The new season of the Serial podcast (produced by the same team who make This American Life) was launched last month, releasing one episode a week as the investigative reporter Sarah Koenig looks this time into the strange story of Bowe Bergdahl. He’s the US army soldier who walked out on his platoon in 2009 while stationed on a remote outpost in Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border. Unsurprisingly, he was captured by the Taliban and held captive for five years before being released, in a prisoner exchange with those held in Guantanamo Bay. At first it looked as though he would be given a hero’s welcome (his release announced by President Obama in the Rose Garden at the White House) but very soon such celebrations were damped down as questions were raised about what Bergdahl had done. Technically, he had deserted. Or had he? That’s the question Koenig wants to answer.
Unlike the first season of Serial, though, there’s been no huge Twitter storm about it, no massive worldwide audience, no hurry by the BBC to buy into this podcast experience. Which is perhaps explained by Koenig herself when she writes in the initial publicity that Bergdahl’s story ‘extends far out into the world’ and will take listeners into ‘the swathes of the military, the peace talks to end the war …our Guantanamo policy’. The questions Koenig says it raises are ‘what it means to be loyal, to be resilient, to be used, to be punished’. None of which is half as sexy, or as black and white, as the story told in the first series about the murder of a teenager in Baltimore, and the plight of Adnan Syed, convicted at 19 and imprisoned for life.
We should be gripped by Bergdahl’s story. It takes us, after all, back into recent history, to mistakes, military, political and diplomatic, that we should seek to understand. It’s as cleverly and slickly produced as the first season. But somehow it’s hard to engage with Bergdahl as he talks through what happened with Mark Boal (who hopes to make a film from it). It’s all so surreal, and not in a good way.
In contrast, the writer A.L. Kennedy never fails to draw us in to whatever she chooses to talk about. This week she’s been lulling us to sleep (or some might say into nightmares) on Radio 3’s late-night slot, The Essay (Monday to Friday), with a series about ‘other people’, inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre’s infamous line. Are they really hell, and if so why? It sounds rather abstruse and intellectual, not to say existential, but Kennedy manages to be both highfalutin and very matter-of-fact, as she points out that there is only one letter between ‘hell’ and ‘hello’, that ‘when we fall in hate it’s literally much the same as falling in love’, and that the elderly are now refusing to be all about toast and slippers, ‘They’re glamping in Thailand.’
But it’s not just what she says, it’s how she says it, engaging us to listen by turning her voice, massaging the microphone, to ensure that, yes, you are still listening. And also the fact that each essay lasts only 15 minutes. Not long enough to become dull, yet with plenty of time to pursue an image and give it four dimensions.
She confesses to her years of being solitary (as an only child of a single mother) and of avoiding other people as much as she can, of ‘locking herself away from those who might contaminate me with difference’, while eventually coming to terms with the idea that friends might actually be useful and indeed necessary if we are to remain sane and happy. But along the way she points out how painful it can be to encounter other people if you’re at heart a loner (or even if you’re not). Listen out for her description (in her third essay) of the experience of locking eyes with a friend’s baby, ‘Eyes that are so hungry they make you feel seen all over; they make you feel looked through.’ It’s terrifying and spot-on. Have we not all at some time had that experience of feeling utterly, completely, horrifyingly exposed by a mere babe-in-arms?
Tuesday afternoon’s drama on Radio 4, A History of Paper by Oliver Emanuel, intrigued me by the simplicity of the idea — a man sorts through a box of papers, he pieces them together and a play emerges with just two characters (played compellingly by Mark Bonnar and Lucy Gaskell). It is a bit mawkish at times; memories have a bad habit of becoming sentimental, the raw edges of life blurred by time. But there’s a surprising twist that makes sense of the title, taking us from China in 105 AD to New York on 9/11 when shreds of paper kept falling on Manhattan, miraculously preserved, untouched by the flames. The producer, Kirsty Williams, has also cleverly inserted a daring ten-second pause of absolute silence. You might not think just ten seconds could possibly be daring. Check it out and see if I’m right.
Serial can be found online at https://serialpodcast.org/