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Radio review: Deeply Human, The Witches’ Pardon, and The Forum

25 March 2022


Deeply Human (World Service, Sunday) considered lessons from physics in controlling crowds

Deeply Human (World Service, Sunday) considered lessons from physics in controlling crowds

IT IS not a problem that churchwardens have to deal with often, but if crowd control is presenting a challenge, then you might care to study the movement of coffee beans. There is a special branch of physics which deals with crowd dynamics, and — as we heard on Deeply Human (World Service, Sunday) — there is a great deal to learn from storage processes in agriculture. If, for instance, you open a full grain silo from the bottom, you are likely to create wave formations strong enough to cause the silo to explode.

I’ve been meaning to plug Deeply Human in this column for some weeks. It is itself a silo of intriguing facts and insights, loosely themed on different forms of human behaviour. In the current series — all still available on BBC Sounds — subjects have included Dance and Nakedness; the latest is Crowds. The seeming randomness of these topics is part of the charm, as, too, is the selection of exempla within each programme. Here we moved from the techniques employed by a New York DJ to light up the dance floor, to the Paris Commune and the hajj, in which the density of crowds can be literally breathtaking. All this is managed with a light touch by the presenter, Dessa, who, as a successful singer and rapper, must know a thing or two about working a crowd.

There are occasions when we might forgive the BBC for not maintaining its own policy of editorial balance. It would be hard, for instance, to contradict the argument presented in The Witches’ Pardon (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) that the 2500 or so Scots, mostly women, executed in the 16th-18th centuries for witchcraft, were treated unjustly. One might, nevertheless, be justified in asking what exactly it means for the Scottish Parliament to issue “a formal posthumous apology”.

The key lies in the date of the announcement: International Women’s Day; and advocates for an official pardon for Scotland’s historic witches speak of this symbolic recognition in the context of the campaign against contemporary misogyny. “The witch-hunts have never ended,” declared Dr Silvia Federici, an Italian scholar and activist, who is a self-declared Marxist-feminist. Dr Federici’s opinions, generously aired here, went entirely uncontested, although veterans of witchcraft historiography will recognise in her interpretation a re-tread of the old Marxist narrative according to which paranoia about witches represented a displaced anxiety arising from the shift from a feudal to a capitalist society (or maybe they believed in witches).

Time makes some things more complicated. For others, time and tradition flatten nuance. Thus the tale of Pinocchio, the subject of last week’s The Forum (World Service, Thursday of last week), has been transformed from a dark and complex story of moral agency into a lightweight fable. The famous nose barely features in Carlo Collodi’s original; and Disney failed to include the intended conclusion of the story, in which Pinocchio, the son of a carpenter, is hanged, and, after three hours, with his final breath, cries out to his father for forgiveness.

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