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Radio review: From the ‘Mayflower’ to the Moon (and Back Again), and The Forum

18 September 2020


From the Mayflower to the Moon (and Back Again) (Radio 4, weekdays; omnibus on Friday) claims to present an alternative history of the United States

From the Mayflower to the Moon (and Back Again) (Radio 4, weekdays; omnibus on Friday) claims to present an alternative history of the United States

HISTORY is full of mixed messages. It follows that good history-writing acknowledges these contradictions; and that, when it comes to reasses­s­ing the past, we do not present “alternative” histories, but “supple­ment­ary” ones. Joe Queenan’s series From the Mayflower to the Moon (and Back Again) (Radio 4, week­days; omnibus on Friday) has, for the past two weeks, claimed to pre­sent an alternative history of the United States, with a strong em­­phasis given to the contributions of non-Anglo-Saxon and European peoples.

The tales that he tells are illumi­n­ating, surprising, and subversive; but they do not constitute a coherent new history.

The series features many iconic journeys: the Mayflower; Lewis and Clarke’s 8000-mile expedition to the West Coast; the “Oke” migrations of the Dust Bowl era; and concludes with what Queenan regards as the only wholly innocent journeys in US history: the voyages to the Moon.

All other examples of American exploration and expansion have brought exploitation and violence in their wake, followed by politicians’ and historians’ creating narratives of manifest destiny. “The past is always subject to review,” Queenan states. Nobody would wish to deny that, except that he wants to use the word “review” in the judicial sense: history as a never-ending public inquiry into “good things” and bad.

The series was at its best when it dealt with the ebb and flow of popu­lar culture in the 20th century: for instance, the shift in media power from the East to the West Coast (Thursday). The tension between the two is beautifully observed. New York and LA each want what the other has: the former would like to be sunny and have celebrities on tap; the latter longs to be taken seriously.

The complications inherent in reading history as a form of moral enlightenment were similarly evi­d­ent in last week’s The Forum (World Service, Thursday of last week), which asked of its three learned guests “Who were the Hugue­nots?” There was no doubt that we were being encouraged to think of the parallels between the experience of these first “refugees” and that of migrants of the 21st cen­tury; and, on the BBC website, the show came illustrated with a pic­ture of Huguenots arriving at Dover in small boats. And yet, as we heard, the Hugue­nots were as willing, once as­sim­ilated into the ruling and mercantile elites, to pursue the same colonialist practices, including slave-trading, as their new compatriots.

None of this should surprise us. More ear-catching was the story of the 16th-century Bible that found its way to England from France baked into a loaf of bread. The Good Book, translated into French, was a sure indicator of Huguenot sym­pathies, and, by the 1680s, that was­­ enough to have sol­diers forcibly bil­leted in your house. The artefact, a little burned around the edges, can be viewed at the wonderful Hugue­not Museum in Rochester.

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