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Message in my mind

06 January 2017


CHRISTMAS can look after itself; but what of the feast days that get “buried under the pine needles”? The phrase was Tim Mont­gomerie’s, who, in Slaughter of the Innocents (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), made an appeal for greater recognition of the feast, which, more than any other, has in its favour the benefit of unavoidable contemporary resonance.

If Christmas is, in the words of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, about the “glorification of children”, then the feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us how vulnerable and apparently disposable children can be in the savage world of geo-politics.

The feast presents a message that we are rarely willing to hear — and that goes not just for 21st-century revellers. The most interesting part of this documentary examined the history of Bruegel the Elder’s fam­ous painting of the slaughter. Look closely, and you will see figures weeping and wailing — not in front of dead children, but random objects, such as a deer or a ham. The painting was sanitised at the order of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who preferred not to be witness to such barbarity.

The Essay strand (Radio 3) was similarly keen to explore the Christ­mas hinterland in the week before Christmas. Robert Beckford (22 December) made an imaginative play at an ethnic and gender-inclusive interpretation of the Epiphany.

The black Magus, sumptuously dressed and dignified, was an in­­spiration to the young Beckford, and his participation in the nativity scene is, to him, an affirmation of the value of interfaith dialogue. There were too many sen­tences in this essay beginning with “scholars suggest. . .” for one to feel entirely comfortable with the prov­enance of all of Beckford’s argu­ments. It is, for instance, fanciful to claim that one of the Magi might have been female, on the basis that Mary would have been uncomfortable surrounded by so many men; what about all that livestock?

The long shadows of the Syrian conflict, Donald Trump, and Brexit cast gloom over much of the year-end discussions; so the producers of the World Service’s The Inquiry (Tues­day of last week) named four reasons to be cheery about 2016.

OK, so it was a terrible year, and, on top of that, David Bowie died; but there is peace emerging in Colombia after decades of civil war, malaria has been eradicated in Sri Lanka, a new genome technique has found a way of making potatoes resistant to blight, and a man from Switzerland flew round the world in a solar-powered aeroplane.

It was, perhaps, in the spirit of a worthy New Year’s resolution that Radio 4 decided to broadcast on New Year’s Day recitations of all T. S. Eliot’s poetry. Unlike reading the whole of Proust, learning Man­darin, or training for the London mara­thon, hearing it all in the space of 12 hours holds no virtue for me.

None the less, one has to admire the achievement of Jeremy Irons, maintaining for almost the entire canon a pitch of 80 Hz, as if he had spent New Year’s Eve with his favourite malt and six Cuban cigars. This is the way the world will end: not with a bang, but with a fizz of Alka Seltzer.

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