BBC Radio 4

    In Our Time: Annie Besant

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    Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the life of the campaigner and writer Annie Besant. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD


    Well, after that gallop through the life of Annie Besant there isn't much left to say. Although of course, in a way, there's everything left to say. Did she have close relationships with the men whom she, if not hero-worshipped, at least took for mentors throughout her life? All the contributors alluded to the close relationships she had with Bradlaugh and Voysey and one or two others, but none, as it were, went into the bedroom. So I won't either. Apart from anything else, I haven't a clue what happened and I don't think it matters very much, if at all, in terms of what she did.

    Afterwards the consensus was that she did so many different things that it was difficult to focus on what had made her outstanding. Somehow her success got in the way of her fame. Had women been able to enter Parliament in the late nineteenth century, she would most certainly have swept in and swept through Parliament with her great gift for speech-making and the power of her passion for causes, and been a huge and cleansing force to be reckoned with on the radical side of almost any argument.

    But theosophy stepped in. Madame Blavatsky, a woman who claimed she was Russian but was suspected of being an American, cast a spell over women in particular because theosophy made a place for them which they did not have in the other religions at the time and because, clearly, they were intrigued by it.

    So off to India in a white silk sari and round the lecture route as she had been in her home country, and once again there were solid achievements - the school for boys at Benares, for instance - and the extraordinary achievement of becoming president of the Indian National Congress. I can't remember whether I mentioned in the programme that she was interned in India, bizarrely, for urging the Indians to rise up against the British while they were preoccupied with World War One.

    Then out into London, which is still deconstructing from the great event of the Diamond Jubilee. The Mall is still closed to traffic, which is wonderful for the likes of us who enjoy wandering round the city. St James's Park is gradually being cleared of fleets of lavatories and piles of bins and all the infrastructure of the great day. Central London is full of yellow signs diverting traffic so often that you get to Westminster by way of Bethnal Green if you start off in Barnet. But somehow a cheerfulness prevails, except among those who are driving cars and really want to go a little more directly to Bethnal Green, to Barnet, or to Westminster.

    I was in St James's Park the other day when the sun was beaming and it was as it always is - quite magical. I drifted across to Green Park, full of the green and white striped deckchairs and only about half a dozen unoccupied, as London's tourists and, one hopes, office workers taking a bit of time off bathed in the sun. And today, when it's Ladies' Day at Ascot and I'm off to see an opera in the country, it is - I have to dictate this stoically - raining cats and dogs or staircase rods and, it is predicted, there will be thunder and lightning. Hey-ho.

    Best wishes

    Melvyn Bragg

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