Radio 4’s “Rethink” season began with an inauspicious start

The festival of “essays, programmes and provocations” on the world post-Covid-19 launched two weeks ago with a Zoom discussion featuring George Osborne.

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It was an inauspicious start. Radio 4’s “Rethink” season – a festival of “essays, programmes and provocations” on the world post-Covid-19 – launched two weeks ago with a Zoom discussion (“The Edge of Change”, 22 June, 9pm) between, among others, Tony Blair and Kevin Rudd, whose dog also put in an appearance, giving a lone and portentous woof. Everybody agreed that historically we were at a “hinge moment”, but conversation congealed when George Osborne insisted on being goadingly optimistic, in that quintessentially Boris-ish, yes-beats-no-at-the-polls way, reminding us that we could always, if it came to it, flog our personal data: “This is your asset and it is valuable!”

Since then, the ongoing Rethink podcast has been filling up with some 55+ short essays (most five to eight minutes long) self-recorded and sent in by academics, philosophers, national security advisers, poets – all sorts. The South Korean foreign minister. Andy Murray. The Pope! Lord Sumption. The Dalai Lama. Most of the “essays” are really more rallying cries than developed thoughts.

For every Dr Xine Yao being informative about the first wearing of medical masks in civilian life (during a plague in Manchuria in 1910), there’s Anand Giridharadas describing “synced crises” that “have freed us from the illusion that we may have been living right” – yes, sure, makes sense. But that sort of language has a “San Fran Ideas Retreat” vanity, an underlying and off-putting TED-talky catchphrasiness. Besides – legitimacy crisis, population crisis, identity crisis, whatever, they pale before the one real crisis: climate. All else is a distraction.

I liked writer Mohammed Hanif on intimacy (“Civilisation was forced with double handshakes with our enemies and embraces with our potential killers”). And Pascal Soriot, CEO of pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, marvelling how economics can “in no time” be disrupted by ecological trauma. That’s the thing that perhaps comes through the most in the podcast so far, thrumming quietly and in a ghastly way: how quickly things collapse. It happens – always – far faster than we think. 

BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation

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