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Radio review: The Essay, The Good Terrorist, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

09 March 2018

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ARE you paying attention? This imperious question, the title of Madeleine Bunting’s series for The Essay (Radio 3 weekdays) last week, invoked the sense of crisis that has been growing over our apparent inability to concentrate even as long as a goldfish. As Bunting provocatively suggests, is it not simply that the people who write about this crisis (journalists) are projecting their own anxiety (their susceptibility to distraction) on to society as a whole, and trying to convince us of an impending collapse of civilisation?

This was a thoroughly entertaining series, which can be forgiven for occasionally falling victim to the very ailment that it sought to address. And it is not clear that attention is the appropriate description of that state into which we fall when we participate in ritual — religious, artistic, or political. Quite the opposite: the “flow” that is induced by the most effective rituals bypasses our faculty of conscious attention, which is what makes them so powerful and so dangerous.

This is something different from what Simone Weil described when she talked of “the habit of attention” as being “the substance of prayer”. As Bunting reminded us, attention, mindfulness — whatever you wish to call it — is an essential element in an ethical life. Thus, it is by bypassing those things that demand our attention — the spam advertising, the celebrity tweets, the populist chants — that we deploy our best and fullest attention.

Radio 4 has, over the past two weeks, treated listeners to two excellent serialisations, both of which are downloadable in digestible 15-minute chunks and well worth it. Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist (weekdays) was not wholeheartedly acclaimed when it appeared in 1985, sitting awkwardly between straightforward satire and novelistic realism. As a radio drama, it has found a register that is wholly appropriate and intelligible.

The tale of Alice, part communist revolutionary, part compulsive home-maker, is lifted off the page by voices that sound as if they would fit perfectly into the cast of The Archers, if there ever happened to be a branch of the Communist Centre Union in Borsetshire. And when the exasperated mother declares of her daughter’s anti-Establishment generation, “You’re all spoiled rotten,” you could almost hear the great swell of Radio 4 listeners roar their approval.

There is no greater treat than being expertly read to, even more so when the book is one that you might have felt more obligation than desire to read. As abridged by Sara Davies, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Radio 4, weekdays) made perfect sense, from the opening, infantile moo-cow to the mock-heroic finale. And, read by Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty, among other TV villains, who finds again his native Irish accent), the shifting nuances of character and tone were perfectly rendered. You will not get a more hellish hellfire sermon than this.

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