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Radio review: Detoxifying the Classics, Early Music Show, and Antarctic Midwinter Broadcast

02 July 2021


Detoxifying the Classics (Radio 4 FM, Tuesday of last week) explored the rela­tionship between the ancient world and contemporary “white supremacy”

Detoxifying the Classics (Radio 4 FM, Tuesday of last week) explored the rela­tionship between the ancient world and contemporary “white supremacy”

IT DOES not take much to initiate another battle in the culture wars. In late 2016, a short BBC educational cartoon featuring a Roman soldier with dark skin, Quintus, man­aged to enrage a con­­stituency who inter­­preted it as a not-so-subtle justi­fica­tion of mass immigration. Ancient history, Pro­­fessor Katherine Harloe argues in Detoxifying the Classics (Radio 4 FM, Tuesday of last week), is not ancient at all: it reflects our own cultural bias, and must there­fore be reimagined.

It is quite possible that Quintus, or his real-life counterpart, was non-white: the Empire drew its military resources from North Africa and Syria, just as it did from Europe. Blockbuster films set in classical Greece and Rome are largely pop­­u­lated by white actors; and the plain white statuary that we find in museums was, in its day, colourfully painted. All these examples, and more besides, suggest that there was a “fluidity of identity” in the classical world which we are programmed to overlook.
At the same time, antiquity pro­­vides us with emphatic rep­­resenta­­tions of power exercised in the ser­vice of “civilisation”. Alexander dis­sem­inates all the goodness of Hellenism at the point of a sword. Far-right groups invoke the Spartans as models of implacable resistance. We should not venerate the ancient world, Professor Harloe says; we should understand it as it was.

Yet, for all the references, it was not clear that our perception of clas­sical Antiquity is any more skewed than any other. And those engaged in the business of teaching Classics, several levels below that of a univer­sity professor, will cringe at her call to “knock Classics from its pedestal”. Unless the strategy is to find for Classics, by what­­ever means poss­ible, some visibility in the clamor­ous, chaotic culture wars.

In contrast, last week’s Early Music Show (Radio 3, Sunday), which headlined its profile of the 16th-century Vicente Lusitano with his being “the first published black com­­poser”, expended just a couple of minutes on this aspect of the mu­­si­cian’s life. Indeed, as the musician Joseph McHardy acknow­ledged, there are large holes in our under­standing of his biography, and what we do know suggests that Lusitano’s mixed-race parentage had little effect on his career.

That left a good deal more time to celebrate yet again the expansion of repertorial horizons. With specially recorded extracts from his 1551 Book of Motets, the programme in­­tro­­duced us to a composer of prodi­gious ambition and chutzpah.

Only the World Service could boast of a listenership of 44. Ant­arctic Midwinter Broad­­cast (World Service, Monday of last week) is an annual event, in which the loved ones of those few stationed in such bleak outposts as King Edward Point and Bird Island, are given air time to send messages of encouragement. And that is it. Listening in felt like an intrusion on a strange, evocative ritual.

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