In Our Time
I’m writing this on the way back to Cambridge having just done an In Our Time programme on the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. Rome vs Carthage can be a pretty blokeish subject, so it was a nice dare to have an all-woman panel: me, Ellen O’Gorman from Bristol and Jo Crawley Quinn from Oxford.
The house “rules” of IOT make it an exciting 45 minutes from the performer’s point of view. For a start, no notes allowed. I’m sure this is right. Even if you couldn’t SEE people searching for the written answer, you’d be able to ‘hear’ it, if you know what I mean. And the temptation to read choice bits out would be almost irresistible. And the difference between reading something out and having a real conversation is glaringly audible.
You also don’t really know what you’re going to be asked. You get a general idea of what the first questions might be, but that’s it (thank goodness I got the myth of Carthage not the First and Second Punic Wars!). So, as it’s live, if you don’t know the answer, you just have to improvise – or look around to rest of the panel and hope for rescue! It’s amazing how quickly you get acclimatized. If answering the first question has a kind of “oh-my-god-this-is-live-radio” feel to it; by the second half it really does feel much like a ‘real’ conversation.
The biggest worry, surprisingly, is whether you’ll find anything to disagree about. Because that is what gives the programme its punch, I think – and makes it much more interesting than 3 worthy academics in collusive agreement (however fascinating the subject matter). This time we managed to come down on different sides of one key Carthage question: what was the city like in the third century BC, just before the Punic wars.
Jo and Ellen took the view that it was really opulent, the Queen of the Mediterranean or (as Jo put it) “the New York of the third century BC’. Beard was more doubtful, suggesting that the opulence was a construction of the Romans themselves, and partly a legitimation for going to war (not unlike the WMD of the recent Iraq war as one of my smart students observed). After the programme we pressed on with this, arguing about whether there was enough archaeological evidence to clinch it (Beard no, the others a guarded yes).
The only downside of the programme is having to spend the night in London before. The Radio 4 guys may be pretty laid back, but they are not going to risk having a live contributor getting stuck on the train and not turning up for 9.00 a.m.
This time I managed to combine it with going to a memorial service and celebratory party for John Barron, who had been Professor of Greek at Kings College London when I had my job there… my first proper academic appointment. I always had a hugely soft spot for him (and not only because I always thought that I owed it to him that I was appointed in the first place).
It was one of the most elegant and touching memorial services I’ve ever been to. And the truth is one becomes quite an expert in such things as one gets on a bit. But the highlight for me was the account by one of John’s daughters of car journeys with her parents when she was a kid – which conjured up for me, as for many I guess, the whole old-fashioned holiday ritual. Their second car, she remembered, was so up to date that it had a cassette player. For most of the time Mum and Dad insisted on classical music, but they were occasionally allowed a tape by The Seekers (remember them)…which was played the to accompaniment of Dad humming wild harmonies and Mum every now and then asking “Was this written by the Beatles?” (That’s typical Mum-speak…and I’ve so often done it myself).
And then they played one of those old Seekers' tracks. “I’ll never find another you”. Sure enough, a tear or two fell down my cheek.