The roots of TS Eliot's quintessentially English masterpiece, The Waste Land, lie far from home – in India
TS Eliot's India: Many Gods, Many Voices Radio 4 | iPlayer
Twenty Minutes: The Planets Radio 3 | iPlayer
In Search of Nic Jones Radio 4 | iPlayer
Book of the Week: The Sea Inside Radio 4 | iPlayer
It was worth listening last week to Daljit Nagra's illuminating documentary on TS Eliot's India just to hear Eliot's supremely mannered voice on a vintage BBC recording as he recited snatches of his oblique modernist opus The Waste Land. At times it sounded like the strangest Pathé News broadcast you could ever imagine; at others it was like a recording of a seance in which a medium was enunciating the jumbled words of someone's long-dead Victorian grandfather.
Nagra, an acclaimed British poet raised in London by Punjabi parents, uncovered the Sanskrit roots of a poem generally considered to be a quintessentially English masterpiece. His voyage of discovery began with the poem's final words, the thrice repeated "shantih", meaning peace, a mantra Nagra had first heard chanted by his Sikh grandfather during his daily meditation following a long day's work. From there he traced the deep influence of the Vedas, the oldest Sanskrit literature, on Eliot's thinking and his poems, revealing how "the bank clerk in the bowler hat" studied eastern philosophy and linguistics in search of the spiritual contentment he finally found in high Anglicanism. As one Eliot scholar put it, The Waste Land is "a great nihilistic text that confirms every desperate thought you have had about the world", but it nevertheless ends on a mystical note of great stillness and hope.
The subtext of Paul Morley's characteristically discursive essay on Gustav Holst's The Planets, which preceded a live Radio 3 broadcast of the same from the Proms, was not just his late embrace of classical music but his acceptance of his own mortality. Thus, what he called "the cliched late life move from pop to classical" was not just a shift in gears but consciousness. "While pop is all about the setting-up of life, the facing forward, being psyched up, ready for action," Morley mused. "Classical is about settling down, the closing in on the idea of death."
The Planets was the first classical record he ever bought, lured as a cash-strapped teenager by the garish sci-fi cover of the Classics for Pleasure LP he picked up cheap in Woolworths. Then, it sounded "frail and pompous" compared with the outre rock music of the time, but now it's King Crimson and Frank Zappa who "sound quaint against The Planets".
I would have liked more on the mortality theme, on how classical music alerted him to what he called "the astounding pleasure of being alive on the astounding verge of not being", but it was an altogether engaging 20 minutes inside a mind that grows more curious as it grows older.
I was less taken with Laura Barton's documentary on English folk legend Nic Jones, whose appeal has always eluded me. Barton's lyrical style is an acquired taste, but she's usually a reliable guide to the more overlooked hinterlands of Americana and Brit-folk. For me, though, there was something missing in this often moving story of Jones's musical journey from cultdom into neglect and eventual rediscovery. Perhaps it was the music, which we heard only in brief snatches.
Jones has lately returned to the stage after a long hiatus following a horrific car crash while on the long route home from yet another gig. On this evidence, he remains a refreshingly wayward soul, blissfully uninterested in past glories. I have to say I liked him more than I like his music.
Philip Hoare's brilliantly meandering The Sea Inside was Radio 4's Book of the Week. Tuesday's extract was typical: a breathless recollection of the sighting of a blue whale – "Something so beautiful as to be unbelievable" – off the coast of Sri Lanka, leading into a tangentially related passage on the nearby island of Taprobane. It was purchased on a whim by the writer Paul Bowles, who lived there for two years in an ornate art deco house he had once glimpsed in a book. He was entranced by the stillness, while his wife, Jane, drank herself into oblivion through boredom. I kept listening all week, then went out and bought the book.