Henry Hitchings

Can giving voice to the horrors of the past re-traumatise?

Plus: back to Akenfield and the joys of Sam Harris

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It is 50 years since Ronald Blythe published Akenfield, his melancholy portrait of a Suffolk village on the cusp of dramatic change. Akenfield was actually a composite of two real villages, Charsfield and Debach, and Blythe’s oral history was a patchwork created from about 50 conversations — with figures including a pig-farming colonel, the over-stretched blacksmith and a rural dean who reported residents being ‘blunted and crushed by toil’. It was an unsparing vision of rural poverty, yet also a homage to disappearing ways of life and the virtues of small communities.

Last Saturday’s Akenfield Now, on Radio 4, followed local sixth-former Anna Davies as she surveyed the landscape afresh. The highlight of this richly textured, hour-long documentary (produced by Ned Carter Miles) was her conversation with Blythe himself, now 96. Blythe could remember tootling around on his bike, collecting snippets of the poetry of privation — which reviewers were quick to claim he’d invented. ‘A lot has been lost,’ he told Davies with priestly confidentiality. Like what? ‘Beauties, wonders and things,’ he said, politely tentative. But his powers of recall were still strong, and he took us back to an age when a tenant could be turfed out of a tied house simply for being ‘rude’, and a housewife was expected to collect 24 bottles of stones from the fields every day.

Anna Davies commented poignantly on the ghostliness of Charsfield’s streets. Half a century ago few residents worked far away, and scarcely any of them had cars, but now Charsfield is post-agricultural, a dormitory for commuters seduced by images of bucolic calm. ‘The nearest we get to working on the land is mowing the lawn,’ said one. A sparky academic made it clear that the community is now less class-bound — and lo, he pronounced the painful word ‘stratification’ as if it had only three syllables.

Across the county, local dialect has been eroded. Pubs are eating places, not centres of bibulous sociability. Charsfield’s rector performs far fewer baptisms than weddings — a word he uttered with a lugubriousness that didn’t immediately call to mind the high summer of marital bliss. None of this will have come as a surprise to anyone who has ventured deeper into the rural heartland than the car park of their local Waitrose, but it was mostly relayed with real charm.

‘Not to be able to recall,’ Blythe has said, ‘is in some cases not to be.’ But recollection can be stifling — a theme central to Carlo Gebler’s sensitive Sunday night feature on Radio 3. Gebler spent more than 25 years teaching in prisons in Northern Ireland, and The Hidden Reservoir (produced by Conor Garrett) examined the role of the arts in healing the psychological wounds of the Troubles.

Gebler asked if theatre and painting could help people grapple with losses sustained during the conflict. It’s conventional to argue that investigating trauma is transformative, but he was willing to consider the possibility that it might not be. Can giving voice to the horrors of the past ‘have the potential to re-traumatise’? In the end, Gebler seemed marginally in favour of what he called the ‘ventilation of repressed material’, but couldn’t help counselling, ‘Beware the unintended consequence.’ There was — and is — a lot to unpack here.

That fateful phrase is associated, almost to the point of being parodic, with the American neuroscientist Sam Harris, whose Making Sense podcast probes questions of ethics, reason and religion. Harris is identified with the New Atheism that emerged in the 2000s, but whereas thinkers of his stripe tend to be loudly partisan, his tone is an unlikely mix of heuristic vividness and the tranquillisingly Zen.

His most recent guest was Megan Phelps-Roper, a resilient thirtysomething who discussed her messy exit from the Westboro Baptist Church, founded by her grandfather. This tight-knit group from Topeka, Kansas, has gained notoriety on account of picketing military funerals, where they denounce groups they deem sinners — ‘which is literally everyone’, as Phelps-Roper explained.

Harris wondered why protest became such a big part of Westboro Baptist’s approach, looking ever more like a kerbside manifestation of the vicious trolling that proliferates online. Phelps-Roper replied that the inspiration for strafing strangers with abuse was the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’. Hardcore, or what? Later she dropped a proper bombshell: ‘I am not religious at all.’

For someone often depicted as a pugnacious blowhard, Harris once again proved remarkably good at listening. None of his guests can ever complain of being denied room to expatiate; episodes are on the long side, and the latest, at an hour and 36 minutes, was by Harris’s standards modest. Here, as always, there were moments when one wished for a little more editorial brio, but Making Sense is that rare thing — a discussion programme that’s deeply ruminative.