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My Mother’s Lost Children: a funny and powerfully touching film about family

In this BBC Storyville documentary, Danny Ben-Moshe tells an extraordinary tale.

In the age of social media, it’s easy to forget that most families used not to talk about things much; even now, many of us are more inclined to favour denial and avoidance over emotional incontinence as a life strategy. This is, perhaps, one reason why My Mother’s Lost Children (20 September, 10pm) – Danny Ben-Moshe’s funny, sprawling and powerfully touching film for the BBC’s Storyville documentary strand – felt like such a breath of fresh air. An alternative title might have been: “Her Lips Were Sealed”.

Outwardly, Ben-Moshe’s Jewish, north London family tended to loquaciousness; teasing and fights were par for the course around the Friday night dinner table. But this disguised a long and painful history of silence: the kind of distilled quiet without which, we eventually learned, Lillian Ben-Moshe might otherwise have gone completely mad.

The story is complicated, and my summary will likely do it no justice. But here goes. In the 1950s, Ben-Moshe’s mother, Lillian, met a student called Raymond who belonged to a wealthy Iranian Jewish family. He was handsome, and she was a naive 15-year-old; she soon found herself pregnant. And so, they were married. This was not a success. They were poor because Raymond couldn’t find work in London, and it wasn’t long before Lillian was living with her Yiddish-speaking refugee mother again, along with her two small children: Andrew, then three, and Michelle, then just two.

One day, Raymond knocked at the door. He wanted to take the children to the park and, having no reason to refuse, she let him. She would not see them again for 40 years. “Did you go to police?” asked Danny, the son of her second husband. She shook her head. “You didn’t go to the police, doll,” she said. “You went to the Jewish Board of Guardians.” These Guardians told her that no crime had been committed. That there was, in other words, nothing she could do.

Her family went along with this, though why I cannot say exactly. A kind of listlessness seemed to strike – or perhaps they were just terrified of her pain. What about Lillian? She blessed God for “all the good things” she had been given: for her new husband, Henry, and her children Danny and Ira. Somehow, the pit sealed over before it could pull her in.

Ben-Moshe’s film told this story (it had more twists than I’ve mentioned) with what I can only describe as sceptical empathy, and an abiding patience that he somehow managed to maintain even when Raymond, tracked down in Iran, announced that Lillian had never been “on my level” and that “the bitch was not your mother, it was your grandmother”. It was exemplary work: another reminder, if it were needed, of the strength of Storyville right now.

Its star, though, was Lillian: her vivid way of speaking, her cartoon-like manner, her warmth and occasional flintiness. There was a kind of ruthlessness in the way she had negotiated her survival, and it tore at your heart. Reunited with Andrew and Michelle, there were no adequate words, only a sense of misery, handed down unwittingly, and deepening like – the phrase has never been bettered – a coastal shelf.

There was also plenty of misery, albeit of a slightly louder kind, in Stalkers (20 November, 10.45pm) a documentary about the work of Paladin, a charity that supports those on the receiving end of this horrible crime. It was queasily fascinating, of course, not least because (social media again) life is so easy for perpetrators nowadays, all the necessary information being at their fingertips. (Perhaps this is one reason why a million people in the UK are now stalked every year.) But it was also frustrating.

I wanted its director Katharine English to tell us more about the psychology of those who stalk, and about what treatments, if any, work (prison, it was clear, only sometimes breaks the cycle). When is it meanness and spite and when is it a question of mental health? Not, of course, that understanding the difference is likely to be of much consolation to a man who must wear a stab jacket to work, or a woman who receives dead mice and baby scans in the post. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.