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A far cry from tears

10 June 2016


THERE are plenty of dyslexia jokes out there, but few of them are properly funny. Fewer still are those that one might feel comfortable telling publicly. This one, though, comes from Michael Fabbri, a dyslexic comic: “How many dyslexic light bulbs does it change to make?”

In fact, Michael Fabbri’s Dyslexicon (Radio 4, Friday) steered clear of the obvious dyslexia gags, and gave us instead an idiosyncratic account of growing up with the condition. His relationship to order and meaning in words is analogous to finding the picture hidden within a Magic Eye image. He riffed on cats wearing crucifixes and the stupidity of creationists. He spoke out for literacy programmes in prisons. And he told anecdotes about what it’s like to mistake an MOT garage for a B&B, or to read Auden’s “Stop all the Clocks” at a funeral. Tears of sadness are thus converted to tears of laughter.

In the edition of The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry on Tuesday of last week (Radio 4, weekdays), the eponymous scientists addressed the mystery of this phenomenon: what makes us cry emotional tears? The biological function of tears is easily explained: to cleanse the eyeball of dirt. Darwin thought that they were merely the product of screwing up your eyes — and, to prove it, forced a group of children to screw up their eyes for three-quarters of an hour, without great success. These days we recognise that emotional tears are a means of communicating to our peers an inner experience where words simply will not do. It is a socialising mechanism, a means of admitting vulnerability.

What is less clear is whether there is such a thing as “a good cry”. Does it really make us feel better? And here is where we have cause to thank the intrepid Adam Rutherford for taking a test that few of us would be willing to undergo: namely, to watch the atrociously, meretriciously soppy movie Hachi: A dog’s tale, starring Richard Gere, and then fill in a questionnaire about the resulting feelings. A torture far worse than anything Darwin could have thought up, this is what a group of psychologists have been asking participants to do. The conclusion is that, while the immediate effect is marginal, the longer-term consequences of a cry can indeed be cathartic, and even uplifting.

One of Radio 4’s recent hits was Owen Bennett Jones’s two-part series on the Deobandi movement in Islam, and its British followers (still available on iPlayer). Those seeking a complementary view of the movement in India and Pakistan might try his two-parter The Deobandis (World Service, Wednesdays). In the first programme, we visited Deoband itself, where, 150 years ago, it all started: an enclave of Islamic thought in an otherwise predominantly Hindu region of India.

It begins quite peaceably. Deoband appears relaxed and informal — certainly nothing like the experience of visiting Deobandi settlements in parts of Pakistan. But then Jones starts quizzing a young student about the rights and wrongs of watching films, and of dancing. The heavies move in, and the atmosphere changes. Perhaps it would have been naïve to expect anything else, but there is more to this place than peace, piety, and a spreading pomegranate tree.

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