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The New Elizabethans, Radio 4, all week Twenty Minutes: Shadows, Radio 3, Tuesday

From Everest to Club 18-30, the highs and lows of our age
  • @cmaume

As Edmund Hillary was on the final push to the top of Everest, he did something which strikes me – who gets giddy up a stepladder – as plain daft. "I looked down ..." He looked down? The fool. "... I looked down 10,000 feet beneath my legs, and I have never felt more insecure." If I'd been up there it would have read, "I have never felt more incontinent."

That is, I admit, a thought unworthy both of the great mountaineer and the 60-part series he kicked off. The New Elizabethans, presented and superbly written by James Naughtie, is looking at individuals, chosen by a panel of historians, who have "shaped and illuminated our lives in these islands during the past 60 years" (the climbing Kiwi was followed by Elizabeth David, Graham Greene, Michael Young, founder of Which? and the Open University, and Vladimir Raitz, father of the package holiday).

Sir Edmund said, somewhat surprisingly, that he'd always hated the "danger" parts of climbing. The greatest feat, he said was the comradeship built up in the lonely places. "The giving of everything you've got is really a very pleasant sensation."

Friday's was more prosaic, perhaps, but probably of greater significance for the general populace, looking at Raitz, whose company, Horizon, seared the names "Benidorm"and "Torremolinos" into the British consciousness. It became a very modern story: the price war in which he fired the first shots ultimately did for Horizon, which collapsed in the early Seventies; oh, and he invented Club 18-30.

A great British radio institution throughout the second Elizabethan era has been the interval talk, and Twenty Minutes: Shadows lived up to that fine tradition. The poet Michael Symmons Roberts ruminated in an oblique but ultimately fruitful fashion on matters tenebrous, exploring on the way some wonderful poetry, such as "How To Kill" by the war poet Keith Douglas ("Now in my dial of glass appears / the soldier who is going to die ... How easy it is to make a ghost.")

It was grounded in the every-day as well, though: "as a Mancunian I see fewer shadows than most," said Symmons Roberts, who observed that there's even a house in his street with solar panels. "I see this as a testament to the human spirit."