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No little green men

17 March 2017


Real and fantastical: We Are the Martians (Radio 4, Monday to Wednesday of last week) told the stories of our engagement with the Red Planet

Real and fantastical: We Are the Martians (Radio 4, Monday to Wednesday of last week) told the stories of our engagement with the Red Planet

“THOUGH much is sad on Earth, yet there may be brighter worlds than this.” It might the line of a hymn — a lost verse of “Jerusalem the Golden” perhaps. In fact, this comes from the Revd W. S. Lach-Szyrma’s groundbreaking novel of 1883 Aleriel, or A Voyage to Other Worlds, which, among other claims to innovation, uses for the first time in print the word “Martian”.

Last week on Radio 4 was Mars Week, and, at the gravitational centre of a swirling cosmos of programming was the excellent We Are the Martians (Monday to Wednesday of last week), telling the stories of our engagements with the Red Planet, real and fantastical.

Tuesday’s episode was devoted to the utopias and dystopias that Mars has offered to our imaginations. For the Spiritualists of the late 19th century, Mars was where the souls of the dead were resurrected; for feminists, it was a place where reversals of gendered authority could take place; and, for the emerging Soviet state, Mars offered new soil, unadulterated by historical class divisions.

In contrast, Mars was to others a dusty, lifeless place, whose environment was the outcome of a previous civilisation’s neglectful lifestyle. Percival Lowell and his Martian canal theory set in train a tradition of speculation in which Mars was seen to presage the fate of our own planet; the ad absurdum result being James Lovelock’s impish proposition to bathe the planet in CFCs and see what happens.

The fancies of Lowell, Lach-Szyrma, and the like seem less fanciful when one encounters the sort of people who inhabited Jolyon Jenkins’s Out of the Ordinary (Radio 4, Friday). In last week’s programme, we met people involved in the Accelerated Christian Education programme, for whom Creationism and the Rapture come under Science. In the schools that deliver this particular curriculum, there are no teachers as such: there are merely “supervisors” who will monitor the children’s progress through workbooks full of idiot-level multiple-choice questions. “Who are the main characters in Macbeth?” asks one such question, aimed at 17- and 18-year-old students. Without having read a word of the Divine Bard, it’s not such a stretch to assume the answer is “D — Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.”

As reported by Jenkins, the authorities have finally cottoned on, and, in a strategy that must be the closest it gets to a dawn raid, OFSTED pounced on ten schools on the same day. Nine of them emerged with an assessment of “Inadequate”, or “Needs improvement”, although this was largely for the method of teaching rather than the curriculum itself.

Somehow, I doubt that International Women’s Day would be marked with any great solemnity at ACE schools. Which is a pity, since one of the highlights of this year’s cultural programme was a performance of Kate Whitley’s Speak Out (Radio 3, Wednesday of last week), setting to music a speech delivered by Malala Yousafzai to the UN in 2013.

The subject of the speech was the right of every girl to a proper education; and, in lines such as “We can never all succeed when half of us are held back,” Whitley found a poetic resonance entirely suited to the medium of music.

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