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Radio review: Will Self Takes the Waters, Book of the Week: Slow Rise: A bread-making adventure, and Lent Talks

12 March 2021


Will Self Takes the Waters (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) explores people’s thirst for mineral water and health spas

Will Self Takes the Waters (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) explores people’s thirst for mineral water and health spas

READ backwards, “Evian” spells “Naïve”. But, when you get to the very top end of the mineral-water business, naïvety turns to outright foolishness. As reported in Will Self Takes the Waters (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), a bottle of Svalbardi will leave you with little change from £100. The liquid comes from glacial meltwater, and, according to the blurb, fell to earth between 2000 and 4000 years ago, lending it “a slight bite and sweetness . . . an experience for the palate much like a fine wine”. Even the “water sommelier” consulted here could not bring himself to justify the price tag. “Money is relative,” he declared philosophically.

Servicing the boutique spas at which such luxuries are touted is a hard business. The burnout rate for masseuses in the top Nordic spas is exceptionally high; pull back the curtain of spiritual calm, and one finds “factories for the production of stress”.

Forget the expensive water; I’m mean enough to question the need for a £4 loaf of bread at the farmer’s market. But hearing of the pains and pleasures of bread-making from Robert Penn, in Book of the Week: Slow Rise: A bread-making adventure (Radio 4 FM, weekdays), did something to address my scepticism. Mind you, he has gone through the process from seed to loaf; and written a book while he’s been waiting. In that time, he gets to reflect on the companionship — etymological and real — that bread bestows, and, on Friday, turned his attention, albeit briefly, to the sacred nature of bread.

So intrinsic is bread to the practices of faith around the world that what happened in Chorleywood in 1961 takes on the symbolic resonance of the Fall. This was the moment when the Flour, Milling and Baking Research Association developed the Chorleywood Bread Process, which speeds up the baking process and creates bread that retains its springiness for longer. Eighty per cent of bread is now made this way, and, Penn and many others argue, we pay the price in blandness and gluten-related illnesses. Artisan baking may be on a slow rise, but the stacks of supermarket white will not be troubled by that.

In this year’s Lent Talks (Radio 4, Wednesdays), we are promised a series in which people “well known in their fields reflect on the story of Jesus’ ministry and Passion from the perspective of their own personal and professional experience”. Only one of the contributors to the series appears to be a professional theologian or church minister; and it would be churlish to criticise last week’s speaker, Sir John Timpson, for managing only a cursory mention of the Passion story in his talk.

What Sir John had to say about “faith in lost causes”, through his employment of ex-offenders and his experience as a foster carer, was insightful and inspiring, but it is a shame that this strand — a rare opportunity for extended theological reflection — should be expended thus.

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