Radio review: Pearl: Two fathers, two daugh­­ters, and More or Less

05 October 2018

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Pearl: Two fathers, two daughters (Radio 4, Saturday) features extracts from an interview with Gerry McCann, whose daughter Madeleine went missing in Portugal 11 years ago

Pearl: Two fathers, two daughters (Radio 4, Saturday) features extracts from an interview with Gerry McCann, whose daughter Madeleine went missing in ...

ONE of the many ways by which we degrade the past is by assuming that our modern sensibilities are so much more tender than those of our fore­bears. The Four Horsemen take off fewer of us than the complications of old age, and child mortality — at least in the West — has reduced sharply. Surely, then, we feel the pain of bereave­­ment that much more sharply, and the loss of a child, so commonplace in previous eras, is only now re­­­garded as a catastrophe.

Encountering the 14th-century Middle English poem Pearl puts the lie to this historical prejudice. An account of a bereavement or loss, the language is drenched in a sorrow no less authentic for being expressed in late-medieval verse. In the recent translation by Simon Armitage, this dream-narrative, in which the poet sees his beloved at the pearly gates, is lent further immed­iacy.

In Pearl: Two fathers, two daugh­­ters (Radio 4, Saturday), Ar­­mi­­t­­age’s version of the poem was inter­­spersed with extracts from a recent interview with Gerry Mc­Cann, whose daughter Madeleine dis­­ap­­peared while on holiday in 2007. The dramatic con­ceit might appear unnecessarily mawk­­­­ish, but the effect of hearing these two very dif­­fer­ent registers, whose themes, some­­times comple­­mented, some­­­­­times juxta­­posed, one polished and declaimed, the other stilted and extemporised, resulted in one of the strongest pieces of radio I’ve heard in many years.

Pearl is at least partly about the consolation that faith might offer, although the visionary “pearl maiden” who appears to the poet does not provide any glib answers to the problem of pain. Resilience and an aptitude for keeping going is all that we have; call that a God-given attri­bute if you like. Mr McCann admits here to a waxing and waning of faith over the past 11 years, but admits to a grudging respect for the resilience of the human spirit. And his final words, almost unbearably poignant, direct us via the spiritual journey of the Pearl poet to a consolation be­­yond this world.

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And so to a story more mundane: that of Buckfast Tonic Wine, and its legendary part in inciting violence among our Celtic cousins. A recent website post states that 40 per cent of arrests in Scotland for violent of­­­­fences are as a result of the con­­sumption of the brew, created by the Benedictine monks at Buckfast Abbey, in Devon. That we might wish to believe such a wild assertion says more about the way in which we regard our friends north of the border than about reality.

Fortunately, More or Less (Radio 4, Friday) is there to step in when our credulity gets the better of us, and this “zombie statistic” (a dis­­credited statistic which is neverthe­less reproduced in the media) is de­­rived from a tiny study of young of­­fenders in one institution in 2007.

The monks of Buckfast are used to this kind of slander, and were po-faced, using in their defence a tem­plate borrowed from the gun lobby: any crime is due to the individual, not to the booze.

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