Podcasts

Forget monetary policy, the Bank of England’s greatest crime was architectural

In 1916 the Bank of England committed what Nikolaus Pevsner was to call the greatest architectural crime to befall London in the 20th century. It decided to demolish much of its own building, designed by the great Georgian neoclassical architect John Soane. Soane’s lost masterpiece is the subject of the latest series from the essential architecture podcast About Buildings and Cities. The podcast, started in 2016 by presenters Luke Jones and George Gingell as a hobby, has slowly become a fan-funded staple for architects, offering a re-evaluation of the received wisdoms about the canon and some affable banter along the way. He built a rich ‘internal world’, lit by roof

Jenny McCartney

How we became addicted to vaping

For those of us with a poor grasp of time, who can still recall when a night at the pub could be sharply revisited by a Proustian wave of stale smoke arising from yesterday’s clothes, it can almost feel as if vaping crept up on us out of nowhere. One moment, it seemed, all the authorities had firmly agreed that Nick O’Teen was a creepy pusher hooking innocent kids on gaspers, and were pledging to legislate and tax cigarettes into oblivion; the next, great hordes of schoolchildren were apparently free to suck constantly on little vials of liquid nicotine with sugar-rush names such as Cherry Fizzle and Blue Razz Lemonade.

Under the Taliban, Afghan light entertainment accrued unusual weight

For a television talent show, Afghan Star had unusually high stakes. When it first hit Afghanistan’s screens in 2005, four years after the fall of the Taliban, it represented the triumph of music over those who had attempted to smother it. Even from the show’s somewhat chaotic inception, it galvanised a nation, sending supporters out on to the streets to canvas for their favourite performers. When the Taliban first swept into town, people were overjoyed: they were seen as ‘angels of peace’ The first winner, Shakib Hamdard, certainly deserved some luck: he had lost his father to a suicide bomb and his brother to a rocket attack, and was driving

A gripping podcast about America’s obsession with guns

The love affair between so many Americans and their guns – long a source of international fascination – appears to be getting more painfully intense. The greater the publicity over gun crime, the more Americans think they’d better acquire a firearm to keep themselves safe. There are now roughly 400 million guns in the US – but most citizens feel more unsafe than ever, and with some justification. Last year featured both the highest level of gun ownership in US history and the highest recorded number of mass shootings. This really is one to listen to in bed, in the pitch dark – even better, pretend you’re in a couchette

How to live off the land for a year

Could you live off the land for a year without buying a single thing to eat? This was the challenge a retired journalist set himself on Radio 4 this week. Max Cotton lives on a five-acre smallholding near Glastonbury in Somerset with his wife Maxine, two pigs, two dozen hens and a Jersey-Friesian cross named Brenda. He also has six adult sons who, as far as this project is concerned, ‘prefer to pontificate than help very much.’ Cotton’s hopes for peas by April were even less realistic than I thought Cotton conceded at the outset that he would allow himself to purchase salt as a necessity. For everything else, he

Don’t tell them but the French didn’t in fact invent etiquette

When dining in France, it is considered rude to finish the bread before the main course has been served, and ruder still to slice the bread with a knife, lest the crumbs land in a lady’s décolletage. In China, you should never place your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, and in Bangladesh you may eat with your fingers, but should avoid getting sauce above the knuckles. If you are guilty of any of the above, may I direct you, politely, to a new documentary on the World Service. The programme takes aim at many outdated traditions (including those that resign women to the kitchen), but the conversation is

How depressing when people over-identify with their ethnicity

I am a Jew. I live in a council estate in London where considerably more than half of my neighbours are Muslims. These people aren’t my friends, but we get along fine: I pick up their parcels; we coordinate complaints to the council about the strange, blue-tinged fluid that sometimes drips from everyone’s ceilings, as if someone in the penthouse had decided to fill their flat with jelly. Elsewhere, our distant cousins are doing terrible things to each other. It’s increasingly hard to imagine a world in which these distant cousins can live together, intermingled but mostly minding their own business – but that’s exactly what we do every day

How did the internet become so horrific?

