The Week In Radio: A tribute to the power of love

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The Independent Culture

Across the nation, throughout Between Ourselves (BBC Radio 4, Thursday), you could hear the gentle thud of jaws dropping to the floor. In the first of a new run, the common experience uniting Olivia O'Leary's guests was that they were married to people who underwent a change of sex, and the marriage had survived the alteration: Daphne's husband was now a woman; Chris's wife a man. Just that basic circumstance was enough oddity to fuel most shows, but the strangeness, the sense of the extremes to which people will go, and the extremes of pain they will put up with, kept accumulating.

The programme got off to a quiet enough start: Daphne recalled a walk, in the course of which David had spoken of his need to "acknowledge his feminine side" – she was surprised because she felt that his feminine side was expressed in his nurturing relationship with their children, and his occasional habit of wearing women's underwear or going to bed in a nightie. But he explained that since he was four he had had a secret name for himself – "He wanted me to call him Penny, especially in the more intimate moments."

You roll that image around for a moment. But what Daphne remembered feeling most sharply was what a horrid name Penny was: couldn't he have chosen something prettier? For Chris, the process had begun more abruptly, while he and Dru were struggling to conceive a child (the difficulty, he said, was on his side: his sense of manhood must, you feel, have taken a kicking).

Some of their experiences were predictable – difficulties with pronouns, coaching the loved one in how to stand, to wear the clothes – but the catalogue of the unexpected grew. With Dru, there was the flatulence and belching – a physical side-effect of the change, O'Leary wondered, or making a point? Making a point, Chris thought.

Did they still have a physical relationship? Oh yes, said Daphne; actually, she was exploring her bisexual side. Oh no, said Chris, he couldn't even sleep in the same bed as a man, having been a victim of male rape. And the strain had been a major factor in his early retirement from the police – this last crept in from nowhere: is it possible to imagine a less sympathetic environment for a man finding himself married to another man?

Daphne had adjusted to a new life, though she admitted to pining for the old one; and Penny was happier now, easier to live with. Dru, on the other hand, was more difficult, and Chris's misery was clear. Yet both agreed that the change had been the right thing, as had staying together: love made it worthwhile.

The arrival at that tender conclusion was the most astonishing thing, a tribute to Chris's and Daphne's generosity, and to O'Leary's unprurient questioning. It was also a tribute to radio, which can, by making you part of a conversation rather than a voyeur, treat such material with a subtlety beyond TV's range.

Nor could television cope with a programme such as last Tuesday's edition of The Essay (BBC Radio 3), in which the poet Seamus Heaney spoke at length of the place of Virgil's poetry in his life. At school, his Latin teacher had continually lamented that they'd been set the wrong book of the Aeneid – it should have been Book VI, in which Aeneas descends into the Underworld.

So Book VI had taken on a tantalising importance for Heaney. He read aloud his translation of part of it, and I realised that it was the same story as Chris and Daphne's – about how those we love are never entirely lost, though, one way or another, they may be beyond our reach.