Public service hikmah

A BBC Radio advertisement for public service broadcasting.

Like a lot of Brits – 9.5 million according to audience surveys – I turn on the BBC Radio 4 programme in a Pavlovian routine in the morning. On Thursday I caught a real treat: 45 minutes of experts on Islamic history talking about the translation movement in the Abbasid caliphate. The caliphs, followed by provincial sultans and lesser sponsors of a lively Baghdad salon culture, invested considerable resources in hoovering up Greek texts on philosophy, science, mathematics and medicine in the Koranic pursuit of hikmah, wisdom. Top translators into Arabic from Greek and Syriac could earn 500 gold dinars a month. You can get the podcast here – only until Thursday, when it will be replaced by next week’s edition.

The outline of the story of the odyssey of Greek learning to the Arab world and later Latin Christendom is I suppose known to most eggheads, if not to the average citizen.

It takes a very skilled populariser like Melvin Bragg, the moderator of the In Our Time cultural history programme, to make a broadcast from which listeners with very different baselines are bound to learn something new. I didn’t know that the translation movement had nothing to do with (entirely Arab) Umayyads. The Abbasids , whose initial supporters were Persian converts, were following an earlier Persian model. You see the Greeks had really stolen their wisdom from Persia and they wanted it back.

When I started this post I thought I would have to make a special pleading case for the subsidy of this sort of thing: we pointy-heads deserve our miserable offcuts of pork too, what’s the point of peasants except to create surplus for High Culture, etc. It turns out that this isn’t necessary. In Our Time has a mass audience, some of it attentive. The BBC doesn’t release audience ratings for individual programmes (why not?), but Radio 4’s 9.5 million audience listen on average for over 12 hours a day. In other words, there are millions who just have it on all the time. In Our Time claims 30,000 podcast downloads per episode to serious listeners.

The costs aren’t high. The Radio 4 annual budget is £71m, for almost 20 hours a day; around £10,000 per hour. In Our Time, repeated once, fills 1.5 hours = £15,000 an episode. (Crosscheck guesswork: 1 celebrity presenter, 1 week @£4,000, 1 researcher, 4 weeks @ £1,000, 3 talking heads @ £1,000, technical services £4,000, makes £15,000; not obviously unreasonable.) IOT is not representative of Radio 4’s output, and is one of its highest-brow regular features. The mean is closer to the undemanding but subtly revealing musical interview, Desert Island Discs. In Our Time is still an advertisement for public service broadcasting.

The topic of next Thursday’s aural wallpaper for self-improving homemakers and truck drivers: Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web