I’m a Radio 4 devotee – maybe even an addict. I need my fix of BBC Radio 4 every day and I almost always get it.
I’m usually awake long before Farming Today but tend to be having my most productive part of the day while the annoying farming programme is broadcast so I try to switch on the radio for the Tweet of the Day and then, six days a week, the Today programme (greatly improved without Sarah Montague but now with the wonderful Martha Kearney). I dip in and out during the morning but often arrange my lunch to allow me to listen to The World at One (despite Sarah Montague) and then hope to get a fix of PM with Evan Davis at 5pm. I have my favourites dotted in between and later, and I often fall asleep listening to the World Tonight.
Sundays are a bit of a shock to the system, as everything is different, but I try hard to tune in to Broadcasting House with Paddy O’Connell, even though he is a bit annoying (though not as irritating as Sarah Montague) at 9am.
But Broadcasting House is patchy and a bit fey. Yesterday they played a bird song and listeners emailed in to tell them what it was. At least that’s what I think was going on as I made my way home from a walk around Stanwick Lakes (Dunlin was a good bird). The listeners were saying that the bird song was that of a Song Thrush, at least that’s what Paddy O’Connell said, whereas the song was, as plain as day, that of a Blackbird. I wasn’t shouting ‘Blackbird! Blackbird! Blackbird!’ at the car radio – honestly. But it got me thinking.
Blackbird. Photo: Tim Melling
The Blackbird is a very common UK bird – one of our commonest, but perhaps more importantly one of our most widely distributed too. There will be few UK residents who don’t at least have the opportunity to hear a Blackbird sing every Spring day. I often hear several in the rural town where I live in the few seconds when I pick up milk bottles from the doorstep before most of the world is up and active. Hanging out or taking in the washing in the back garden will usually be serenaded by a Blackbird. And on my walk around Stanwick Lakes there were plenty of Blackbirds singing. And last week when I was in London I heard many Blackbirds sing – indeed I stopped for a few moments in a London park to listen to a Blackbird’s song above the city hum of traffic and people.
But Radio 4 treat nature as a joke subject in the way that they do not treat other subjects. The sports coverage, even on Radio 4, rarely treats kicking a ball (of whatever shape) around as a matter of derision. Finance and the Stock Market are treated as important subjects that require no explanation because everyone will understand quantitative easing and the Living Wage. Literature is a serious subject where no-one would say ‘Oh my! I really don’t know my Hazlitt from my Hardy or my Heaney from my Hemingway’.
But it’s almost as though an ignorance of nature is seen as a sign of sophistication and this comes through on the BBC. Jeremy Paxman will sneer at an undergraduate who misremembers or wildly and wrongly guesses the answer to a question about history or literature but will, without a blush, mispronounce the words in a science question and then be tender in correcting the wrong answers, or dramatically impressed by right answers, on any set of ridiculously easy natural history questions.
To recognise a Blackbird’s song should be as much a test of cultural Britishness as knowing what Magna Carta was, the year of the battle of Hastings or who said that we would ‘fight them on the beaches’. But it isn’t.