Clemency Burton-Hill on Life, Death, Sorrow and Classical Music

IT IS NOW just over two years since Clemency Burton-Hill suffered a catastrophic brain haemorrhage which left her in a coma for 17 days from which she woke up unable to speak, walk or even move her right side of his body.

So, one of the great joys of his Radio 3 show Classic solution (Sunday, midnight) is the simple pleasure of hearing his voice. Yes, his speech is slow and deliberate these days. But he is also passionate. Her love of classical music and the learning she brings to it are still quite apparent.

This slow deliberation of his speech also provides a teachable moment for the rest of us. It forces us to listen actively, to engage with what is being said rather than just letting it overwhelm us.

And as the Sunday night show proved, she has a lot to say. In the first of two special editions of Classical Fix to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Burton-Hill spoke to psychotherapist Julia Samuel about love, family, mortality and grief and how and where music can become part of the feelings these experiences evoke.

“Your sanity is your health,” Samuel said at one point. Such a simple idea but too easily overlooked.

Samuel admitted that she was not a big fan of classical music. Even so, she committed to the mixtape Burton-Hill had prepared for her and found herself moved by much of it, especially Domenico Scarlatti’s Agnus Dei, in which, she said, she heard “the steps of time”.

Burton-Hill was equally eloquent. When she spoke of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, her cycle of songs about infant mortality, you could hear the emotion in her voice. His words accelerated, and then there was an unexpected and really rather exciting “Oooh”. The sound of it tapped into a well of deep, painful feelings, but was also in itself an expression of Burton-Hill’s own life force.

How Samuel then gave us an eloquent and succinct presentation on the cost of living. “We never get over grief,” she said. “How do we learn to live with it? And how dare to love again and live again? This piece of music allows us to do that because you feel the pain, you express the pain and in doing so it can free you to both heal, grow, live and love.

But it takes a lot, she added. “Pain is the agent of change and it’s the things you do to block out the pain that harm you over time.”

It was all heady and intense enough for a half-hour conversation in the wee hours of the night. But maybe that’s when those conversations work best.

As I listened to Burton-Hill’s break speech again, I was reminded of comedian Rosie Jones whose speech is also affected – in her case due to cerebral palsy – but who has now found a flourishing career at the television and radio. And it struck me that the best thing broadcasters can do, rather than talk about these issues, is let us hear these voices. To their credit, they are.

Meanwhile, overheard on Wednesday morning… In the middle of a discussion about life in prison on Nicky CampbellOn the 5 Live morning show, one of the former prisoners revealed what he found most difficult about life behind bars. Turns out it was Jeremy Kyle, “because everyone in prison was watching Jeremy Kyle and I hated the show. It was torture for me. There was no way they were missing Jeremy Kyle.

To listen: Book of the week: Radio 4, 9:45 a.m., Monday to Friday

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