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Radio review: Free Thinking, The Hunt for Typhoid Mary, and Book at Bedtime: My Father’s House

17 February 2023

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In Free Thinking (Radio 3, Thursday of last week), donkeys were described as the white vans of the ancient world

In Free Thinking (Radio 3, Thursday of last week), donkeys were described as the white vans of the ancient world

IT WILL happen soon, if it hasn’t already: a trendy new Passion play in which a 21st-century reinvention of our Lord rides into Jerusalem not on a donkey, but in a white van. After all, as Dr Lucy Grig opined on Free Thinking (Radio 3, Thursday of last week), donkeys were the white vans of the ancient world, symbolic of mediocrity, stupidity, and stubbornness; and to be turned into an ass represented the ultimate humiliation.

But reputation and reality are two very different things, and it was the task of Dr Grig and her fellow guests to disabuse us of these prejudices. The donkey is not stubborn, merely thoughtful; not stupid, but calm. As for its status, it stands as the one and only resource for a labouring class that might otherwise be at the very bottom of the heap.

It is heart-warming to find Free Thinking still free enough, under Matthew Sweet’s polymathic chairmanship, to spend 45 minutes on the subject, and confident enough to stray into eccentric ruminative byways. Thus we went, via Midas, Orwell, and onolatory, to Derrida. But why we ended up with speculation over the shame that one might feel when one found oneself naked in front of one’s pet, I can’t recall. And surely there is a big difference, practically and philosophically, between meeting your cat in the shower and confronting a donkey.

During the pandemic, numerous stories arose of superspreaders whose behaviour was likened to the notorious Typhoid Mary. Thoughtless choir-members and irresponsible juveniles were deemed equally culpable in the insidious spread of infection. There has been, throughout Radio Ulster’s docu-drama The Hunt for Typhoid Mary (broadcast Saturdays; all episodes now online, as part of the Assume Nothing podcast), that contemporary frisson, as we hear the story of Mary Malton, an asymptomatic carrier of the disease, and the public-health inspector who pursued her through early 1900s New York, Dr George Soper.

The story itself is good enough to hold our attention, in spite of a clunky production that appears undecided about how much docu- and how much drama it wishes to be. The appearance of academic experts telling us how Malton must have felt post-traumatic stress or social alienation — all entirely speculative — would have been unnecessary if the production had had faith in its scriptwriters to convey these insights through the truth-telling magic of fiction.

In contrast, Book at Bedtime: My Father’s House (Radio 4, weekdays of last week) — adapting Joseph O’Connor’s story of derring-do in the wartime Vatican City — happily played fast and loose with a story that has some historical basis: the facilitation of safe passage, through the Vatican, of Allied escapees. As a piece of historical fiction, it rattled along unencumbered by the intervention of commentators. This is for you, if you haven’t yet chosen your next audiobook, and you like a ripping good yarn.

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