Mere flânerie of the hedgerows

This impressionistic wildlife programme aims for poetry but only hits pretension

In A View Through a Lens (Sunday 11 January, 2.45pm, Radio 4), the wildlife cameraman John Aitchison gave his personal impressions of a night spent on Brownsman Island, off the coast of Northumberland. The programme opened with him in bed in Grace Darling's house, "the wind just wailing through the roof and through the windows". He whispered this in a sleep-gluey, intimate voice, as though the recording device were lying on the pillow next to him, like a wife.

"The knots in the pine panels above me are like pairs of seals looking at me," he went on. "Seal's eyes. Big dark eyes." Then he got up and cleaned his teeth. "It's rather strange actually . . ." he breathed after a moment, in a soft and heavy monotone. "Everything entirely lit by gas . . . soft yellow light . . . Here it is . . . a big beam flash flash weeping . . . gone . . . around . . . like a metronome . . ." And so it continued: all things were strange and potentially mystical. This lump of wood. This toothpaste. This rhythmic beam from the neighbouring lighthouse. Personally I find this urge to be so full of wonder a little bogus - such a bottomless response to every single thing is surely forced?

There is nothing to do on Brownsman Island - unless you count finding grey seals interesting. (Kipling found seals interesting, but then he was a Boy Scout.) As though aware the pressure was slightly on to deliver some drama, Aitchison went outside in the dark to where the seals were lying about making a terrible racket, wheezing and aching, as though at the perpetual almost-end of a long labour. Their bites can lead to amputation, he remembered. Just imagine their teeth in the dark. This was more like it! Picking his way through the stricken bodies, Aitchison said he was switching to night vision on his camera, and one immediately pictured Jodie Foster in the murderer's basement at the end of The Silence of the Lambs, wearing a special headset and seeing everything distorted through a violently sickly green.

For a moment the atmosphere was genuinely tense. And then Aitchison told us what he could see: a pup, skinny and "corrugated like an accordion", and its mother raising her flipper then "bending her knuckles, and this alien flipper becomes a hand. Like mine. Gently she scratches the pup's head." This observation, as with all of the prize ones, had been recorded later and laid over the sound of the wind and the waves, to give the effect of incantatory nature poetry.

It all called to mind the great Roger Deakin (RIP, alas), who would take his canoe Cigarette out on the River Waveney to record his thoughts as he paddled downstream, saying, off the top of his head, in his very ordinary voice (a voice without a hint of self-congratulatory amazement, just strong and sad, like a dented suitcase), things like ". . . the moving ribs of gold, chasing each other across the bottom. Rows of golden chorus girls, chasing along the bottom . . ." Deakin never gave the impression that he thought what he was saying was poetic or particularly memorable, but like all great writers he was naturally seminal and everything he said was deep and organic. Deakin - unlike many of his imitators - was more than a mere flâneur-of-the-hedgerows. He made you think of Wordsworth.

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17 January, 10.30am, Radio 4
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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 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...