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
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
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
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.