Thursday, 6 October 2016

Sad Piano Music

Hi, I’m Letty and I’m a closet Radio 4 listener. I got into it when I was at Uni and I used to stay up nights making poorly thought out Conceptual Art and listening to The World Service.
I started listening to Today in Parliament because I love my current affairs and things just spiralled out of control. Eventually, I became the sort of person who joins conversations by saying “Yeah I heard about something like this on You and Yours”.

When it comes to Radio 4 my first love is Woman’s Hour; I listen most mornings with my cup of tea. I wrote an essay on interview techniques for my MA titled “What would Jenni Murray Do?”. Generally speaking, my love for Woman’s Hour is wholehearted and uncritical but I do have two small complaints to make.

This isn't what my radio looks like but
a watercolour of the I-player app wasn't as pretty

My first complaint is that they never have me as a guest even though I’m clearly Woman’s Hour material. I’m hilarious, I’m a feminist, I made a huge interactive project about the value of women’s labour and I could be in Salford in under two hours. I’ve emailed them so many times it’s getting ridiculous.

My other complaint is the way they talk about MS. My years of listening to the show overlap almost entirely with my years of knowing I have MS so it’s obviously a topic I’ve been hyper-sensitive to. It bothers me that the illness is reported almost exclusively as a tragedy. Guests will be introduced as “A writer whose early life was tinged with tragedy when her mother died of MS.” (MS isn’t a terminal illness, for more info on that see my future epitaph). Or We’ll hear about some past tense prodigy “…whose career was tragically cut short when she developed MS and her arms fell off”. (This may not be an exact quote.)

A little while ago Woman’s Hour ran a series of interviews with women who’ve used creativity to help them through hard times. We heard from a songwriter with cancer, a textile artist with chronic fatigue, you get the idea. The last interview was with a poet with Multiple Sclerosis and I tuned in thinking “Oh good, a rare opportunity to hear a first-hand account MS in the mainstream media”. I got a sinking feeling in my chest when the poet was described as ‘bed-bound’ in the introduction and switched the radio off when I heard the interview had been intercut with sections of sad piano music.

The addition of sad piano music turns the feature from an honest conversation on living with limitations into something else entirely. You add sad piano music and suddenly it’s a tear jerker, it’s misery porn, it’s every depiction of life with MS I’ve ever seen in the mainstream media.  Here is a woman sat in her bedroom, she looks pale and she is alone, the colours are muted, the sounds are soft. This woman is sick, she is in pain, but still, she whittles miniature poodles. Hearing the poignant story of this brave poodle whittling woman, listeners feel both grateful not to be her and inspired to live a better life.     

Maybe poodle whittling could be the next trendy hobby?
Like adult colouring only dog shaped. 

I’m being unfair, blaming that one episode of Woman’s Hour for five years’ worth of feelings. The truth is I’m sure the interview they did with the poet was respectful and well-intentioned. I’m sure it was an accurate portrayal of her life and her illness, but it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of me and just one time I wish something would be.

Whenever I see that MS is back in the media my heart sinks because whatever gets said will colour people’s understanding of what it means to live with this illness. Every time there’s some sensationalist report about a new ‘cure’ for MS I get asked if I’m going to try it. At least three people that I sort of know think I’m on a waiting list for that experimental treatment off of Panorama because I ran into them the week after it aired and by then I was too tired of the topic to correct them.

Sometimes when I’m talking to someone and they know I have MS I can just hear the sad piano music playing in their heads. Those people don’t use me to colour their understanding of what it is to have MS, they use a Soap story line about assisted suicide to colour their understanding of me.

It’s so important that we fix our depictions of MS because the way people talk about this illness and what they understand about it has such a huge impact on the lives of the people who live with it.

Now That's What I Call MS Music

I want to stop wading through a quagmire of misconceptions every time I have a conversation with a casual acquaintance. I don’t want anyone newly diagnosed to think the rest of their lives will be a tragedy with a soundtrack of sad piano music. I want them to know that they can have a life like mine, a happy one accompanied by wall to wall disco hits.

Accurate depictions of MS are unendingly complicated, it’s such a changeable illness and no two cases are alike, but we could start by telling every story with that caveat. And then follow up by telling stories from a wider range of sources.

I would forgive Woman’s Hour’s transgression in a heartbeat if they played an interview with a young, active MS haver intercut with ABBA. Maybe they could go for a twenty-five-year-old with a super cool asymmetric- bob, that could be in Salford in less than two hours? I have it on good authority that just such a person is waiting by the phone.

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