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TV review: The Secret History of Writing, The Write Offs, and The Shipman Files: A very British crime story

09 October 2020


A page of the Gutenberg Bible, an original copy of which is in Lambeth Palace Library and featured in The Secret History of Writing (BBC4, Monday of last week)

A page of the Gutenberg Bible, an original copy of which is in Lambeth Palace Library and featured in The Secret History of Writing (BBC4, Monday of l...

THE Secret History of Writing (BBC4, Monday of last week) con­­tains many terrific nuggets — even if they really ought not to be classified as “se­­crets”. In these days of Angli­can shame, comfort could be drawn from the extended showing of Lambeth Palace Libary’s par­ticularly splendid Gutenberg Bible.

To my surprise, the programme maintains that the seismic jump from pictogram to alphabet was not a general develop­ment through­­­­out the ancient literate world, but happened once: it was in­vented c.1850 BC in the Sinai desert by the Old Testament’s hated Canaan­­ite merchants’ finding a handy way to simplify and univer­salise Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Every alphabetic script descends from that breakthrough: English, Cyrillic, and Arabic are cousins. The second episode dealt with technology, the progress from papyrus to vellum to paper; then the jump from manuscript to printing with movable type. This was spectacularly successful in the West, because Roman letters are discrete, uniform in size, and written in uniform lines — all enabling an immediate transition to typeface.

Arabic is cursive, flowing, varying to express hierarchy and significance; so it was not suited to the new medium. The baton of scientific inquiry and technological invention, therefore, passed from Islam to Christianity, and printing’s infinitely cheaper and faster means of communication enabled successive, decisive revolutions: the Reformation, Humanism, the Enlightenment, and Western science, technology, and industry.

If writing is so amazingly powerful, what of those of us who can barely read? In The Write Offs (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week), Sandi Toksvig gave eight sub-literate British subjects four months’ intensive one-to-one tutoring and challenging tasks to see what progress could be made.

It was intensely moving, from the accounts of how inability to read blighted these lives, causing lack of self-worth and social isolation, to the hard, hard struggle to overcome dyslexia, or the effects of a stroke, and to the courage required to speak out, to navigate street signs and railway timetables. We saw great bravery, and desperation to reach personal goals: for example, Craig, for the first time, reading a story to his little daughter. They all made remarkable progress, and, even more impressively, have all set themselves challenging goals for further development.

The Shipman Files: A very British crime story (BBC2, Monday to Wednesday of last week) re-examined the horrific case of one of the worst serial killers in history: certainly 215 victims, and probably another 45. How, in such plain sight, could this possibly happen? Surely because we take it for granted that GPs are trustworthy; murder, contrariwise, is violent and brutal.

The journalist Chris Wilson made the series to express a further, burning conviction: that Shipman got away with it because, in our society, the elderly are largely invisible and expendable.

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