That Grimm feeling

Little Henry from Finland persuades Antonia Quirke that seeing is overrated

Sound of Snow and Ice
BBC World Service

Exchanges at the Frontier
BBC World Service

In a rich week on BBC radio, the World Service stood out, particularly with the documentary Sound of Snow and Ice (1 January, 10am; repeated 3pm and 8pm). Set in and around a school for visually impaired children in a town "half­way between Helsinki and Lapland", it discovered the students being taught to rely less on artificial aids, and instead to navigate using only sticks and the sounds around them, "hearing the birch trees, hearing the benches, low and covered in snow".

The world it conjured struck your reviewer as heart-rendingly Brothers Grimm - children tapping their sticks into town to buy ingredients to make cinnamon buns (here we heard the sound of canes against the walls of an underground car park), or out in the forest on the way to light fires on an iced-over lake in pre­paration for fishing. And when the narrator-producer, Joe Acheson (a clear talent), gave one little boy, Henry, a microphone to speak into as he made his way around, the shades of "Hansel and Gretel" grew deeper (Hansel - "The crumbs of bread that I've strewn about will show us our way home again"; Henry - "I'm looking for the rope . . . the rope has ended! Oh, where is it?").

But Acheson was sure to counter this mood with interviews with the school's outspoken teachers - many of them conscientious objectors to national service - who were, to a man, highly intelligent and focused. "We overestimate how we see," shrugged one. "I mean, it's very nice to see, but . . ." and "Helping another person is a very tricky business, and, you know, pity never helped anyone." One woman said she meticulously teaches the children all the sounds of the world using BBC sound-effect CDs (the hearts of those technicians would surely burst to hear such a thing), but complained that the one sound not included in the otherwise comprehensive collection was that of a sauna. In this part of the world, disaster. “So I recorded it myself," she reasoned, with the soberest courtesy.

Yet the Brothers Grimm feeling always simmered. In translation from the Finnish, so many comments felt shaped for the dusk-turned page. "For Henry, it is not relevant that this room has a ceiling. But only that there is a chair where he sits and a guitar that he plays" and "If the lights go out in the world, I will phone her and ask her to guide me through this place."

Another triumph was Anthony Grayling's onstage interview with Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California (30 December, 10.30am; repeated 3.30pm and 8.30pm). Was there ever a more Californianishly convivial alien-hunter than the 66-year-old Shostak? His charisma had the audience in raptures. I'm talking audible sighs of delight. Grayling forgot his role as philosopher altogether and was forever collapsing into beguiled giggles, or really enjoying asking questions along the lines of: "God, what would you say to an alien if one was, like, right there in front of you?"

Shostak was most reassuring. He said that he doubts any alien craft will ever descend demanding all our water or women, because those resources are not - no offence intended - really worth the suicidal trip dodging the trillion stars in our galaxy. He says that, to be perfectly honest, the only thing worth nicking from Planet Earth is rock'n'roll, and, like everyone else, the aliens can just get that over the internet.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on