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It’s all Greek to me

27 September 2013

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THE silly but memorable comedy film My Big Fat Greek Wedding includes a father whose pride in his culture extends to making spurious claims for the Greek etymologies of English words. Every word in the English language, he asserts, arises from Greek roots.

I was reminded of this absurd character at the start of each episode of Bettany Hughes's series The Ideas That Make Us (Radio 4, weekdays). It is not that I mistrust Hughes's expert knowledge of Ancient Greek culture and language; but to be told that every big idea in human civilisation was first articulated by the Greeks does not tell us very much, except that the Greeks were jolly clever people, and, since they were around pretty much at the start of civilisation, they must have had a lot to do with it.

More importantly, I am not clear about Hughes's idea of what an idea is. We learnt in the first episode that Pindar, in the fifth century BC, said that an idea was "a thing that was seen". Ingeniously, we then cut to a scene in which Hughes was having her brain scanned for signs of activity when conceiving an idea. What does an idea look like, the poor neuroscientist was being asked. All she could say in reply was that many bits of the brain light up.

And no wonder: for the "ideas" that the next four shows focused on were so nebulous as to consume the entirety of our psychological and neurological networks. "Love", "fame", "agony", and "justice" are hardly ideas in the same way as are "the wheel", or "a radio show in which a well-known television historian gets to talk more about the Ancient Greeks".

This is not to say that The Ideas That Make Us wasn't full of entertaining insights, stories, and curios: William Dalrymple on why we get so many of our words for hygiene products from Hindi; the story of the 18th-century courtesan Kitty Fisher; and the agony of an Australian cricket fan as his team lost the Ashes. But this was not "the archaeology of philosophy" which was promised at the outset, excellent idea though that is.

Here is another good idea. Why don't the big-brand clothes retailers whose suppliers were involved in the Rana Plaza factory disaster in Dhaka earlier this year start making proper amends to the victims? In File On 4: What price cheap clothes? (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) we learned that Primark was the only company that had currently paid out anything substantial; it, along with M&S and Debenhams, has also joined a compensation group to discuss longer-term reparations.

There are plenty of big brands that appear uninterested in the process, however, to the extent that one in three victims has had no support whatsoever since the collapse of the factories.

Of course, it is never as simple as that. The Bangladeshi govern-ment must take responsibility for enforcing existing safety- and working-practice legislation, and here, at least, something seems to be happening: a survey conducted by government engineers since the disaster has identified 40 per cent of clothes factories as unsafe.

But most worrying is the suggestion that children continue to work in these factories, sometimes replacing the mothers who died in the accident. The idea of getting food on the table trumps any more rarefied ideas of safety and justice.

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