In Our Time - the best of radio

One of the consequences (after a retinal tear in the eye) of being told to read less (advice that was happily overturned by a more senior doctor 48 hours later)* was rediscovering the joy of listening to BBC radio.

This was joy was not focused on the news output. Here the Corporation slides to new lows (often in the misguided pursuit of 'balance' or the pursuit of 'artificial' conflict rather than illumination) for which see its coverage of climate change where it pretends that the science is not settled - and the outcomes every day more sadly vivid - and allows pedlars of falsehood on (with no scientific credentials whatsoever) like Lord Lawson slithering with their snake oil of 'denial' that goes unchallenged by the interviewing journalist.

But, thankfully, within Corporation House, there does remain oases of public broadcasting rooted in an ethos of education and entertainment, quietly balanced. One such is Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' (whose website can be found here: The formula is simple - identify a subject from the arts or sciences either a theme, an event or a person, identify three academic experts (who are more or less lucid and certainly knowledgeable and generous) host an informative conversation about the subject for forty-five minutes, allowing your listener to learn and emerge better informed. There are, obviously, variations in quality. Does the chemistry work and it usually does because Bragg is a skilled facilitator; and, can the subject be adequately treated within the given time horizon, mostly yes, sometimes you wish for a Part 2.

Whether the subject is something you know about or not, you emerge feeling that you have learnt something new - a new angle on the familiar or new depth on the unfamiliar. It is also a confirmation that scholarship (despite what some think and the culture wars that seep across the media) still exists and (for forty five minutes at least) people can share what they know, even when they might disagree, with a uniform civility and humanity.

Eyesight restored, I happily continue to listen and dip into the back catalogue. I am especially enjoying the science and history related slots because I know that whereas I would probably not now invest my reading time there, I am gleaning a solid background in what 'everyone ought to know' and have a feel for at least.

I enjoy too the surprises when you thought you knew something and it is adjusted and makes you wonder. For some reason as a child I developed a fascination for the Boxer rebellion. Listening to the 'In Our Time' programme on the Boxer rising, I discovered that half (10,000) of relieving force were Japanese, a fact occluded in most popular, Western accounts, and you suddenly see how meteoric Japan's rise was (in under fifty years) and potentially, you feel, how dislocating it must have been too. A single fact that suddenly prompts a whole repositioning of a spectrum of thought on that transition.

'In Our Time' is an online encyclopaedia and as such rewards (as those books did) happy hours of browsing, stumbling upon the new, the newly unfamiliar, the loved and known revisited.

* The more senior doctor told me that since I sleep and dream and thus have rapid eye movements involuntarily I do to my eyes more violence each night than I could possibly do reading!


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