News & Features » Miscellany

In the time warp of medieval England, BBC Radio 4 is a touchstone to the present.

Back to the Present

Trinity College, Oxford University, United Kingdom

It's easy to get lost in the Middle Ages here. Great portions of this town, whose prime industry is the education of young men and women, were built long before Jamestown was even a gleam in Capt. John Smith's eye. If you keep your eyes above street level and focus on the architecture alone, 500 years or more will fall away as quickly as you can remember to say Maudlin Bridge, which is the way Oxonians pronounce "Magdalen Bridge." Yes, Virginia, the British do talk funny.

You're even more likely to find it difficult to remember that we're living in the information age if, like me, you're spending a week studying what happened just after the turn of the last millennium. I'm here taking a University of Virginia continuing-education course at Trinity College about medieval cathedrals and abbeys — trekking daily through monumental structures built in the 11th and 12th centuries by simple people, whose worldview extended no further than the next village and who, in most cases, could neither read nor write, not even their own names. Ahhh, but they built for the ages, and evidence of their stunning craftsmanship still reaches for the heavens at Gloucester, Winchester, Tewkesbury, St. Albans and elsewhere.

The illusion of living in the past continues in the evenings, as we have dinner in ancient Trinity Hall, where severe portraits of old grads and Trinity presidents stare down at us from high on the walls, as if to question our right as barbarians from afar to sully the premises with our jeans and down-filled ski jackets, and our peculiar accents. After a postprandial pint or two in the cellar below, we return to our Spartan and inadequately heated rooms, furnished with battered desks, chairs and tables that would have been considered old when Jefferson still lived at Monticello.

I shatter the illusion each morning, however, with BBC Radio 4. Others do, too, apparently, since I can hear the muffled accents of BBC 4 newsreaders up and down Trinity's Staircase 12.

"Today," BBC 4's morning news roundup, is much like NPR's "Morning Edition," but with more of an edge, more argumentative, more contentious. One of the major stories this week has been Barclays Bank's decision to close nearly 10 percent of its branches while at the same time awarding its top officers bonuses worth millions of pounds. A "Today" host this morning mercilessly grilled a member of the bank's top staff about Barclays' action — far more harshly than an American would expect from an NPR interview. The BBC hammered the Barclays rep, demanding that he explain why retirees would lose their local branch bank so that bank CEOs could pocket bonuses of as much as 40 million pounds.

And in another neck-snapping twist this morning that whisked me back into the present, "Today" featured a three-minute report from Siler, N.C. — "the Old South of the Confederacy," they called it — in which good old boys savoring their breakfast ham and grits were asked for their thoughts on Hispanic immigration. Exactly half of the students in Siler's schools, it seems, are recent immigrants, still struggling with English as a second language. This struck the BBC as noteworthy.

I've watched no television for more than a week now, read no American newspapers and heard no American radio. BBC 4 has been my only touchstone to the present. I've wandered, fascinated and wide-eyed, through medieval Oxford and so many cathedrals and abbeys that they're all beginning to run together in my mind.

Do I miss the 20th century? Well, perhaps it'll be nice when they invent central heating; it's quite cold here this early spring. And it's good to have BBC 4 to remind me each morning that this is the year 2000, not 1150. It'll also be good to get back home and check out ABC-TV's new "Wonderland" and catch up on "NYPD Blue."

The Middle Ages are a nice place to visit. But I wouldn't want to live

Add a comment