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Radio review: Killing Victoria, The Essay: New generation thinkers, and Assume Nothing: The Shankill gold run

21 April 2023


Dyslexia, The Essay: New generation thinkers 2022 (Radio 3, Wednesday, of last week) revealed, was identified as a condition in its own right only at the end of the 19th century

Dyslexia, The Essay: New generation thinkers 2022 (Radio 3, Wednesday, of last week) revealed, was identified as a condition in its own right only at ...

THE emotional composure with which we associate the Victorians was never better exemplified than by their monarch herself. When, in May 1849, on the occasion of a birthday parade around Buckingham Palace, a loud bang was heard in the vicinity of her carriage, Queen Victoria enquired calmly after the cause of the disturbance. “Your Majesty has been shot at,” a footman replied.

The procession continued, and Victoria later wrote to an uncle of the botched assassination: “The indignation and affection . . . this has called forth is very gratifying.”

William Hamilton’s attempt on the Queen’s life was one of seven during her reign, each one documented in the seven episodes of Killing Victoria (BBC Sounds podcast, released Mondays), several of them occurring in the revolutionary middle decades of the century. In this case it is unclear, however, what motivated Hamilton, an Irish émigré, to have a pop.

That is not a problem here; for the presenter, Dr Bob Nicholson, skilfully compensates by painting a vivid picture both of the community into which Hamilton inveigled himself and of the prison system that took responsibility for him after his sentencing: Pentonville; a floating prison off Gibraltar; and, finally, transportation to Australia — by which time he fades from the historical record.

One of the strengths of Dr Nicholson’s programme is that it makes some effort to assess the Victorian era on its own terms. In contrast, Dr Louise Creechan’s discussion of Victorian educational practices in The Essay: New generation thinkers 2022 (Radio 3, Wednesday of last week) declared itself at the start to be inspired by the scholar’s own particular experience of neuro-divergence. The dunce’s hat has, Dr Creechan told us, haunted her throughout her educational journey, as it haunted this piece of radio.

Dyslexia was identified as a condition distinct from generic stupidity only at the end of the 19th century, when mass literacy became recognised as necessary — even desirable. Dr Creecham urged us to think of neuro-divergence and typicality as contextual, dependent for their correlation on the sorts of task to which human intelligence is directed. She might have added another element: the association of “stupidity” with moral torpor — a prejudice that, I imagine, we share not just with the Victorians. It might not be as a result of simple laziness that a congregation fails to understand the subtleties of the preacher.

With many podcast series appearing fully formed, it sometimes takes your reviewer a while to catch up. Thus, the five episodes of Assume Nothing: The Shankill gold run (Radio Ulster; BBC Sounds) all appeared on 1 April, but will remain there for many months. Despite the day of its appearance, this story is no spoof, but a fascinating tale of the discovery in 1969 of gold sovereigns on a Belfast building site.

Never mind that the central mystery of the tale could have been resolved with a single interview. The producers keep us waiting and, in doing so, open up to the listener a fascinating social panorama.

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