Infer our Tome

The radio programme In Our Time routinely skates around an icy intellectual plateau half the way down a ginormous canyon, with beautiful pirouettes, occasional awkward skidding, the odd snowball fight and here and there a giggle or two.

Sorry, what I meant to say was it is a serious discussion, er…debating? …programme, which sort of, er…summarises topics of a cultural, historical - sorry? Oh yes, scientific. And philosophical, political…oh no, not political, but you name it, really - nature, with a panel of experts, well academic types that is, qualified commentators, in a short space of time, typically thirty minutes to three quarters of an hour. It focusses on the people, the places, the events, er…the processes, the devices, the inventions, the theories, the medicines, the structures. - Hang on - this is getting messy. I prefer my first paragraph.

Well, let's go on undeterred. It features on BBC Radio 4, and the presenter and kind of - ahh - chairman, is Melvyn Bragg. He mumbles a little, which doesn't really bother me, even though it is rather a pronounced mumble, and has the effect of encouraging his guests to mumble too sometimes, so now and then you get lost in the mumble and internally grumble but only momentarily, 'cause that's their style ain't it? And anyhow, now and then you win the satisfaction of actually comprehending the mumble successfully which makes it all worth it! As with a sentence that has an inevitable conclusion, and you infer what the last word will … For an instant or two you are a telepath among geniuses, witnessing the unspoken thought along with those chiefs of the tribe in command of the language to which the invisible expression is devoted.

In Our Time is investigation of highbrow subjects by accomplished academics with specialised knowledge, and although they only have time to touch the tip of the iceberg, each iceberg-in-question's enormous depth is usually implied, if not graphically explored. There is, nonetheless, great exploration done, which is all due credit to the quick-fire, sporadic character of the inquiry combined with the particular challenges of the questions Melvyn fires at the panel. It's a little like the questions are bullets, to be dodged, one after another, by the guest, who turns this way then that to assert their authority until the gunner is satisfied with the direction they are running in, and gives them a while to find their own pace again (while he reloads.) That's an exaggeration, but it is sometimes a little like that. Dancing to avoid gunfire, but with willing participants on both sides. Unlikely, but it has explanatory force, okay?

You might have to get lucky with the topic you land on from one week to the next. It's hit or miss. A bit of a lottery. You might tend towards supermassive black holes and instead get the origins of life (although you might end up wondering if the two are related.) In which case you might prefer to dip into the vast archive of episodes on the In Our Time website for something angled more precisely in the direction of the inclinations of your curiosity.

In Our Time is in some ways something of a paradox; a contradiction of itself, being as it is an in-depth discussion programme, about specialist subjects, which doesn't give the debates the space they need to be comprehensively developed. It's a bit like dipping only your toes in a huge lake, or spending a fleeting amount of time running your eyes over a map of the world. Or sampling a few glasses of this year's outlay from a renowned vineyard. Right, let's sort this out: In Our Time lounges in the sunshine, chatting sophisticatedly over cocktails about how ideas have developed in any and every culture, pausing to sip from a glass edge, or suck from a straw, put some shades on, or rearrange the parasol. It's an established format, a sort of institution, and whether the conversation is heated, frozen or temperate, it is always colourful. I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Thanks for … .




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