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17 January 2024

Radio 4’s Child puts us on the cusp of life

India Rakusen has created a delightful mosaic of trivia about babies and the earliest stages of human life.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

What is a baby? “Ah,” says a low, pleasing voice – I imagine a moustache. “A baby,  I think, is a kind of bundle of genetic potentials that is already the product of its experiences prenatally, and even pre-conception.” Eat your heart out, Freud. The voice belongs to the (moustache-less, but aptly named) child and adolescent psychotherapist Graham Music, who quotes Donald Winnicott’s famous phrase, “There is no such thing as a baby.” The baby’s identity is entirely dependent on their caregivers – but the foetus is also active from when it is an embryo, always acting and reacting, influencing the mother’s body. Music likens a foetus to a cosmonaut who takes over the spaceship of the mother’s body – changing it on a cellular level. “It isn’t like the mother is building the foetus– they’re building each other.”

Music is one of many voices in Child, a BBC Radio 4 show from presenter and producer India Rakusen, who has also made interesting, meandering series on the menstrual cycle and witches (28ish Days Later and Witch). In the first episode, she speaks to leading cell biologist Magdelana Żernika-Goetz about the earliest days of life, when a jumble of cells known as the embryoblast divides into the “epiblast” (“such a good word!”) and the “hypoblast”. The historian Elinor Cleghorn talks about some of the earliest recorded experiences of pregnancy, including a girl of 12 who, on the eve of her wedding, left her childhood toys to Artemis, the Greek goddess who protects young girls during puberty, pregnancy and childbirth. “We’ve lost… the permission to tell stories about how it feels to be two people in one being,” she says – experiences that speak to “the most fundamental questions about humanity and about the future of what it means to be human”.

Rakusen is guided by sheer curiosity, and has a magpie-like instinct for interesting details. The result is a delightful mosaic of trivia. Lean in close to each fact, thought and observation. Then step back, and see the picture that emerges.

BBC Radio 4, 19 January, 2.45pm; available on catch-up

[See also: Music in a time of war]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge