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Radio review: Things Fell Apart, and Between the Ears

19 November 2021


In Things Fell Apart (Radio 4, Tuesday), Jon Ronson gave an account of the abortion debate in the United States

In Things Fell Apart (Radio 4, Tuesday), Jon Ronson gave an account of the abortion debate in the United States

FROM Homer to Hollywood, all epic conflicts require great origin stories. Do our contemporary culture wars have similar origin stories? Jon Ronson thinks so, and it is the justification for his new series Things Fell Apart (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week). These tales, by his own account, are “strange and unexpected”. Ronson maintains in his delivery a tone of wonderment. In the hands of another narrator, the story presented last week — of the abortion debate in the United States — might have sounded merely depressing.

The origin story here concerned the campaign to engage American Evangelical Christians in the pro-life campaign. Until the 1970s, this constituency had regarded abortion primarily as a concern for Roman Catholics. But then came Francis Schaeffer, a Christian philosopher and leader of the L’Abri Christian commune in Switzerland, who had captivated Evangelical audiences with documentaries about the rise and fall of Western art. When Schaeffer’s polemical energies were redirected towards the abortion issue, the debate was enflamed.

As told by Ronson, the initiative for this new direction in Schaeffer’s interests came from his son Frank, who was looking to start a career in filmmaking and had a taste for emotive imagery. One of his documentaries featured 1000 dolls, representing a small proportion of those innocents massacred at the hands of abortionists. Frank was the main person interviewed on this programme, and his contrition for these excesses was evident throughout. There had been a shooting, which Frank regards as being a direct consequence of this discourse; and he blames the whole episode for making abortion “a culture-war wedge issue”.

Ronson is sensible to remind us that, without the Schaeffers, that there would still have been Jerry Falwell and the moral majority. Abortion was always going to be a tinderbox issue, and a a mythic origin story may not do it justice. Perhaps we should regard it as an example, not of the linear nature of time’s arrow, but of the cyclicity of time’s boomerang.

Last week, Radio 3 gave over its Between the Ears strand to a season of “New Creatives”, providing a 15-minute platform each weekday for experimental work. It would be fair to judge these vignettes on the basis of the auditory experience itself rather than that of gthe verbose programme notes that sought to explain them. Of the five, the prize for most pretentious must go to Joseph Bond’s reflections on whales in the Thames (Monday): supposedly a journey into “the hallucinogenic heart of London”, but, in reality, a straightforward account peppered with discussions by whale experts.

The most straightforwardly entertaining was “Ding Dong” (Friday): a satire on the new reality created by our obsessive screen-scrolling. It had the magic ingredient missing from the other, earnest offerings: a sense of humour.

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