Radio: The power of words

17 December 2008

by David Winter

EVERY now and then, radio offers the listener an unforgettable experience. Such moments do not come every day, but there was one for me last week, in about six minutes of the Today programme on Wednesday (Radio 4). It consisted of an interview with the Roman Catholic journalist Cristina Odone, and the Thought for the Day by Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, which followed it. Both were on the subject of assisted suicide.

Ms Odone spoke movingly of her brother, Lorenzo, who was incurably ill and physically helpless for 28 years. He died earlier this year. Neither he nor those who loved and cared for him regarded those years as useless. His life was a precious gift, which he and they cherished.

That interview — memorable in itself — was followed by Richard Harries’s Thought, which picked up the same theme and gave it theological flesh.

He suggested that there were two Christian insights into the moral issues raised by assisted suicide. The first asserted that the value of life cannot be assessed simply by trying to balance the amount of pain against the amount of pleasure. More was at stake — values such as courage and kindness, which help to define our humanity.

Second, we are not just solitary, self-sufficient individuals. We are dependent from the day of our birth; dependence does not diminish us as human beings. Lord Harries then spoke of his mother, who was paralysed and rendered speechless by a stroke for the last four years of her life. Did he wish she had died, and been spared those years? He could not answer that, but instead ended with a line from the poet Edwin Muir: “Strange blessings never in paradise Fall from these beclouded skies.”

Those six minutes were worth a whole evening of “reality” television. Perhaps only radio — just the voice and words, without the distraction of pictures or the visible presence of a person — could speak with such astonishing power.


Word of Mouth (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) is a programme about words, presented by Michael Rosen. In last week’s edition, the subject was conversation. Two “experts” provided the substance: Katherine Blythe, who has written a book on the subject, and the journalist Toby Young.

Ms Blythe felt that the first essential of good conversation was an engaged attention: nothing is worse than feeling that the person you are speaking to is not really listening, but instead is composing his or her next contribution. Toby Young opted for heat, bordering on aggression. He grew up in a home where every conversation ended in an argument, and he found much conversation too tepid and half-hearted.

The brightest light was thrown on the subject by Wendy Lawson, who is autistic, and did not talk at all until she was four. She had to learn the tricky technique of con­versation. She finds metaphor difficult (why do people say “I’ll be popping out”?), and has had to learn to speak appropriately and not just blurt out any idea that comes into her head.

As Toby Young observed, normal con­versation is indeed threaded with ambiguity. Most of us know how to decode it, but we cannot assume that everyone can. This preacher, at least, took the point.

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