Only a couple of months late for Lent, I seem to be in the mood for renunciation.
It started with a cough and sore throat that wouldn’t go away. ‘Maybe you should drink less caffeine’ OH suggested. She had a similar suggestion from her GP a few years ago, and it worked for her.
Too much tea and coffee is much easier to confront than the more alarming alternatives, so without more ado I turn my back on these foul drugs after more than half a century as their slave. Hello, infusions! I try nettle, fennel, cinnamon, apple, lemon, ginger and many combinations of the above. They are all vile – and so expensive! Only mint seems acceptable: piping hot, yet cool as a morning Consulate. Gave that up long ago.
On the second evening a headache sets in. ‘That shows you needed to give up,’ says helpful daughter. The internet says headaches and lethargy will last about a week and the headaches do. Lethargy is harder to assess, and frankly I haven’t got the energy to try.
The headaches have passed and I am feeling back to normal – no worse, no better (apart from the sore throat, which went away immediately) – when I find myself sitting next to my sister in law (always a pleasure) at a family get-together.
‘Oh but you mustn’t give up caffeine,’ she tells me. ‘It’s a vital defence against …. ’ I forget what. Weakly I agree to go back to tea in the morning. It tastes good.
After we get my caffeine habit out of the way, my sister in law wants to know what I think will happen next – in The Archers, of course. She is one of those listeners who love to second guess the writers and she does it well. ‘I don’t know and I don’t care!’ I declare. ‘I’ve given up!’
My decision to stop listening to The Archers after about 30 years of allegiance, if not slavery, is a more serious change of life. Over the years the scriptwriters have come up with some terrible characters and storylines. The murder of Nigel was a disgraceful, cynical act and an insult to listeners many of whom punished the BBC by giving up The Archers. I stayed with it. At least he went quickly, and even David eventually got over his self pity.
I put up with it all. Sex with Sid in the shower, Puss’cat’s ridiculous carry-on with Tiger’s brother, Linda’s llamas, Calendar Girls …. were all fun, in their way. There were darker storylines, of course – suicide, cancer – but they came and went without taking over. I could even endure poor flaky Helen and her excess baggage … until she married Rob. On that day The Archers stopped being fun.
The story of her abusive marriage, on and on, day after day, so repetitive, so depressing … just got too much for me. Someone tweeted that he was suffering domestic abuse, from The Archers, and it really was like that. Several weeks before Helen took the knife and delivered the almost fatal thrust, I stabbed the off button for the last time. Enough!
We can argue about how plausible it is. I would say, whatever was Rob doing at the stag night? Adam and Ian would not have let him anywhere near that do. How come everyone was so quick to forget Rob’s behaviour on the cricket pitch, at the hunt, in the shop?
But that’s not really the point. I know there are women in situations like Helen’s and domestic abuse is an important social issue. As Flaubert might have said: ma pauvre Helen souffre et pleure dans vingt villages de France.
But is it good drama for this format? In a film or novel, skillful writing can convey a slow-burning situation quite quickly and keep the story moving. Flaubert paints the picture of Emma Bovary’s stifling marriage in a few pages.
In a daily sitcom, you can’t fast forward. The Archers plays itself out in real time, and the dreadful pregnancy must be endured for forty interminable weeks. I thought at one point that the scriptwriters had worked this out and decided to solve the problem by rationing Helen and Rob to one episode per week. Then they upped the frequency again and this dreary continuum of domestic tyranny and submissive self-loathing took over the whole programme.
It may be relevant and socially responsible, but it’s not what I want to hear. And, anyway, do we really believe there are oppressed wives up and down the land rising up in their hundreds as a result of what they are hearing on Radio 4? Bullying husbands who look in the mirror and think, am I Rob Titchener? Permit me to doubt.
I also disapprove of the way the BBC runs news stories about The Archers as if it was doing the responsible thing when it’s really just advertising its own programme by making itself the news agenda. This is not public service broadcasting. It’s manipulation, Titchener style.
As Catherine Bennett wrote in The Guardian more than a year ago, “it’s like listening to a public information broadcast from the Child Support Agency, only that would be less manipulative, and since when was it The Archers’ job to raise awareness about emotional abuse?”
So how am I finding life without whining Pat, moany Tony, David’s knee jerks and Jennifer’s kitchen? I tell you, it’s a liberation to be free of these ghastly people. Is there anyone I actually miss? Yes: Nelson Gabriel. The chances of his reappearance seem slim.
To start with I followed The Archers via Twitter which kept me up to speed and with much better jokes. I assumed I would start listening again when Rob and Helen and their unfortunate brood have played themselves out, but who knows when that will be. Gradually The Archers faded from my consciousness and I have stopped checking. Now when I hear snatches of an episode there are voices I don’t recognise.
Not listening is surprisingly difficult, and I now sympathise with my son who, aged 9, wrote ‘The Archers!’ in the ‘what I hate most’ section of his All About Me school project. I can flee the kitchen and slam all the doors when the signature tune pipes up but when OH needs a lift to the station at that time of day I am a prisoner of the entire episode. And now that she has found out how to play radio repeats on her phone, she likes to listen to the day’s episode last thing, her phone on my pillow. A turn on for the phone, but not for me.
I am free, but diminished. I loved The Archers and have learned from it. It taught me all I know about ferrets, and even brought me work (as described here). What will my sister in law and I find to talk about? Soap operas are important, I now realise, not because they raise the profile of serious social issues like same sex marriage and domestic abuse but because they keep us talking about things that don’t matter in the slightest: a vital aid to harmonious family life in contrast to House of Cards and The Bridge which are impossible to discuss because we are all at different places in the story. I recently read about a charity fundraising Archers Cycling Club founded by a man who tweeted nicely that he couldn’t bear to inhabit a world where Prince is dead and Titchener lives. I might have liked to join but I no longer qualify, and what would I have to contribute? Am I detaching myself from life, in the way many old people do?
‘Is there anything else you’ve given up?’ a friend asks angrily, after I decline (or as she prefers ‘reject’) her offer of coffee.
Perhaps there is. Man U appointing Mourinho might just be enough to make me give up the team I have supported since my brother brought me the news of the Munich air crash.
‘You can’t give up your team,’ says daughter. Can’t I? Time will reveal, but not yet. At least I have three months when I don’t have to worry about it.
Meanwhile, after a late spring, summer has come early in the form of the first Andy Murray cliff-hanger. How many more will we have to endure before summer’s lease expires? It must be time to put the kettle on, for an infusion.