The week in audio: Me and My Trolls; Surviving Unemployment; Dyslexia: Language and Childhood

Miranda Sawyer
·6-min read

File on 4: Me and My Trolls (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Surviving Unemployment: Reece and Sean (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Dyslexia: Language and Childhood (World Service) | BBC Sounds

Individual stories this week, those small, personal tales that indicate something larger about the world. Radio has always been the place for these; podcasts can drag them out for too long.

First up, a modern problem: internet trolling. Journalist Sali Hughes, who mostly writes about beauty and style, made last week’s File on Four about this contemporary version of ye olde worlde bullying. Hughes is on social media a lot for her work and about two years ago, she was made aware that people on a gossip website were slagging her off. Ah, internet trolls. Part of every semi-public woman’s life these days. Perhaps Hughes shouldn’t have been bothered (don’t feed the trolls!), but the gossip merchants had started to affect her work: if you Googled her name, their accusations came up quite high. She did some investigation and became very upset. Because it was more than what she’d thought: the trolls were diving deep into her life, with her children, partner and dead mother all becoming part of their mad lies.

What are you meant to do in such a situation? Move away from your laptop? Shrug and move on? Block and delete? Sit down and shut up? Hughes didn’t like those solutions, so, in September 2019, she made an Instagram video about what was being written and defended herself. And she made this programme.

Hughes has a precise, almost clipped, presentational voice and for some of her links, you could feel the anger in her tone: she became even more clipped, icy in her rage. She was warmer, obviously, when speaking to other people who have been affected. One Instagrammer, a makeup artist and blogger, had her pregnancy ruined when trolls accused her of drinking during her pregnancy (she’d promoted a non-alcoholic wine brand). Motherhood is often used as a way of attacking women; according to her detractors, Hughes supposedly married her husband in order to get free childcare. There is a lot of “women, know your place” in internet trollery.

In the most surprising part of the programme, Hughes met one of her online abusers. The woman’s voice was spoken by an actor. “I’m a normal person,” she said. “I’m a nice mum, I’m a good friend… how did somebody normal end up getting involved in something that was so hurtful?” No one wants to think of themselves as a nasty person. But anything written online exists in the real world, as much as a newspaper article does or graffiti on a front door.

Another revealing show was Surviving Unemployment: Reece and Sean. Demotivated, living on benefits, caring for his depressed mum, Londoner Reece, 23, wants flexible work – almost impossible in these days of pandemic. He talked to Sean, a fiftysomething Liverpudlian who moved down to London in 1985 to find work after three years on the dole.

Testing for dyslexia. Toby Withers’s documentary studied how different languages posed different problems for learners.
Testing for dyslexia. Toby Withers’s documentary studied how different languages posed different problems for learners. Photograph: Alamy

Sean was an immensely evocative speaker and as he told his tale, I went straight back to the time of his youth. Thatcher in power, young people signing on, those useless YTS schemes. When Sean did his, he was put in front of a big pile of differently sized tacks and nails for weeks and told to sort them out. When he finished, his bosses poured them all out on the floor again, ready for the next YTS kid. I hope talking to Sean gave Reece the kick he needed: getting out of the house is the first step.

And finally, dyslexia. In Dyslexia: Language and Childhood on the World Service, presenter Toby Withers, who has dyslexia, remembered his childhood and spoke to his old teacher. More revealingly, he also spoke to Alex, who grew up in Japan, to English-speaking parents. Alex had no problem reading and writing in Japanese, but was dyslexic when it came to English, despite the fact that he could speak it fluently. “I can’t see the difference between spare and spear,” he said. Linguists explained that phonological languages such as English only engage the left side of the brain; other, more graphic languages, such as Japanese or Chinese, engage both right and left. You can be dyslexic in any language, but your personal difficulties can be made harder by the language you learn. Another small tale that blossomed into something larger.

Three shows about being a woman (sort of)

French and Saunders: Titting About
Six episodes of two middle-aged women making each other laugh. There are themes for each episode, such as holidays, schools, passions and hobbies – but really, as the title says, these are just half-hour shows of two old friends telling silly stories and teasing each other. Anecdotes include when Jennifer Saunders gatecrashed a Manchester United party (“I remember Eric Cantona touched my leg!” “Did you get pregnant?” wonders Dawn French), how French is exhausted from years of turning on “the personality fireworks” in order to make friends, and the time when Saunders managed to breed mice so small that one hid in her dad’s cup of tea. Lovely.

The Making of…
A podcast from the Female Lead, an organisation that promotes women’s rights through research and data, and by spreading the word about female empowerment. The Making of… is an interview show presented with engaging enthusiasm by Bea Appleby. Each guest chooses six key life moments to talk about and the result is fun and enlightening. Three episodes in, we’ve heard from writer Caitlin Moran, broadcaster Emma Barnett and journalist Yomi Adegoke, every one a powerhouse. Barnett’s discussion of failure is great: “The idea that if you try hard you will get there is not always a good thing, because there are some things you’re going to be crap at.”

Today in Focus
Two episodes about trans rights. The first is very definitely not about being a woman, as it’s the story of Stephen Whittle, a trans man who has been an activist for trans rights for half a century. Whittle is moving, honest and inspiring, and his story illustrates the fight for trans recognition in the UK and Europe. Towards the end of this episode, Libby Brooks examines the backlash to reform of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act with clarity and care. Episode two discusses feminism and trans rights, the debate about single-sex spaces and wonders if there’s a way that gender-critical feminists and trans activists can reconcile. Talking and listening is the answer.