I can dimly remember the internet getting going, gradually staking its claims on our attention with hardly anyone except tech nerds – and famously David Bowie – realising what was going on. In our defence it was the 1990s and we had a lot else to think about: Britpop, The End of History, lads’ mags, guacamole, supermodels, Tony Blair, Monica Lewinsky, etc. But here we all are now, in a world where I can do my banking from bed, America is fragmenting like papier-mâché in the rain, and primary school children can get porn on their smartphones. Can anyone recall the incremental steps that brought us here? If not, it

Fascinating: Radio 4’s Empire of Tea reviewed

I can scarcely remember a time before tea: I started drinking it at around four, at home in Belfast, as a reward after school. Before long I was as fiercely protective of my right to a brew as the workers of British Leyland’s Birmingham car plant, who were famously spurred to strike action in 1981 when the management proposed cutting tea breaks by 11 minutes. Decades on, my passion is undiminished. There is no problem to which tea is not at least a partial solution: it restores flagging spirits, calms the over-excited, warms in winter and refreshes in summer. Sathnam Sanghera’s recollections in his Radio 4 five-parter Empire of Tea

What happened to the supermodels of the 1990s?

‘What advice would you give to your younger self?’ has become a popular question in interviews in recent years. It’s meant to generate something profound but, musing privately, I always find it a puzzler. Sometimes I think that maybe I shouldn’t have wasted so much of my twenties talking nonsense in pubs, but on the other hand I really enjoyed it. So I usually settle on: ‘Don’t buy a sofa bed, especially not the kind with a concealed metal frame that you pull out.’ Unbelievably, I’ve done this twice. These vast, unwieldy contraptions cost a bomb, weigh a ton, make a terrible sofa and an uncomfortable bed. If you’re 16

Enjoyable and informative but where’s the drama? Political Currency reviewed

The first episode of George Osborne and Ed Balls’s new podcast, Political Currency, opened with an old clip of the pair arguing across the despatch box. Osborne had described his latest Budget as ‘steady as she goes’ and Balls was having none of it. ‘What kind of ship does he think he’s on, the Titanic?’ If producers hoped that the duo would bring something of this, er, biting dynamic to their podcast, they were in for a surprise. The opening number saw little in the way of sparring between the former opponents. Seated in a studio in east London, they spent most of the time doing what so many in

The rise of vampirism in Silicon Valley

The Immortals, which begins on Radio 4 this week, is not for the faint-hearted. While it professes to be about the human quest for longevity and the elusive ‘cure’ for getting older, it focuses largely upon the transferral of blood plasma from healthy young people to reluctantly ageing people, or, as anyone with good sense might put it, the desperate descent from vanity to vampirism. I was on the verge of switching over to something more anodyne when a 46-year-old tech entrepreneur began talking about being injected with plasma from his 17-year-old son. Bryan Johnson, who sold his company to PayPal for $800 million in 2013, does not even sound

Gripping tale of Ireland’s most polite bank robber: I’m Not Here To Hurt You reviewed

There should really be a special word for it: that vicarious fragility you feel when hearing of a minor decision with catastrophically heavy consequences, as if a falling acorn had tipped a boulder. In the case of John O’Hegarty, the subject of the engrossing podcast I’m Not Here To Hurt You, the catalyst for disaster was a quick short cut the wrong way down a one-way Dublin street while working as a bicycle courier. It would ultimately lead him – an academic with a master’s degree in psychology – into heroin and crack cocaine addiction, followed by a stint as a bank robber and eight years in prison. With a

The stuff of nightmares: Retrievals podcast reviewed

It is the stuff of nightmares, or a queasily dystopian film plot. A woman is undergoing a surgical procedure in a top-rated US clinic. The aim is ‘egg retrieval’, a process which collects eggs from the ovaries for use in IVF. It involves nerves and hope, long needles and pain – except the patient has been promised that the latter will be minimal, thanks to an injection of fentanyl, a powerful opioid. The pain certainly isn’t minimal, however. It’s excruciating. When the woman says how much it hurts, the nurse tops up the dose, and then says the patient has now received the maximum allowed. There might be a touch

