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Radio review: Archive on 4: A brief history of progress, and Woman’s Hour

27 May 2022


Bertrand Russell was one of the philosophers considered by Joe Queenan in A Brief History of Progress (Radio 4, Friday)

Bertrand Russell was one of the philosophers considered by Joe Queenan in A Brief History of Progress (Radio 4, Friday)

THE fundamental contradiction about becoming old and grumpy is that you want to be reminding the feckless youth how, on the one hand, life was so much tougher when you were a kid, and yet that, on the other, those were the good ol’ days, when you could leave your front door unlocked and, when you were burgled, the culprits would doff their caps. So, do we believe in progress, or don’t we?

In his A Brief History of Progress (Radio 4, Friday), Joe Queenan offered an analysis that, perhaps deliberately, eschewed any attempt at narrative progression, but, instead, flitted from coffee to Kant, and from the Neanderthals to Bertrand Russell, in a manner that more indulgent listeners would term “quirky”.

There is a certain winsome charm in this approach, which allows for the satirist to insert unchecked at will. “Most architecture has always been hideous”; Oscar Wilde it ain’t, but it earned Queenan an outraged chuckle. Less cosy were the contributions of the writer Emma Garland, who announced that hate crimes and police violence in contemporary Britain were “through the roof”; and she later went on to talk about the “bitterness and fury of people in the ’60s and ’70s”. It wasn’t clear to what or to whom she was referring; and we were left with a sense both of the futility of our hope in progress and the stupidity of nostalgia — an appropriately nihilistic thought to take into Jubilee season.

The ineluctable decline in religious literacy among media types has been charted for many years on this page. One ought no longer to be surprised by encounters as embarrassing as the one that occurred on Woman’s Hour (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), but there was something so shamelessly dumb in Krupa Padhy’s interview with Sister Monica Clare, of the Community of St John the Baptist, that it cannot pass without mention.

Sister Monica has found fame via the social-media platform TikTok. Her posts give followers a light-hearted picture of convent life, from nuns’ playing basketball to how much you can cram into the pockets of a nun’s habit. But, as we discovered, Sister Monica has much else to tell us about finding a vocation in a secular world.

During her many years working as a photo editor in Hollywood, she would be regarded as the “weirdo” who didn’t like to party; and her decision to make the “crazy counter-cultural move” of becoming a nun was driven by a desire to reject the roles being forced on her, both from a traditional South Georgian family and the secularism of Tinseltown.

A perfect Woman’s Hour feature, you might think. But, instead, we were introduced to a second guest — not a real nun, but Siobhán McSweeney, who happens to have played a nun in the television series Derry Girls. It was as if, in the course of a medical discussion with a real doctor, the presenter had invited the expert opinion of a cast member from Holby City.

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