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Radio review: The Sisters of the Sacred Salamander, Pursuit of Beauty, and The John Moloney Show

15 June 2018


The Sisters of the Sacred Salamander (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) reports on how a group of nuns in Patzcuaro, Mexico, have been breeding axolotls

The Sisters of the Sacred Salamander (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) reports on how a group of nuns in Patzcuaro, Mexico, have been breeding axolotl...

AS DISTINCTIONS go, it can be counted as the rarer: “The only religious community involved in amphibian conservation.” And the institution that has earned this most esoteric of accolades? The convent of the Sisters of Immaculate Health, in Patzcuaro, Mexico, who have, since 1747, been breeding a local species of salamander, the axolotl (known locally as the achoque), to make a medicinal syrup.

Now that the species is nearly extinct in the wild, the convent’s work has been recognised as being of great scientific value, and biologists have been knocking at their door trying to find out their secret.

The door is opened with suspi­cion: only after much courting were researchers from Michoacan University, in Mexico, allowed in to collaborate with the nuns. In their wake came the BBC reporter Victoria Gill, and in The Sisters of the Sacred Salamander (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) we got a glimpse behind the doors.

The particular fascination for the outside scientific world comes from the salamanders’ ability to regenerate limbs and organs. For the Sisters, the achoque has a spiritual signific­ance: its image competes with that of our Lady for wall space in the convent. That, and the fact that the Sisters’ mysterious syrup (recipe unknown) is a bestseller with the locals.

From holy amphibians to creative molluscs; and the installation by two “anarchist vegetarian artists” which involves watching snails, illuminated by small beams of light, crawl up a wall. The “performance” lasts about six hours and is an example of “slow art” — into which sub-category of modernism can also be placed musical works lasting 1000 years, a diary written on a scroll a mile long, and a dome of trees which takes half a century for nature to complete.

All these and more were featured in Lindsey Chapman’s Pursuit of Beauty: Slow art (Radio 4, Thursday of last week). The best, like David Nash’s Ash Dome, manages to com­bine concept and execution, process and performance, in one satisfying aesthetic experience. On the other hand, we might be fascinated by how a millennium-long musical work might be produced, but don’t fancy listening for more than a couple of minutes.

As rare as a newt-breeding nun is a comedian who does Christ. But John Moloney is one such, and The John Moloney Show (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) gave as forceful, and funny, vindication of faith as I might ever have heard on the radio. All you need to know is the miracle that is KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) gravy: a substance that transforms — indeed, transubstantiates — its hydrogenised chemical ingredients into something that only a Creator God could have fashioned.

For anyone who gets exasperated by the unquestioning secularism of contemporary comedy, Moloney’s set represents 15 minutes of liberation. It’s not grown-up, and it’s certainly not Ockham, but it is great fun.

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