Feast Of Victoriana By Michael Vestey
There’s nothing like an anniversary to bring out the best in Radio Four, as we’ve been hearing for the past week. To mark Queen Victoria’s death on 22 January, 1901 the network broadcast several programmes about her life and times with a splendid raid on the BBC archives for Queen Victoria, an hour-long account of her thoughts, feelings and 64-year reign, presented by the historian Amanda Foreman (Saturday). Some listeners dislike the BBC putting out anniversary programmes but for me it’s an opportunity to hear items of history that might not normally make it to the airwaves.
We’ve even heard Queen Victoria’s voice recorded at Balmoral in 1888 though no amount of twiddling with the tone button on my radio could make her words comprehensible above the hiss. I think I caught, “The answer is ….” But that’s about all. Nevertheless it was her voice and for a moment it bridged the enormous chasm between her age and our own. The more I hear and learn of the Victorian age the more fascinated I become by it.
Although I read Elizabeth Longford’s brilliant two-volume biography of Victoria when it was published some ten years ago, there is much that I have forgotten; that the queen was, for example, a very fine writer as we could hear from the extracts from her diaries, principally chronicling her feelings but also her thoughts on her prime ministers. Inevitably, listening to this programme made me think of similarities and contracts with today and particularly how we lack the bold certainties and confidence of the Victorian era and what great decline our political classes have hastened since then.
Foreman related how Victoria was thrilled by the Great Exhibition of 1851, Joseph Paxton’s beautiful Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, later Upper Norwood where tragically it burnt down in 1936. This was Prince Albert’s project and was a huge success, fusing the dynamic entrepreneurial skills and invention of the Victorians with the achievements of Empire.
And then I thought of Tony Blair’s Dome and literally cringed with embarrassment by the radio at how mediocre our rulers have become. If only, I thought, today’s consort Prince Philip and the various royal organisers of events and pageants had been in charge of marking the millennium we would not have seen such a fiasco.
With history teaching in decline in state schools it was also a pleasure to hear other programmes that would not normally have been broadcast, among them Ian Hislop’s series this week, A Revolution in Five Acts, looking at Acts of Parliament that helped shape Victorian society, not always for the better. His first programme, Speed: the Railway Act of 1844 (Monday), discussed the railway mania of the 1840s and how Gladstone sought to control the burgeoning railway system. It was largely a failure though he did succeed in improving railway travel for working men who had to travel third class in open-topped carriages before legislation ended that. Yes, there’s been a feast of Victoriana on Radio Four this week.
It was sad, after hearing the news of his death, to realise that I won’t hear Auberon Waugh on the radio again mischievously saying what has now become the unsayable or railing against modern poetry, art or youth culture. Whenever he appeared on Today to prick some smelly little orthodoxy, as Orwell put it, it immediately gave a lift to the programme, particularly if you agreed with his view but didn’t often hear it expressed on the radio.
So it was gratifying to read Polly Toynbee’s essay of hatred for Waugh in the Guardian barely before his coffin had been ordered. It made me realise that Waugh was even more right about most things than I have previously imagined. What she stands for is everything that has enfeebled our country since the dynamic Victorian age: excessive state interference, the collective over the individual, egalitarianism in schools, the tyranny of the favoured minorities, political correctness in most of its manifestations, to mention just a few.