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Radio review: Amo, Amas, A Musical, Book of the Week, and Witness

11 January 2019


Mary Beard rehearses in the BBC Radio Theatre for Amo, Amas, A Musical (Radio 4, New Year’s Eve), in which she told story of an iconic Latin textbook, and the abuse of clever women

Mary Beard rehearses in the BBC Radio Theatre for Amo, Amas, A Musical (Radio 4, New Year’s Eve), in which she told story of an iconic Latin tex...

IS IT reassuring to find that trolling is a trans-historical phenomenon? Mary Beard, the People’s Classicist, has been trolled in ways so offensive that, in Amo, Amas, A Musical (Radio 4, New Year’s Eve), she had the nastiest words translated into Latin, so as not to offend our ears. But in this she is only as much a victim as the pioneers of female education of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who endured apparently unchecked abuse in the national press.

Amo, Amas, A Musical told this story alongside a more particular account of how the classic textbook Kennedy’s Latin Primer came into being. Or, more accurately, Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer; for it has recently been revealed that it was the crucial revisions to an initially incoherent tome which ensured its longevity; and, that said, revisions were carried out not by the retired Professor of Greek at Cambridge University, B. H. Kennedy, but by his two daughters, Marion and Julia. The suppression of the female contribution to this collaboration was done for commercial purposes, and with the consent of the ladies, who preferred the royalties to the acclaim.

These interlinked stories were helped along by the ingenious inclusion of songs, inspired by the appendix to the Primer, which includes mnemonic rhymes and tunes for Latin students with sieve-like memories.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions is a posthumous anthology of Stephen Hawking’s speeches and assorted pensées, which, for those of us whose imaginations are incapable of expanding at the same rate as the Big Bang, provides a more gently paced and lucid account of all that quanta. If you want a still briefer version, then Radio 4 has helpfully adapted it for its Book of the Week with Anton Lesser replacing the cyber utterance of Hawking.

If you need an offcut of Hawking for your sermon, then it’s the New Year’s Day episode you’re after. There is plenty of quotable material here; but there are also some unwitting revelations of a mindset in which faith can only ever be an admission of frailty. Thus “even people as tough as the Vikings” believed in God. The Vikings here must stand as synecdoche for all warriors, physical and intellectual, whose achievements have been compromised by their self-deluded disability.

A voice almost as distinctive as Hawking’s was celebrated in Witness (World Service, Wednesday of last week), although I would be content to listen to Barbara Cartland spouting nonsense without the interruptions of an apologetic presenter. What was brought to the fore was her ludicrously self-aggrandising opinion of her importance. Surely not even the most contemptuous commentator on the state of education in the United States would claim that US schools employ Cartland’s novels as repositories of historical authenticity?

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