George Hepburn: In the hours before dawn, a glimpse into some different worlds

It is amazing how much you can learn, even in a state of semi stupor, between five and six in the morning by listening to Radio Four

A radio
A radio

It is amazing how much you can learn, even in a state of semi stupor, between five and six in the morning by listening to Radio Four.

To those of you blessed with sound sleep and who have no reason to be up early, this will be news indeed. For those us who sleep fitfully and hope that a radio turned down low will lead to sweet dreams, this will come as no surprise.

I sometimes wonder if I am waking from a nightmare of torture, genocide, rape and disaster through listening to World Service which feeds Radio Four until 05.20.

Is the world really a nastier and more violent place during the night? Last week included harrowing screams from relatives of asylum seekers drowned in the Mediterranean. Most of these events, especially atrocities in Africa, are not reported after 6am when domestic news predominates. Maybe John Humprhys decides on what is palatable for people eating cornflakes in Potters Bar and tones it all down.

The World Service is paid for by the Foreign Office and so I have always wondered if it is a way of flying the flag as if the Empire still ruled OK, the BBC was the voice of truth and the Brits were beyond reproach? This anachronistic arrangement ends next year.

During the Shipping Forecast, which follows at 05.20, I try to navigate my way round the North Sea to places that sound like Fred Astaire and Germans bite.

Berwick upon Tweed is always mentioned and must be very important.

There is apparently no longer any need to broadcast this information four times a day as ships have on board weather information. I suspect that the Shipping Forecast survives only because the names and numbers include some coded messages to our secret agents in foreign parts.

Paranoia is common at this unearthly hour. It is a relief when the News Briefing kicks in at 05.30. According to Michael Heppell’s survey of successful people who have ‘the Edge’, high fliers only listen to the news once a day.

In the next 13 minutes News Briefing tells you, in a somewhat dull way, all you need to know for the day ahead and throws in the odd gem with items of news ‘on this day’ in previous years.

Last Wednesday marked the anniversary of Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793.

I learned that she stood on the executioner’s foot as she mounted the scaffold and asked his forgiveness before he cut her head off. There is something surreal about this time in the morning.

At 05.43, Prayer for the Day is a paler imitation of its later brother ‘Thought’. This week the reflection has been given by the Muslim Tutor at Eton College. But a few weeks back a Rabbi told one of the funniest stories I have heard in ages and I laughed myself silly as I tottered downstairs to the kitchen.

As I make the porridge, I give my full attention to Farming Today which runs for a mere 13 minutes of copy book broadcasting. Last week focussed on various initiatives, present and future, for farmers to grow crops for bio fuels and discussed whether this was an good use of land that used to grow crops for us to eat.

The reports included a poignant interview with a famer who had received a £1m grant to grow willow only to find two years later that his local power station could not process the crop. A professor from Southampton commented that such examples were common and that there was a deplorable lack of joined up thinking.

The vagaries of government policy on farming is a frequent leit motif on Farming Today. Also this week, we heard the reflections of the retiring NFU President who wants to get back to his farm; about the tragic snow storms in South Dakota which have killed livestock and ruined livelihoods, the problems caused by horses fly grazing in Wales and by rampant geese in the Hebrides. Not a bad count on violence and foreign affairs.

For 13 minutes, I enter into a world that might otherwise pass me by. I never know when some passing knowledge of farming will come in handy at the dinner table or when I bump into the farmer next door – who is also a fan.

Although you might think that farmers are chaps with few words, those interviewed on Farming Today argue their case clearly and never seem to stumble for their words. Perhaps they receive training at the studio in Bristol?

The presenters work to a well researched script and never get over excited or hector their guests. To my amusement, they are women invariably interviewing men and do so extremely well. There are no plugs for other programmes or annoying ditties, just good plain reporting.

Anna Hill and Charlotte Smith work alternate days and do not indulge in small talk in the mistaken belief that the listener is more interested in them than in the news. They do not aspire to celebrity status like those on the gardening programmes.

I learn from the website that Charlotte is mother of two small children so I hope the programme is pre recorded at a more civilised hour.

I have no doubt Lord Reith, who might turn in his grave if he twiddled his dial to Radio Five, would be proud of the standards set by Farming Today.

If only Tony Hall listened to the prgramme from the back seat of his chauffeur driven car, the BBC would be a better place.

After tweet of the day at 05.58, in which I hear a new birdsong each morning, I switch off the radio before the Today programme takes over and settle into my book.

I am reading the reflections of the solitary American monk, Thomas Merton who is the subject of a forthcoming retreat at Shepherds Dene. He warns against “the noise and business of men” and tells us “to keep beyond the reach of their radios.”

Quite right. By six o clock, I have had my fill for the day and set off for a swim.

:: George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene


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