Radio review: Sweet Reason, The Decline of the West, and Things Can Only Get Worse

27 July 2018


Evan Davis’s new series, Sweet Reason, opened with an examination of patriarchy (Radio 4, Thursday of last week)

Evan Davis’s new series, Sweet Reason, opened with an examination of patriarchy (Radio 4, Thursday of last week)

THERE is no better way to reach a consensus than by identifying a common enemy and ridiculing it. So it was that Evan Davis’s new series Sweet Reason (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) opened its examination of patriarchy by playing a clip from the 1970s in which Lord Boothby defended the all-male policy of the London club White’s.

Women just would not fit it, he blusters: they would not stay silent in the reading room, they cannot play billiards, and we most certainly do not want them playing Bridge. Davis laughed, his guests laughed — we all laughed. Now we know what we’re up against we can have a civilised conversation.

And this is how Sweet Reason positions itself: the chance “to apply reason and civility” to some of the shrillest and most cussed arguments of our age. It is, in Davis’s words, “all something of an experiment”; although it came out sounding so familiar and comfortable that it might itself have been recorded in a London club, cigar in one hand and brandy in the other.

Davis’s attempt to disentangle antagonistic emotions which are a familiar part of feminist and anti-feminist critiques meant that he and his guests were encouraged to stick to the point; even if the point about Bonobos, chimps, and the River Congo seemed like an intrusion from a wholly different radio show. And it is constantly amazing how academics can repackage the bleed­ing obvious with the use of a multi-syllabic abstract noun — in this case, Michael Shermer’s “agenticity”: the tendency for humans to find mean­ing­ful patterns in nature, such as the face of our Lord in the tea leaves.

Those who are particularly susceptible to agenticity may now be looking at the news and imagining the End of Days. If nothing else, Oswald Spengler’s 1918 tome The Decline of the West has come to seem prescient again; and, in Amol Rajan’s documentary of the same name (Radio 4, Monday of last week) the case for the Spenglerian picture — in which materialism, moral decadence and demagogic politics prevail — was discussed with an impressive team of historians and sociologists.

Spengler’s life and times, which occupied less than a third of this show, would justify fuller treatment: the experience of living through the darkest period in German nationhood, from the end of the First World War to the establishment of Nazism. Few of us today would sympathise with Spengler’s socially exclusive, anti-democratic attitudes, but the fascination in his eschatology is almost irresistible.

As a lifelong Labour supporter, John O’Farrell knows what it is like to believe in the End of Days. In Things Can Only Get Worse (Radio 4, Friday) he has been tracing the decline of his beloved party from the Blair-Brown era until today. Except that Jeremy Corbyn’s success in the 2017 election has messed up his pitch. History, as ever, makes fools of us all.

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