Baking won’t get me through a Covid winter but a bossy, breathless Melvyn Bragg just might | Grace Dent’s Weekend column

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“Ah, the long winter evenings must just fly by,” sighed Edmund Blackadder, in one of his greatest withering putdowns, faced with two bedraggled, Elizabethan death-row workers trying to make light of their woeful lot.

It’s a line I’ve thought of often as we slide towards the colder, darker half of 2020. This year has been a wretched hellscape, and now it’s going to be dark by 5pm. I thought about long winter nights “flying by” as I bookmarked a BBC Radio 4 In Our Time podcast episode on The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, a short but meaningful interval of high temperatures lasting 100,000 years and associated with the largest deep-sea mass extinction in the last 93m years; I’m saving it for a night under the duvet.

I may not be laughing much this winter, but I will be learning. It’s the only thing that’s kept me vaguely sane during this crisis so far. I did French imperfect tenses in June and July, studying for what, I’m not sure – but it felt important to keep my brain springy. If Armageddon came, I’d be able to scream into the abyss using irregular verbs in near-perfect French grammar. This worked for a while, but now Christmas is cancelled and Covid-19 is gathering steam again, so it’s time to get out the big guns. Banana bread and Joe Wicks won’t save me, but I hope Melvyn Bragg will.

Sorry, you’re saying: Melvyn Bragg? Him off The South Bank Show with the tousled hair and slightly blocked nose? The 1980s thinking woman’s crumpet Melvyn Bragg? Yes, yes – that Melvyn Bragg. Although I know him more dearly as the keeper of my special happy place: the In Our Time archive, where every episode since 1998 lives. The BBC are oddly coy about this splendid treasure trove, despite the fact that they own literally hundreds of hours of Britain’s most eminent academics delivering rudimentary, 48-minute crash courses in subjects you didn’t know you didn’t know about: Chinese Legalism, Holbein’s place in the Tudor Court, Echolocation or the Gordon Riots.

I’ve watched In Our Time’s cult status grow over the past decade, but never felt it more than when it returned after its summer recess, starting with a blistering breakdown of Pericles’ place in the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. OK, I’ll admit that having listened to this – or tried to, five times, before being whisked to the Land Of Sleepy-Bo-Bo – I cannot tell you one solid fact about Pericles. It’s the same with other topics. Aristotle’s biology, anyone? The Mabinogion? But what In Our Time always succeeds in doing, before knocking me out, is reminding me that if life feels weird now – well, it has always been somewhat askew.

It felt strange in the first century AD, when Pliny The Younger was governor of Bithynia; and it was unsettling in 1395, when Margery Kempe was having visions of Christ; and it was definitely not nice in 1816, when the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia led to a year without summer. There’s a sense of perspective in In Our Time that I simply do not glean from regular news bulletins. Whenever I feel dismayed about fake news, online fighting and the growing polarisation of society, I listen to an episode on the concept of The Rapture. At least, I tell myself, we’ve moved on from believing, as many did in the 19th century, that Jesus was just on the verge – any day now, guys! – of drawing His believers into the air, like a huge cosmic Hoover, leaving everyone naughty down here to suffer.

And, although In Our time isn’t supposed to be funny, Bragg’s ferocious chivvying of jittery academics will never be anything less than thrilling. From his opening intro, Bragg is on a mission. At times he’s brilliantly brusque. “Start at the beginning: where were the Brothers Grimm born?” he snaps, shutting down Marina Warner as she tries to wax lyrical on 19th-century Romantic nationalism. Treading water or straying off topic is verboten; Bragg demands his guests nail the very essence of Zen Buddhism, Rumi’s poetry or Fermat’s Last Theorem in a linear manner, in 15 or so sections, within the allotted time. No showboating, no plugging of personal projects, no pointless bickering, no skipping to the end and, for God’s sake, no discussing of the wider picture. “We’ve no time right now for the wider picture! We need to be precise and to the point!” Bragg has been known to bark.

In Our Time, I often think, is like going to an amazing free university at the top of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree, where Jo and Fanny would crawl up the ladder to an ever-evolving, fleetingly fantastic world. “Thank you, everyone, that was the Battle of Teutoburg Forest,” Bragg shouts as another week is up. “On next week’s In Our Time we will be discussing the 1550 Valladolid Debate. Until then, goodbye!” My sharpest thrill of all is when the podcast permits us some luxurious “after hours” extra time, where we can earwig on teacups being clinked, academics laughing with relief that the interrogation that has given them sleepless nights for weeks is finally over. Winter is coming, yes, and it’s going to be absolutely shocking. Thankfully, I plan to be in bed most nights, with a bossy, breathless Melvyn Bragg.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
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