10 April 2007

On dumbing down---or not

I am prompted to write, tonight, by a chance hearing of a Radio 4 programme on "The Rise and Fall of the Hapsburgs" as I was going to bed. I'm not a great history buff, but the fact that such a prgramme could go out on one of the four major UK radio networks (albeit just before midnight) suggests that we are not yet totally dumbed down.

And then there is "In Our Time" (Thursdays, 0900-0945, Radio 4). Having tried several times to draft an encomium for this consistently brilliant programme, I can't encompass it. There is its reach and scope. The selection of articulate experts. Melvyn Bragg's chairing (having dropped all pretence of spontaneity; it is paradoxically more immediate). And the newsletter. This is an exemplar of radio at its very best.

But that is not all. Last week, I found myself showing an American friend around the tourist sites of Cambridge and central London. St John's College, King's College Chapel, Peterhouse... Parliament Square, Westminster Abbey, the Manet to Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery... It was almost twenty years since I had last been to these places. The Abbey had not changed much (but, hey, it has been there for about 950 years!) but other places had changed, and not in the direction of "dumbing down". They were more accessible (physically, intellectually, socially) than they were, but they did not compromise their integrity. For once, without irony, I was simply impressed.

And! We went on the London Eye. It is not part of the intellectual and cultural heritage; it is too new for that. But it is a great tourist experience on its own terms, and it is also a brilliant feat of engineering.

And as we went, we listened to our fellow tourists. And perhaps the most gratifying and uplifting part of the tour was to hear how well-informed many of them were. OK, perhaps the groups were self-selecting (apart from the, many, school groups); rubber-neckers may not make it into the basement of the National Gallery. Even so... here were unapologetic "culture-vultures" seeking out the very best; and there were unapologetic elitist "providers" (I have no idea what to call the people who manage these sights/sites) who knew that you can't beat an original Picasso or van Gogh.

I spend too much of my life only engaging with the problems of people who are marginalised disenfranchised oppressed and exploited, if I have no time to raise my sights to what we aspire to for them. Moreover; how come I have stayed away from this for twenty years?

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