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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Beyoncé and #BlackLivesMatter: why “Formation” is her most radical release to date

The more mainstream Beyoncé becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Beyoncé has long been associated with empowerment. From her Destiny’s Child days to B’Day to 2013’s self-titled album, instructions for empowerment are everywhere. Make your own money, and don’t let any man take it from you. You are beautiful, and you should feel empowered by your beauty. You can be successful on your own, but a relationship can be empowering, too. Your existence is powerful, in all its forms.

Beyoncé has always sung primarily to an audience that is black and female, which is essentially what transports so many of these songs from generically feel-good to genuinely radical, even if this difference is often elided on the dancefloor.

As a black woman making art for other black women, Beyoncé has often functioned as a cultural linchpin for movements of gender and racial equality before she has explicitly attached herself to them: “Beyoncé” and “feminism” were used in the same sentence long before she sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or stood in front of a giant neon sign blazing “FEMINIST” at the 2014 VMAs. And she and her husband Jay-Z were entwined with #BlackLivesMatter before she included graffiti reading “STOP SHOOTING US” in one of her music videos.

But Beyoncé has continually surprised audiences with her readiness to engage explicitly with these complex issues in more experimental forms as her impossible success continues to snowball: in a kind of inversion on the traditional narrative of white male punk musicians selling out, the more mainstream she becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Formation, her newest single, which dropped on Saturday, takes Beyoncé into territory that feels simultaneously familiar and untrodden. It’s a trap-influenced, synthy track brimming with distinctive reminders of her black Southern upbringing and her phenomenal success. Lyrics about black female self-love, the pulsing undercurrent of Beyoncé’s entire career, take on new significance in how explicit they are: “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”

Financial gain as a challenge to oppression – an implication of so many of her songs – finds new, more direct, expression: your “best revenge is your paper”. All these words take on greater significance dressed as they are in such potent visual imagery: Beyoncé stands on top of a drowning police car in New Orleans and fans herself in period clothing in a pregnant, ghostly house reminiscent of Beloved’s 124. Without a doubt, this is Beyoncé‘s most radical release.

It’s fitting, then, that Beyoncé makes links between music and political change in her music itself, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because music has personally empowered Beyoncé to have a kind of cultural and financial success that most people (of any race) could only ever dream of, allowing her to challenge cultural norms in becoming a symbol of independence, sex appeal, authenticity, achievement, blackness and femininity, within a racist society that often sees those traits as incongruous. (This is made explicit in the lyric, “You just might be a black Bill Gates”: world-changing levels of success are still seen as white and male.)

Metaphorically, because Beyoncé‘s music has united black female bodies in organised movement for years (think the Single Ladies” dance). She plays with this in Formation: the line “Get in formation” is an instruction for empowerment. With its punning echo of “get information”, it calls on you to get ready to dance, and to resist. As Dr Zandria F. Robinson notes, it is “a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance, [...] formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement”.

The moment of pause is particularly significant because it is so often dangerous – something that the video for Formation” illustrates in its shots of a young black boy dancing, then opening his arms outstretched, in front of white riot police. They pause before raising their own hands. The poet Claudia Rankine once told me that these silent moments are important because of their potential danger: the calm before the storm. “The white imagination lives inside that space. In those seconds [...] is all of white supremacist history building up. You [can] end up on the other side of that with a dead body.”

Beyoncé has used her own moment of suspense productively – fans and critics noted her “deafening silence” on racial equality, asking where her Instagram essay or impassioned tweets were when her audience needed them. Instead, she took the time to craft a thoughtful, nuanced, forceful anthem made by and for black women that will doubtlessly be consumed by audiences indiscriminately around the world (and Jay-Zs streaming service Tidal simultaneously donated $1.5m to #BlackLivesMatter).

A woman often criticised for her enthusiastic engagement with capitalism (like Rihanna, whose “prosperity gospel” is beautifully explained here by Doreen St Felix), Beyoncé has, in characteristic style, used Formation to demonstrate how the master’s tools can sometimes be used to dismantle the master’s house from the inside. As Britt Julious writes, “As long as we live in this world with these systems, the best manner of disrupting, of surviving, of taking what’s yours is using the same methods they might have used on you. Beyoncé knows what she’s doing. Who else could bring Black Panthers to the Super Bowl?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.