Radio review: The Anatomy of Loneliness, A Pilgrim’s Song, and The Essay: Music of the spheres

12 October 2018


“WHOSOEVER is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a God.” Thus Aristotle, via Francis Bacon, encapsulates the modern attitude to the lonely: genius, or mad.

In February, the BBC launched its Loneliness Experiment, which surveyed people of all ages, from around the world, about their experience of loneliness. The results are now in, and, with the help of the Wellcome Trust, are being rigorously examined.

Already, however, problems have arisen with the way in which the survey has been presented. An impressive 55,000 people from 237 countries answered the survey; but, since this is a self-selecting cohort with enough time on their hands to respond, there are certain headline-grabbing findings that should be treated with scepticism. Most not­ably, the conclusion that 40 per cent of people aged 16-24 are lonely, and that that percentage falls consistently with age, down to 27 per cent for the over-75s, must be understood in this context.

Claudia Hammond and her experts discussed the project in The Anatomy of Loneliness (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week). The insights that this survey will ultimately bring are not in the quantification of loneliness, but in the variety of ways in which people can find themselves lonely, and the strategies that they adopt to mitigate their condition.

I particularly warmed to the professor who reminded us that loneliness was so painful to the young because they had not encountered it before. The first time you are lonely, just as the first time your heart is broken, is always going to be the most painful. Those wizened adults who have lived through many episodes of loneliness will be reassured that it generally doesn’t last.

There are innumerable arts projects gathering momentum as we approach the Remembrance Sunday to end all Remembrance Sundays. Among the more creative is the radio play A Pilgrim’s Song, by the late Hugo Ellis, which has been adapted for radio by Simon Machin. It is being serialised on BBC Sussex and BBC Surrey on Sunday mornings. A full rendition is scheduled for 11 November at 7 p.m.

The play focuses on the life of the Revd Percy Dearmer and his collaboration with Dr Ralph Vaughan-Williams on The English Hymnal; but its narrative is more wide-ranging, as it incorporates the latter years of the Great War and the Suffragette movement. It is produced by the Space Arts Trust, whose amateur cast are given some often humorous lines. “I’m not that kind of doctor,” Vaughan-Williams says when approached by an injured soldier, “I’m a musicologist.”

To the medieval mind, that was enough; for, as Dr Stuart Clark explained in his series for The Essay: Music of the spheres (Radio 3, weekdays), music was, for centuries, the “theory of everything”. Through its consonant proportions, music encapsulated all the laws of nature, even if it might not heal a shrapnel wound.

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