John Phipps

The worst idea ever for a podcast – and it’s great: Our Struggle reviewed

Plus: I've fallen for The Archers

The worst idea ever for a podcast – and it's great: Our Struggle reviewed
Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Image: Orjan F. Ellingvag / Corbis / Getty Images
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Our Struggle

Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other platforms

The Archers

BBC Radio 4

Our hosts are Lauren and Drew and they want to talk about Karl Ove Knausgaard. Or rather, they want to talk around Knausgaard. Or to talk through Knausgaard, towards the sense of what the Knausgaard phenomenon means. Or, it sometimes seems, they want to talk about everything but Knausgaard — cigarettes, Constance Garnett, the history of literary criticism, to what extent hotness is a function of tallness, Clarice Lispector, media hype, backlash, cancel culture, sneakers, Gen X, how Geoff Dyer got where he did — until the only territory left uncovered by the conversation is Knausgaard himself, described only through omission, in negative outline, raising yet another cigarette to his smouldering, craggy face.

Lauren and Drew are the hosts of Our Struggle, a paratextual, parasocial and occasionally somewhat parasexual podcast about the experience of reading the Norwegian author’s six-book memoir-cum-novel-cum-lawsuit-magnet, My Struggle. It goes without saying that the show is itself a Knausgaardian enterprise, some 20 hours in now, with no end, or even structure, in sight. Unlike in Knausgaard though, there’s a twist: Our Struggle has become the breakout podcast hit of the year in transatlantic literary circles. Even more surprising, it’s great: hip, amicable, funny, the worst idea for a podcast ever conceived, spun out, somehow, as an absurdist performance of itself.

The standout episodes tend to be those featuring guests drawn from the world of literary criticism, some of whom are voluble and self-deprecating, some of whom are laconic and collected, some of whom are gossipy and self-involved. I admit that my tolerance for literary gossip is higher than that of the average punter, but for now I’ll name no names. Listening, I’ve learnt about which readings Karl Ove looked best at (he is extremely good-looking), how to pronounce his name (which can’t be transliterated), Henry James’s theory of the novel. I’m not really sure I’ve learnt anything about Knausgaard that I didn’t already know: tall, full of shame, writes a lot, smokes a lot, possibly a towering genius, hates Sweden, writes books that you can’t put down about shame, writing, smoking and hating the Swedes, sometimes all at once.

Yes, it’s rambling — and then some. The temptation is to retort ‘that’s the point’ —though to do so wouldn’t be in the spirit of Our Struggle, which conducts its lengthy digressions with a genial unconcern for either the task at hand or what anyone might think about it. I think of it as occupying a space between an ultra-chic art world and politics podcast like Red Scare and a long coffee with well-read friends you wish you saw more often. Perhaps, at worst, you might find it a little pointedly cool, and it sometimes feels that way from tweedy England. Some people might tune out, thinking disconsolately: ‘If the digression’s too long, then I must be too old.’ But why do that when you could just be cool. Turn on, tune in, talk trash about the Swedes.

From the hazy intellectualism of the contemporary American media scene to the changeless fields of Ambridge, where I’ve been spending time with The Archers. Unlike seemingly every other person in the United Kingdom, I’ve never listened to The Archers. Initially started as a semi-educational farming programme, it has been running since the reign of George VI and still draws five million listeners a week. There is no reason it cannot run for ever. Hearing the music on the radio is my mother’s earliest memory; when my flatmate asked what I was listening to and I said The Archers, he nodded with recognition. ‘I was wondering why I recognised it’ — he pointed vaguely towards his sternum — ‘in here’.

Most scenes feature two characters, three at most; the sense is of a conversation between well-defined silhouettes, overheard through frosted glass. The main story in Ambridge right now concerns Alice, who has a drinking problem. Alice and her husband Christopher have a newborn, but they’re currently living apart after she showed up drunk to the christening. It’s acrimonious — and strangely gripping. Trotting alongside this central drama, workaday little anxieties are smoothed out by the well-intentioned Borsetshire folk.

I confess: I had imagined I’d be immune to the charm of The Archers, which transmits among the English like a particularly virulent brain parasite. I was wrong though. I found its charms eerily similar to those of Our Struggle — the quiet bliss of nothing happening for a long, long time.