Is Michelle Obama a secret Archers fan?

24 November 2018

9:00 AM

24 November 2018

9:00 AM

I wonder what Michelle Obama, the former First Lady who remade that role in her own image, would make of Hannah’s attempts on The Archers to embody the 2018 version of an empowered, liberated woman? Does Obama secretly listen in to Ambridge each night? Has she been impressed by the soap’s attempt, via Hannah, to address the #MeToo movement? Does that explain why she blessed Radio 4 (rather than an online audio provider) with the great coup of reading herself from her new autobiography, Becoming?

But first (for those unfamiliar with Hannah’s antics) let’s go back to Ambridge. She arrived on the scene as the new pig woman; Jazzer’s antithesis (Jazzer being a stereotypical Glaswegian, addicted to booze and having a good time). She’s not afraid to suggest a night of pleasure to a member of the opposite sex, or to say that she’s not feeling like it, thank you very much. Afterwards she says frankly whether she’s enjoyed it, or not, before spending the next night in someone else’s bed. At work, she couldn’t wait to step up as acting manager (when Neil, her boss at the pig factory, was rendered helpless by a bad back), earning the approval of the hard-hearted owner Justin with her merciless management techniques. No soft touch is our Hannah.

Should we love her for it, or not? She’s certainly shaken up the moral climate of Ambridge, but is her supposed ‘strength’ really something to welcome, or even anything new? Think of those matriarchs, Peggy and Jill, or Ruth and Jolene, or even downtrodden-but-never-a-pushover Emma. I suspect Obama would have much more sympathy with Peggy or even Jolene, than with Hannah, who comes across as joyless and far too single-minded. In Becoming, the current book of the week (produced by Duncan Minshull), Obama is fearlessly honest about how she used to be driven to succeed and how that made her judge others differently. She’s also impressively ‘normal’. At 17, she loves home but is desperate to get away to college, at Princeton. There she is overwhelmed to find herself, for the first time, as a minority. Just 9 per cent of her fellow students are people of colour. ‘It takes energy to be the only black person in a lecture room,’ she recalls. ‘It requires effort; an extra level of confidence to speak in those settings and own your presence in the room.’

This was so much more than just another celebrity memoir. Obama has such a clear sense of what she wants to convey and is not afraid to criticise herself for being perhaps a little too single-minded at the beginning of her career. Her moral compass, too, is spot on. Hannah, take note. I only wish we could have had ten episodes, instead of just the usual five. It would have been worth it.

Radio 3’s Sunday-night feature (produced by Sara Jane Hall) took us to India and back to the late 16th century when Thomas Stephens arrived in Goa, via Rome and Lisbon. A Catholic priest from Elizabethan England, he travelled to the subcontinent as a Jesuit missionary, determined to convert the heathen Muslims and Hindus to his faith. But although as bigoted and fanatical as the Protestants who once forced him into exile, he is changed by his encounter with such a foreign culture. As Nandini Das, professor of English and a scholar of early travels, explains, that moment of being a stranger, of learning new smells, flavours, sounds, soon passes so that ‘strange becomes familiar and what’s familiar turns strange’.

Stephens was instrumental, along with the Portuguese, in destroying the mosques and temples of Goa, and yet he also set about writing an 11,000-verse epic that tells the story of the Christian bible, from creation to Resurrection, in the native language, Marathi. So successful was his merging of Christian beliefs and local imagery that not long after he died in 1619 The Kristapurana was on the list banned by the Portuguese for being heretical. None of the original copies has survived, and we only know of it now because so many of those early Indian Christians made secret copies. It became the symbol of resistance to foreign rule, and was adopted, centuries later, by the Quit India movement.

Stephens’s The Kristapurana is ‘the great forgotten jewel of Anglo-Indian contact’, says Das. She took us back to the seminary in Goa where Stephens wrote his masterpiece, and to the cathedral built in 1594 where he worshipped, a blend of redbrick Corinthian columns that is unmistakably Christian and yet if you look closely enough is also intrinsically Indian. Where you might expect to find statues of bearded Christian saints there are figurines of the Hindu gods wearing the sacred thread around their necks. Das’s programme gave us such a colourful sense of Goa’s Christian heritage, and of the experience of arriving there as an Englishman, unaccustomed to ‘rain with a purpose’, or the heady scents of jasmine, cinnamon and musk. It was also a fascinating reminder of cross-cultural confusions, Stephens both celebrating local Marathi culture and using his book as ‘a shrewd manoeuvre to persuade the Indians of the superiority of Christian dogma’.

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