Although I have been tuning into the teatime bumble-cast from Boris every day on 5 Live for info and the horrors, last week I mostly turned away from live radio. After all, the most pressing questions have only one answer: “We don’t know, so please stay at home.”
Instead, let me bring you two new podcasts. Initially, I thought them very different, but actually, they have a lot in common. First, Girl Taken, from Radio 4. In this podcast, journalist Sue Mitchell retells a strange news story that took place in the recent past. In 2015, Rob Lawrie, a British volunteer at the Calais refugee camps, was caught smuggling a four-year-old Afghan girl called Bru over the French-English border in his van. Lawrie, a charismatic, enthusiastic man who believes in good and would do anything to help anyone, had met Bru and her father, Reza, in the Calais camp. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision on his part to take Bru with him, and he thought it would be easy: just get her into England and then deposit her with some of her relatives in Leeds. But he was caught and taken to the French courts. Astonishingly, he was let off with a suspended sentence. When he returned home, his wife had moved out and taken their kids. She couldn’t believe he would do something so reckless without consulting her.
It’s clear that Karbaat thought that he was acting for the best and didn’t tell anyone what he was up to
Mitchell, who knew Lawrie and liked him, has already made a couple of documentaries about this nutty tale, and she and he take us back through what happened. It’s simultaneously gripping, touching and maddening. Lawrie is lovely, striding about the place in his red Stetson hat, but so naive, so desirous of attention. He’s another child, really. Anyway, halfway through the series, things change. Lawrie receives an unexpected email, and the whole mad tale whizzes off again. It turns out that Bru’s background is not what it seems, and the story that Lawrie had been told by her father is far from the truth. No spoilers, because this is a very unusual piece of reporting, worth following to the end. All the episodes are up now on BBC Sounds.
Girl Taken did make me think, though, how lives can be utterly changed – and not for the better – by men who think that they, personally, know best. The type of chaps who forget to consult anyone else when they make a decision, whose sounding board is their own conscience and mind. Some might mean well, but good intentions don’t mop up the consequences. We learn that Reza acted extremely selfishly but so, too, did Lawrie.
Another true story podcast, The Immaculate Deception, started last week. It has a very different subject matter, and I’m not revealing too much when I say it’s about a Dutch infertility doctor who turned out to be all too fertile himself. By the end of episode one (other episodes will be released weekly, on a Wednesday), we know that said doctor has fathered more than 60 children; children whose mothers believed were created using sperm from either an anonymous donor, or by that of their partners, through IVF. These children are now grown up and call themselves Karbastards (the doctor’s name was Jan Karbaat). We are led through the story by writer Jenny Kleeman, who, like Mitchell in Girl Taken, is an excellent, careful presenter. She talks to Joey, one of Karbaat’s children, who sensed that something was wrong throughout his life – even though his mother was convinced that her husband, his dad, was his biological father.
Oh, but the doctor was “charming, empathic”, according to one of the mothers; he told his clients what to do and they did it. Even at this early stage, it’s clear that Karbaat, too, thought that he was acting for the best and didn’t tell anyone what he was up to. Hmmm. Beware those action men who never ask for advice.
A highly original podcast offering a mix of meditation, soundscape and soul-baring. The reassuring Adam Martin is our host, and his words are near to poetry, hovering over tweeting birds, familiar and unfamiliar music and sampled speech, often from old films or songs. The effect is usually calming (though I found last week’s episode, Corvid-19, somewhat agitating). This week’s, entitled Keep Calm Carry On, mixes Joanna Lumley, David Attenborough, Charles Hawtrey, The Lark Ascending, the sounds of fighter planes and a poem that’s been popping up on Instagram. Lovely.
Producer extraordinaire Eleanor McDowall has got her audio friends to stand silently in fields, or on top of mountains, or anywhere quiet really, and record the sounds around them. Which perhaps seems a little odd, but the result takes you to a place you’ve never seen, simply through the noises there. Best on headphones, you can choose from various locations. One of the nicest is the sound recorded on a balcony in Rome during the lockdown, with kids singing Volare in the distance, the sound of the church bell and a train rumbling past.
Lights Out: The Space Between Stories
Every episode of this Radio 4 soundscape series is worth hearing, but this week’s is especially apt. Unnamed voices consider individualism: how we’ve long been told that the best way of life is to be entirely separate, to consider ourselves and our own progress, to invest in ourselves rather than the collective. “Much of what we consider to be real is obviously just a system of agreements… these stories rest on deeper unconscious stories, and at the bottom is the story of separation.” This is an amazing, mind-expanding listen, perfect for these changing times.