The shocking story of Charles and Mary Lamb: Slightly Foxed podcast reviewed

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

Slightly Foxed; The Dental Hacks; Something Rhymes with Purple

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The Slightly Foxed podcast, like the quarterly and old bookshop of the same name, is almost muskily lovely. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine listening to with a dog at your feet and whisky by your side in a draughty Mitfordesque folly. Ordinarily, you might attribute its homeliness to the fact that it is recorded around a kitchen table. But with the hosts now socially distanced across the country, and it feeling just as cosy, you realise that the atmosphere must derive from something else.

In the latest episode, Philippa, Hazel and Gail were joined down the line by biographer Felicity James to discuss the early 19th-century writers Charles and Mary Lamb. Perhaps best known today for their Tales from Shakespeare, the siblings, of whom Mary was the elder by a decade, earned some notoriety in their own time for their bond following a terrible family drama.

It began, as James recounted, just before dinner on 22 September 1796 when Mary, then a dressmaker, was chiding her apprentice. Having grown up quite comfortably in the Inner Temple, where her father was a clerk, Mary had found herself working around the clock to support him after his employer died and he himself suffered a stroke. Her ill mother, similarly dependent, stepped in to resolve the dispute. Suddenly, Mary snapped. Charles returned from work at East India House to find his mother fatally stabbed in the heart, his father wounded with a fork, and Mary grasping a carving knife.

It was probably for the best that, when Charles and Mary came to compose their Shakespeare for children, he did the tragedies and she the comedies. The matricide naturally had a devastating effect upon her already deteriorating mental health. Extraordinarily, between her stays at an asylum, Charles had her live with him and join his literary circle. Coleridge, Hazlitt and the Wordsworths were apparently enlightened enough to forgive Mary her murderous past.

This story might have made for lurid telling, but the podcasters let James set it out plainly before interjecting with pertinent questions and steering the discussion to the Lambs’ work. The respectful quietness of Slightly Foxed is one of its virtues. Where other podcasts suffer from a crescendo of competing voices, this is steady and understated and, yes, all the cosier for being so.

I particularly enjoyed hearing of Mary ‘admiring the stale peas and cauliflowers’ on a Saturday night in the lakes with the Wordsworths. As the reading list accompanying this podcast reveals, most of the books by the Lambs and pertaining to them — collected letters, essays, biographies, children’s books — are out of print. The opportunity to hear Mary’s words read aloud was therefore all the more precious.

From knives to needles, my discovery of the week was an American podcast called The Dental Hacks. If you fear the dentist’s chair, this probably isn’t for you. Even if you don’t, you may become nervous after hearing a dentist confess that, while he did a few root canals in dental school, he was still ‘not competent or proficient’ at it when he qualified.

I was struck by how picky dentists can be about the patients they take on. If you have a zirconia crown, complain too much, or refuse to open wide, you may find yourself sent on for your procedure. ‘There’s no tooth I won’t do,’ said one dentist. ‘It is who the tooth is attached to that is the biggest determiner.’

There’s a lot of chatter to pass over, but I found the tooth-related conversations oddly gripping. Dentistry is so well suited to radio (who wants to see inside another person’s mouth?) that I wondered why the hosts stopped short of talking us through a live extraction.

As Susie Dent says on Something Rhymes with Purple, the podcast she co-hosts with Gyles Brandreth, there is nothing people like more than gore. Last week, she was discussing ‘grizzly’ words for Halloween and Guy Fawkes. Did you know that ‘bonfire’ came from ‘bonefire’ and alluded to the burning of heretics as well as animals? Or that ‘sarcasm’ derives from the Greek for tearing flesh? Comedy was thought to be so caustic that it could rip right through you.

The podcast works as a chattier version of Dent’s ‘Origins of Words’ on Countdown. The format is so similar that Brandreth seems conscious of being surplus to requirements. He isn’t, however, for many etymologies are traced in each episode and it takes two to thread them together. He is the blazing showman to Dent’s softly spoken lexicon. Together they provide the perfect antidote to the pedestrianism that characterises so many other podcasts and scripts.

I came away convinced that the word ‘haggle’ could be employed just as usefully in the context of dentistry and the Lambs as it can in shopping. Haggle: to hack or cut to pieces; to slash a price.

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