The week in radio: Death becomes them

A HISTORY of Grief in Three Funerals (Radio 4) could have offered bleak listening for a Saturday afternoon had it not been for the masterful touch of its presenter, Ruth Richardson. As a specialist in bereavement (she apparently has a private collection of lead coffin lids), Ms Richardson was able to discuss the subject in a relaxed and natural way, and demonstrate that only in recent years has death become something best not mentioned in company.

Before the late 20th century, funerals were often popular, well-attended occasions. Indeed, for Sir Henry Unton (d1596), the highest point of his life was his death. This Elizabethan diplomat died of bubonic plague while in France and had to be carted home wrapped in lead. Once back in England, though, his court status entitled him to a full heraldic funeral which, if he could have witnessed it, would have made him a proud man.

We know all this because of a narrative painting of his life commissioned by Unton's widow. One of the early scenes shows him as a student in Oxford. "Have you noticed he's the only one doing any work?" pointed out Dr Clare Gittings, the painting's curator.

His wife must have thought a lot of him to have him portrayed in this way, but nevertheless she was barred from attending the funeral because her position in the social hierarchy was considered too low.

Social status can backfire in other ways, too. If you happened to be a Saxon king in the ninth century, you had to make sure you were never captured alive by marauding Vikings. Otherwise you were likely to be "blood- eagled", a process of ritual execution involving an axe, the victim's lungs, and a strong sense of symbolism.

This is what could have happened to Alfred the Great if he'd lost the Battle of Edington in 878AD. In reality his army won the contest and turned back the Danish host after prolonged hand-to-hand fighting, but What if? (R4, Thursday) allowed a group of history professors to ponder the possibility of defeat. In hushed tones they agreed that the Dark Ages would have turned Really Dark once the Scandinavian influence arrived. In Dorset and Wiltshire, for example, there would be places with names such as Grimsby and Scunthorpe. And people might have started wearing their hair in long, pagan styles.

The Vikings were apparently quite keen on burning monasteries, especially if these were full of softie monks writing books. Without books there would have been no recorded history. The professors' conclusion, therefore, was that Alfred's victory at Edington was a "crucial half-hour that saved English civilisation".

Unfortunately, he was unable to save us from street furniture. In this week's Four Walls (R4, Wednesday) Jonathan Glancey examined the horrors of pavements cluttered with all manner of lamp stands, signposts, advertising boards and concrete planters. A street should be a roofless outdoor room where we meet and promenade, he suggested, not an assault course. Anyone who has ever banged their knee on a bollard would agree with him.

A man from Hertsmere Council, meanwhile, declared the need for a reduction of poles. The trouble is, if you get rid of the poles, who's going to hold up all the wires? Eh? Answer me that!

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