Alvin Hall in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Radio 4, Monday-Friday
The Brontës' Piano, Radio 4, Tuesday
The last Master of the Universe left a long time ago
Apart from being American, Alvin Hall, a TV livewire who sorts out people's money issues, seems to have no particular credentials to present a five-part examination of the changes in New York City since the publication 25 years ago of Tom Wolfe's magnum opus The Bonfire of the Vanities. But he made a thoughtful, engaging guide.
It is a very different place now, not least Wall Street, as Hall found in Tuesday's instalment of Alvin Hall in The Bonfire of the Vanities. The main difference – and I didn't know this – is that all the big players have moved out to New York's leafy hinterland, the places where the Masters of the Universe had their weekend retreats. Now it's all co-ops and condos. "What we have here today is cops and tourists," a former trader, now a writer, told him. And when the Vanities hero Sherman McCoy was in his pomp, it was a more – this sounds like the wrong word – innocent place. Back then there seemed to be no downside, no risk, no potential for global catastrophe.
As for the Brits – once regarded as somewhat exotic creatures – by the time of Vanities the portrait of the pissed hack Peter Fallow was all too accurate a stereotype. Toby Young, who recorded his Nineties stint over there in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, fessed up: "Successive waves of freeloading British hacks have poisoned the well."
In The Brontës' Piano, the singer Catherine Bott and pianist Jonathan Cohen visited the sisters' home in Haworth with the idea of using their musical activities to shed light on their work and lives. And in the process they appeared to nail a myth.
The impression left by Mrs Gaskell and other biographers is that the Brontë girls led a glum life in the parsonage. "To small, infantile gaieties they were unaccustomed," Mrs G wrote of their childhood. In fact, looking through their sheet music and the songbook compiled by Anne, they seem to have had their share of fun when they weren't working. "The grim, tragic view isn't borne out," said Bott. "We seem to need them to suffer."
There was a lovely moment between Bott and Cohen as he played the girls' upright grand (which would have cost between a third and a half of their father's annual salary), and she told him he was clearly channelling Emily. "Do you feel you're out on the wild and windy moors"? she sang, in the manner of Kate Bush, after he broke into the intro from "Wuthering Heights". You could hear them both struggling not to giggle. "Sacrilege, isn't it?" said Bott. "We'll be struck down by the ghost of Mrs Gaskell."
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