Radio Having embarked on a project to listen my way through the In Our Time podcast from Radio 4 the last thing I expected to hear was just how argumentative the programme was back when the format was first broadcast back in 1998. For just over the past decade, it's generally been a kind of encyclopedia in discussion format with subjects broad and narrow explained in as much detail as is possible in half an hour by three academics refereed by Melvyn Bragg.
But the first series is markedly different, much closer to Start The Week, which Melvyn had just completed a year's stewardship. In 1998/9 a guest academic with a new book out would be invited on to what was essentially a Phd supervision meeting with someone else in their field and Melyvn, whose style was far more analytical and journalistic back then. From what I've heard so far the discussions were often intriguingly fractious with old scores bubbling to the surface. Here are some highlights.
Dr Helena Cronin vs Dr Germaine Greer.
There are few things in life more entertaining than hearing Greer in full flow and on point destroying the argument of someone who she disagrees with, and so it is with Cronin and her Darwinian theory about women in society which is essentially that men and women have evolutionary developed to be capable of different things and that society should get around to accepting that. Things begin well when Greer, having heard Cronin's initial argument, gives a very lengthy, very telling pause. What follows is twenty minutes of evisceration in which Germaine more than lives up to her name. Utterly thrilling and also likely to promote a goodly amount of righteous indignation, notably when Cronin suggests that women are predisposed not to be geniuses...
Roger Scrutton vs Will Self.
Oh yes. I think you can imagine which way this goes and it's a typical example of how Melvyn and his guest would essentially tag team as they pick holes in the other guest's work. On this occasion, Scrutton's selling his monograph An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture which if their discussion is anything to go by ignores all popular music but for Nirvana and Oasis, film (something Bragg is especially distressed about) and modern technology in general. Admittedly for much of the duration it's good natured sniping, but there are moments when Scrutton sounds like he wants to leave because he knows he's on to a loser. Self is superb on how the artificial walled gardens between high and popular culture are increasingly designed for no other reason than to make intellectuals feel better about themselves.
The Avant Garde's Decline and Fall in the 20th Century
Professor Eric Hobsbawm vs Frances Morris.
Bit of surprising one this. Morris was then specialist in contemporary art and Art Programme Curator for the Tate Gallery of Modern Art and so obviously has an interest in defending the avant-guarde, something which Hobsbawm is keen to indicate is merely the process of watching the decline of a once great cultural force, suggesting that film is by far the more vibrant and important visual art in the twentieth century. Unlike the other two I can see this from both sides, mainly because comparing Gone With The Wind and Guernica seems like an essentially pointless exercise. Everything begins relative genially and then Hobsbawn starts referring to Morris patronisingly as "my dear" which gets her back up, with good reason. It's an age thing, but it doesn't half start making you want to side with her.
Shakespeare and Literary Criticism
Professor Harold Bloom vs Jacqueline Rose.
There are few things more entertaining than when Melvyn scoffs and there's a classic one in here when Bloom suggests that Freud's Oedipal complex was more heavily influenced by Hamlet. "Do you have proof of that?" Bragg asks and we then hear a superb example of how the arguments some academics have around subject are too complex to be able to articulate in a few sentences whichever side of the fence of correctness they're on. Worth listening for the moment when Rose utterly destroys Jane Eyre for any reader with a social conscience and Bloom proposes an utterly barmy new approach to teaching literature in universities.
Architecture in the 20th Century
Daniel Libeskind vs Richard Weston
Actually pretty good natured even though the participants are on opposite ends of the architectural belief spectrum. The real meat is in how Bragg and Weston attempt to describe Libeskind's buildings for the radio, notably the Spiral Extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum which wasn't subsequently built. Most of it isn't anything the architect hasn't heard before, but there is still one moment which made me "oof" as I was walking around Sainsbury's. As with all these discussions, they're time sensitive and there's plenty of talk about where architecture is in the 20th century and where it will be going in the next couple of decades.