At last a podcast that takes the medium to its limit, created by someone who loves listening, understands how it can take the imagination to places visual images alone cannot, and wants to make use of this, not just for fun but with real intent. Have You Heard George’s Podcast? was last week awarded UK Podcast of the Year, and rightly so. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. At times George’s playfulness and gift for exploring the full meaning of the words he uses reminded me of early Tom Stoppard; other episodes were more like a Radio 1Xtra documentary about life on the street or the rise of drill. Each of the eight episodes tackles different themes, from the riots of 2011 to the Grenfell fire via an ideas war inside George’s head. They all play at different lengths so would never fit into a conventional schedule — but they’re never too rambling or self-indulgent. Music is the backbone, but it’s not invasive. The production is sophisticated, easy on the ear.
George himself has a made-for-radio microphone technique, his voice melodic, his manner intimate. To my mind he outdid the first of this year’s The Reith Lectures for making me think differently about current issues, using drama and documentary as well as punchy street poetry to bring them to life. One episode, on knife crime, begins with George sitting in a park watching his nephews at play. What will happen to them? Where will they be in 20 years’ time? Some he reckons might be dead; others involved in drugs. What is the future for young black kids? How will the criminal justice system treat them?
In the final episode he gives free play to his imagination, and to his fears about whether he can keep on making a successful podcast. Will ambition get in the way, or his fears and insecurities? ‘I’m going to take you through the thought process of one idea. Trying to reach you guys so you understand the stress that’s gone in to delivering this episode,’ he tells us. Up pops Sanyu, an idea who lives inside George’s mind, anxious to leave behind research and development and take herself forward into reality. But to survive she needs a storyline.
Just when things are beginning to flag, the invention less sure, the intention dissipating, Sanyu pipes up: ‘I did kind of feel that it could have been better… I just didn’t want to mess up the form, you know.’ And suddenly we’re back inside George’s head, right with him as he tells us that Walt Disney was his age, 27, when he invented Mickey Mouse. ‘My vision is bigger.’
Some of it makes for uncomfortable listening. We can hear his friends’ distress when they discover that George has been strip-searched for weapons by the police. ‘Listen to your demeanour,’ he’s told by the police. ‘You’re not very co-operative.’ One friend encourages him to use the experience in his podcast but warns: ‘If you’re going to address it, please be articulate.’ He is.
‘You should try living in my world,’ says George. The displacement of feeling awkward where you’re raised but also where you’re from, of living between two places, London and Uganda. The loneliness of being black. He can be found on georgethepoet.com.
At the other end of the listening experience was the first of The Reith Lectures given by barrister and former Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption. As Anita Anand told us in her introduction, Sumption is reputed to have ‘a brain the size of a planet’. You have to listen very hard to follow his argument. His subject is ‘Law’s Expanding Empire’, how the law has crept into every corner of our lives. Is this a good thing, he wonders, insisting this is a question, not an opinion. What is the place of law in public life?
In a single year 700 new criminal offences were created, three quarters of them by government regulation. Whereas in 1911 there was one solicitor for every 3,000 people, now there is one for every 400 individuals. The law was once used to regulate religious worship and against religious denominations. It intruded upon private sexual relations. Ironically, it has now been withdrawn from these areas while at the same time expanding to pass judgment on cases such as those of Charlie Gard, the baby with a fatal genetic disease whose parents wanted to take him out of the NHS and travel to America for treatment. There’s a growing tendency, argues Sumption, for the law to regulate human decisions even when they do no harm to others. We’re afraid to let people make their own moral judgments in case they decide on something we disagree with.
When asked afterwards in the question-and-answer session about the law on assisted dying and whether it should be changed by a woman who had made it possible for her dying husband to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland, Sumption replies provocatively: ‘The law should continue to criminalise assisted dying, and the law should be broken.’ It’s not a moral obligation to obey the law. Would this, I wonder, extend to the kids George was talking about?