We Need to Talk About the British Empire does just what it says on the tin. Journalist and author Afua Hirsch talks to six different people about their family history, and in doing so makes one of the most riveting and revelatory podcasts I’ve heard in a long time. As Hirsch points out in the first episode, those of us who went through the UK education system have a ridiculously limited idea of British empire and colonialism. Essentially, we’re taught that the clever Brits arrived in chaotic foreign places, and bestowed them with great roads, plus democracy, class structure and a sprinkle of Christianity where needed. And when the British left those countries – as of course they had to – everyone went a bit mad without them.
Of course, this is far from the true story, but such attitudes are surprisingly resilient (see: Brexit). Hirsch’s podcast goes some way to correct them. The histories in these shows are astonishing. From novelist Nadifa Mohamed, we hear about her father, a street kid who walked thousands of miles from Somaliland to join the British merchant navy and make his home in the UK – and this after serving with the Italian army in the second world war. TV presenter Anita Rani speaks about her grandfather and how his family were affected by the British 1947 partition that created India, Pakistan and what became Bangladesh. Partition created the largest recorded mass migration in history: about 15 million people became refugees overnight as they tried to move to the country that was deemed to be theirs. It was also a time when, as Rani explains, women had three choices: be killed by the enemy, be killed by their family so as to avoid being killed by the enemy, or kill themselves. Her grandfather’s first wife and children did not survive.
The people Hirsch talks to are clever and well informed, as is she. They speak of anger without becoming angry: “Something in your belly starts to burn,” says Rani. Their control is astonishing. “We rarely hear the stories of the colonised,” says Hirsch. “It’s the voices of the colonisers that have shaped our ideas of British empire.” This podcast lets us hear from the colonised, but it’s brave enough to also listen to the colonists, and what empire did to them. Hirsch interviews Diana Rigg, whose early childhood was spent in Rajasthan, and she speaks of being very happy, though her mother was less so and found it hard to find friends. Not posh enough, apparently.
In Britain, when it comes to empire, the focus tends to be either on its decadence (gin-drinking Raj types) or on its demise (the abolition of slavery). But we need to fully recognise our past – not as far away as we imagine – in order to understand ourselves. Hirsch’s interviewees, who also include Emmy the Great and Benjamin Zephaniah, are not just telling their own stories but the stories of millions.
If you fancy an audio sorbet after such heavy fare, here’s another fabulous Radio 4 documentary from producer/presenter Cathy FitzGerald. Cyrano for Hire is about the strange service of writing love letters for other people. As FitzGerald discovers, such things are out of fashion – millennials don’t like notes of passion, apparently – but, a believer in life’s small joys, she is undeterred and sets up a website. And gets a customer! Jason wants her to write a love letter to his girlfriend, Elke. “Take your ego out of it, it’s not about you,” advises Rebecca L Pierce, a veteran of love ghostwriting: she runs a service, Love Letters for Hire.
After talking to both Jason and Elke, who seem utterly delightful, FitzGerald manages to get it together to write one, and Elke reads it out in front of her and Jason – an “epistolary menage a trois,” as FitzGerald says. And Elke cries. It’s so sweet! This programme is such a tonic, love-filled and lovely. Like the letters it discusses, it makes everything feel better.
Three good interviews with old white guys
Adam Buxton: Billy Connolly
Buxton’s podcast is one of the greats, as we all know by now: his charm and wit make each of his interviews a relaxed, funny, insightful listening delight. (Plus: the jingles!) If, for some insane reason, you haven’t ever listened, try this fantastic episode, which came out in December. Connolly, one of the world’s best storytellers, is utterly brilliant: even the simplest childhood tale will have you roaring. Word of warning: you’ll be crying for various reasons, so locate your hanky before plugging in.
Front Row: Tom Stoppard
This is an extended half-hour podcast version of John Wilson’s interview with Stoppard on Radio 4’s Front Row last week. Possibly one of the last, as 82-year-old Stoppard isn’t sure that he will write another play (this interview is based around his latest, Leopoldstadt, this takes in Stoppard’s Jewishness, and how his new play parallels his life. Still, it might not be his last: “I don’t have plans to stop thinking and while I’m thinking, I’m potentially writing,” he says. Stoppard talks about how he writes, how he uses his subconscious and is thoroughly interesting throughout.
Comedian Richard Herring is a podcasting veteran, and has been chipping away at this live podcast since 2012. Recorded at the Leicester Square theatre – “LST” (and in other theatres around the country), with very little editing, this show can sometimes be too long, but the chat is always worth it. Herring interviews a lot of other comedians, many of them older men. His most famous interview was with Stephen Fry, in 2013, in which Fry first admitted to attempting suicide. Robin Ince, a couple of weeks ago, was fab and Herring is due to interview Michael Palin on 9 March.