Leading artists, writers, thinkers discuss the ideas shaping our lives & links between past & present and new academic research.
The Bechdel test asks whether two women are having a conversation which doesn't relate to a man. Many films, books and plays fall foul of the measure which first appeared in the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, created by Matthew Sweet's guest today Alison Bechdel. Her memoir Fun Home became a Tony Award-winning musical and she has now published The Secret to Superhuman Strength which considers her relationship with exercise so she and Matthew go on an imaginary walk discussing topics including mushrooms, drinking, the response of her mum to being depicted in fiction, the lingering impact of a Catholic childhood and going to confession, the writing of Adrienne Rich and Coleridge and Bechdel's exploration of ideas about transcendence.
Producer: Caitlin Benedict
You can find Matthew in conversation with other guests including Spike Lee, Sarah Perry, Jimmy Carter's former drugs tsar Peter Bourne and Michael Lewis in a playlist on the Free Thinking programme website https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04ly0c8
Napoleon the gardener and art thief
The day before Napoleon's death on May 5th 1821, the willow tree he liked to sit under on St Helena was felled by tempestuous winds. Ruth Scurr has written Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows. Natasha Pulley's novel The Kingdoms imagines a history with Napoleon victorious in England, Emma Rothschild has traced a family in France over three centuries. Rana Mitter chairs a discussion about how looking at Napoleon as gardener, collector of art and founder of an institution dedicated to the arts and sciences in Egypt adds to our understanding of him as a military man and the panel consider alternative histories of France.
Ruth Scurr's book Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows is out now. You can hear her discussing her book about John Aubrey in this episode of Free Thinking
Natasha Pulley's novel The Kingdoms is published May 25th 2021. You can hear her discussing the Japanese novel and film Rashomon https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b01vwk and the writing of Angela Carter https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p038jdb7
Emma Rothschild has published An Infinite History: The Story of a Family in France over Three Centuries
Producer: Ruth Watts
You might be interested in another Free Thinking discussion about Napoleon in Fact and Fiction hearing from actor/director Kathryn Hunter, biographer Michael Broers historians Oskar Cox Jensen and Laura O'Brien, journalist Nabila Ramdani https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09s2nml
and Radio 3's weekly curation of Words and Music features an episode focusing on authors and composers inspired by the life of Napoleon with readings from Jane Austen, Wordsworth, Anthony Burgess and Thackeray and music from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.
Samuel Johnson's circle
"We suffer from Johnson" - those words come in a poem written by his friend, the diarist Hester Thrale Piozzi (who died May 2nd 1821). Patience Agbabi's new novel time travels back to eighteenth century London and takes its teenage heroes to a tea party at Samuel Johnson's house. Thomas Lawrence sketched his biographer Boswell. His Jamaican servant Francis Barber inherited his watch. So Laurence Scott convenes his own virtual tea party to look at Samuel Johnson's world.
New Generation Thinker Sophie Coulombeau is co-organiser of the first international conference on Hester Thrale Piozzi and will share her findings from her research into Piozzi's life and works. As an exhibition of Lawrence's portraits prepares to open at the Holburne Museum in Bath, we hear from curator, Amina Wright, about the young artist. Patience Agbabi's novel is called The Time-Thief and she explains why she was drawn to depict Samuel Johnson. And, New Generation Thinker Jake Subryan Richards writes a postcard reflecting on ideas about slavery, abolition and the law in eighteenth century England.
New Generation Thinkers is a scheme run by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council to turn academic research into radio. You can find a playlist of discussions, features and Essays on the Free Thinking programme website https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08zhs35
Producer: Ruth Watts
Image: Patience Agbabi
Credit: Lyndon Douglas
A Northern Irish writer - what does that label mean? Lucy Caldwell compares notes with Caroline Magennis about the way authors are charting change and setting down experience - from working class memoirs of life in Derry to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Sinéad Morrissey and others. And as we approach the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland, Anne McElvoy talks to Roy Foster and Charles Townshend about the history and legacy of partition.
Charles Townshend is Professor Emeritus of International History at Keele University, and Roy Foster is Professor and Honorary Fellow at Hertford College, University of Oxford. Amongst other titles, Roy Foster is the author of Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923, and Charles Townshend's new book is The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925.
Lucy Caldwell's new book is called Intimacies and is published in May, and she has also edited Being Various: New Irish Short Stories. In the interview she recommends books including the writing of Mary Beckett, The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Woman Writers from the North of Ireland edited by Sinéad Gleeson, and Inventory: A River, A City, A Family by Darran Anderson.
Caroline Magennis is Reader in 20th and 21st Century Literature at the University of Salford, and her upcoming publication, Northern Irish Writing After the Troubles: Intimacies, Affects, Pleasures, will be available in August.
Producer: Emma Wallace
If you want more conversations with writers from Northern Ireland you can find the following episodes on the Free Thinking website:
Sinéad Morrissey on winning the TS Eliot Prize in 2014 - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03pdf10
Michael Longley talks about his poetry and winning the PEN Pinter prize - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b098hz1m
Bernard MacClaverty talks to Anne McElvoy about depicting love and loss in a long relationship in his novel Midwinter Break - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09525cn
Ruth Dudley Edwards looks at ideas about belonging - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000h2g4
Roy Foster and Paul Muldoon are in conversation - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b050xpsd
New Generation Thinkers: A Norwegian Morality Tale
Eight churches were set on fire, and a taste for occult rituals and satanic imagery spiralled into suicide and murder in the Norwegian Black metal scene of the 1990s. Lucy Weir looks at the lessons we can take from this dark story about the way we look at mental health and newspaper reporting.
Producer: Emma Wallace
Dr Lucy Weir is a specialist in dance and performance at the University of Edinburgh. You can hear her discussing the impact of Covid on dance performances in this Free Thinking discussion about audiences - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000nvlc, and her thoughts on dance and stillness - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000k33s
She is a New Generation Thinker on the scheme run by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council to work with academics to turn their research into radio.
New Generation Thinkers: Beyond the betting shop
Darragh McGee takes the long view of the risk-based games we have played throughout history. He explores the experiences of their losers and the moral censure that their losses have attracted; from the eighteenth century gentry who learned to lose their fortune with good grace at the gaming tables of Bath to the twenty-first century smartphone user, facing an altogether more lonely ordeal. He considers the cultural history gambling - and, what the games we have staked our money on through the centuries, tell us about ourselves and society.
Producer: Ruth Watts
Dr Darragh McGee teaches in the Department for Health at the University of Bath. He is a New Generation Thinker on the scheme run by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council to select ten academics each year to turn their research into radio. You can hear him talking about gambling in this Free Thinking episode
Often interesting topics
But often excessive vanity among the participants