Extraordinary tales of English folk

Late Junction has the power to move (and snooze) in its trip through Albion

The vital noises of the week came courtesy of BBC Radio 3's idiosyncratic world-music broadcast Late Junction. In a St George's Day special on English folk (23 April, 11.15pm-1am), Verity Sharp presented the show with her trademark genius weariness.

As usual, she gave the uniquely complicated impression of a nice, civilised woman calmly husbanding the energy to play you her beloved recording of a Finnish guy smashing up a car.

There was enough of a mix of the obvious in the programme (Anne Briggs singing "She Moved Through the Fair") with the avant-garde - in this case a recording of sheep in a field. Verity explained that the sheep were actually German, but frankly could be from just about anywhere, and as usual she was right. The Germans slowly gave way to the sound of running water, by which point I was asleep, this being Late Junction, with its blessed absence of jarring interruptions and irritating fade-outs.

"Music rooted in England" is a big subject, but Verity wasn't rattled. She kicked off with Ron Copper singing the traditional "The Hard Times of Old England", in which he complained about being press-ganged into war and then coming home to starve. That was followed by Billy Bragg's 2007 reworking of the song, which stuck it to Tesco and people with holiday cottages, neither of which had quite the sting of Ron's verses about not having any shoes.

Just as you began to weary of Bragg's peevishness, he stormed in with a couplet about missing "the lapwing and the corncrake's sad song" in our decimated hedgerows, which kicked righteous ass all over the land.

But all of this served as mere vegetable batons to the Junction's main course, a trippy half-hour-long, as-yet-unreleased montage by the Kent musician Chris Wood, in which local people talked about the River Medway while Wilson noodled in the background on his violin.

The whole thing was a genuine Experience. As one old man reeled off lists of his favourite spots for swimming ("Teat's Mouth, the Cockiewall, Doctors Hole"), another added: "I'm telling you, we had the time of our lives then" - a phrase which Wilson looped over and over, flooding the present with lunatic levels of longing.

At the very point at which you began to feel that it was all being narrated by Sam Gamgee, another interviewee piped up about the river coming through her cat flap after a cloudburst, bringing wheelie bins and a dog kennel straight through the kitchen. "I love the river," she said, politely.

Wilson found the music inherent in each speaking voice, tuning and syncopating his instruments to them, sucking you down into the current, rhythmic and super-lulling, like the recording of Tennyson incanting "The Charge of the Light Brigade" on a wax cylinder.

After several months I came to, just in time to hear Verity introduce something about "droving free in this little isle of freedom", and thought that her voice was the very definition of handsome, and wondered what foolish suit it was that replaced her last year with the drippy Lauren Laverne on The Culture Show - "here in England, old England,/ Oh in England very hard times".

Pick of the week

How Crime Took on the World
Starts 8 April, 10.05am, World Service
A new series asking how international mafias have come to pose a threat to global stability.

Afternoon on 3
28 April, 2pm-5pm, Radio 3
An afternoon devoted to Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. Hankies ready.

don’t miss . . .

Toumani Diabaté

A magical evening is on the cards as Diabaté, the Malian kora virtuoso, performs music from his acclaimed album The Mandé Variations in the intimate surroundings of St Luke’s. The album is a shimmering blend of traditional Malian songs, flamenco, and even the theme tune from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Diabaté is descended from 71 generations of kora players, and has done much to introduce his ancient instrument to new audiences – collaborating with Björk, with whom he performed at last year’s Glastonbury Festival, as well as Ali Farka Touré and the jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd.
2 May, LSO St Luke’s, London EC1.

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 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!