Keeping the country afloat

It's unpolished, but local radio provides a lifeline for flooded communities

<strong>Radio Oxford

Did you hear the big 8.10am interview with David Cameron on Thursday? You probably didn't unless you were listening to BBC Radio Oxford. He was lightly grilled not by John Humphrys, but by the breakfast show's host, "Shabina", a local star who shines so brightly over the county that she has no need to narrow things down by using her surname. Cameron was on not because of the rumblings about his leadership, but because he was one of flooded Oxfordshire's MPs. Nevertheless, Shabina, who noted that callers had been asking what on earth he was doing in Rwanda when Witney was knee-deep, suggested it had been a rough few days. Cameron agreed. "But it is nothing like as tough as getting flooded out and having trouble with your business and home." His office had been flooded, too, he said.

They say a change is as good as a rest, and to hear Cameron complain solemnly that "some ditches have not been cleared for years" certainly made a change from his usual persiflage. Tuned in via the internet from London, I confess I even found Radio Oxford's breakfast show cosy listening, there being nothing like tales of disaster from lands far away to avert one's mind from one's own flooded cellar. For the Witney farmer who was interviewed, his 700 cattle still standing in several feet of water, and for thousands of others without power (some listened on wind-up radios) or unable to drive down their own roads, Radio Oxford was a necessity not a treat. Over the week the local authority's emergency officer John Kelly became a de facto co-presenter.

Breakfast with Shabina covered, as far as I could tell, all the bases, with its travel and weather reports being improved by listeners' contributions. After Cameron, it even thought to talk to someone from the RSPB, who reported that the weather had been terrible news for barn owls: the voles they ate had drowned. Considering the scale of the crisis, however, I can't pretend that her show was particularly brilliant. A caller suggested that the station match people's needs with the skills of volunteers. Shabina doubted if she could get it to work. The station's breakfast show has been subject to upheavals in the past few years - Anne Diamond, Sybil Ruscoe (ex-5 Live) and now Shabina have all presented it - and it feels underproduced and underpopulated.

Disappointingly, the station's drive-time presenter, Bill Heine, is weak, too, even though he is the surrealist who put a fibreglass shark through the roof of his home in Headington. His callers are more fun than he is. One of them, Dorothy, called on Wednesday to say she'd had a crew from Mexican television filming her street: in her day, the BBC would have sent cameras to film their disasters.

If you want to hear how local radio should sound, I recommend BBC Radio Gloucestershire, whose patch was even more heavily hit by our glorious summer. Even though its regular breakfast presenter, Mark Cummings, was away, its morning programme sang. The excellent stand-in host, Steve Kitchen - now there's a household name for you - invited listeners to nominate the good, the bad and the ugly who had emerged during the crisis, and named an 11-year-old the station's hero of the week. The programme was full of bowser news: they were empty; they were not filled often enough; they were being urinated in. The local MP, Parmjit Dhanda, declared himself on "bowser watch". Signing off on Friday, Kitchen told us what he had learned over the past seven days: the meaning of the words "community spirit", the weight of water, and what a bowser was - "not a breed of German dog". We also learned that most of the station's staff had not showered in days. This was live radio you could smell.

Perhaps a local radio station does not need to be as slick and busy as Radio Gloucester to succeed. So long as it gets the local news first and keeps its lines open for its listeners, in the end they will make their own connections. On Friday a woman called Carol rang Radio Oxford's Heine to say her husband had been stuck in a boat on the Thames for a week. Heine's mind drew the blank it tends to. But a few minutes later a farmer called to say he would take down his tractor on Saturday to fish him out. That's my action station.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis