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The meaning of life

26 August 2016

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HUMAN beings are constantly in search of meaning, especially those whose job it is to pitch ideas to commissioning editors at the BBC. The condition has a name: pareidolia; and it explains why people believe Elvis is still alive and living in an isolated studio lot, alongside all that faked moon-landing equipment.

Our propensity to create meanings, the theory continues, is an aspect of our evolutionary adaptation that enables us more efficiently to understand our complex world: storytelling and religion are both symptoms of the condition.

Thus it was an exceedingly neat commissioning pitch by those responsible for Tracks (R4, Tuesdays) to gather into one a conspiracy thriller and an exposition of neuro-science, within the format of a radio drama; even more so, to land nine episodes from it. Tracks has had three outings thus far –— taking up the slot normally allotted to the afternoon drama — and I can confess to being vulnerable enough to a good grassy-knoll-type story that I’m still listening.

Matthew Broughton’s drama begins with a plane crash. On board: several delegates to a medical conference; and evidence of some scientific research of a distinctly dodgy nature. Each episode takes as its title something from neuro-anatomy, and embedded within the dialogue — like info-boxes in a textbook — are short expositions: for instance, the Broca and Wernicke areas are the bits of the brain which respond to storytelling, and enable us to retain information. Whether Tracks is successful enough in engaging my own Broca and Wernicke areas I will discover only when I next try to pass myself off as a brain surgeon.

Meanwhile, one’s Pareidolic instincts are suitably inflamed by Broughton’s evolving plot. In particular, I have my suspicions about the doctor with the friendly Irish accent who is being so helpful to the female lead. Friendly Irish accents in Radio 4 afternoon plays mean love and/or betrayal. In this case, with another seven episodes, there’s plenty of room for both.

By contrast, it would take a humanoid with hyper-evolved Pareidolia to make sense of Self’s Search for Meaning (R4, Wednesday). This three-part series, first aired in June, finds Will Self talking to scientists, philosophers, and people of faith about their constructions of life’s meaning.

Delivered in that lugubrious, morose tone that is the Self brand, these programmes were bewildering for their lack of coherence and insight. Ajmal Masroor and Rowan Williams contributed — as one might expect — with eloquence and insight, the latter graciously indulging his host by claiming English literature to have been his doorway to the spiritual life; there was some palette-cleansing directness from a couple of vox pops; and then an extended interview with David Icke, he of sports commentary and then lizard conspiracy fame. The blurb for the show promised encounters with “opinion-makers”, but I’m not sure that David Icke makes, so much as provokes, opinion.

Self’s programme, which was peppered with pretentious sound effects — reverberations, radio static, and white noise — might have benefited from the more subtle approach taken by The River (Wednesday, R4). Mind you, this had the sound recordist Chris Watson on the team, and you might have been forgiven for tuning out of the Martin Palmer script and just listening to the beautiful ambience that Watson created.

You would, though, have missed a thoughtful discourse on the river as contrasting spiritual metaphors: for a linear temporality, the “ever-rolling stream”, and for the cyclical movement of water.

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