Melvyn's newsletter - The History of Metaphor - 25/11/2010

A medieval scribe writes at his desk, surrounded by open manuscripts, 15th Century.


What I really wanted to say at the end of the Today programme trail, as I handed back to James Naughtie, was, ''all the world's a studio and every man in it merely a microphone''. Tom Morris, the producer, came up with a much more elegant ''Time's wingèd chariot'' quotation. Nevertheless, I think that ''all the world's a studio'' might have raised a laugh.

There was something of the anthology of the world's best quotations about the programme which I relished. So, it seems, from the members of their Lordships' House whom I bumped into when I whipped down there, did others. An unusual rush of complimentary remarks led by Lord Winston, he of medical and television fame, who said he could have wished it to go on forever.

There were the usual, let us not say moans, but sad sighs after the programme that this was not said and that was not said and the other was not said. It's what it is. We do a conversation which lasts for forty-five minutes and types up into about eight and a half thousand words. Not a book. Not a lecture. A form of its own. Nevertheless, I too, like Steve Connor, was sorry we did not get in a lot of more commonplace metaphors. He spoke of somebody being ''as much good as a chocolate teapot'', or ''as an ashtray on a motorbike''. And there was a great deal of discussion about Richard II and the way that he turned the whole of his dungeon life at the end of the play into metaphors of the mind.

One of the fascinating things about ancient history is that the evidence is so patchy. Nowadays, if you want to know what happened a few years ago, the evidence is a deluge. You need some sort of ark. Everything, it seems, is recorded and in several ways, from several different points of view. Back then, we had little splotches, little blobs. The great plays of Aeschylus, for example, were requested by Alexandria from the Greeks. They said no but were eventually persuaded on a surety of much gold. So the plays of Aeschylus went to Alexandria who then refused to return them and paid off the gold instead, thinking they were worth that price. Alexandria then burned down and we have scarcely any plays of Aeschylus left to us. I still think that in the as yet unexcavated holiday home of a literate Greek nobleman there will be the full works of Aeschylus and of the other Greek dramatists available. Just as I hope that in some Tudor country manor, someone who entertained Shakespeare will have jotted down notes about the man and give us secure information about what most nags people; and that is the early years, the time when he may or may not have been an actor and came to London and wrote the sonnets and then achieved instant success on the stage.

There are still people who doubt whether Shakespeare existed. They should go to Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. He built a wonderful monument to himself in that church. He is buried in front of the altar, as are his wife and children. A friend of his lies in stone beside him. There is a copy of the King James Bible which he would probably have read from, being an eminent gentleman of Stratford by that time.

There was also a comment, I think, that science dispensed or tended to dissolve metaphors. I just thought it brings in new ones. Black holes is a prime example.

I seem to be wandering around all over the place. At the moment the pre-Christmas production rush has already started and you dart around the West End from meeting to meeting. The best way, of course, is to dart (pathetic attempt at a metaphor; time to be gone).

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: The last time I met B S Johnson, the novelist, was outside White City, the BBC headquarters in the west of London. He was in a severely agitated mood and I wish I'd taken much more notice of it. But what he wanted to tell me, very, very forcefully, was that nothing was ''like'' anything else. That there were no metaphors, there were no similes. Each thing was the thing it was and nothing else.

Sign Up To In Our Time's Newsletter

You can receive Melvyn Bragg's personal insight into each programme by email.

The BBC promises that you will NOT receive unsolicited mail by supplying your personal details.

For full details of our policy regarding the personal information we collect about you visit our Privacy & Cookies page.

Subscribe here

Unsubscribe here

Sign Up

Sign Up To In Our Time's Newsletter

Receive Melvyn Bragg's weekly newsletter by email.

Subscribe here

Unsubscribe here

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.