Margina­lia and Mis­cel­lanea: veg­etable moral­ity in an aca­demic study of The Archers

Matthew Reisz, books ed­i­tor

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Matthew Reisz

For well over 50 years, the BBC Ra­dio 4 se­ries The Archers – the long­est-run­ning soap opera in ra­dio his­tory – has been bring­ing us the lat­est news from the farm­ing com­mu­nity of Am­bridge. It has its own vast fan com­mu­nity and, like Star Trek and Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer, has also gen­er­ated a good deal of aca­demic com­men­tary. The lat­est con­fer­ence pro­ceed­ings can be found in Cus­tard, Cul­verts and Cake: Aca­demics on life in The Archers, edited by Cara Courage and Ni­cola Head­lam (due from Emer­ald Pub­lish­ing next week).

A mere glance at the contents page soon drenches read­ers in a re­as­sur­ingly fa­mil­iar world of bird­watch­ing, cake con­sump­tion, flood re­silience, in­ter­sect­ing kin­ship net­works and ru­ral the­ol­ogy. There have been many de­bates about what aca­demics can con­trib­ute to the study of pop­u­lar cul­ture and what kind of per­spec­tive they should bring about it. This book is overtly writ­ten from the point of view of com­mit­ted fans, who some­times seem to miss the wood for the trees or to for­get that they are dealing with fic­tional char­ac­ters.

A chap­ter called “He­len’s Diet be­hind Bars” uses the sto­ry­line of He­len Titch­ener’s im­pris­on­ment to look at “the vague guid­ance on diet for preg­nant and breast­feed­ing women within the prison ser­vice” – and how this, com­bined with se­vere un­der­fund­ing, “has the po­ten­tial to en­dan­ger the health of moth­ers and ba­bies”. This is an im­por­tant pol­icy is­sue, with sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions for the lives of real women. So it feels very odd for the au­thor to start ex­press­ing con­cerns about what the fic­tional He­len ate in prison and to point out that, while still liv­ing in Am­bridge, she would have been “wise not to eat lead-shot game from the shoot, her own Borset­shire Blue cheese or un­der­cooked eggs from Up­per Class Eggs”.

He­len Titch­ener was ac­cused of at­tempted murder, but an­other chap­ter in Cus­tard, Cul­verts and Cake – “My Parsnips Are Big­ger Than Your Parsnips” – fo­cuses on the lesser moral fail­ings of those in­volved in the an­nual Am­bridge Flower and Pro­duce Show. We read about the no­to­ri­ous “chut­ney-gate”, when “Jill Archer’s chut­ney was con­fused with Carol Tre­gor­ran’s and she was wrongly awarded Best in Show”. Even this was matched by the times when “Jim Lloyd’s onions were dis­qual­i­fied fol­low­ing il­licit use of twine” and when la­bels were swapped on the run­ner beans.

In­tel­li­gent peo­ple can ob­vi­ously en­joy such dra­mas in a spirit of camp or whimsy (although one might also re­gard a fas­ci­na­tion with the sim­pler world of Am­bridge as a symp­tom of much that is wrong with Brexit Bri­tain). The new book opts to use the mi­nor scan­dals in­volv­ing veg­eta­bles as a peg for some moral phi­los­o­phy, analysing the na­ture of cheat­ing and

The book uses the mi­nor scan­dals in­volv­ing veg­eta­bles as a peg for moral phi­los­o­phy, analysing the na­ture of cheat­ing

in­clud­ing in­ter­views with par­tic­i­pants in a real-life flower and pro­duce show.

It is hard to know how se­ri­ously to take all this – and, in a fur­ther strange twist, the edi­tors of Cus­tard, Cul­verts and Cake have cho­sen to in­clude “peer re­view” com­men­tary at the end of each chap­ter in the voices of char­ac­ters in The Archers. Books by aca­demics come in many shapes and sizes, but it is cer­tainly rare to read one fea­tur­ing “tiger one­sies”, “ba­nana and Marmite muffins” and the health ben­e­fits of lemon zest.

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