Disability, a New History on Radio 4: We can't get enough

We’ve hear diaries of the disabled from all centuries, discarded flyers for freak shows, letters between aristocrats disfigured by smallpox and grappling with wooden limbs, and an account of Samuel Pepys visiting a lady with a beard (“It was a strange sig

Disability: a New History
Radio 4

Invariably, the shorter the programme on Radio 4, the more creative and appealing it is. Tweet of the Day, my current obsession, recording the facts and sounds behind British birdsong, is less than 90 seconds long and more memorable than anything uttered for the following 180 minutes on the Today programme. The recently broadcast A History of Noise was captivatingly brief and loopy, featuring a French anthropologist crouched in a cave summoning, with groans, painted bisons. And now a run of 15-minute programmes – rather sonorously called Disability: a New History (weekdays, 1.45pm) – comes on with a wit and variety that nobody first tuning in could have anticipated in a million pious years.

We’ve heard diaries of the disabled from all centuries, discarded flyers for freak shows, letters between aristocrats disfigured by smallpox and grappling with wooden limbs, and an account of Samuel Pepys visiting a lady with a beard (“It was a strange sight to me, I confess. And pleased me mightily”). In one episode, an essay by the 18th-century politician William Hay, who was born with curvature of the spine, recalled the self-loathing that accompanied feeling obliged to make a joke of his disability before others got in there first – as though the act of first ridiculing oneself provides firm inoculation against any pain caused by others.

It is, of course, a standard impulse, whatever the era. I was born with only half a left hip, and the subsequent operations and scarring and occasional limp can usually be hidden but when they are not (if I’m tired, or on a beach) I do feel a nagging need to make reference to it and never like myself for doing so. The scars seem to be the least of the problem. I don’t think I mind them much at all.

The presenter Peter White – ever confident and eloquent – openly laughs at some of the more appalling facts discussed. “Are you really telling me that this was supposed to be a medically based thing propounded by scientists?” You can feel his interlocutors (historian, psychologist) immediately loosen, feeling the breeze in the room provided by a presenter at the top of his game. This ten-part series could run all summer and still never be enough.

 

The presenter Peter White. Photograph: BBC

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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My first ever vocal performance was singing "Rebel Rebel" inside a wardrobe

Inspirational artists don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid. That's what David Bowie did for me.

I couldn’t write anything the day David Bowie died. Like many people in music, I was asked for a tribute, but despite being a huge fan, I felt unable to strike the right tone. A glance at Twitter showed me how upset people were, and in that immediate aftermath of shock and dismay what was needed was cathartic and expressive writing. Some people took umbrage at the declamatory grieving, but to me it felt appropriate and I never much mind other people saying things I’m too shy or inhibited to say.

The outpouring of love and affection reminded me how personally we respond to artists, how they speak to us and for us. Pop music has its greatest effect on us when we’re young, when our clay is soft and pliable, and we take its imprint and carry it for ever. The songs we hear while our hearts are still wide open to the world make such an impression that it seems reasonable to me that we care more strongly about the people who sang them than, say, casual acquaintances we make later. So we can mourn a singer we never met more than someone we actually knew.

But one thing I thought wasn’t stressed enough in all the tributes and obituaries was simply that none of Bowie’s groundbreaking work with image/gender/sexuality, would have had as much impact without the phenomenal tunes he wrote, which ensured that his records were played to a mainstream audience. Like anyone my age, I came to Bowie not through an underground record shop, or reading about him in the NME, but by hearing him on Radio 1 and seeing him on Top of the Pops. He embedded himself in my consciousness primarily as a pop artist, a writer of songs so packed full of hooks, you were caught on first listen. I loved my brother’s Ziggy Stardust album because it was strange and yet familiar and I could sing along with all of it.

If you’d never heard Bowie, many of the descriptions might make you think that his work was arch, cool and detached. But he was part of the pre-ironic period of pop, not afraid of sincerity, especially in his singing. It surprises me when he is talked about as a kind of alien, because although he often seemed heroic, and immortal, he clearly had a sense of humour, and a family, and by all accounts was witty and charming and friendly to people. A proper human being, in other words.

Through all the tributes and memories, what became clear was that everyone had some recollection that encapsulated his meaning for them. My little story is one I have told before, in Bedsit Disco Queen, of the day when I was rehearsing in someone’s bedroom with my first band, Stern Bops. I was the rhythm guitarist, and that day our singer didn’t turn up, so the boys in the band asked if I could sing. I wasn’t sure – I’d never really tried, certainly not in front of anyone – and so I replied that I would have a go but not if they were all looking at me. Instead, I’d get inside the wardrobe and sing from there. Which is precisely what I did, and once inside the stuffy darkness, out of sight but clutching my microphone, I sang David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”. It was my first ever vocal performance.

How hilarious, you might think, how pitiful even, to sing an anthem to rebelliousness while hiding in a closet. How could you take all the defiance and pride of that song and undermine it with fear? But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is exactly how inspirational artists work, and why we need them. They don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid.

And you don’t copy people you’re inspired by. Quite often you can’t; you wouldn’t know where to start. You can only stare, open-mouthed in wonder. And yet still something happens, you hear a voice telling you something, a tiny little spark is lit. And you treasure that spark, and add it to others that you’re finding elsewhere, gathering them around you like a protective halo. Until you have just enough courage to take that song you love to dance to and sing those words you love to sing. Even from inside a wardrobe.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle