My Year Off by Robert McCrum

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BBC Radio 4, 20 November 2008
By the mid-1990s, the writer and publisher Robert McCrum (Alex Jennings) seemingly had it all – a prosperous post with Faber and Faber, a plush lifestyle in central London, and an American wife (Madeleine Potter) who gave up her job in New York to be with him.


Life changed abruptly for him, however, when he had a stroke that left him paralysed down one side of his body. My Year Off, based on McCrum’s diaries, told of his slow progress towards recovery, from the initial despair in hospital – when unable to speak – to the first occasion when he was able to move one of his toes on his left foot, to his first halting steps towards walking once more.


The play took the form of a monologue describing McCrum’s reactions, punctuated occasionally by Sarah’s comments as she talked movingly of her efforts to stay by her husband’s side, even though she occasionally regretted having married him in the first place. This aspect of human suffering is frequently overlooked: partners often experience greater emotional crises than the stroke victims themselves. Potter invested her role with considerable pathos, encouraging us to share in her joy as she at last elicited a vocal response from her husband, yet sometimes plunged into despair as she doubted whether he would recover at all.


Jennings’s performance as McCrum was remarkably restrained. Sometimes it seemed that he was not suffering at all, but rather commenting in a detached fashion on the experiences of another person altogether (who was also called McCrum). This kind of feeling is characteristic of several stroke victims, who are well aware of what they want to say, but find themselves unable to do so. Their response is frequently to create an alternative world of communication, quite distinct from the world they inhabit.