The Week In Radio
In this cold, slow January, immured in our igloos and staring bleakly out at the rain and snow, there's an immense comfort to be had in taking the long view. Recalling that our tiny strivings are just blips in the history of humanity. Radio is all about providing perspective, with the result that it was curiously uplifting to find oneself contemplating a couple of stone-age chopping implements in the first week of Radio 4's History of the World in 100 Objects.
And to be honest, for most people, this has to be a first. Who hasn't, at some point, looked into museum cases stuffed with this kind of ancient, earthy rubble and hurried on past? But in the company of an enthralling, erudite guide like Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, even the most crusty exhibit comes to life. His earliest object, for example, was a 1.8-million- year- old stone chopping tool. "Holding this I can feel what it was like to be out on the savannas needing to cut flesh," confided David Attenborough, slightly disturbingly. But the thing that interests MacGregor is what it says about the mind that made it. The tool revealed the moment when our brain started to become asymmetrical as it got to grips with logic and language, whereas apes' brains remained symmetrical. "Apes use objects, but we make tools before we need them." The 1.2-million-year-old hand axe, the "Swiss army knife" of the Stone Age, even promoted the development of speech. The parts of the brain used when a napper works with stone are close to the speech area, suggesting that if you can shape a stone you can shape a sentence. "People could sit down exchange ideas, gossip. You're well on the way to something we would all recognise as society."
Radio 4 is taking quite a chance by dedicating an epic 100 programmes to this project, but already it looks like being an enterprise to remember. In Neil MacGregor it has found a passionate and illuminating guide and it's the kind of series that makes you wish yet again that children would listen to radio. From Egyptian mummies to credit cards, MacGregor will trace how "made" things reveal the development of the brain, art and social interaction. Maybe he could even feature an IKEA wardrobe at some point, just to show where history goes a bit retrograde.
It's only 150 years since the birth of Anton Chekhov, but already his heritage is under threat, according to Michael Pennington, reporting from the site of the playwright's dacha in Yalta. …