A Love Note to Melvyn Bragg
The past year and a half have been stressful. Like many Americans, of many political persuasions, the nomination and election of Donald Trump to the Presidency showed me that I had badly misunderstood my country. I
learned that I was wrong about the way the world worked, and I don’t think I’m alone in finding that realization desolating.
I used to be an active and engaged consumer of news, but I find now that my appetite for it is diminishing. I am able to spend less time reading the daily news without becoming sad and apathetic, and so I have limited my intake. The void left by news-reading has been filled with a series of other activities, psychic life-rafts I’ve reached for and discarded when they proved unable to adequately absorb my agitation.
When Trump received the Republican nomination, I went on a science fiction binge. I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars Trilogy‘; Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash‘ and ‘Seveneves‘; Cixin Liu’s ‘The Three-Body Trilogy‘. Science fiction has the quality of being both escapist and morally relevant, and, for a while, I found it helped to inhabit the problems of worlds other than my own.
The day after Donald Trump was elected, when I walked into my lab, my labmates and I, all women, locked eyes and started to weep, and I found that my passion for dystopia had vanished.
Escapism no longer seemed a viable option; reality felt urgent but overwhelming, and I needed something which would help me cope with the repulsion I felt towards the world around me. I’m no optimist, and I especially wasn’t one this past winter, but I wanted something hopeful. So I started re-reading the old epics: ‘The Aeneid’, ‘The Inferno’, ‘Paradise Lost’. There was something reassuring about the scope of these poems, their grandeur and their vintage. They reminded me that civilizations may rise and fall, but that great monuments endure. They broadened my perspective, and reduced the troubles of my country to the status of a mere chapter in humanity’s story.
Eventually, though, the cycles of suffering and war which characterize epics started to make everything seem futile: so many men fight, so many die. Wash, rinse, repeat. I started to feel again that we are all doomed to the endless repetitions of violence which have characterized every human epoch. Apathy came creeping back.
And then, in the past two weeks, when the House voted to replace a 58%-popular ACA with a 17%-popular AHCA, and the President fired the FBI director for investigating his ties to Russia, and then dashed off to a private photo shoot with a Russian spy, and North Korea threw a missile as high as it could into the air, and the whole world seemed too venal and stupid to be borne, and I was nearly lost in an apathetic stupor, I found my way back to Melvyn Bragg.
Once a week, Melvyn Bragg hosts a discussion on BBC Radio 4 called ‘In Our Time’, in which he and three relevantly-credentialed academics spend 45 minutes talking about…something. These somethings are broadly classified into the categories ‘Science’, ‘History’, ‘Philosophy’, ‘Culture’, and ‘Religion’. Since it first aired in 1998, it has covered topics as far-ranging as Japan’s Sakoku Period, Lyrical Ballads, Conductors and Semiconductors, The Baroque, Guilt, Antimatter, and Fermat’s Lost Theorem.
Melvyn Bragg is a mellow, dry host, and he leads his academics in measured dissections of subjects both universal and abstruse. He is at turns funny and serious, and the allegiance of everyone is, at all times, to the subject at hand. These people are here to nerd out.
Though I am not normally susceptible to the allure of the English accent (Hugh Grant’s popularity baffles me), there is something about a round-table of dry, British academics earnestly discussing, say, whether Cleopatra was carried into Caesar’s tent in a carpet, or a bag, or a carpeted-bag, which makes the world seem sensible and good. And I have not yet found anything else as effectively (and endlessly) distracting as this two-decades-old labyrinth of esoterica. Melvyn has provided me not so much with an escape, but with a reminder that the world contains multitudes, vast stores of history and knowledge which I can never exhaust and which will never stop delighting me. I need this right now; I need the world to be larger than my own dysfunctional corner of it. His show is very popular in Britain, and so I doubt that it will give Baron Bragg an enormous thrill to know that he has rescued the sanity of one desperate American, but it is true nonetheless.
So I have this recommendation for Americans who are, like me, lost: download ‘In Our Time’. Find a comfortable place to sit or recline (I have taken to lying, flat on my back, on the rug in my living room, in my sweatpants – as I said, it’s been a stressful time), put in your headphones, and let Melvin help.
Melvyn Bragg on the occasion of the 500th episode of ‘In Our Time’, from the Telegraph,