Kate Chisholm

Battle fatigue

Plus: Radio 2’s Faith in the World week of programmes proves the BBC’s Reithian mission still just about has a heartbeat

Battle fatigue
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Can anyone explain this sudden enthusiasm for Agincourt, that unexpected victory over the French, now being celebrated, or rather commemorated, on radio, on digital, online? It was so weird to switch on Radio 4 on Sunday morning (which just happened to be St Crispin’s Day, the day on which the battle was fought) to discover that even Sunday Worship was being devoted to commemorating one of the bloodiest battles in that most bloodthirsty period. The service, old-fashioned Matins, came from the Chapel Royal at St James’s, and apparently the priests, choristers and vestrymen from that chapel were singing on the battlefield alongside Henry V in October 1415, when the English bowmen, just 6,000 to 9,000 of them, took on their French adversaries and beat them into the mud — in spite of being outnumbered by up to five to one. As the solemn voice of the sub-dean intoned prayers and supplications for his predecessors at the Chapel Royal, it was hard not to giggle at the pomposity and inherent madness of it all.

Quite apart from the fact that it happened an awfully long time ago, we were told that Agincourt was ‘one of the great moments in our nation’s story’, which would not have made much sense in a history lesson. The battle was bloody; it was brutal. There would have been no mercy shown on either side. Thousands of men and boys died in the most gruesome ways imaginable, in hand-to-hand combat on a slippery, boggy, body-filled battlefield. It was neither necessary, nor great (in spite of Shakespeare’s great play, lines from which — ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ — were quoted as part of the sermon). Agincourt may have been a valiant victory for the English, but we were not defending our territory, but were rather fighting to keep hold of land that we had no right to govern. What sense does it make to say prayers for the peace of the world in a service dedicated to jingoistic warmongering?

The previous evening, on Archive on 4, the BBC, and Radio 4 in particular, had been compared to an institution as revered but also as monolithic and sclerotic as the established Church in a programme presented by Steve Hewlett. He took us through a brief history of the corporation, from nerdy technological company in the mid-1920s to a national institution, reminding us just how quickly that change happened. In just ten years. By 3 September 1939, radio (and the BBC) was at the heart of national life, so that when Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war, millions of people heard the news at the same time, as it was being made, for the first time ever. Hewlett’s programme was part of the campaign by the BBC to safeguard the licence fee in the next round of negotiations due next year when its Charter comes up for renewal (on Tuesday The Media Show debated how the BBC should be funded). The same old arguments about subscription, subsidy, sponsorship or a commercial free-for-all were aired. Best line of all, though, came from the inimitable Terry Wogan: ‘I don’t fancy coming on here with a toilet roll in one hand and a loaf of Mother’s Pride in the other.’

As if to prove that the Reithian mission still has a heartbeat, if a lot weaker than it used to be, Radio 2 has this week been dedicated to ‘Faith in the World’, its annual check-up on the state of the nation’s religious beliefs, looking in particular this year at what it’s like to grow up in multi-faith Britain. On Good Morning Sunday (with Olly Smith), we heard from Anjum Anwar, a Muslim who since 2007 has been employed by Blackburn Cathedral to further Christian and Muslim relations. She is often asked what a woman wearing a headscarf is doing in a cathedral, to which she replies that the way to bring people together is through conversation.

‘If you ask me if I’m British, what does that mean?’ she said. ‘Does it mean queuing? Does it mean you support Man United? Does it mean you eat fish and chips? Why do I need to state that I’m British. I’ve never been anything else.’ She believes that people are now being made to choose between certain identities. The enthusiasm for Agincourt is just part of this change in the way we think about ourselves. As Anwar reminded us, persuasively, ‘This is a fantastic place for people of different faiths and attitudes to live together but retain their own religious identity. And I think we need to build on that.’