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Radio review: Orwell vs Kafka and The Beaches

14 June 2024


In Orwell vs Kafka (Radio 4), Ian Hislop and Helen Lewis compared and contrasted the two prophets of dystopia

In Orwell vs Kafka (Radio 4), Ian Hislop and Helen Lewis compared and contrasted the two prophets of dystopia

HOW do you prefer your dystopia: Kafkaesque or Orwellian? The adjectives are used interchangeably to describe our modern world, while The Trial and Nineteen Eighty-Four are invoked as templates for anything in the slightest bit disagreeable, whether it be receiving a parking ticket or queuing at the bank.

Orwell vs Kafka (Radio 4, six episodes, spread over Saturday and Sunday) provided the opportunity for Ian Hislop and Helen Lewis to compare and contrast. For sure, there were some examples of these same glib comparisons of the modern world to the immersive tyrannies imagined by Kafka and Orwell: Donald Trump tells the most enormous fibs, but he is not Big Brother, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not Oceania. And we might indulge Alan Bates, scourge of the Post Office, in augmenting the notorious trinity — “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” — with “Horizon is robust.”

Otherwise, the contributors here did a comprehensive job of examining the two world-views and how they emerged from the psyches and environments of their creators. Perhaps the most unsettling assumption behind both is that of humans’ complicity in their own oppression — a view most powerfully expressed by Silkie Carlo, of Big Brother Watch, who narrated the extension of surveillance into all aspects of our lives, and the complacency with which this has been accepted.

The one glaring omission in this respect was any mention of the most recent and grandest suppression of freedoms — during the pandemic. The general compliance of societies around the world with lockdown was remarkable.

Of the many stories emerging from the recent D-Day commemoration, the one told and recreated in The Beaches (part of the Seriously strand; Radio 4, Sunday 2 June) is surely one of the more unusual. On New Year’s Eve 1943, two British commandos — Logan Scott-Bowden and Bruce Ogden-Smith — swam from torpedo boats off the French coast to the beach at Luc-sur-Mer to carry out a vital scientific test. According to ancient records, there were peat deposits underneath the sand which could not possibly support the weight of the average allied tank. The success of any invasion would depend on locating suitable terrain.

The expedition was recreated by the presenters, Harrison Lewis and Christian Dunn, with an authenticity that extended to the tubes into which soil samples were excavated. It was terrific stuff: the perfect combination of nerdy science and derring-do.

In Heart and Soul (World Service, last Friday), we met a Nigerian community that gathers in an online forum, The Table, and exchanges experiences of “faith deconstruction”. Refugees from strict religious backgrounds, these participants have now come out as “spiritual but not religious”, and represent something like the mirror image of that familiar self-designation that we might regard as a luxury phenomenon peculiar to Western Europe.

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