Stop putting your awe in

the week on radio
  • @RobertHanks
Speaking for myself, it'll come as a relief when this century is over and we can stop looking back at it; there are days when it feels like I'm going to get a crick in my neck. And talking of pains in the neck brings us swiftly to 20/20: A Vision of the Century (Radio 4, Wednesday), the 20-part thematic history that Michael Ignatieff has now taken over from John Tusa - a bad idea, largely because it seems fairly clear Michael Ignatieff doesn't much like the 20th century. True, towards the end of his first programme - on the theme of "constructing" - he talked about the thrill of being in New York: "You can feel, if only for a second, that you'd rather be living here and now, in this century, than in any other." Only for a second, though: for the rest of the time, the 20th century is all hubris, paradox and failure.

He found his first "paradox" standing, awe-struck and supposedly terrified (I don't actually believe in that terror), in the gigantic particle accelerators of CERN, a space "the size of Notre Dame cathedral": "It ought to be the case that what we build with our own hands we should understand and feel at home in." Ought it? I don't really see why. I don't really see that awe is, as Ignatieff claimed, something that used to be "reserved for the works of nature or the handiworks of God", that awe at human achievements is a novelty of our own time - Notre Dame cathedral itself is a pretty good counter-example, and there are plenty of others (you doubt that Ignatieff would express the same unease about the terror inspired by King Lear or Euripides' Medea: is inspiring terror a privilege reserved for artists?). He could have argued more plausibly that awe was once reserved for building built to glorify God (though you'd have to find a way of fitting coliseums and palaces into your argument); but even so, what's the problem with atom-smashing? CERN wasn't built to glorify creation but to try to understand it, which seems like a healthy sort of urge.

When he wasn't slagging off science, he was slagging off modern architecture, and showing a breathtaking intellectual laziness. Lumping together Speer's massive neoclassicism with the slender, gleaming art deco of the Chrysler Building in New York with the tag "Different ideologies, same result" suggests either sheer bloody ignorance or partiality that isn't interested in even trying to be objective. The title of the series, 20/20, suggests clarity of vision; but you can't see anything if you're not prepared to open your eyes.

A more interesting critique of the 20th century came in In the Kingdom of Klein (Radio 4, Thursday), which had Simon Dring buzzing admiringly around General Jacques Klein, who runs the UN Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia, a Serbian pocket inside Croatia. Here, at the end of the century, democracy and technology seem to have run out of steam, leaving General Klein to keep the peace and rebuild prosperity by sheer force of personality.

You didn't doubt that he could do it, either, once you'd heard him powering his way through meetings and telephone calls, oblivious to bureaucratic niceties. Dring's mannered, self-consciously colourful prose style can be distracting - introducing Klein at the start of the programme, he described "Fingers as thick as the Havana cigar clenched in his fist... I just know he's either going to brief me or deploy me." Here, given the appalling situations described and the Klein's bulldozing lucidity, it seemed tame. A fine programme, and evidence that if you look in the right places, the 20th century can be a source of inspiration.