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Radio: And that’s an Order

16 August 2007

by Edward Wickham

WHAT IS IT LIKE to be a successful hermit? You have been sitting in a hole in the ground for years, minding your own spiritual business, when someone begins to copy you. Your fame spreads, and soon you are surrounded by a host of other hermits. Before you know it, you are an Order: from humble hermit to proud institution.

Such is the declension explored in Caroline and David Stafford’s “serious comedy”, Tony’s Little Sister and the Paradox of Monasticism, which served as Radio 4’s Afternoon Play (Monday of last week). Regular Radio 4 listeners (and Guardian readers of a certain age) will be familiar with David Stafford’s gently askew sense of humour — he was a regular stand-in for John Peel on Home Truths — and in this play the focus was on domestic conflict, medieval-style.

“Tony” is St Anthony, who has spent 20 years in the wilderness doing battle with Satan. The latter has tried every trick in the book, and can find no chink in the holy armoury. Until, that is, Anthony’s little sister shows up, and Anthony’s history of self-regarding sanctity —stretching back to childhood —exposes his sin of pride.

The sister performs saintly works in the world, looking after the victims of plague, and it is only when Anthony is persuaded to return to the world that he learns true humility. The play concludes with Satan and Anthony watching the sun go down together — old adversaries become familiar.

Full of humorous lines, the highlights in this script came from the short bursts of prayer from a chorus of masochistic monks, presumably following an early version of a St Anthony cult. “Let us enter into the rocks, O Lord, and hide us in the dust. Let us climb the rugged mountaintops and nurture our disgust.” The lines are disconcertingly sing-able, and one can almost imagine stumbling across them in one of the darker corners of Mission Praise.

A new series of The Choice began last week (Radio 4, Tuesdays), with perhaps the most appalling episode I have heard. Sgt Joe Darby is the man who exposed the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, and this was the first interview he had given to the British media. His story is about the madness of crowds and the madness of politics.

Within the community who were staffing Abu Ghraib, no one was prepared to risk alienation by standing up to the volatile and charismatic Charles Graner, whose photos of the abuse he and his girlfriend Lynndie England inflicted were finally publicised by Sgt Darby.

When he did eventually blow the whistle, Sgt Darby’s identity was concealed in only a very careless manner — and the climax of his story comes when the then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, publicly acknowledges his role on national television. At the time, Sgt Darby was still in a camp in Iraq, and had to flee. Extraordinary stupidity on Mr Rumsfeld’s part, or part of a more devious agenda? One imagines he is capable of both.

As a result of this ineptitude, Sgt Darby’s wife and family were mauled by the press. Not everyone regarded his actions as heroic: US soldiers were behind bars, and that was something that many could not forgive him for. The shame of Abu Ghraib extends well beyond a small group of soldiers in a prison in Iraq.

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