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2 September 2020

Narrating 400 years of American history

A new series of monologues, broadcast on Radio 4 to mark the Mayflower 2020 anniversary, understands the sheer scale of the country.

By Antonia Quirke

Before the plague and the fall, if you sought a commission from BBC radio you wrote a short pitch, followed by an expansive and unlikely one detailing lists of potential contributors you might force to take part. At which point things would go cavernously silent. Then at the exact moment you realised how relieved you were that it had never happened an email would land saying: RECORD.

Don’t knock it. Some of the best radio in the history of the universe has been made this way. It’s a system. Since March, so much has changed. Long-imagined essays and features completely re-pivoted to respond to the “new normal”. How much the subjects and sentences of this series of monologues (4 September, 9pm) written and delivered by Joe Queenan, about 400 years of America (broadcast to mark the Mayflower 2020 anniversary) must have been pruned and scrapped to embrace not just the physical limitations of lockdown recording, but the (growing, daily) realisation that the US probably hasn’t been this strained since 1861. How well Queenan does it.

With his cunning radio voice – sardonically Philadelphian, hard and then tender – he talks about, say, Vitus Bering suicidally crossing the Bering Strait, or the forced relocation of native Americans, with the requisite despair (“America is all about how much you can get away with”), but also with awe. The scale of things. Snakes, alligators, tribes on tribes, mercury so cold it congealed in a thermometer, 47 per cent of the Louisiana population enslaved in the days before the Civil War. The mountains, the genocide, the money, the delusions. Queenan says he prefers Longfellow to Whitman. You hear jags of that storytelling hurtle in his writing. (“Back then, America elected presidents who were interested in flora and fauna and minerals and astronomy and anthropology and everything…”)

But, crucially, there is in Queenan’s tone the air that our current “pessimism” about the US could be proven wrong. Because it’s a babyish overestimation (a fantasy, even) to suggest things “used to be better”. This is us, Queenan seems to be saying. Human beings. And we’re no stupider or less stupid than we always have been.

From the Mayflower to the Moon
BBC Radio 4

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