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.
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.