Clemency Burton-Hill on life after a brain haemorrhage: A Week in Radio

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IN January 2020, the broadcaster Clemency Burton-Hill suffered a brain haemorrhage in New York and was rushed to hospital. She spent the next 17 days in a coma. When she came to, she couldn’t move or speak, but could understand what the people around her were saying. A fresh hell in anyone’s book.

A year to the day after her collapse, she appeared on Wednesday’s Woman’s Hour speaking to Emma Barnett in her first broadcast interview since her collapse.

It was a joy to hear her. Even though her speech was slow and clearly marked by her ordeal, the fact that she is now able to put words together at all is itself cause for celebration. Because for a while there was no guarantee that she would.

“I couldn’t really speak at all in sentences for a long time,” Burton-Hill told Barnett. “In the beginning I had no speech. It’s sort of a miracle that I can even have a conversation.”

Even now, she added, “some days I literally have no words.”

That would frustrate anybody, never mind someone whose work is effectively talking. Still, here she was doing just that, and even able to joke about her temporary plastic skull.

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Burton-Hill has always been one of classical music’s most articulate, enthusiastic proselytisers. And music is still central to her, she told Barnett.

“I’ve been someone who my whole life has relied on music. And not just classical music. As a teenager in my bedroom weeping over a boy, I am so grateful music has always been there.”

But there are times, she added, when listening to music today can be too painful, too raw. Times, in short, when no pop song, soul ballad nor Bach composition, can offer consolation. “There was nothing that could be more than this new reality,” she admitted. Not even music.

Hopefully, her new reality will keep changing, keep improving. It’s good just to hear her speak. It would be good to hear her speak more.

Earlier the same morning, in the hours before Joe Biden’s inauguration, on Radio 4’s Today programme academic Michael Burleigh gave us another reason to be cheerful.

“First of all,” he said, “I think we should all rejoice about the fact that we’re just about to get the onset of boring, compassionate and competent after four years of mania and noise.”

Here’s hoping.

Listen Out For: Burns Night with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Radio Scotland, 8pm. Eddi Reader and Karen Matheson join the BBC SSO in this celebration concert for the bard.

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