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Why sound beats image when it comes to memory

Plus: Patrick Marber imagines sipping champagne with Anthony Burgess; Esther Rantzen bares all; and what’s it really like to have dementia?

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

It’s often not visual images that stimulate memory but a smell, a taste, the sound of pebbles crashing on to the beach, ice cream being scooped into a cone, seagulls circling overhead. Where was I when I first heard that sound? That’s why the National Trust (in association with the British Library sound archive) has just announced its Coastal Sounds of our Shores campaign. We are all invited to send in our own audio recordings from the beach: short, five-minute clips, impressions taken outdoors, in real time, which capture what the seaside means to us. Not photos, or postcards, but an online archive of sound memories.

Interpreting our surroundings through sound alone (no words or images necessary) is something the wireless has been doing ever since Marconi set up his experimental station at the Lizard in 1901. Now the digital world, via smartphone and tablet, is embracing the audio world and acknowledging it’s a technology that is by no means on the wane, in spite of our current obsession with image and imagery. It’s a bit of a turnaround.

Meanwhile Radio 4 is branching out of its comfort zone by getting men to talk frankly about themselves on air. Bunk Bed (produced by Peter Curran) is back on Wednesday nights with its weird, toe-curling intimacy. If you missed the first series, it’s just two blokes, Peter Curran and Patrick Marber, talking into the darkest hours of the night about what’s on their minds as they lie, shuffling their sheets, on two (we hope) bunk beds. This week they began with being unhappy and how they’re now going to therapy to get over being in therapy but they were soon fantasising about meeting Bryan Ferry and sipping champagne with Anthony Burgess. It’s perfect listening for dropping off to (it’s on air at 11 p.m.), as their random thoughts become trapped in a web of half-conscious thoughts. ‘I would have enjoyed the words of “Sailor” ringing in my ears as I sipped champagne with Anthony Burgess,’ says Marber in a sleepy voice, setting off all sorts of dream possibilities.

At the same time those two unlikely lads from news and current affairs, Eddie Mair and Robert Peston, have teamed up for a jokey interview programme in which they take it in turns to invite guests on to the programme without telling each other who their guest will be. This week on The Robert Peston Interview Show (with Eddie Mair) (produced by Scott Adam) it was Eddie’s turn to pick the guest, and he chose Esther Rantzen because he’s curious about her reticence, her unwillingness to unburden herself. What does the creator of That’s Life and ChildLine feel about being ‘a Marmite person’ whom some like and some can’t stand?


That was his intro and to begin with the interview was very soft focus, mutual backslapping between people in the media, but then Mair cut to the chase: ‘I’ve been struck going through the cuttings about the way you describe your personal appearance,’ quoting how Rantzen had once said she felt ‘absolutely dismembered’ by the criticism she received over her teeth, her hair, her fashion sense. ‘Did you lose weight before you went on TV?’ Peston butted in. Before long we were delving into Rantzen’s experience of post-natal depression, of being abused as a child and her mother’s refusal to believe her, about grief, loneliness, and then the killer question, ‘Are you dating?’

Mair has such a smooth-as-(milk)-chocolate voice you have to double-back and ask yourself, did the man from PM really say that? Does he expect her to reply?

‘I don’t think so,’ she said.

‘What does that mean?’ Peston persisted, before unburdening himself on air, just as if we were listening to Woman’s Hour.

On Wednesday morning, The Doctor’s Dementia (also on Radio 4, produced by Clare Jenkins) was one of those programmes that works so well as radio, taking us inside a life. Jennifer Bute, a former GP, was talking about her experience of the disease, not as therapy for her but to let us know what it feels like to suffer from it and why for her what she does always has a reason, even if we can’t understand it. She once turned on all the rings of the cooker while the week’s shopping, still in its plastic bags, was sitting on top of them. Only when the bananas began exploding did she realise something was amiss. Why did she do it? Because that’s what you do with the shopping: you cook it. Her explanations were so lucid, so clear, it made for compelling listening. I did wonder, though, what it would have felt like to hear her determined optimism if the person you knew with dementia was so much worse. How easy would it then be to be so upbeat?

But the most memorable sound I heard this week was the noise of the crowd on the night in 1988 when Bruce Springsteen played East Berlin. Jonathan Myerson’s play Born in the DDR (directed by Jonquil Panting) gave us a tangible sense of what it must have felt like to be there, caught up in it; that sense of change on the cusp. Spine-tingling.


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