On Podcasts – Society and Culture 1/3

Yesterday I went on a walk with Ruby Wax and Louis Theroux. The day before that, I’d used my daily outing to try and understand the intricacies of an unsolved murder somewhere in America. And last week, a collection of world-famous winemakers accompanied me to Bushy Park and Richmond Bridge.

I am neither delusional nor moonlighting as an amateur detective but I hardly ever leave the house nowadays without listening to a podcast and, let’s face it, in Covid times, it’s nice to have company on a walk. This means I go through podcasts at a rate of knots, swamp friends and family with links to episodes I’ve liked – please accept my apologies if you’ve been one of the recipients – and am regularly swapping recommendations with fellow addicts. So far this has meant sharing screenshots of my phone with my favourite podcasts circled in red, poor form for someone who prides herself on her love of words.

A good podcast is similar to a good book, in that it has to offer either a compelling story, teach me something new or make me laugh. And like a good book, the skill of the writer and the narrator can draw you into subject matters you never thought you’d take an interest in.  What follows is a pretty eclectic selection and I hope it will inspire some of you to share your favourite podcasts with me, addict to addict.

One of the first podcast I downloaded was Desert Island Discs. Hosted by Kirsty Young– what a wonderful voice – at the time, and now by Laurence Laverne – why is it I just don’t quite like her as much? – DID combines music and fascinating life stories, an irresistible combination.

My all-time favourite is Lemn Sissay’s DID, which I recommend to anybody feeling sorry for themselves. Here are some extracts I wrote down because I wanted to ensure I wouldn’t forget them.

About his childhood, ‘I thought the world smiled. Everybody in the world smiled. I didn’t realise it was me smiling at the world, smiling back at me. I loved having a family.’ I love this idea of smiling first and hoping to get a smile in return.

He also talks beautifully about the healing power of creativity and writing. ‘In creativity, I saw light, the place where anger was an expression in the search of love, where dysfunction is a true reaction to untruth. In the imagination, I saw the endless possibility of life.’ And he said he writes ‘to highlight the universal nature of rejection, loss, dislocation and healing’ adding ‘I’ve always been an outsider, which gives me a bridge to everybody because we’re all outsiders.’ Pause and think about that.

His voice is an absolute delight and full of laughter.

A close second is Anne Marie Duff’s DID. I stopped in the middle of the High Street, and rewinded several times so that I could write her words down: ‘It’s about doing the best you can. We, as a species get our faces out of the dirt to feel the sun on them. When I feel like I may die, I won’t because there is more of me than I ever imagined there could be.
I am a hopeless romantic, sometimes I burn with pain as well as burn with desire. I will. Because that’s the nature of opening your heart up to someone else. I refuse to believe there is a scarcity. I believe that there is love and more love. I can love and I can hurt and I can love again.

Other favourite interviewees from the top of my head, and with a bit of help from the DID website, include Davina Mc Call, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, Yusuf Cat Stevens, Jilly Cooper, Sabrina Cohen Hatton, Pat McGrath, Cilla Black, Christina Lamb, Angela Hartnett, Marian Keyes, Bill Gates, John Timpson and Sigrid Rausing. I can’t say for sure why those resonated with me more than others but maybe there is a common thread of optimism and resilience in all of them.

The 75th anniversary episode is also brilliant.

The recent Grounded with Louis Theroux follows the same biographic principle minus the music. I liked the fact that he made me discover people I had never heard of and words I didn’t know: ‘disstrack’ for example, thanks to KSI, a hugely famous YouTuber I had never heard of before and pretty sure I’ll never hear about again. My eighteen year old daughter was vastly amused I’d ‘discovered’ him.

The first series is uniformly brilliant except for the episode with Chris O’Dowd. Maybe because he is a friend of Louis Theroux, it feels more frivolous than some of the other episodes and almost like you’re eavesdropping on two friends discussing not particularly interesting topics. Miriam Margolyes on the other hand manages to be a hoot, rather touching and thought provoking too. The link to that episode flew in all directions.

It’s a toss between Ruby Wax and Frankie Boyle as to who wins the second series.

Her brutally honest comments about professional jealousy, mental illness and accepting who you are will stay with me for a long time but Frankie Boyle, whom I almost didn’t listen to because he isn’t really on my radar turned out to be brilliant.

He talks about his well-documented alcoholism, and also about where he comes from, his parents and he describes the mentality that comes from growing up in a rural environment where you can’t afford to be judgemental because there aren’t many people around. Very perceptive and clever. It made me think of my grandparents.

He also answers the weirdest question of the whole podcast series, ‘What would make you so angry that you’d chop your child’s head off?’ The child whose head was chopped off by his father went to the same school as Frankie Boyle.

He goes on to explain that when he first arrived in London, he was once asked, ‘what’s the worst thing that happened at your school?’

The others went through anecdotes such as, ‘Someone wet themselves in assembly’ while he was trying to find something that would be palatable to his audience.

I am not sure that a kid being killed by his father in a drunken rage is that palatable but what a wonderful way to illustrate the huge gap between his experience and that of his fellow writers…and Louis Theroux.

Louis Theroux also interviews Jon Ronson, which leads me onto the catch-all category of Society and Culture, which features three excellent podcast series by the very same Jon Ronson.

The Butterfly Effect deals with pornography and explores how pornhub changed the way pornography is produced and consumed. Whether we like it or not, porn is an industry and as such it changes and adapts with the times.  Some of the old timers’ comments made me giggle and think of the wine business’ old guard, lamenting the loss of the good old days.

There are also extraordinary stories in there that defies the imagination, worrying stats on the influence of porn on men and especially young men, and the interview of a former porn star who tried to reinvent himself as a male nurse, was recognised and sacked on the spot. His story somehow epitomises for me the destructive power of porn and its sheer hypocrisy.

Talking of being trapped, Jon Ronson’s The Last Days of August, explores the suicide, aged 23, of August Ames, a porn star, who was cyberbullied after tweeting she wouldn’t work with male porn actors who had shot gay scenes with other men. Whereas The Butterfly Effect ‘almost’ made you feel at times porn was a cosy world and a job like any other, The Last Days of August is a dark descent into the lives of damaged people who sell their bodies to make a living.

Jon Ronson’s third series, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, continues on the theme of public exposure, how social media amplifies any misstep with damning consequences. I can still see my beloved Arcachon when I remember that story, confirming that a sure sign of a good podcast is when you remember where you were when you listened to it.

To be continued…

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