Brecht, of course

26 May 2017

BBC

Reminiscence: in Our Man in the Middle East (Radio 4, weekdays), Jeremy Bowen revisited his career as a foreign correspondent

Reminiscence: in Our Man in the Middle East (Radio 4, weekdays), Jeremy Bowen revisited his career as a foreign correspondent

PRESENTERS for Classic FM are, I am told, forbidden to insert the phrase “of course” into their scripts. They want to dispel the sense that classical music requires, for its appreciation, a body of knowledge shared only by an educated elite. You would never hear a Classic FM presenter opining on a late Beet­hoven string quartet that “the shift to D flat minor of course expresses a deep disaffection with Viennese musical tropes.”

Of course, there is a whole vocab­ulary of this kind, of which the word “famously” is possibly the most be­­guiling and belittling. Radio 3 has no such qualms about employing these intellectualising strategies, and, when Philip Dodd, on Free Think­­ing (Radio 3, Thursday), de­­clares that Bertolt Brecht fam­ously depicted Adolf Hitler as a cabbage salesman in his play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, we are encouraged to nod in sage recog­nition.

Brecht, in fact, had a different sense of what knowledge should be about: not the formation of cultural caucuses, but about “blowing the wind up the skirts of the powerful so their bare knees can be seen”. How this can be done in an age when knowledge is mistrusted and truth is malleable was the central point for discussion in this dis­cursive edition of Radio 3’s late-night talking-shop.

Of all the contributions, the most insightful came from two co­­medians: the stand-up Simon Evans, who described cur­rent politics as being as if the hecklers had taken possession of the microphone; and Nev Fountain, a writer for Private Eye, who acknowledged that it was his journal that now was becoming the most trusted vehicle for news.

The conversation wound up with a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Isocrates: that you should speak only when you know about the subject under discussion, or when you are compelled to speak. I am afraid that if radio broadcasting operated on these principles there wouldn’t be much of it left.

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One man who ought to know his stuff is Our Man in the Middle East (Radio 4, weekdays), otherwise known as the BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen. In the first of a 25-episode series, Bowen revisited his career, mixing history with reminiscence, and a bit of sight-seeing thrown in for good measure.

Of the three elements, it is the reminiscence that Bowen does best. It all started for him in August 1990, when the United States woke up to the threat of Saddam Hussein, and Bowen embarked on his first Middle Eastern assignment.

He remembers the US military vehicles rolling in, painted in the shade of green appropriate to war­fare in Vietnam. Some of them still displayed evidence of participation in that last, ignominious foreign expedition; while the British, who had assumed that no conflict could possibly arise in that part of the world, had sold their desert khakis — to the Iraqis.

If his account of life in Jerusalem is less illuminating, it might only be because it is a crowded territory — not least in terms of reportage. But he did evince from a tourist the quotation of the week: “The only hope for Jerusalem is to take God and put him somewhere else.”

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