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From light to dark

09 October 2015


AS AN opener to a comedy show, the image of a burning suicide-bomber would seem distinctly unpromising. Then again, so does the idea of a Pakistani comedian. But Sami Shah is here to show us otherwise, and his new series A Beginner’s Guide to Pakistan (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) does a pretty good job of it.

This was a show constructed around the ten things one should know about the country — a list that shifts emphasis at speed between the trivial (Pakistanis are good at crosswords) to the genuinely informative: a potted history of Pakistani government since independence.

The idées fixes in all of this were corruption, assassination, and the moustache; but this was also about challenging some myths. On gender inequality, for instance, Shah reminded us of the ceiling-smashing presidency of Benazir Bhutto, elected in 1988 when many Western countries were still in the political Dark Ages on this issue.

In comedy of this kind, much turns on how successful our entertainer is in shifting gears, from the satirical to the serious. Shah is pitch-perfect, taking us from an irony-laden gag about Kashmir to a description of a horrific bombing in a way that is neither insensitive nor insincere.

It is a technique that newsreaders must practise endlessly — how to transition from the light to the tragic with one turn of phrase. Here was a masterclass.

Our fascination with déjà vu — those moments of familiarity combined with novelty — was the subject of The Forum (Radio 4, Saturday); and, in keeping with this universally intriguing phenomenon, Bridget Kendall had gathered a panel of scientists and a novelist to unpick what might be going on in déjà vu.

Although insisting that their views were compatible, the two scientists came at the subject from very different angles: the neuro-psychologist Chris Moulin asserted that déjà vu came from a glitch in the brain which could be more prolifically observed in people with epilepsy. Anna Cleary, the psychologist, suggested that it arose from the accessing of previously unretrieved memories of related experiences.

The novelist Chigozie Obioma provided the most coherent account by relating it to the narrative tropes that recur throughout our history of storytelling. We are a species that enjoys and requires repetition, and our brains are geared up to detect relationships and patterns.

Indeed, before the term déjà vu had been invented, it was Charles Dickens, in David Copperfield, who gave us an eloquent description of the experience.

A story tragically played out many times in the 1980s and ’90s was, in the death of Rock Hudson, told for the first time: of public figures laid low by AIDS, and, simultaneously, their private lives exposed to an ever-curious media.

In Witness (World Service, Friday), we were reminded of the shock, first of Hudson’s diagnosis — the matinée idol affected by a sordid disease — and then the naïvety with which the threat of AIDS was first encountered. The tall, dark, and handsome movie heartthrob would never be the same again.

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