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A word in private

24 June 2016

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WE ALL carry them around with us: good voices, bad voices, the sensible, the impish. In cartoons, they are embodied as angels and demons, sitting on opposite shoul­ders, whispering contrary advice; but to only a few of us do these voices seem as if they are coming from a source other than our own internalised talking-shop.

In The Borders of Sanity (Radio 4, Mon­day of last week), we met people for whom the barriers between the internal and external are per­meable; and we discovered some of the ways they cope with it.

Until the second half of the 20th century, voice-hearing was regarded as a sure sign of psychosis. The experts interviewed for Chris­topher Harding’s programme said that doctors rarely engaged with what the voices said: the template of the violent schizophrenic would prevail, whether patients’ voices were telling them to harm others or — more frequently — harm themselves.

We heard about a voice-hearers’ group who meet in a church in Morningside, Edinburgh; and another who went to a remote Scottish lodge to record their voices, with the help of a sound artist.

What was most impressive, though, about Harding’s piece was the sensitivity he had for the subtle ways in which he, and we, attempt to shape the voice-hearing pheno­m­enon to fit particular agendas. These might be historical and cultural: a study comparing atti­tudes to voice-hearing in the United States and Ghana, for instance, has revealed fundamental differences in the way these cultures conceptualise conscious­ness. It might also be about what a documentary-maker wants to get from his subjects: more than once, Harding admitted that his wit­nesses did not say what he wanted them to say or craft their exper­iences into the message that he had prepared for them.

On the face of it, Free Thinking: Mystics and reality (Radio 3, Tues­day of last week) looked, for the purposes of this column, as if it was going to be the perfect accompaniment to Harding’s pro­gramme.

What might have been expected from the promised dis­cussion with an artist, cosmologist, novelist, and historian were insights into notions of reality as mediated by different cultural media and his­torical periods.

But the principal reality explored dur­ing the show was book promotion; and Matthew Sweet’s playful tour around Oxford was no more than a desperate attempt to finesse a rather ordinary studio round-table.

So, instead, to Notting Hill, where “keeping it real” is causing controversy. We heard on You and Yours (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) from Janet, who still dries her laundry on a washing-line, despite complaints by the neigh­bours that it makes the place “look like a gypsy encampment”.

The problem is “super-gentrification”, and a professor came to explain all. The trouble is that, as she did so, her language unwittingly echoed tropes of a bygone era: the super-wealthy move into an area, buy up all the houses, and, before you know it, the whole place is sani­tised. I half expected to add, “there goes the neighbourhood.”

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