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Radio review: The Reunion, The Courage of Ambivalence, and The Syrians and the Kindertransport Kids

23 August 2019


The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, surveys the gutted interior of York Minster’s 13th-century south transept, in July 1984. The fire at the Minster was recounted in The Reunion (Radio 4 FM, Sunday)

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, surveys the gutted interior of York Minster’s 13th-century south transept, in July 1984. The fire at t...

LIKE the finest magician, God is an expert in the art of misdirection; and the York Minster fire of July 1984, as recounted in The Reunion (Radio 4 FM, Sunday), was one of his great contemporary tricks. For what appeared — at least, to those traditionalists appalled at the installation of David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham — to have been an act of divine retribution now looks more like a divinely ordered insurance scam that enabled the York Chapter not just to rebuild the damaged Minster, but to improve the costly systems of fire prevention against future catastrophe.

It had been only a fortnight before that fateful day that the Canon Chancellor arranged to increase the buildings insurance.

On the one hand, the story of the Minster fire, ably recounted here by Sue MacGregor’s guests, is vividly contemporary: the images of a burning Notre-Dame are only a few months old. On the other hand, the institution on which this disaster was visited feels utterly different: this was a time when the apparently heretical views of a prelate might have an impact on the national media.

The final miracle of the story is that restoration work was completed a year ahead of schedule, complete with new bosses designed by the winners of a Blue Peter competition.

Although he touched only fleetingly on religious affiliation, Mark O’Connell’s essay The Courage of Ambivalence (Radio 4, Monday of last week) celebrated the very quality that, in the opinion of many, defines the C of E, and accounts for its decline. Today’s polarising political culture requires of us decisive opinions, even though our natural state of mind is one that enables — indeed, invites — difference and contradiction. O’Connell’s hero is the Ulysses of James Joyce, who manages to circumnavigate the political prejudices of early-20th-century Dublin as he ekes out a living for himself.

O’Connell makes an attractive case, but with no convincing sense that his form of ambivalence is courageous. It is undoubtedly important for a clinician, for instance, to acknowledge the limitations of his or her knowledge — in the infamous coinage of Donald Rumsfeld, the “known unknowns”. That is different from assessing two opposing “knowns” and wishing to acknowledge the validity of both.

The case was truly lost when, as a shining example of ambivalence, one of O’Connell’s witnesses invoked Jeremy Corbyn and his stance on Brexit. His supporters might deem it strategic, even ingenious; but Corbyn is no Ulysses.

For behaviour more recognisably courageous, one might listen in to The Syrians and the Kindertransport Kids (Radio 4 FM, Friday), in which refugees gathered to compare experiences. If ever there were voices to remind us of the enduring streak of reasonableness in the human spirit, then they were here in Ruth, Lia, Louai, and Murad.

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