More of a game

29 January 2016

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IT IS a nice example of etymological slippage. Utopia was intended by its inventor, Thomas More, to be a not-place: Ou-topia. Over time, and as the result of a tradition of mis-reading — or, more likely, not reading — the original, the assumed linguistic ancestry is Eu-topia, a place where all is good. And hence it is but a small step to the now common neologism “dystopia”.

But, as Michael Symmons Roberts and friends pointed out in Archive on 4: Utopias (Radio 4, Saturday), there is a lot that is dystopic about More’s Utopia. It is a militaristic colony, a place reliant on slavery, where individuals have no privacy. This was certainly not a place to dream of establishing; rather, for More, it was an intellectual game, one that he played out with a coterie of Latin-reading European humanists.

Our idea of More might be coloured by his portrayal as a sadistic bigot in Wolf Hall; but even sadistic bigots enjoy a good laugh once in a while.

This was notionally an exploration of the BBC archives — hence the generous hour-long format — and it was a joy to hear the likes of Tony Benn in such eloquent form describing how Utopia was a state of mind, an intellectual disposition, rather than a destination; or Paul Johnson describing his Utopia as a place from which all journalists were banned.

But the material that Symmons Roberts collected from his contemporary contributors was certainly rich enough to sustain the conversation, not least as such a fuss is made of the anniversary this year; for Utopia is, as one commentator put it, a European book: one that witnesses to an English cosmopolitan humanism that we are wont to forget, not least as we re-evaluate our ties with Europe.

When he was in his nineties, Bishop Richard Holloway’s father used to quip that he did not buy green bananas any more, because he could not be sure that he would last long enough to see them ripen. Holloway Junior has inherited something of that morbid humour, and used it to good effect in his series Three Score Years and Ten (Radio 4, weekdays), in which he reflected on last things.

He is not afraid, for instance, to reveal how, as a folically challenged twenty-something, he bought hair-thickening pills advertised in a church magazine. Neither these nor the comb-over could alter the fact that decay was setting in: the skeleton beneath the living flesh was already revealing itself.

There was plenty of this kind of thing over the five programmes: shifts of emotional gear, often bracing, sometimes unnerving. Indeed, at the end of the first programme, which dealt with how we must engage with our life’s failures, the change from sombre to jocular was so abrupt that one might have blamed poor editing. The constant was the generous inclusion of great writing — of whom Donne, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Philip Larkin perhaps best reflect the prevailing tone of these essays.

Of course, three-score years and ten does not mean a great deal any more. It may be a milestone, but not one that implies a tombstone. Bishop Holloway has managed the four-score, and he seems to be enjoying both the labour and the sorrow.

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