The best radio understands the medium as a vehicle for the human voice. Listening to her new podcast Life Changing – a series of interviews with people who have experienced life-altering events – you sense the former Woman’s Hour host Jane Garvey knows this all too well. Prodded by Garvey’s sympathetic, focused questions, these individuals reveal so much of themselves as they speak with audible ambivalence, pain, or shame about their experiences.
Take Charlie Wilson, who, in 2008, had a stroke that left him with absolutely no memories. A big, warm man speaking in a strong Aberdeen accent, he hesitates and apologises when asked what he was like before his accident, or how his relationships with his wife and children changed. As he stumbles through sentences, the extent to which he’s still piecing together his own story, second-hand, becomes clear. How unnatural it must be to inhabit a life everyone around you insists is yours. He shrugs off these enormous challenges – “You just have to wipe the slate clean and crash on” – but Garvey is tuned in to the emotions behind his patterns of speech. “‘Crash on’ – you’ve used that expression a few times…Is it your way of saying you’re blundering through life a little bit?” she asks. “Yeah,” he says. “I do, I erm, I exist.”
In a tremulous, clipped voice, Harriet Ware-Austin describes in terrible detail the day she (aged just eight, then living in Ethopia) watched the plane taking her two elder sisters to boarding school crash, killing them both. As she explains how one catastrophe after another led to a scene of unimaginable horror, she repeatedly says, “Typical!” as someone else might when faced with a frustrating string of train delays. Garvey, wisely, does not assume she can empathise. “I don’t know what to say about that,” she says plainly, after hearing a cheerful goodbye message recorded by the sisters on the morning of the crash. Ware-Austin’s selflessness is striking. “Gosh, I’m a bit of a heart-on-my-sleeve person,” she says when asked how open she is about her sisters’ deaths. “Well, it’s not fair on them to just be shut out. It’s bad enough that they lost their lives. But to be denied being talked about?”
BBC Radio 4
This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?