Radio review: The Tyranny of Story, Australian Trilogy Volume 2, and Four Thought

31 August 2018

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EACH nation has its stories; and the way these stories proliferate says much about the state of that nation. Greece is a jungle: conspiracy the­ories grow to dominate the eco-system, and then as quickly die back. Britain, in comparison, is a temper­ate zone where two or three narrat­ives co-exist with little antag­onism.

The notion of an ecology of stories comes courtesy of a Professor of Organisational Storytelling, Yian­nis Gabriel, one of the guest experts in John Harris’s series The Tyranny of Story (Radio 4, Monday of last week), which examines the part played by the narrative frame in con­temporary societies. When we are told that we can make America great again by electing Donald Trump, or take back control of the nation by voting for Brexit, our neurons fire in ways that are simply irresistible.

There are shades of the Bertrand Russell “Who shaves the barber?” paradox about all this. After all, the account that we were being asked to accept, in which our public con­sciousness is constructed from a series of three-act narratives — Paradise, Paradise Lost, and Paradise Regained — is itself a kind of story that just happens to accord with our current anxieties about propaganda and the manipulation of information about the world.

Neuroscientists have become the go-to storytellers, with their exotic talk of hippocampi and cortices. Throw in the spectre of President Trump and you have got a more than adequate story to pitch to a BBC commis­sion­ing editor.

In the hands of the best, stories articulate truths as profound as any science. Sarah Kendall is one such storyteller, and she is back on Wed­nesday nights on Radio 4 for her Australian Trilogy Volume 2. The PR puff does her no favours, prom­ising “an intricate montage [of stories and memories] demonstrat­ing the interconnectedness of life”: a description that might be applied to half the stand-ups on the circuit.

What is impressive about Ken­dall’s comedy is her ability to shift gears so effortlessly from character humour to sentimentality to tricksy self-referencing. Last week’s script was structured as a series of recur­sions: within one story lies an­­other, spanning a period from 1979 to the present, arriving at last at 1986 and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Don’t ask how; have a listen.

Why is it that smokers who give up fags are treated like heroes, but when you announce that you are a teetotaller everybody wants to know what lurid story lies behind such aberrant behaviour? This was the question that Clare Pooley sought to answer in Four Thought (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week).

The story Pooley chose to reveal to her WOMAD festival audience was of a mother who downed a bottle or more of wine each day, encouraged by the social-media memes: “Wine o’ clock”, “Me time”, “Mummy’s little helper”. Forget the four tell-tale signs: you know you’ve got a prob­lem when you start asking Siri whether you’re an alcoholic.

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