Radio review: Science Stories, and Jeremy Vine

13 July 2018

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An illustration of the death of Hypatia of Alexandria, the Greek mathematician who was the subject of Science Stories (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week)

An illustration of the death of Hypatia of Alexandria, the Greek mathematician who was the subject of Science Stories (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week...

WHEN you do not understand the science, the next best thing is Science Stories (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week). The Greek mathematician Hypatia may have been great at long division, and made great strides in the science of astrolabes and hydrometers; but it is the manner of her death that has fascinated people for centuries.

The programme began with a 21st-century trope: Hypatia the liberal neo-Platonist oppressed by Christian fanatics. In this version, Cyril, the Archbishop of Hypatia’s native Alexandria, is an intolerant, manipulative monster who lets loose his maniacal monks in the cause of doctrinal purity. Rewind a little, and we get Dora Russell (daughter of Bertrand) proclaiming Hypatia a patron of female education.

To their credit, Naomi Alderman and guests steered a disinterested route through these different interpretations. Natalie Haynes reminded us that fifth-century Alexandria was a particularly violent place, where nobody could ever be accused of exercising liberal tolerance as understood in the 21st century. It is also fair to say that monks are not what they used to be; and, so far as public order is concerned, that is a good thing.

A news story regarding the forced sale of English cathedrals had enough traction to gain the attention of Jeremy Vine (Friday, Radio 2), and thus to force a rebuttal by Peterborough Cathedral, which got special mention. I have no particular dislike for Vine, but the style of presentation required of the show, much of whose content is phoned in by listeners, is akin to website “click-bait”, introduced by a series of provocative questions so long that, by the end of the preamble, we have forgotten to distinguish between question and statement.

Thus Vine opened up the subject by telling us that the financial situation of the Church was “awful”; that worshippers were more likely “of course” to attend their local church than their nearby cathedral (I was under the impression it was the other way round); and that the Church was thinking of selling a couple to make ends meet. Inverted commas had long been left behind; and no question mark appeared to demarcate opinion from fact.

There followed a comedic exchange between two men competing for an award for the plummiest voice, one of them telling us that, since he had been treasurer of his church, he knew for a fact that the Church of England was raking it in, while the other proclaimed how ghastly it would be if Peterborough Cathedral were to be forced to open a Catherine of Aragon Bar, or Mary Queen of Scots Restaurant.

But the finest suggestion came courtesy of a caller from Girlguiding, an organisation that rents out its premises for all manner of commercial enterprises, including weddings. Has the Church ever considered that radical option?

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