WOULDN’T it be so much easier if the gods did not have to be good, or caring, or merciful? That way, you could get around that awkward linguistic double meaning inherent in the phrase “belief in” by believing in the existence of deities while not believing that they do you any good. Leslie, from the Scottish Highlands — who also goes by the name of Tonks — is, in this respect, happily liberated. Tonks is a witch. She believes that the gods live among us, but that they are best left alone. Humanity is of little interest to them, and, if you find that a god is paying you some attention, it is rarely a good sign.
This was the first outing for Nicky Campbell’s new podcast, Different (Radio 5 Live, released Wednesday), and he was all for respecting his guest’s right to be, well, different. When you think about it, people believe in Noah’s ark, or walking on water; so why not crows’ feathers on a car windscreen as a sign of Freya’s indignation? “Certainty is one of the most dangerous things in humanity,” Campbell opined. Tonks agreed: she sees belief “as a fluid thing”. I don’t suppose the gods in Tonks’s metaphysics would see it the same way: they are an eclectic bunch, drawn from Classical, Celtic, and Norse origins, but have in a common a requirement that their existence — and, indeed, their power — be acknowledged, a requirement that they enforce with demonstrations of often gratuitous violence.
A doyen of the five-minute interview, Campbell wants to extend into the long form. He has all the charm and insight to do so, and has an impressive track record of hosting ethical debates on television. Yet here he seemed not willing enough to compromise charm for insight. In a moment of self-revelation, he asked the witch whether she might cast a spell that would make him the presenter of Question Time — and, even in the asking, admitted that the effort would be useless.
There was a similar sense of punch-pulling about Book of the Week: Iconoclasm (Radio 4 FM, weekdays last week): essays by the eminent American art historian David Freedberg, recently anthologised from work stretching back many years. The topic itself has a history many hundreds of years old, but it was clear from the selection that the main topics of interest here were contemporary: in particular, the destruction by Islamist fundamentalists of artworks in the Middle East, and the toppling of monuments and statues associated with disputed history in the United States and the UK.
Whether the result of academic queasiness, or clumsy editing by those responsible for selecting the readings, the series had a strangely inconclusive feeling — not that I was requiring certainty (with Campbell’s admonition still ringing in my ears, who could wish for such a thing?). But the frequent tilting from discussion of symbolic values to financial ones relative to some apparently more objective notion of true artistic merit gave the sense of an author’s — or a producer’s — evading the issue.