Thursday, March 13, 2008

Be in Time

In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, BBC Radio 4, Current

It was by the sheerest accident that I discovered this BBC radio program. Searching for some other podcast at the iTunes store, I came upon the name In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg and recalled James Wolcott’s blog entry recommending the show. Intrigued by the show description:

Melvyn Bragg examines The Fibonacci Sequence, an infinite string of numbers named after, but not invented by, the 13th century Italian mathematician Fibonacci. His guests are Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford; Jackie Stedall, Junior Research Fellow in History of Mathematics at Queen’s College, Oxford; and Ron Knott, Visiting Fellow in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Surrey.

I downloaded it, popped it on the iPod and listened on the way home. And became hooked. Simple as that. It’s a rare week when I miss getting an update from Bragg and his always excellent panel of educated, eloquent guests (although I did just miss last week’s broadcast on Ada Lovelace, the illegitimate child of Byron and a mathematical genius – and believe me when I tell you that that loss rankles highly). Every Thursday you can tune in to find chat about the Sassanian Empire, Albert Camus, The Multiverse, the myth of the Fisher King. Every week is a bountiful display of erudition and intelligence.

Let me remind you, that this is broadcast on the radio, for free, to the British Isles. I am a regular listener of NPR and I have yet to find a show even measurably close to this in terms of scope, variety, intelligence, depth of subject expertise, length of time given to a topic (45 minutes!) and enjoyment provided to me. If anyone can correct me with recommendations I’d be immeasurably grateful. One can enjoy Car Talk a-plenty, but I never quite come away feeling like I’ve learned anything.

Bragg, novelist (The Cumbrian Trilogy), screenwriter (Jesus Christ Superstar), Chairman of the Arts Council Literature Panel, Chancellor of the University of Leeds, Labour life peer with the title of Baron Bragg among other honors, was also once credited with the first in-print use of prat as to mean “an idiot, a fool; an ineffectual or contemptible person.” The OED now hands that honor on to Elleston Trevor. Clearly though, what we are dealing with in a host is a man of huge talent, who is widely respected, and, most importantly, one who is interesting himself as a person.

He leads his three guests through their paces, always a certain schedule of his own, prompting them, redirecting their professorial rambling when they over embroider or stray from the main point, but he does so generally very gently and with what almost amounts to stereotypical English grace and diplomacy. You come away feeling that Bragg has selected the guests himself from his range of friends and acquaintances, that he truly respects these experts, but the feeling comes across more so than with any other interviewer I’ve heard that he has researched the topics and can participate on a decent level.

This is not to say that Bragg inserts himself into the discussion as anything approaching an expert in the subject matter, but that he knows his material as well as a layman can be expected to. He asks the kinds of intelligent questions you yourself would ask about a subject outside your own area of expertise, but one which has fascinated you over many years. From the stand-in for ourselves, as interviewers need to be, we can ask not much higher a qualification. I have turned off interviews with people I enjoy and want to hear from because the interviewer has been so banal and foolish.

(For a perfect example, listen to this Fresh Air show with Tom Waits. Terry Gross simply can’t handle frivolity or playfulness in her guests and Waits is an unreliable raconteur who will lie his ass of in interviews to keep himself amused. Gross just bumbles along asking idiotic questions, following up Waits’ bizarre replies with credulity. It’s almost too painful to listen to.) (Windows Media Player stream)

If there is a drawback to the show, it is that unlike other BBC programs, In Our Time’s archives as downloadable mp3 files come down pretty fast. Thursday is the release date for the latest episode and I missed the Ada Lovelace show by trying to get last week’s today. Surely the Beeb can cut people a little slack here and throw up at least one month’s worth of shows so we can check in. The Radio 4 web site does include an archive of programming but, for reasons that mystify me, they are still using the antiquated and dying Real Media formatting. There are workarounds that I will probably try out at some point to get hold of whichever shows appeal to me, but at this stage, it’s too much effort.

Nevertheless, a lesson has been learned and every Wednesday from now on, I’ll be checking in to make sure I haven’t missed a thing. It’s too good to miss out on.


The Postcolonial Oberlin said...

I'll take the MIT-refined exhortations of Click n' Clack, the Tappen Brothers, over your pretentious Brit any day!

What is it with Americans and their anglophilia? Even your wishlist consists solely of Wodehouse. What, American comedic prose too low-brow for you? I bet you salivate every time My Word! comes on...

The Critic said...

Have you even listened to this show? Of course not. I know why you got your nuts in a vice about the Brits (very transparent), but really, I'm not sure you can call yourself a "postcolonial subject" seeing as how you were born and raised in this here Empire.

The Critic said...

As far as my wishlist goes, I made it one day and haven't updated it yet, but I intend to add such American stalwarts as Charles Schulz, Dashiel Hammett, Walt Kelly, Patricia Highsmith, Chris Ware.