At the tail end of Christmas Day many of you, like me, will have found yourself reflecting on life’s big questions.
Can my backside, which has been welded to an armchair since lunchtime, withstand two whole hours of Downtown Abbey? Is it possible to retrieve the Malteser that rolled under the sofa in the middle of the Queen’s speech? Can a person die from eating too many Mini Cheddars?
As it turned out, Joan Bakewell had some equally heavy things on her mind, such as to what extent one’s spiritual convictions underpin our life and work. No doubt Baroness Bakewell of Stockport usually spends her Christmases sipping 100-year-old port while perusing the works of Kierkegaard, not crawling on her hands and knees trying to retrieve fluff-smothered chocolates from under the sofa. If anyone was going to lift our minds into the realms of the spiritual on Jesus’s birthday, it was her.
In the Radio 3 series Belief, Bakewell asks a series of luminaries – usually scientists, politicians, artists and philosophers – about matters of the soul. On one hand, there’s not much that separates this format from the countless others in which presenters quiz famous types on a single aspect of their lives. But what makes Belief more interesting than most is that it leaves no room for small talk. Discussion of one’s spiritual life invariably taps into our deepest fears, generally revolving around isolation, death and the afterlife. Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, makes it ideal seasonal listening.
On Christmas Day, Bakewell’s guest was the former US President Jimmy Carter. You may recall Carter as being among the worst Presidents in recent history, a man who, through his dithering foreign policy and mishandling of the Iranian hostage crisis, subsequently made George Bush Jr look sharp as a whip. Bakewell dodged this particular bullet in her introduction by focusing on his post-presidential work as peacemaker and defender of human rights, calling him “the best ex-President in American history”.
Inevitably, religion was everything to Carter. He was raised as a Baptist in Georgia, went to church three times on a Sunday as a child, and he still hosts Bible lessons whenever he is home. In his mind, God was a benevolent figure and the afterlife held no fear for him. Yet he acknowledged that religious belief can “be the foundation of all prejudice and ultimately war”. Carter talked a great deal of sense, though an orator he wasn’t and his droning voice led you to sympathise with the millions of Americans left scratching their heads in the late Seventies as to how he ever found his way into the White House.
On Boxing Day, it was the turn of Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes to lay his spiritual cards on the table. Bakewell barely got a word in, as Britain’s most famous producer of crinoline-clad soap opera reflected over his Catholic beginnings, his loss of faith at the death of his mother and his subsequent spiritual vacillations On his more devout days, Fellowes saw God not as a smiter of sinners but as an urbane and generally charming chap who smiled kindly on his poor sinful underlings – a bit like Lord Grantham you might say. He was envious of his wife, Emma, for whom “life beyond death is as real as New Zealand”.
I’m no Fellowes fan, and I confess I wanted to dislike this man who has repeatedly claimed that the upper classes have it tough. But, prompted by Bakewell to divulge his fundamental fears, he turned out to be just like everyone else: uncertain, wistful and, when all was said and done, hopeful that he wouldn’t end up in hell.