The Week In Radio: Just another case of occluded Taciteanism

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The Independent Culture

And so we bid our annual farewell to Melvyn Bragg and In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday), as he toddles off to recharge his batteries with his usual summer regimen of donkey rides, 99s, and kiss-me-quick hats. He deserves the break. In Our Time remains one of the very best things on radio, week after week showing that all you need for good radio are three people who know what they're talking about , and a fourth – Bragg – who wants to know and is prepared to nag.

Over the last year, the topics covered have included Camus and Kierkegaard, antimatter and the multiverse, King Lear and the Fisher King, genetic mutation and Lysenko's Stalinist genetics... The series went out on a high note this week, with the superficially unpromising subject of Tacitus, the Roman historian.

It was Tacitus who established the picture of Rome under the emperors as a pit of decadence, in contrast to the sternly virtuous republic that preceded it; he's largely responsible for most of our modern ideas about the Romans, from Edward Gibbon to Russell Crowe, and arguably for our whole sense of the weaknesses of empires. More prosaically, he was the main source for I, Claudius. In fact, Robert Graves went further than Tacitus in depicting the loose ways of the ruling classes: in Graves, Claudius's wife Messalina is an out-and-out floozy; Tacitus only mentioned rumours of flooziness – to a historian, the fact of something being rumoured is as important as any underlying truth.

The most entertaining part of the programme was Bragg's attempt to pin down some of the rumours, specifically about the sexual shenanigans of the emperor Tiberius; the panel – women only, for once – preserved a maidenly modesty: whatever he did, it wasn't suitable for Radio 4. The other thing that stuck with me was two words that cropped up, in a discussion of the way Tacitus's sense of history influenced Graves: "occluded Taciteanism". I love the sound of it – it's the sort of thing a P G Wodehouse hero enunciates to a policeman to prove he's not drunk – but also the sheer obscurity. I don't expect ever to hear the phrase again in my lifetime, let alone have an opportunity to use it myself.

Hold on, though: I think I can work it into talking about In Search of the Dalai Lama (Radio 4, Sunday). This was the last programme the great Charles Wheeler made before he died – not enough has been said in obituaries about the excellent series he made for Radio 4 in recent years, on evacuees, children forced to migrate to parts of the British Empire, and National Service (all, you notice, about the state trying to control young people's lives); happily, a number of them are being repeated next week.

In this one-off, Wheeler and fellow-journalists reminisced about the flight of the Dalai Lama from Tibet to India in 1959; and – just to mention occluded Taciteanism – rumour was as important as fact, even more so in the days before the web and satellite phones, when absence of information gave rumour growing-room. No one then even knew what "the DL" looked like – was a photo of a man with a beard authentic?

The journalists recalled Noel Barber's vivid report in the Daily Mail of flying over the spot where the DL was camped, seeing sunlight glint off his followers' bronze shields: marvellous journalism, and completely made up. A salutary lesson in how the first draft of history is written, and a lovely postscript to Wheeler's brilliant career.

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