Wednesday 21 March 2018

Radio: Primo reminds us of the power of civilisation

People gather at the makeshift memorial to victims of the Nice truck attack (AP)
People gather at the makeshift memorial to victims of the Nice truck attack (AP)
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

"There were people flying, going under the wheels, crushed, screaming… it was horrific. People just dying in front of you."

That was Scottish woman Suzanne Stannard, who moved to Nice with her family five years ago, talking to Today (BBC Radio 4, Mon-Fri 6am) about the Bastille Day atrocity.

Suzanne, her husband Michael and their two children were caught up in the attack. Their sense of horror, shock and even a type of survivor's guilt was palpable.

Michael told reporter Sima Kotecha how he had seen "two children lying dead on the promenade (and) you realise there's nothing you can do". Suzanne said: "I just feel guilt that four of us went out, and four of us came back. For many families, that's not the case." Her voice caught as she concluded: "It's awful to feel lucky."

Meanwhile, the same show carried an informative interview with terrorism expert Professor Peter Neumann, who described Nice as "a jihadist breeding ground". He said that "dozens" of residents of the French city had gone to Syria to join that band of murderous thugs known as Islamic State.

"It almost seems like the French people are in denial about this," Professor Neumann added.

What a depressing situation, on every level. It's a terrible irony that Nice used to be famous as a Mediterranean playground, a beautiful place where the beautiful people hung out.

Now it's infamous as the site of the latest atrocity committed by Islamist terrorists in Europe: ugly people making the world that bit uglier. Is that the future of our continent? You'd hope not - and there is hope.

We've been here before: civilisation facing down barbarism and madness. A reminder of this came in Primo Levi's The Periodic Table (BBC Radio 4, Mon-Fri 9am), a dramatisation of the great Italian author's story collection based on a theme of the chemical elements.

Named "the best science book ever" by the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the book brought together the two main currents of Levi's life: his literary career, and his training as a chemist.

But, of course, what he's most famous for is the Holocaust memoir, If This is a Man. Levi, a Jew, suffered beyond comprehension in Nazi concentration camps; he later endured terrible depression and eventually killed himself.

The fact that he came through the camps, however, alive and unbowed, and then went on to create brilliant works of art like this one and others… surely there's proof that, yes, civilisation is stronger than barbaric madness.

Primo Levi was a man. That pathetic criminal - I won't dignify him by giving his name - who killed more than 80 people in Nice? He was many things, but a man wasn't one of them.

The Periodic Table concludes over the weekend, and all episodes are available to download or stream on the BBC website.

Ireland's Secret Hangman (Radio 1, Sat 1pm) told the story - scarcely believable at times - of an anonymous fellow who was brought in by De Valera's government to carry out hangings.

Weird as it seems, some people at the time had a problem with the fact that the State executioner had previously been an Englishman. It wasn't the capital punishment that irked them, it seems, so much as the nationality of the chap carrying it out.

Joe Kearney and Liam O'Brien's documentary explored the identity of the titular secret hangman, backed up by a wealth of expert opinion and archival material. Riveting, enlightening, and as I say, hardly believable in parts.

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