Death has haunted radio this week. Its first significant appearance came last Sunday in Go 4 It (Radio 4, 7.15pm), when out of the mouths of the babes came some of the most tender and wise reflections on bereavement. A group of children, aged between seven and 10, gathered around the children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, to talk about The Sad Book, which he wrote following the death of his 19-year-old son Eddie from meningitis.
Each of the children had recently experienced traumatic loss: a brother in one instance, a father in three others. And Rosen’s book – its gentle, quirky candour illuminated by Quentin Blake’s memorable and evocative illustrations – drew the children’s sorrow into his, allowing them all to find shared comfort in a sadness Rosen likened to “that deep, dark space beneath the bed.”
Go 4 It is the only dedicated children’s programme on a major radio station, although BBC7 has a selection accessed via DAB digital. But in Barney Harwood, it has found a presenter who is chummy without being ingratiating, and, last Sunday, he struck just the right note, quietly admiring of the children’s honesty – “It’s all right to cry” said one – without overdoing the adult nosiness.
The children themselves were curious to know how each other’s friends had reacted to their loss, a concern which suggested each had worried privately that their own relationships with their peers might now be altered. But what was especially moving was their regard for Rosen’s well-being. They wanted to know how he was feeling, and whether The Sad Book made him not so sad all the time because there were happy things in it, too.
Clearly affected by the children’s response, and their observation that the story made them understand their parents’ grief, Rosen said that writing things down was a sort of magic which helped you realise what you feel. Anna, the oldest in the group, reminded everybody that it was all right to be happy because you had “to have a break.” And Millie, who, soon after her father’s death, wrote her own sad book when she was seven – she is now nine – recalled asking the angry question: “Why did he leave me?” But in almost the same breath she found the answer: dying was not her father’s fault.
Listening to these children, touched prematurely by adult sorrow, you felt they had grown up quickly, as if gaining remarkable insight overnight. Yet in their voices there was still the wondrous sound of childhood, and here certainly was a programme worth repeating during school hours so that teachers might open it out for healing class discussion.
In the main, though, our culture lives in denial of death, preferring to trust in the shaky promise of “antiageing” nips and tucks. But in Andrew Marr’s Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday, 9am), oncologist and ethics expert Liza Macdonald sensitively expanded the question which is the title of her new book written with Mary Warnock – Easeful Death: Is There a Case for Assisted Dying?
By Wednesday, you felt James IV might have had a few things to say on the matter for, as we learned in Billy Kay’s new series, Cheating Death: A History of Scots Medicine (Radio Scotland, Wednesday, 11.30am), the king was a surgeon manque, travelling around the country, pulling his subjects’ teeth and paying them for the privilege. A nerve-wrenching twist on dental crowns.