How a tale of family tragedy helped to lift the gloom - The Week in Radio
This is a dreadful time of year for radio. Well, OK, it's a dreadful time of year all round. But at the start of the worst month in the calendar – a time of tax returns, doomed diets, burning cold sores, soaring rail fares and incessant sideways rain – you might think that commissioning editors would do their best to cheer us all up. A big new documentary series might have gone some way in brightening the mood, or a hot new comedy show. But no. They want us to boil in our own bad temper.
Thus, on Radio 4, More or Less went big on how pension charges are going to leave us all short-changed and force us to see out our final years on a diet of gruel. Saturday Drama revolved around a married couple trying to murder each other – "You've walked into a nightmare," said a man called Glen, and I had to agree with him. Meanwhile, Tuesday's Afternoon Drama had Robert Bathurst reading Christopher Reid's poems about the death of his spouse.
The misery didn't stop there. In A Point of View, the political philosopher John Gray began his reflection on the problems of evangelical belief with a quote from a Christian missionary: "Whatever happens, we are all doomed to disappear shortly from this Earth." I switched off, lest I give in to the urge to disappear sooner than scheduled, possibly off the edge of a cliff.
It was probably tempting fate to give Something Understood a whirl, which was about boredom and in which John McCarthy described with alarming precision the experience in which all joy is slowly sapped from us, replaced by an irritable and despairing listlessness.
The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa once wrote that it was "like having a cold in the soul", while Christian monks saw it as a precursor to sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. All of which was fascinating, but hardly helpful to my general ennui.
On Sunday, I hoped David Sedaris, the American essayist, might lift my spirits. He usually does. If I were given the keys to the BBC, I'd have him on every day of the week and twice on Sundays. I'm still chuckling at an episode a few weeks ago in which he detailed a recent colonoscopy and its aftermath, notably the post-op "farting room" where patients could joyously let rip.
But, in keeping with the general mood, this week's episode – the last in a pretty much perfect series – began bleakly. "In late May of 2013," said Sedaris, "a few weeks shy of her 50th birthday, my younger sister Tiffany committed suicide."
Sedaris's essay, entitled "The Sea Section", chronicled a family reunion near the beach shortly after her death, where he and his siblings tried to adjust to the fact that there were no longer six of them, but five.
Stories were told, dinners were eaten and, perhaps in an attempt to glue them back together, Sedaris ended up buying a beach house for the whole family. Only at the end, when many had already left, did he ask the question that had been on all their lips: "Why do you think she did it?" to which there was no satisfactory answer.
Sedaris has made a career out of detailing the foibles of his family. Tiffany had told him years ago: "You can never write about me", but later changed her mind as she was worried people didn't like her.
Although Sedaris gave us reason to smile occasionally, this wasn't about the laughs, which is something of a departure for him. Instead, it outlined the bewilderment, the fear and the guilt of a terrible family tragedy. It was sad, yes, but it was also wonderful.
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