Goodbye To All This, a new podcast from the BBC World Service and Falling Tree Productions, is the story of a woman navigating the death of her husband from cancer and raising two girls without him. I realise this description makes it sound gruelling, and possibly the kind of series you’d strive to avoid in the midst of a pandemic. However, I would urge you to listen, not least because there’s considerably more to it than death. It’s about love, loss and the balancing act that is being human, in which day-to-day concerns — walking the dog, getting the children to school, going for a milkshake — can exist alongside shattering existential upheaval.
The series is essentially a monologue by the Australian producer Sophie Townsend, who, in the opening episode, discusses the business of marriage and domesticity in a tone that is equal parts love and weariness. “With raising kids and paying bills, sometimes the person you do that with day after day is hard to like,” she observes. When her husband complains that he is tired, her initial response is exasperation — because what parent hasn’t, at some point, turned tiredness into a competitive sport? But when he drops her off at the airport for a short break with their eldest daughter, “he blows a kiss and I see it — the exhaustion in his eyes. How did I not notice it before?” And so he goes to the doctor and, after a series of tests, a shadow is found on his lung.
The second episode, entitled “The Secret”, opens with the sound of birdsong, passing traffic and gentle washes of violin. Townsend leaves her office and goes to the grocers where she drops her money on the floor and nearly bumps her head while picking it up. Asked if she’s OK by the person behind the counter, she replies, “I think my husband has lung cancer” and then leaves in a state of embarrassment. Later, at the hospital, the chest specialist keeps clearing his throat, which drives Townsend mad. When the cancer diagnosis is confirmed, she apologises for her tears. “Of course you are crying,” says the consultant, “you are very, very frightened.”
The production, courtesy of Eleanor McDowall, whose CV includes BBC Radio 4’s Short Cuts and this year’s Field Recordings, is exquisite as it delves into the background noise that soundtracks all our lives. There is terrific music, too, from Summer Camp’s Jeremy Warmsley, which drifts in and out without ever intruding on the narrative. More memoir than audio diary, Goodbye To All This is wonderfully written, startling in its intimacy and detail. While the mood is undoubtedly sad, Townsend doesn’t deal in melodrama or sentimentality. Instead, in magnifying life’s mundane details and revealing her petty annoyances, she reveals much about resilience and the ways we keep going in the face of catastrophe.
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