The American novelist John Irving once described baseball as “a game with a lot of waiting in it”. For Michael Sandel, political philosopher and lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, the waiting is a crucial element of the game’s appeal, the leisurely pace of play allowing those watching to engage in intimate conversation even amid the hubbub of a packed stadium. As if by way of illustration, On Baseball allowed him to wax lyrical with his guests about the game’s cultural symbolism and singular place in the American collective imagination.
Best known to Radio 4 listeners for The Public Philosopher, Sandel is a mix of old-school charm and lightly carried intellectual curiosity. His backdrop was the former Olympic Stadium in east London, where the first ever major league baseball game to be played in Britain – the Red Sox v the Yankees – was unfolding in the background. Guests included former cricketer Ed Smith and former Labour leader Ed Miliband, who, it turned out, had started supporting the Red Sox aged 12. Given their 86-year spell as also-rans, this, in retrospect, did not bode well for his future career.
It was Miliband who bravely brought up the subject of ignominious failure, which, in baseball as in politics, is a possibility both unthinkable and omnipresent. The mood shifted when the American sports writer Claire Smith held forth on racism in the sport, pointing out that black players were not admitted to the Major League until 1947. If, as Sandel insisted, “baseball is a way of understanding the country that produced the sport”, the romanticism that still surrounds this most American of games suddenly seemed as much a smokescreen as a nostalgic aura.
Intimate conversation of a different kind unfolded in Troubles Shared, in which journalists Peter Taylor and Fergal Keane revisited Northern Ireland. As outsiders – Taylor is from Yorkshire, Keane grew up in Cork – they had witnessed the conflict at close hand and recalled the atrocities and the carnage, but also the small quotidian details of a steadfastly parochial place. Keane recalled the way sound carried across the Belfast rooftops, whether the thudding of Orange drums or the thump of a car bomb several streets away. Revealingly, what baffled him most was an atrocity he had witnessed but could not now recall in any detail. “I wiped it out of my mind,” he said of the terrible aftermath of one bomb. “I’m struggling to remember it... and that tells its own story.”
There were other similarly telling moments. At one point, when they were trying to locate a memorial to six British soldiers who died at the IRA’s hands in Lisburn, Keane admitted: “I’m still reluctant, with my accent in this largely Protestant town, to ask where the bomb went off.” His reticence spoke volumes about the differences that still divide – and to a degree define – the province. Inevitably, Brexit loomed large in their thoughts and with it the possibility of a hard border. “I have this deep unease that we could be plunged back through a mixture of British carelessness and nationalist impetuosity,” elaborated Keane. In that, he is not alone.
The Hang podcast does what it says on the label, the supremely affable jazz singer Gregory Porter hanging out and hanging loose with a like-minded guest with often surprising results. With saxophonist Kamasi Washington there was an immediate and deep connection that harked back to their shared gospel background. With Annie Lennox the conversation quickly moved into deeper waters: solitude, not belonging, adapting to survive as a gifted, working-class child. It was riveting stuff that Porter instinctively connected with (“It’s something the black people do, that we have to do in order to traverse the terrain of American life”). Deep easy listening.
The big radio event of the week was Timberlake Wertenbaker’s dramatisation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the French literary classic condensed to a mere 10 hours and featuring the quintessentially English voices of Derek Jacobi, Simon Russell Beale and Frances Barber. On the evidence of the first instalment, the act of listening to, rather than reading, those elaborately elongated sentences has the magical effect of making them seem much shorter. This is a blessing, but not even Jacobi’s dulcet delivery could endear me to the neurotically nostalgic narrator and his lost world of privilege.
There were passages of luminous recall, of course, but on balance I’m still siding with Germaine Greer, who defiantly equated temps perdu with time wasted – “time that would be better spent visiting a demented relative, meditating, walking the dog or learning ancient Greek”.