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Internet Radio and British Poetry

Michiko Kanetake
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: British Poetry, Classical Rhetoric

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Entertainment from iPlayer Radio

I love visiting the iPlayer Radio website when I get in the mood to listen to BBC Radio online. The BBC offers more than ten radio channels that you can either stream in real time via airborne signal or access in the form of recorded programming going back about three weeks. It’s fun to search through these past broadcasts as well. You can hear music, listen to chatty radio hosts—the list goes on. In addition to keeping you current with the state of affairs in the UK, BBC news programs offer a variety of different perspectives that you won’t get in Japan. These are great topics to bring up when you’re with British people, and tuning in of course gives you the opportunity to develop your practical English skills so they don’t get rusty while you’re in Japan.

“Just a Minute”

Among the many interesting and entertaining programs on BBC Radio, one of the most distinctively British is “Just a Minute.” Hosted by Nicholas Parsons, the show invites four panelists to give an amusing talk for one minute each on a given topic. The guests are a diverse group, ranging from comedians and writers to actors, politicians, journalists, and more. The premise is simple, yet it results in lively entertainment. The topics are often trivial. One extreme example I came across was “Five uses of the banana.” Contestants must follow the rule that they talk “without hesitation, repetition, or deviation.” The topics are impossible to predict, but guests must start speaking right away as if the subject were one they are particularly eager to address, for otherwise it will be seen as “hesitation.” However, managing to stay on track long enough to really get into the story has its dangers as well. For example, if a guest says something like, “I looked again and again,” you’ll hear Parsons’ bell cut them short for transgressing the “repetition” rule. The speaker then loses the rest of their minute and the next guest must take up the topic. Sometimes, if a story becomes really interesting and funny, Parsons will allow minor infractions to slide without sounding the bell. When he does, however, one of the other contestants may object by calling out “Just a minute! Wasn’t that a ‘deviation’?” The title of the show therefore refers to both the one-minute time limit and the way guests interject. This competition based solely on words and language is one of the staples of Radio 4, first airing back in 1967. It has some similarities to the program Shoten in Japan, but with “Just a Minute,” you get the fun of listening to guests who are not necessarily professional wordsmiths and marvel at their narrative skills.

Weather forecasts

Listening to weather forecasts on the radio may sound not particularly exciting, but it can also be rather entertaining somehow. The weather in England is highly changeable, and it seems like no matter what town it is the daily forecast is something like “sunny, followed by rain and then clouds” or “cloudy, followed by rain, then sunny spells, with strong winds from the west”—so much so that it is hard to say whether it is “changeable” or actually “invariable.” Either way, while I’m going along listening to these long-winded weather reports, I start hearing the names of various places in England, remembering different people and places. It brings up random memories and also gets me thinking about places I’ve never been. Since I live in Japan, I of course do not need to know what the weather will be in England tomorrow, but somehow I’m still drawn to taking a moment and listening to the British forecasts at the end of the day.

Rather unexpectedly, it turns out that there are a lot of people who simply enjoy listening to weather forecasts for their own sake. For example, far more people tune in to hear the British Shipping Forecast than there are people in the shipping industry; somewhat amusingly enough, the program has hundreds of thousands of avid listeners and is so popular that it was even used during the opening ceremonies at the 2012 London Olympics. The forecast starts with the English coast and then starts naming bodies of water around Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, Spain, Ireland, and even Iceland. Gradually, the cadence falls into a set rhythm, almost like a chant. Apparently, listening to the Shipping Forecast evokes a certain feeling of nostalgia in the British people, as it appears in numerous essays and travel writings and is even featured in the lyrics of rock songs. Contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney and renowned Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy wrote poems about it.

“Prayer”

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Prayer” uses the Shipping Forecast. The poem is a fourteen-line sonnet that consists of three quatrains and a couplet. Four people appear in the first three quatrains. In the first, a woman lifts her head from her hands and stares at the sound of leaves in a tree. A man then experiences a “small familiar pain” when he “[hears] his youth” in a distant sound of a train passing at night. A person looking out on a town from a window is moved by the sound of someone practicing elementary piano scales. Another calls out a child’s name in the dusk. Each one experiences a flash of insight into their lives as a result of their encounter with a small, everyday sound. Finally, the poem closes with these two lines:

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer.
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

The last four proper nouns are names of bodies of water used in the Shipping Forecast, taken from local reefs and shallows (FitzRoy is the current name for the sea area once known as Finisterre). Each of these maritime locations may also be a metaphor for the four people mentioned earlier in the poem. Here, the poet offers a window into each of their hearts, linking them together in words in the same way that the sound of the radio links together these four distant places. She describes a “faithless” era, saying that these days “we cannot pray,” yet her poem is a “prayer” that weaves together modern souls.

The prose work “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” by seventeenth-century poet John Donne famously makes a comparison between human beings and islands. In one passage it states, “[n]o man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” Duffy’s work may be taken as a modern response to this well-known line. Donne’s Christian faith would have caused him to see mankind as an interwoven community, but in the modern, “faithless” era portrayed by Duffy, human beings may very well have become islands. Donne saw individuals as being “involved in mankind,” where every person’s death was one’s own—and it is for this reason that we are told “for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (Incidentally, Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, later made into a film, comes from this line.) For Donne, the sound of the bell was a chance for us to reaffirm a universal human nature that transcends individual boundaries. In today’s world, it may be the voice of a poet like Duffy that is able to link together the estranged modern people now living like islands.

The works of Duffy and Donne live on. Decades or even centuries from now, what sounds will appear in literary works to link individuals together?

Michiko Kanetake
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: British Poetry, Classical Rhetoric
Professor Kanetake was born in 1971 in Kanagawa Prefecture. She graduated from the Faculty of Literature, University of the Sacred Heart in 1993, going on to complete her master’s degree program in 1996 at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, University of Tokyo. She completed another master’s degree at the Faculty of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford in 2000, and completed her credits in the doctoral program at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology in 2001. She received her doctorate in 2015 after submitting her dissertation.

Kanetake worked as a full-time lecturer, assistant professor, and associate professor at the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University before taking up her current position in 2013. She is currently researching on the philosophy of “written voice,” particularly as it relates to the rhetorical theory of eighteenth-century rhetorician Hugh Blair and Derrida’s grammatology.