The Week In Radio: Objects of desire still making history

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The Independent Culture

In this cold, slow January, immured in our igloos and staring bleakly out at the rain and snow, there's an immense comfort to be had in taking the long view. Recalling that our tiny strivings are just blips in the history of humanity. Radio is all about providing perspective, with the result that it was curiously uplifting to find oneself contemplating a couple of stone-age chopping implements in the first week of Radio 4's History of the World in 100 Objects.

And to be honest, for most people, this has to be a first. Who hasn't, at some point, looked into museum cases stuffed with this kind of ancient, earthy rubble and hurried on past? But in the company of an enthralling, erudite guide like Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, even the most crusty exhibit comes to life. His earliest object, for example, was a 1.8-million- year-old stone chopping tool. "Holding this I can feel what it was like to be out on the savannas needing to cut flesh," confided David Attenborough, slightly disturbingly. But the thing that interests MacGregor is what it says about the mind that made it. The tool revealed the moment when our brain started to become asymmetrical as it got to grips with logic and language, whereas apes' brains remained symmetrical. "Apes use objects, but we make tools before we need them." The 1.2-million-year-old hand axe, the "Swiss army knife" of the Stone Age, even promoted the development of speech. The parts of the brain used when a napper works with stone are close to the speech area, suggesting that if you can shape a stone you can shape a sentence. "People could sit down exchange ideas, gossip. You're well on the way to something we would all recognise as society."

Radio 4 is taking quite a chance by dedicating an epic 100 programmes to this project, but already it looks like being an enterprise to remember. In Neil MacGregor it has found a passionate and illuminating guide and it's the kind of series that makes you wish yet again that children would listen to radio. From Egyptian mummies to credit cards, MacGregor will trace how "made" things reveal the development of the brain, art and social interaction. Maybe he could even feature an IKEA wardrobe at some point, just to show where history goes a bit retrograde.

It's only 150 years since the birth of Anton Chekhov, but already his heritage is under threat, according to Michael Pennington, reporting from the site of the playwright's dacha in Yalta. Chekhov moved there when he became consumptive and was rather rude about it, saying "all the women smelt like ice-cream and the men were snobbish and silly", yet he wrote Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard there and had visits from Tolstoy and Gorky. Now, however, the dacha's future is uncertain because the Ukraine looks askance on preserving a monument to a Russian writer. And in a terrible echo of The Cherry Orchard, which was mercilessly axed to make way for holiday homes, Chekhov's cherished garden is being eyed by Ukranian developers. Will Putin come to the rescue? It's not certain, but as the curator said, with particularly Russian gravity, "Pushkin said the difference between a savage and a civilised man is that the latter guards his memories."

From Chekhov to Beckett should be a simple step, but nothing about Beckett is simple and therefore I was keenly awaiting Lenny Henry's What's So Great about... Beckett? Unfortunately, the answer was not forthcoming. Lenny certainly tried, despite being patronised from most quarters. He made remarks like "I'm not entirely sure what's going on here" and got replies like "I think, Lenny, it can be very daunting until you look into it". Some professionals admitted that Beckett wasn't plain sailing. Fiona Shaw said her reaction on first seeing Happy Days was "Revulsion. You open the text and think, God, this is just impenetrable". But nothing about the programme made you want to block-book the next production of Godot. "I'm a bit surprised you've found these difficulties," opined Professor James Nelson. "I suppose it's a bit elusive but if you go with the flow, as Brendan Behan said, it's like water flowing over you." To which, at least, Lenny could quip, "I'm not sure it would be water that would be flowing over Brendan Behan."

The premise of this programme, of understanding art, was exactly the same, really, as that of History of the World. But here's the thing. If Neil MacGregor can make anyone see what's so great about an old stone hand axe, why, two million years later, can't Beckett-lovers do the same with an infinitely more complex work of art? I only ask.

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