Book of the Week on Radio 4:
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life
by Bettany Hughes
"Socrates lived in a city that nurtured the key ingredients of contemporary civilisation - democracy, liberty, science, drama, rational thought- yet, as he wrote nothing in his lifetime, he himself is an enigmatic figure."
His natural habitat was the Agora - the market place. [I guess we'd now see it as the Internet.] Socrates thrived on the freedom of speech of Athens, and insisted on the value of dialogue. He thought writing was as problematic as painting , in that it couldn't respond to your remarks or questions. Therefore he never wrote anything himself. We have Plato to thank for what we know of Socrates' ideas.
[Thanks to the Internet, says Oxzen, the writing issue is resolved, and we can easily have written dialogues - with the entire planet. We can even have the wisdom of the crowd. Except when the crowd itself is a mob of right-wing trolls on the Guardian website's Comment is Free.]
Socrates spoke about spiritual wellbeing - not material wealth. As the years went by he became even more theatrically shabby in his apparrel.
He went to the market in order to trade ideas, not goods. [How much time do people spend trading ideas these days?]
Tomorrow's episode - Meddling with young men's minds.
Next week on R4's 'In Our Time': Taoism
Make a note.
The Trip - BBC2
It seems this gem of a series, which is ending this week, is entirely the creation of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and the dialogue is completely improvised. Ostensibly The Trip's subject matter is a gastronomic tour of northern England, and also the nature of a relationship between two friends who have known one another for more than 10 years. It's so much richer and deeper than that, however.
For a start, the director, Michael Winterbottom, does a great job of showing the wonderful mountain landscapes of the Lake District and the Pennines in winter - almost as snow-covered in the early part of this year, when this series was filmed, as they are at the moment. It would seem that Coogan and Brydon are both mountain lovers, both having grown up in and around mountains.
The thing that really strikes home, however, is the contrasting characters of two very gifted and intelligent individuals, who also happen to be friends. One is introverted, angst-ridden, a loner, with aspirations to be a significant artist, and yet can't let go of his ego's need for fame and recognition. The other is a natural extrovert, relaxed in his own body and persona, warm, sociable, easy-going, not at all anxious about creating high art, or indeed about fame. He also has a wife and a young child, and keeps in touch with them regularly whilst he's on the road.
The Coogan character keeps in touch (via his mobile phone, never a hotel phone, unlike Brydon, even if he has to walk a mile to get a signal) only with his agent, his teenage son, and his current girlfriend - even though they're supposed to be 'on a break'. He has a love/hate relationship with all three.
The agent frustrates him because he's not getting the work and the types of roles Coogan craves - as a 'serious' comic character actor. Coogan seems to resent Brydon's current popularity, and his commercial success. Plaintively he rails, "I'm fucking brilliant! But I'm an artist - not a businessman!"
The son frustrates him because . . . that's what teenage sons do.
The girlfriend frustrates him because he evidently craves intimacy and yet he/they clearly have problems achieving any. He's a sucker for attractive women, in every sense. He attracts women, but he doesn't know what to do with them. He doesn't even know what he wants to do with them. He lives alone in a large, modern, souless flat, somewhere in South London.
The fourth person that continually frustrates the Coogan character is his friend Brydon. Like the other three people in his life he sort-of-loves him and needs him, and yet feels a degree of alienation from him - because of their differences of opinion, approaches to life, views on various topics, and overall a lack of empathy - which is clearly the bane of Coogan's life. He has deep insights into other people and their characters, and yet he fails utterly to establish any strong sympathy or empathy with them. It's quite possible he doesn't even like himself, as he's so fond of spotting faults and weaknesses in others, and no doubt has a forensic eye on himself. So that's a fifth character that frustrates him.
Another key theme of the series is the nature of humanity, which is obviously the key theme of all art. At one point Coogan talks explicitly about the human condition, and expresses a preference for people who are 'imperfect but interesting'. Coogan obviously likes 'interesting' people, and has a low threshold of boredom, even for people like Brydon who cheerfully prattles on with his funny voices as long as he has an audience of at least one.
The nature of comedy itself is the other major subject here, and its validity as an art form. Why are people like Coogan and Brydon driven to make people laugh? Because they can? As a shield? As ego-gratification? To fill time and kill silence? Because it's what they do best?
Right from the start, in the first episode, it's clear that for the Brydon character, at least, the impulse to make people laugh is his driving force, the thing that gets him through the day. Even when making late-night suggestive phone calls to his partner he can't resist making them jokey and amusing. The Coogan character, on the other hand, takes his comedy more seriously and excels at satire and lampoonery. Away from his work he's mainly glum, downbeat, and cynical. He's desperate to be seen as a character actor, not a comic. The funny voices thing is mainly in his past - Spitting Image, and all that.
And yet . . . He can't resist correcting Brydon and telling him how to improve his Michael Caine, his Ronnie Corbett, etc. Ever the perfectionist, the professional, the critic, the artist.
But in a scene that ends the penultimate episode he's looking into his bathroom mirror, applying anti-wrinkle cream under his eyes, trying desperately and unsucessfully to imitate Brydon's brilliant 'Small Man in a Box' voice, and says to himself, in a cartoon-character voice, "I don't care about silly voices. They're stupid."
A negative review in the New Statesman: