Disappointingly conventional and linear: BBC radio's modernism season reviewed

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

1922: The Birth of Now; Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

BBC Radio 4

Free Thinking; Sunday Feature: The Art of a Day

BBC Radio 3

This week marks the beginning of modernism season on BBC Radio 3 and 4, which means it’s time for some pundit or other to own up to abandoning Ulysses at page seven, or to finding T.S. Eliot a bore, or to infinitely preferring the landscapes of J.M.W. Turner to the repetitive squares of Kazimir Malevich. That pundit, however, won’t be me.

Modernism is rather like the birth of the Roman Empire. It could be seen as a brilliant sloughing off of everything that had decayed in favour of sensible revolution, or as the predictably reactive consequence of years of wrangling over a loss of identity. Most of the contributors to this week’s programmes are out to convince that modernism was not only good, but profound to the extent of shaping our existence a century on — although a few of them do have complaints about the length of Joyce’s book and the privilege of Virginia Woolf.

The first thing they discover is that modernism is easier to define by what it isn’t than by what it is. In ‘How to Create a Modernist Masterpiece’ on Radio 3’s Free Thinking, author Laurence Scott explains that ‘a wrecking ball was needed in the toolkit’, and asks each of the panellists to name one thing that had to be destroyed in order to make modernism possible. Will Self speaks of liberal progressivism. Alexandra Harris of the linear narrative and absence of doubt. Matthew Sweet, in Radio 4’s 1922: The Birth of Now, lists over-explanation, sentimentality, upright pianos and doilies. We hear quite a lot about doilies across the two channels. Their disappearance was clearly key.

Sweet’s ten-part series offers an entry point, holding the listener’s hand through a lively journey into a subject that ‘can be scary’, beginning at Shabolovka Tower in Moscow. ‘Modernism Around the World’, fronted by Rana Mitter, delves deeper into unexpected territory, including the place of the Bauhaus in Calcutta and Freudian psychoanalysis in Japan. ‘How to Create a Modernist Masterpiece’ falls somewhere between the two in scope, and includes Alexandra Harris eloquently championing Jacob’s Room— in my view the best of Woolf’s novels — against Will Self’s declaration of Woolf as ‘hard to stomach’.

Given how difficult modernism is to define, I had expected more of the 15 or so programmes in the season, as enjoyable as they are, to exemplify it through their own form, rather than proceed in the usual conventional and linear fashion. Might someone not have retraced Clarissa Dalloway’s footsteps through London or experimented through radio with stream of consciousness? Listening to actress Siân Thomas read from Mrs Dallowayon Radio 4, I was struck by the passage in which the protagonist rouses a memory, only to reject it as something familiar to others besides herself to focus on what is ‘here, now, in front of her’. Walking towards Bond Street prompts her to reflect on the future — how the street will remain after she dies — before she breaks from her reverie to gaze into Hatchards bookshop. Thomas slips seamlessly back and forth between thought and narration. Forget definitions. Here is modernism.

Idling between the literary programmes and the other offerings on Radio 3, which is airing performances of everything from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 to Mosolov’s Iron Foundry as part of the season, my interest was piqued by an email from a publicist with a rough cut of Sunday Feature: The Art of a Day, with an apology for a missing section on ‘James cooking bacon’. James is James Marriott of the Times, and he does indeed cook bacon, while talking about cooking bacon, which is just the sort of modernism in play I was hoping for.

The programme to which his frying forms the prelude is excellent. Novelist A.L. Kennedy — who joins Ian McEwan, Carlo Rovelli and others as panellists — describes Ulysses as ‘literal virtual reality’ and speaks of the appeal of getting under the characters’ skin. Today, the impetus to connect is even stronger, which presumably explains the popularity of vlogs documenting the inane minutiae of strangers’ lives. The discussion broadens out to other art-in-a-day titles, including Groundhog Day (which is next Wednesday, incidentally), but Joyce predominates.

A hundred years on from the publication of Ulysses and ‘The Waste Land’, it’s hard to discern the foundations of anything quite as vibrant and all-encompassing as modernism. Going on the achievements of 1922, to which next week’s radio is broadly dedicated, we’d need to take an exceptionally large wrecking ball to current cultural constraints to put 2022 within the slightest chance of becoming a new year zero. It’d be less out with the old, more in with the risk-taking and daring that enabled so much to flourish previously. Sad to say, but shunning doilies will no longer cut it.

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