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Cry from the heart

21 October 2016

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SO OFTEN, nowadays, are we re­­minded of forgotten histories, that we are prone to forget what we already knew. Britain’s Black Past (Radio 4, weekdays) has presented us with profiles of late-18th- and early-19th-century char­acters whose ethnicity and careers appar­ently force us to reconfigure our views of British history; but not all of them are quite so forgot­ten as the programme publicity would like us to think.

Tuesday’s episode, for instance, gave us Dido Belle, and Francis Barber, who is hardly an unknown. Nor in Professor Gretchen Gerz­ina’s account of the former did we hear any real justification for her assertion that the movie treatment was indeed highly romanticised.

Of the five case-studies last week, that of Robert Wedderburn was perhaps the most surprising, in that we find in him a black activist whose polemics entailed a critique not only of slavery, but of property-owner­ship and exploita­tion. His presence in the heart of London, selling pamphlets off Trafalgar Square and preaching “seditious” sermons in a Unitarian church in Soho, was an immediate provocation to author­ity.

His writing is infused with a sense of anger at the treat­­­ment of his enslaved mother by his slave-owning father; but the rhetoric extends to savage attacks on the clergy who unthinkingly preach the doctrine of obedience to all oppressed peoples.

While we are on the subject of patriarchal tyranny, I cannot think of a more chilling expression than Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy”; which, thanks to the Radio 3 birth­day celebrations, is available to hear in the poet’s own clipped tones. Three Score and Ten (Radio 3, weekdays) is the strand respons­ible: gathering from the archives readings by some of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Plath’s reading (Thursday of last week) was recorded shortly before her suicide in February 1963, but first broadcast in September of that year as part of a posthumous trib­ute. The poet introduces the poem by saying that experience, however painful, must be manipulated “with an in­­formed and intelligent mind” so as to give the subjective a wider res­onance.

Thus the domineering men in Plath’s life are reimagined in the uniform of Nazi officers; but I don’t think anybody listening to Plath’s reading will be fooled into thinking that this is, as Words­worth and Coleridge would have it, “emotion recollected in tranquil­lity”. “Daddy” is one of the most brutal poems of the 20th century, and makes for uncomfortable lis­tening.

If you wanted to escape the pa­­triarchy, then you could, of course, join a convent. There is nothing better to wind up the boys than to show them that women can lead perfectly satisfying lives with­out them. That, at least, was the view of Mother Hildegarde of the Ty­­burn Convent as expressed in The Conversation (World Service, Mon­­day of last week).

Her interlocutor on this some­what disjointed programme was Sister Tracy Kemme, from the Sis­ters of Charity in Cincinnati, who gave up her long-term boyfriend to join up. Joining a religious order is also like dating, she declared. The boyfriend’s views on the subject go unrecorded.

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