Recently I’ve been driving long distances and listening to a very unusual podcast. Texting Keith Olbermann is an eccentric and utterly compelling series of twenty-minute episodes that does precisely what podcasts do better than any other media: it explores the awkward, vulnerable, funny, sometimes uncomfortable contours of the human fumbling for connection.
It’s hard to summarise and you should listen yourself, but in brief, Ros Atkins, the suave young fellow who hosts Outside Source on the BBC World News TV channel, has developed a strange long-distance electronic relationship with the legendary American news broadcaster Keith Olbermann in his Manhattan penthouse. Keith is a multimillionaire journalist who has earned literal fortunes with MSNBC and ESPN, alienated colleagues, been suspended, reinstated, fired, rehired, fought a long-running feud with Fox news’ Bill O’Reilly and has been at various times the most vigorous and dedicated scourge of first George W. Bush then Donald Trump. He’s weird, loveable and insufferable, boastful, complicated and talented, and has unfathomably become Ros’ most frequent text partner, beside his wife. But they’ve never met and it’s a relationship that Ros can’t quite understand. Are they penpals? Peers? Friends? How did Keith come to sponsor the match ball for Ros’ neighbourhood football team in Dulwich? What even is friendship, when you come right down to it?
Ros is a strange mix of Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux swirled in with flecks of Larry David – an affable, hard-working, peace-loving guy with an almost unbearable capacity for genially asking the kind of socially awkward question that has me squirming in dismay but is precisely the question I want answered. When Ros flies to New York on a business trip it’s an opportunity to meet Keith for the first time, and what results is a peculiar and intriguing meeting of cultures, sensibilities, news philosophies and individual psychologies. Does that make it sound interesting? It is, though. It’s original and fearless and even affecting, in ways that I don’t always understand.
It’s impossible to imagine something like this – whatever it is – existing in any other medium but a podcast. Podcasts are intensely, almost ineffably intimate – there’s something about the human voice that encourages an accelerated empathetic bonding, an imaginative entanglement with the consciousness of another. Your ear, released from the blunting tyranny of sight, picks up tics and tremors in the human voice that strike deep connections between your heart and someone else’s. I can think of nothing better than a podcast for exploring the strange ambivalences and hesitancies of adult friendship.
It was easy to make friends when we were young. On the very first day of school when I was five years old I was sitting at a table in Mrs Serfontein’s classroom in Glenardle Junior Primary, waiting for other kids to turn up and wondering if I would get extra credit in class for being the first one to arrive, when a second little boy came in and sat down.
“What’s your name?” he said.
“Darrel,” I said.
“I’m Daryl too!” he said.
So we became best friends and welded our fates one to the other and were seldom very far apart for the next twelve years – which was a long time, back then – until we finished matric and decided that we should go to different universities and became new people unmoored from our entangled past. He probably managed this with greater assurance than I did – he’s in New York, now, married to a very wonderful man, keenly engaged in his work and his community and his political convictions, and from his apartment, not a million miles from Keith Olbermann’s, he can see up the Hudson River as far as the George Washington Bridge – and I’m profoundly happy for him but at times I also somewhat melancholically measure my life against his in ways that do not make me happy, parsing choices unmade, paths not taken. Friendship is difficult, especially old friendship, because in it you see yourself growing older, and sometimes you can see inscribed in it the multiple possible time-lines of your own possible lives. Old friendships are as complicated as life, because like life they seldom ever felt like a choice, although of course they always are.
Maybe ten years after I left school I arrived in Johannesburg and started working for the Sunday Independent newspaper. This was back in the days when the Sunday Independent was indeed a newspaper, and the “Independent” in the Independent Group was an aspirational value, rather than a public joke and semi-private heartbreak. I was a new guy in a new town and people were very friendly, because that’s how Joburg people are, but it was difficult to make a friend. For a friend to be a friend there must be a connection that bridges loneliness, rather than casts it in starker relief; you have to feel that you are giving as much as you are receiving. Friendship is hard, and I don’t know that I’m very good at it, but the first friend I made in Johannesburg was a fellow from the UK who was working, as I remember it, as a sort of intern at the newspaper, looking for experience and hopefully a job.
His name was Ros Atkins and we first connected at a U2 concert that neither of us was enjoying so we left and went to a divey joint in Orange Grove and drank some tequila. On another occasion we drove to Pretoria to watch a test match against Sri Lanka when Muttiah Muralitheran was about to bowl us to defeat until Hansie Cronje went after him and turned the game around. We drank Castle beer, which we disliked, and sang that song from the ad about how when we drink Castle we’re filled with admiration about how Charles Glass’ brewing class earned a worldwide reputation. Man, Ros loved that song.
Adult friendships are odd – they’re provisional and dependent on circumstances. We hadn’t been friends long before the local newspaper industry decided that it had more than enough talented and hard-working news professionals and sent him back where he came from.
Many years have passed since then, and we haven’t seen each other much. Once when I was briefly in London and depressed and panicking we met up and although I never told him I was depressed and panicking, the evening we spent calmed me for a while, which is just about the most miraculous thing you can wish for from a friendship.
The times he’s returned to South Africa for work I’ve always been elsewhere so it’s been about ten years since last we spoke, but then some of my best friendships are with people who never have a chance to get sick of me.
I do see him quite frequently though – every time I’m in some foreign hotel that takes BBC World News, I turn on the TV and there he is, every weekday, presenting “Outside Source” in between jags of insatiably texting Keith Olbermann, explaining some fresh crisis to me. This week he told me Notre Dame is burning, and in my shock and in a grief that genuinely took me by surprise, it was comforting to share the moment with a friend.
* Texting Keith Olbermann can be downloaded or streamed from iTunes or BBC Sounds. I am recommending it because it’s great, and because Ros is a friend of mine.
Times, 23 April 2019