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Radio review: Start the Week, Ramblings, and Witness History

09 October 2020

nancy crampton

The novelist Marilynne Robinson was a guest on Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday of last week)

The novelist Marilynne Robinson was a guest on Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday of last week)

START THE WEEK (Radio 4, Monday of last week) opened with promise of “a civilisational crisis” — which is the equivalent of clickbait to the Radio 4 listener, who likes nothing better than to hear how all things good and decent are on their way to hell in a handcart. As it transpired, the enticing headline drew us into an illuminating but far less dramatic book-promotion exercise hosted by Andrew Marr and featuring Marilynne Robinson and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams.

If, like your reviewer, you could happily have either voice as your SatNav, let alone your guide to the end of the world, then even 40 minutes of their literary log-rolling is still going to be a pleasure. In this company, Marr took on the part of the jester; and played it so effectively that he threatened to deflect the two sages.

Robinson’s new Gilead novel he described as “a comic version of Samuel Beckett if he were a Presbyterian”; and, summarising the rule of St Benedict, the subject of Williams’s recent book, “Be nice to annoying people . . . and do the washing-up.” I doubt that either witticism will make it on to the dust-jackets.

Since the pandemic, studio conversations such as this can now be phoned in from under the duvet. Not so Ramblings (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), which expects of its participants a hearty 10km at least if you want to sell your latest tome. In the case of the criminologist Professor David Wilson, this appeared not to be a problem, since the only thing that he enjoys more than talking about ghastly murders is walking while talking about ghastly murders.

In fact, Clare Balding had trouble changing the subject. Having heard in some detail about the case that forms the subject of his book — a brutal murder that led to an apparent miscarriage of justice — Balding tried to lighten the mood, drawing our attention to some stray chickens crossing their path.

It was enough to prompt an observation about the rise in poultry-theft during lockdown, and thence to the increasing violence displayed in recent murders. Most of us would have gone with a “Why did the chicken cross the road?” gag. For the excitable professor, all he would see was the chicken under the wheels of a drug-dealer’s black sedan, driven from some Tarantino-esque scene of bloody carnage.

If you like your history delivered bite-size, then Witness History (World Service, weekdays) is the diet for you: a single story, told through one person’s eyes, and all over in ten minutes. On Wednesday of last week, the story was of a tech. start-up that might have lasted about the same length of time — except that BackRub became Google and became one of the biggest companies in the world.

Tamara Munzner was friends with the founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin; and watched as the boys’ parties got more lavish and absurd. At least the presenter was delicate enough not to open by asking her why she didn’t, in those early days, buy all the stock she could afford.

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