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Radio review: The People's Pyramid, and Orwell in Five Words

31 January 2020


The People’s Pyramid (Radio 4, Monday of last week) reported on the Toxteth Day of the Dead

The People’s Pyramid (Radio 4, Monday of last week) reported on the Toxteth Day of the Dead

ONE would be hard-pressed to find a more exotic demonstration of G. K. Chesterton’s dictum about a post-Christian belief in anything than the Toxteth Day of the Dead. When an ice-cream van pitches up in a cathedral cemetery to deliver a dozen bricks, each of which has been infused with the ashes of the dead, the boundaries between ritual and satire, have truly been breached, and faith enters a vortex of self-referential parody.

On the other hand, it all sounds like a lot of harmless fun. The Toxteth Day of the Dead is the creation of two pop artists, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, who achieved notoriety in the 1990s with their music and their stunts. As reported in The People’s Pyramid (Radio 4, Monday of last week), they are currently embarked on a project involving “mumufication”, by which subscribers pay to have their ashes baked into “Bricks of Mu”, which, in turn, will be cemented together to create a giant edifice.

It is slow going, but, like any self-respecting medieval cathedral, this is a construction process that will outlive all those who initiated it.

There is, as the presenter Conor Garrett noted here, “a cult-y vibe” to the ceremonies; and it is clear that some people are taking the whole thing a good deal more seriously than is healthy. Elements of traditional and folk practices are appropriated: they talk of “beating the bounds” and read the names of the dead. But, just in case anybody was under any illusion, the congregation launch into the final “hymn”, “Que sera sera”, and the ice-cream van departs sounding the advertising jingle “Just one Cornetto”.

We are hearing a lot of George Orwell at the moment. Orwell in Five Words (Radio 4, weekdays) is replete with quotation, as Phil Tinline and an impressive array of commentators sift through his often contradictory statements on concepts such as “Love” and “Truth” for guidance in a world that is routinely described as hate-filled and truth-less. It is a line that we hear too often in appraisals of dead authors, but it might indeed be valid to claim that “his work has never seemed more urgently relevant.”

Monday’s programme was devoted to the term “Fascist”: the crowning insult of adolescent to parent, and misused all too freely in today’s public discourse. The discussion of “Truth” included a robust defence of the concept of objective truth by Jean Seaton, who, in her job as a Professor of Media History, must encounter more than most the post-modern diminution of truth to just another construct of power.

But for a contemporary realisation of Orwell’s prophetic vision we need look only to China and the posters currently adorn­­ing public buildings in Xinjiang province: “Love the Party, Love the Country”.

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