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Fascinating hostess

26 June 2015


WHATEVER you might say about her, Lady Thatcher held a fascination for all who encountered her. Fans of the Alan Clark diaries will be familiar with the particular passion that afflicted middle-aged men in the presence of the PM. But Mrs Thatcher and the Writers (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) revealed that it was not just Clark that was in thrall. At dinners held in the mid-'80s for eminent writers of the day, the hostess set all sorts goggle-eyed, including Anthony Powell and V. S. Naipaul.

There was an anti-Thatcher dining circle as well, led by Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter. No doubt the conversation at these occasions was equally Thatcher-centric, since, as Ian McEwan said, Lady Thatcher "brought us alive": she was someone with the character to shake them out of their "soggy, post-war left-liberal consensus".

D. J. Taylor's documentary took us from there to the present-day literary creations of Hilary Mantel, Alan Hollinghurst, and others who have featured Lady Thatcher in their fiction. Mr Hollinghurst talked, as he has written, on the effect that she had on others: the fawning, the flirting, the jousting. Twenty-five years after her fall from power, and two years after her death, the effect appears not to have abated.

Famously, Lady Thatcher could function on only four hours of sleep a night. A good candidate, then, for Anil Seth's research at the Sackler Institute, discussed on The Life Scientific (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week). Professor Seth's job is to find out what consciousness is; or, at least, to define what we mean by consciousness. For, as he admitted, this is not one of those phenomena where you say what you are going to observe, and then observe it.

The most impressive part of this survey came at the end, when Professor Seth was given one of those Today-style questions to answer in a few seconds: Do we have free will? The answer, apparently, is yes - and no. The more interesting observation is that belief in our own voluntary action is an important part of consciousness: we need to be able to differentiate between those actions which are instinctive and those which we believe to be self-willed, so that we can learn from the consequences of those self-willed actions.

Perhaps, then, the belief in free will is an evolutionary adaptation, enabling us to learn from our mistakes.

Legend has it that the youthful Mozart was upbraided for having too many notes in one of his operas. Nowadays, composition teachers might say the opposite, as one did to the composer Laurence Crane: that there were too few. Minimalism has become one of the most enduring stylistic traits of contemporary music: developed in the United States in the 1960s, and now ubiquitous.

Minimal Impact (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) was an appropriately compact survey of the trend. Even though you may think you have never heard it, you almost certainly have: minimalism is everywhere, from cutting-edge dance music to television drama. One contributor even admitted to playing some Steve Reich at the birth of his son; he didn't tell us whether social services were called in.

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