Stop putting your awe in

the week on radio

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Cabinet Maker / Joiner

    £22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This bespoke furniture and inte...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic and Motion Designer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Do you get a buzz from thinking up new ideas a...

    Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

    £14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Female Care Worker

    £7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This expanding, vibrant charity which su...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones