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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As I get older, my taste in music is leaning towards jangly new psychedelic guitar bands

Nicholas Lezard's Down and Out.

A message arrives via a social medium from a young, LA-based beat combo, called Cosmonauts. They are playing a gig in London on Friday and have invited me, and two guests, to see them. This is incredibly exciting. Well, it is for me.

“Who they?” you may well ask. I discovered this lot when, bored one evening, I typed “jangly psychedelic guitar bands” into a search engine box and watched what YouTube threw out at me. It turns out that there are still loads of such bands, and new ones, at that, and Cosmonauts are among the youngest; but their music sounds as though they’ve been going through their fathers’ record collections and liked what they heard.

Listening to their work kept me going during a bleak period last year, when I had just about given up on listening to any new music, or finding any that I liked. A year after discovering them, I have yet to weary of them. It’s as if they have reverse-engineered their sound to appeal directly to me.

How did this happen? How has the world rearranged itself so that there seems no longer to be so much of a gulf between the tastes of the young and the tastes of the old? In my day, it was a given, and virtually uncrossable. In some cases it still is: precisely because of repeated exposure to them, I can still barely abide musicals, with the exception of The Sound of Music, and that’s only because it’s so ridiculous that it’s adorable. (At the opposite end of the scale lies Stephen Sondheim, who’s the kind of person who chooses his own music for Desert Island Discs and whose song “Finishing the Hat” makes me want to commit savage violence.)

It took me until I had left the nest before I realised, for instance, that Frank Sinatra was one of the greatest singers ever; until then I thought he was someone my parents liked because they were born too early to like the Beatles. But now? My daughter, who is considerably younger than me, is keen on joining me to go to the aforementioned gig.

The problem is that I have started sinking into the trap that makes you think you are younger than you are. If you’re only as old as you feel, then I suppose I’m eligible to vote but haven’t been so for very long.

Things have been slightly complicated by the fact that the 16-year-old has been staying with me for most of the past week. Thanks to the diligent efforts of Virgin Media to bring back the pleasures of books, family conversation and, possibly, sex, by thoroughly disrupting their broadband service in Shepherd’s Bush, he’s been hanging out here, where he can go on the internet and get dinner cooked for him gratis. (Unused to such extended visits to the Hovel, he asked how long he could stay. “Well,” I said, “I always think that a young man should start making his own way in the world when he’s 18.”)

Over the course of our conversations, it’s transpired that his schoolfriends, having looked my name up on the net, have been rather impressed to discover that his father is an irresponsible layabout whose bedroom is probably messier than theirs. Apparently immaturity, or a reluctance to face one’s adult responsibilities, goes down very well with people on the cusp of their A-levels.

But I can’t go on like this. Surely I can’t. One of my dearest friends had a nasty brush with the Reaper the other day: a phone call from the hospital saying they had checked his blood test results, and could he come to A&E right now. When the NHS swings into action like that, panic is justifiable. This friend is about a year younger than me, and, what’s more, spent pretty much all of January and half of February stone-cold sober.

Other friends seem to have devoted all of 2017 to plucking feebly at the coverlets, filling receptacles with sputum and calling for priests. Why I have not had any similar episodes is completely beyond me. I told the daughter the other day that a plain digestive biscuit could be improved considerably by spreading butter on it, and she sighed and said, “I’m going to have to put that on to the List of Things That Can Kill Dad.” Then she reminded me of the time when Homer Simpson’s doctor advised him to stop dunking butter in his coffee. Which actually sounds pretty good, now I think of it.

I trust I will survive long enough to go to the gig, although I’m fully aware that I will be, by a considerable margin, the oldest person there. It won’t be the first time it’s happened. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit