Neil MacGregor. Photo: BBC
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Is this the perfect radio series? On Germany: Memories of a Nation

Following on from the global success of A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor is back with a new 30-part series.

Germany: Memories of a Nation
BBC Radio 4

By the time A History of the World in 100 Objects concluded in October 2010, it had been established as one of the exceptional bodies of work yet broadcast by the BBC. It was unique in its telling of history purely through objects and every episode was awaited with confidence and impatience.

The final artefact – a solar-powered lamp and charger, whose technology could give clean, cheap energy to women in parts of Africa who would otherwise be forced to use the sulphur dioxide-emitting kerosene – was a typically humane choice from the presenter and British Museum director, Neil MacGregor, who combines sensitivity with analytical power. Notable at the time was this statistic: not only had the podcasts of the series been downloaded ten million times but half of those had been from abroad by listeners following it on BBC World Service. The enterprise was globally adored and surely unrepeatably so.

Only two episodes of MacGregor’s new 30-part series (weekdays, 9.45am) were available to listen to in advance – concerning a piece of Grete Marks’s pottery from the Bauhaus school, considered entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) by the mid-1930s, and the 1574 astronomical clock inside Strasbourg Cathedral – but we have been promised 600 years of German history through objects as various as a bratwurst and a Bible. So confident is the BBC of another raging success that there will be a variety of accompanying programming on Radio 4 Extra, plumbing further hidden depths – Benedict Cumberbatch reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Philip Pullman reading the Brothers Grimm – like extras on a special edition DVD.

And why not? The way MacGregor moves from object to general history is quite simply the perfect broadcasting idea of the new century and probably the best use of the 15-minute programme yet commissioned. So much better than talking about an incident, or a battle, or the death of a king, or the life of a person, because a thing – something manufactured or made – requires the sort of serious social context that removes any suggestion that this is a gimmick. If you did Bismarck in 15 minutes, people would immediately think it was a novelty. Instead, the form and content here fit perfectly: dense, thrillingly non-linear, modern.

MacGregor’s narrative gift is striking, whether describing the “loose-splashed glaze suggestive of modernist painting” on the vase or, more beautifully, the clock on which “the changing faces of the moon are indicated [and] the position of the sun is charted . . . Every hour, the universal tyranny of time is rehearsed.” His tone – recorded in a studio, or a storeroom in the museum, or a crowded square abroad – is always the same. He’s unhurried, precise, possibly reading from a script but very possibly not.

There is an almost mystical sense that this formula could go on forever, with MacGregor increasingly cast as a talker of Coleridgean brilliance (Anthony Blunt, who first met MacGregor in Bavaria at a summer school, called him “the most brilliant pupil” he had ever taught). As he ranges all over his subject, thinking continually of anecdotes that might ground or illuminate, he often settles on the most filmic. When describing the burning of 20,000 books in Berlin’s Bebelplatz in 1933, he mentions that Erich Kästner was in the crowd watching his novel Emil and the Detectives go up in flames – this without a hint of drama.

It is this clean, held-back quality that makes MacGregor’s work rewarding. He can declare, without bitterness, “This was never going to be a vase in which a good Nazi arranged flowers!” and he can eschew sarcasm entirely when flagging up the absurdity in paranoiacally seeking “Jewish characteristics in a flower vase”. The voice is untheatrical and yet deeply old fashioned in the way that Virginia Woolf’s or Iris Murdoch’s was old fashioned – a way that now makes his narration sound to us like a lost bit of poetry. It’s a cultivated voice constructed to form beautiful words such as “Chagall” and “Munch” and also enunciate – like a voice-over artist proving his mastery of micro-technique – “Strasbourg” as though it were a German city and then, seconds later, as though it were French.

Yet he still manages to make the syllables of certain names sound ineffably unclean. “Goebbels”. It’s as though some raw nerve were ever so lightly being touched and as shockingly effective as a full bottle smashing on a stone pavement seconds before a fight. More please! 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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