM (naturally, he'd rather mither about it than switch off). The way the station slices up music without apology drives him mad. "It's like a Reader's Digest condensation of the classics," he writes at one point. "Defined on Monty Python as 'Great Books got down to Pure'." Later, listening to Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, he finds the gap between parts one and two filled with hideous promotions ("The haunting music of pan pipes"). But the final straw comes - or does it? - when he hears a presenter saying: "That was the very catchy third movement of Sibelius's Violin Concerto."

On minimalist Radio 3, you have to put up with none of this kind of stuff. Its "Composer of the Week" slot is beyond compare (by coincidence,

Sibelius this past week), and I was one of those who loved its playing of the entire works of Bach before Christmas. But one enduring mystery is why the station still bothers with spoken-word programmes (I exclude drama from this). These offerings are dry as dust, huge sandbanks over which you must climb in order to return to the lush vegetation at either side. Weird, too - like Growing American (15 January, 9.30pm), which set out to discover why some European writers choose to live in the United States; isn't it paradoxical, asked its presenter, the novelist Claire Messud, to abandon one's own culture, only to write about it from afar?

I have no sense of this paradox. Exile, even if self-imposed, is a boon to writing; if happiness writes white, nostalgia and longing turn it quickly dark grey. In any case, what if these writers - such as Christopher Hitchens, a journalist, and Zoe Heller, an ex-journalist - just happen to like living in America? It's one thing to pitch up there following political upheaval, like the Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, quite another to choose it as your home because you enjoy being able to get a latte at any hour of the night.

Anyway, being asked about their place in the Land of Roth seemed to turn their heads a little, especially Hitchens. The only thing that would induce him to return to Britain, he said, was a safe Labour seat, as it is still a source of regret that he has never made a speech in the British "assembly". This being unlikely, he plans to stay put. Why? Because "what happens here is what's going to happen to the human race". Deary me. Has Hitchens gone native? Mostly, I'm with Alan Bennett when it comes to Classic FM, but at this point an ad for a Saga holiday, or even a docile peal of pan pipes, would definitely have been welcome.

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