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Radio review: The Invention of China, In Good Faith, and The Documentary: The Poker Parent

03 May 2024

Alamy

The first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, was the starting point for The Invention of. . . China (Radio 4, Monday of last week)

The first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, was the starting point for The Invention of. . . China (Radio 4, Monday of last week)

IF YOU have a vast empire to unify, here is threefold top tip: sort out your language, your system of weights and measures, and the length of axle on your carts. The advice comes courtesy of Qin Shi Huang, as reported in the first episode of The Invention of . . . China (Radio 4, Monday of last week). The first two recommendations are self-explanatory. The last is not as arbitrary as it might seem: it’s all about the width of rut on the muddy roads that connect your far-flung dominions. As with railway gauges, you need to be sure that goods and services can pass unencumbered between regions.

Misha Glenny’s new series is the latest in a lengthening franchise of “invention” stories, although the scale of this enterprise is a good deal more ambitious, given the four episodes allocated. Any starting point is going to seem contrived — the first Emperor, who ruled from 221 BC, would seem like a reasonable option — but we might have been spared some of the truisms of historiography (for example, that a new regime will always malign that which it replaces) in favour of more local colour of the axle-width kind.

Glenny ended this first episode with a comparison that appears to offer both: that unity requires a tyranny that conquers opposition as a silkworm devours a mulberry leaf — which is intriguing; but, unless you are a naturalist, it’s not clear what it means.

The title of Mark Lawson’s Drama on 4 (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) entailed a thoughtful triple meaning. In Good Faith told of a fictional — but all too credible — legal struggle between the parents of a child whose life was dependent on life support. The mother, supported by a Christian legal charity, argued for the right to continue medical intervention, against the view of the father and medical team.

Lawson’s script follows the process in a quiet, understated manner. The mother, whose Christianity is never selfish or histrionic, and the judge, whose careful reckonings are preternaturally sensitive and balanced, both act in good faith. And the drama itself, which manages a steady, disinterested perspective even while managing a neat twist 30 minutes in, might also be credited with demonstrating good faith towards its audience and subject-matter. It is, more than anything, a technical feat for which the writer is to be congratulated.

Parenting styles have always been a source of antagonism. At the start of The Documentary: The poker parent (World Service, Thursday of last week), the listener was torn between admiration for the presenter, Alex O’Brien, and the impulse to call social services. O’Brien has been teaching her daughter to play poker since the child was five. She, like other mums we met here, believes that the game instils self-control and statistical acumen in the young mind.

The addiction expert interviewed here was less supportive; but, according to these advocates, the game is about skill, not gambling — which is like arguing for the benefits of wine-drinking in children as a means of training their taste buds.

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