A day to remember

Peter Ackroyd is behind a series of supernatural events on London's streets

"A spectre is haunting you." So went one of the jumbled thoughts running through the brain of Jack, a retired tailor and one-time communist. We heard him wandering through the streets of east London in I Am Not You Are Not Me, one of three short plays for launch day of the drama season The City Speaks (19 March, 2.15pm, Radio 4). Jack was losing his mind, and as he moved through the district in which he'd lived his whole life, ghostly fragments of memories wound their way into his consciousness: "Jeyes Fluid . . . cistern painted white . . . carbolic soap . . . Party meetings . . . half a crown."

There was a similarly haunting quality running throughout this first instalment (another three plays are broadcast on 20 March) of stories plucked from the lives of ordinary Londoners. As their starting point, the writers took a scenario by Peter Ackroyd: "Virgin Day", a time when, according to an ancient parchment, the Virgin Mary would appear to the city's inhabitants provided they had kept their faith. It was a flimsy conceit (if there is a city that hasn't kept its faith over the centuries, it is London), but one that the various plays interpreted liberally.

In Pushing, a reclusive Iraq War veteran and a cheeky young boy hauled a broken-down fridge across the city in the hope that it would be blessed. The streets seemed to be full of cheerful cockneys, all carrying out acts of penance. "Good luck, mate," shouted the soldier to a man dragging a tree trunk. "Thanks very much, I'm bloody knackered!" came the reply. Pushing was an interesting prospect, but the plot clunked around about as much as the old fridge.

Broken Chain, which told the story of Bert, an ageing junkie, was better. Bert was just out of prison, determined to get clean and to rebuild his relationship with his grown-up son. Even as he slipped back into drug addiction, the moral was ambiguous. Who was in the wrong: the father who let down his child, or the son who'd abandoned him to his fate?

The City Speaks was something of an event for Radio 4, as the plays were accompanied by short films, viewable on the BBC website. Adding pictures to radio is a tricky, some might say futile, business. What's the point in having someone else show you what to think about, when you could be filling in the blank spaces using your own imagination? When the boy in Pushing compared the gleaming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, for example, did it really help to see them as a green-tinted photograph?

Occasionally, however, sound and image combined in a way that was more than the sum of their parts. The camera shots that panned across faded, barely legible adverts for long-vanished products painted on the side of buildings in I Am Not You Are Not Me neatly complemented Jack's rambling monologue, in which he struggled to remember a dark secret from his past. It was easily the most affecting of the plays. There was no redemption at the end of this story, no vision of the Virgin for Jack. Just a realisation that he was trapped in his decaying body ("bowels, bladder. There they are night and day, like a baby"), with only his guilt for company: "We've been down this road before. We know where it ends."

Pick of the week

The Rise of Lifestyle Nutritionists
24 March, 8pm, Radio 4
Doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre takes his crusade against the diet industry to the airwaves.

Radio Golha
Fabulous online archive of Persian music, with programmes dating back to the 1950s.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet