In Our Time: Maybe it’s better to describe it by what it’s not

I could be anywhere when I’m listening to it. It could be half-way down the cold-aisle being seduced into buying the more expensive sausages because of the hand- writey writing on the package. It might be early in the morning when I’m encouraging a small child to pee on not-the-floor.

But either way there’s a strong chance, I’ll be accompanied by the sound of Melvyn Bragg thanking me for downloading this episode of In Our Time.

In Our Time, like libraries and hot cross buns: things that are so good for you and you can’t believe they aren’t more expensive. It’s a radio programme on BBC Radio 4 that’s been running for 21 years and also a podcast. It’s hard to describe it in a way that sells it.

Essentially, it’s just a man called Melvyn Bragg talking to three professors for 45 minutes about either a topic you’ve never heard of or a topic that’s really so obvious, you’re wondering why they’re talking about it.

That description is not exactly going to have you knocking over mugs to get to the podcast machine to turn it on. Maybe it’s better to describe it by what it’s not.

It’s not yet another fruitless debate where they spend ages talking over each other and the host is just putting on a performance to go viral and you end up with a vague feeling of disappointment. You know, like when the council says they are going to fix the roads and they end up just hiring a fly-by-night contractor to throw shovels of tarmac from the back of a moving truck.

It’s not a debate. It’s a well-made road. They are all standing on a base of about six feet of crushed hardcore facts and they quibble good-naturedly about nuance and interpretation. And when they do disagree they say things like’ yes, of course, that is true but could I just add [one very interesting fact about the planet Neptune]’.

There isn’t this ‘both sides’ nonsense. If they’re discussing Newton they haven’t invited on some wingnut to argue that gravity is just a thing snowflakes believe in. Someone who also happens to believe autism is caused by vaccines and fruit juice on Tuesdays.

There are about 900 episodes. They’ll talk about anything. The last one was the evolution of teeth. Have you ever considered the evolution of teeth. No of course you hadn’t. Neither did I.

I thought teeth were just, you know, teeth.

They didn’t evolve. We always had them.

But of course, we didn’t always have arms or a bellybutton or moles so they must have evolved. But how?

According to In Our Time, teeth may once have been scales on fish skin.

I find that tremendously heartening. When you have teeth like mine that are sort of old school — teeth that hark back to Italia 90 and bad mustaches and driving a Ford Cortina around the Walkinstown Roundabout — it’s nice to know that all those perfectly white confident smilers are just flashing each other with bits of old fish.

The professors are so wrapped up in their topics, they seem delighted to be asked about it and in fierce good form. Someone will crack the weakest, most nice joke ever and the four of them may absolutely break their holes laughing before returning to the matter at hand: Plague in the 6th century.

Usually, the professors are from some college in Oxbridge, probably which owes its existence to a donation from the 18th-century proceeds of slavery but they’re all terribly nice.

A lot of them are Fierce English Altogether. But sometimes there are Irish people on it and I’m so proud of them. They did one on the famine recently and it had three Irish people schooling the Brits about Lord Trevelyan. They weren’t exactly singing Cmoutyeblackandtans but still, I imagine Penelope from the Cotswolds will look from her crumpet and say “I never knew about that”.

My phone makes a bing. Episode 900-and-something is up. Time for my lesson.

Colm’s debut novel Ann Devine is in all bookshops now.

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