The problem with podcasts

A few months ago, a clip from a podcast went mildly viral online. A lightly dressed woman sits in front of a microphone, explaining her sex life in pedantic detail to an offscreen interviewer. It was strange and unpleasant, which was why people couldn’t stop looking at it. What kind of podcast is this, exactly? Who’s listening to it? The answer was nobody. The woman was a porn actress called Vicky Banxx, and the podcast didn’t exist. Across the world, thousands of people are doing the same thing: plonking themselves down in front of mics, setting up a camera and talking in a genial, conversational style to absolutely no one.

Looking for a male role model? Check out the silverback gorilla

One so often hears about famous people who are horrible when they think no one important is looking – barking at assistants, or snapping at waiters – that it’s heartening to learn of the opposite: kindness in circumstances that promise little obvious reward. The author and filmmaker Jon Ronson had just such a story last week about his pick for Radio 4’s Great Lives series: the late Terry Hall, lead singer of the Specials and Fun Boy Three, and an attractively morose and compelling presence on the 1970s and ’80s music scene.  The 12-year-old Ronson was at the front of an ‘excitingly feral’ Specials gig in Cardiff when he conceived

Shocked and moved me far more than I anticipated: Hoaxed reviewed

I shied away from conspiracy stuff during the Trump era. Not the theories themselves, but the huge volume of content proclaiming that we lived in a post-truth age of misinformation and conspiracy. It wasn’t that I disagreed with the idea that something like this was happening, or the idea that it was bad. It was more a certain tone these podcasts, essays and articles shared – almost a shared idiom and turn of phrase. People talked about ‘truth’ and ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ with unwavering self-certainty. Buried in it somewhere was the assumption that if you expressed enough alarm and horror, and adopted a sufficiently serious voice, this would solve the

Welcome to the weird world of the New Right: Subversive podcast reviewed

Subversive is a podcast that documents the world of the ‘New Right’, a strange development in conservatism. Host Alex Kaschuta, one of the movement’s intellectual leaders, gives a good sense of the New Right’s weirdness. Trembling minor-key synths play in the theme and Alex purrs that we’re about to hear a two-hour long conversation with ‘Covfefe Anon’. Other guests include ‘Zero H.P. Lovecraft’ and ‘Yeerk.P’. Some are anonymous commentators who have their voices distorted like a drug dealer in a Ross Kemp documentary. Others are known entities: journalists like Sohrab Ahmari, Ed West and Louise Perry. They like the classical world, the Unabomber, steak. They hate CNN, porn, sunflower oil

Rivals Wagatha Christie for its lowbrow twists: FT’s Hot Money – Who Rules Porn? reviewed

It was recently reported that almost 8 per cent of global internet traffic is to pornographic websites. The rise of working from home may make this statistic less startling than it might have been three years ago, but still, that’s an awful lot of procrastination and, well, not much WFH. Given the dominance of the porn industry, it’s a wonder there hasn’t been an exposé of the kind produced by the Financial Times before now. The newspaper’s investigation into who lurks behind the webcams and controls this business took more than six months to complete and has now been turned into a riveting eight-part podcast series. Hot Money: Who Rules

Why is post-colonial guilt only applied to Western classical traditions? Radio 3’s World of Classical reviewed

The blurb accompanying the Radio 3 series World of Classical, inviting us to ‘join the dots between classical music traditions of the world’, suggests an introduction to the field of comparative musicology. Such a noble venture – searching for commonalities in melodies, ornamentation, rhythms, use of instruments, vocal styles and techniques and so on – would once have been a vital part of Radio 3’s continued adherence to the Reithian ideals of informing and educating as well as entertaining. Jon Silpayamanant’s series however resembles more a series of episodes of Late Junction, married to a moralising and historically unbalanced commentary. Music is used to illustrate a particular view of world