If to drive to Edinburgh from East Sussex is beyond the call of duty, then to drive back again a few days later is barely rational. But this was not about duty, it was about family; and as my mother dozed on and off on the way there and more soundly on the return the purpose was clear and the rationale convincing – to me, at least.
On the way up, music sustained us: the relatively countrified airs of the likes of Margot Price prevailed, as if the iPhone’s shuffle function were steering away from Nick Cave, John Spencer and paeans to the freedom of Satpal Ram because it knew who I was with. Later though, I felt the need to introduce my mum – insomniac and boxset omnivore that she is – to the podcast Serial.
By the time we hit Edinburgh, we were about eighty percent through the story of Adnan Syed, Hae Min Lee and Jay. From the M6 Toll up to the A71 that cuts across from just south of Glasgow to the one way roads and 20mph speed limits of Scotland’s capital, Serial baton twirler Sarah Koenig, all journalistic fervour, logos and pathos in perfect balance, made the story re-familiar to me, and stirred mum’s interest in her fitful woken moments.
Later, what passed in Edinburgh was both sad and affirming: the sadness of illness, the uplifting freedom of someone breaking past their grief, the surprising balance of those more notorious for their sense of familial injustice and grudge. For me, it was a trip to level the cycnism developed in absentia; for mum, it was, I think, a chance to say goodbye – and also hello – to those she’s been away from so long.
Maybe I’ve always been a cynic: I joke, from time to time, that I hit forty-three at ten and I’m just waiting to catch up. But in my return to the country that laid the foundation for perhaps half of me, the perfectionism of a cousin I’d assumed itinerant and lost in drugs applying a third coat of gloss to the bedroom woodwork of an aunt who won’t live to see it yellow; in the walking liberation of my uncle from the oddities of his grief, and in the acceptance of the uncles who’ve been barred from the bedside of their dying sister for a distant sleight, I feel ashamed of my preconceived distaste.
But if that’s not to be lingered on here, then the journey back provided another chance to re-assess a given and to emerge in a more positive frame of mind. Serial, season two, commenced somewhere around Carlisle. This was the season that, initial commitment faltering, I left around episode 6, unable to sustain forced loyalty. But here, in the five or so hours that followed, was a chance – above the sound of mum’s breathing as she caught up the sleep denied the night before by fire alarms and worry – to reappraise.
And I think I’ve come to appreciate Serial 2 for what it is: superior journalism; a good This American Life or RadioLab episode, a solid New Yorker profile. Like a long-form essay, Bowe Bergdhal’s story – so recently extended as the motion to dismiss on the basis that Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric constituted “unlawful command influence” was denied – is told with rigour (or maybe rigor for American cousins), tenacity and charm by the Serial team. Yes, there are shortfalls versus the case of Adnan Syed: less focus on the what and more of the why; a less sympathetic, empathetic character in the lead role; the extension of the narrative in the geo-political and away from the personal: but stil, superior journalism from Koenig and co.
In just the last few days it has been trailed that the new series S-Town from producer Dana Chivvis – one of the twin beating hearts of Serial – will be deliver en block in March 2017. With my faith reaffirmed I will be listening.
As for Edinburgh, it seems likely – though I hope it’s a while away still – that there will be another trip coming up. Perhaps the journey will present the chance to binge, boxset-like, on S-Town. Whatever, I hope that, like Serial 2, my next trip to Scotland pre-empts a similar reappraisal. There are times when brothers should act as brothers and sisters as sisters, if only out of respect for the departed (or departing). And if not, perhaps I’ll force the issue. Peace must break out, even if it takes desperate sadness to provide the path.