Ruth Scurr

July 20, 2007

Last week I went to Geneva to make a programme for BBC Radio 3. It will be part of a new series called Mind Maps about cities that have given rise to interesting ideas. The connection between mind and place is not necessarily strong, but in the case of Geneva there are at least three (strikingly diverse) thinkers who were impressed by passing through the city walls.

Jean Calvin arrived in the city in 1536, having left France after the Reformation. Initially he was only passing through, but he was enticed to stay for a couple of years, then expelled, and finally called back again in 1541 to make the Church of Geneva his own.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in the city nearly two centuries later, in 1712. He left one Sunday evening when he found himself locked outside the gates. Adolescent, restless, he had yet to make his name as a writer, but when he did, Geneva came back to haunt his political imagination.

Voltaire had a more worldly relationship with the city. Exiled from France, he was attracted to Geneva because of its printing industry. Middle-aged and wealthy, in 1755 he settled down to realise his dream of individual liberty in a house he called Les Délices , just outside the city walls. Still deeply Calvinist, the Genevois authorities frowned on Voltaire's theatrical activities, so he moved a little farther off, to a country estate at Ferney, where he built a theatre of his own. When he wasn't writing or performing in a play, Voltaire campaigned furiously for the victims of religious intolerance.

Geneva remains a city of exiles: more than 40 per cent of the population are foreigners. Its internationalism is extended by the presence of the Red Cross, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and a long tradition of private banking. The richer you are, the easier it is to stay.

Working with radio is very attractive. Unlike television, it is not a million miles away from what academics normally do when we talk to students and colleagues. The techniques of posing and refining questions, summarising information and explaining the limits of what is known about this, that or the other subject are as useful on the radio as they are in a seminar room.

But there are, of course, significant differences. The most important and difficult is resigning control and accepting that, even in conception, a radio programme is a collaborative and speculative project.

Academics are used to a high level of autonomy. For better or worse, my lectures are my own, and so are my publications. The kind of written journalism open to academics tends to respect this autonomy, usually by providing a proof for correction before publication. In radio production, all powers of veto are stripped away. It can be extremely disconcerting to be presented with a set of interviewees, whose opinions may or may not correspond to your own, and to know that ultimate decisions about what will be broadcast rest elsewhere in the BBC.

Disconcerting, perhaps, but also humbling and rewarding. Some of the people I interviewed in Geneva were fellow historians, and without exception they began by qualifying their area of knowledge and expressing doubts as to whether they really had anything to contribute. When it became clear that the programme was aimed at a general audience, not focused at the cutting edge of specialist research, everyone relaxed and a wealth of interesting and unanticipated information poured forth.

The next stage is to edit the interviews into a programme. Here the BBC's technical expertise is astounding. All manner of hesitations, mistakes, repetitions can be removed, explanatory links inserted, sequences restructured and three days' worth of unpredictable talk whittled down to 45 minutes of attention-holding entertainment. This is done in circumstances that highlight another privilege of academic life: privacy. In libraries or offices throughout the country, researchers in the arts and humanities are accustomed to a quiet space in which to concentrate. At the BBC, very few people call their desks their own. Work in progress is stored on a central system and accessed at any terminal in an open-plan office. There are quiet rooms, but they have to be booked in advance for a limited period. No one would dream of leaving piles of books on Calvin, Rousseau or Voltaire sitting around for weeks on end, on the off chance that they turn out to be needed.

Working with the BBC for a week has sharpened my awareness of the limitations of academic life, especially the defensive reflex towards reticence and (in the arts and humanities) the isolation in which we pursue our research. But it has also reminded me of our enviable privileges.

Ruth Scurr is affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College.

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