Desert Island Discs: 66 years young

Simon Parkin looks back at 66 years of a British institution.

There exists, in some warm yet forsaken ocean, an archipelago that is home to seven decades’ worth of celebrities, overachievers and VIPs, one inhabitant per island. Deposited there by the BBC licence fee payer, these international luminaries have each provided a 30-minute public insight into their personal story in exchange for a lifetime of sun and solitude. As Desert Island Discs long-discarded introduction once explained: “In this programme, a well-known person is asked the question: if you were to be cast away alone on a desert island, which eight gramophone records would you choose to have with you – assuming, of course, that you also had a gramophone, and an inexhaustible supple of gramophone needles.”

The gramophone and its limitless needle stash is gone, and, if "rumours" are to be believed, the copy of the Bible given to every castaway along with a The Complete Works of Shakespeare, a literary work of their choice and a single luxury item may soon follow. But the programme itself has survived more or less intact since its January 1942 debut. In that time it has established the broadest and most enduring catalogue of spoken interviews in the world – especially since more than 1,500 episodes from its archives were made public over the past two years – drawing together the past century’s brightest, best or most notorious actors, novelists, politicians, journalists, comedians, musicians, artists and commentators. 

It is, ostensibly, a music programme and certainly, for the first few decades the interviewee’s musical choices provided the primary topic of conversation. There have been many different approaches to selecting the music, from the fickle (“I ran my fingers down the index very quickly and said: ‘give me 8 of those’” - Spike Milligan, 1978) to the scheming (“I’ve chosen nothing but women’s voices as I have a feeling that’s what I’d miss most” – Clive James, 1980) to the strenuous (“I have just hated it.” – Tim Minchin, 2012). But the shrewdness of the format – and rarely has a format proved so enduring – is that, more often than not, one’s most treasured pieces of music sit close in the heart or mind or gut alongside life’s formative moments and passions.

Music is magic, and in the most literal sense; submit to the spell being cast and it has the power to transform mood and temperature, to conjure not just the emotion of memory, but also its very flavour and experience. It can reorder the mind, raise or lower the blood, produce tears (and a great many of Desert Island Discs’ interviewees have wept at a choice composition, no doubt contrary to their intentions before entering the studio), set teeth on edge or, most impressively, to entirely transport a person to another place. In asking an interviewee to pre-select eight defining pieces, the ground is softened and prepared for the anecdotes that they soundtrack.

Not that the series has always provided the level of memoir-based insight that current audiences yearn for. In his later years, the show’s originator, Roy Plomley, assumed a less formal interviewing stance, but for a long time, in keeping with the broadcasting tone of the day, episodes were stiffly formal and the interviews are often prim and thin, offering little more than a superficial survey of the subject’s career or interests. The contemporary listener can't help but feel frustrated when, for example, Plomley fails to follow up on why Jacqueline du Pré (1977) never saw the "half of her family" who still live in her birthplace of Jersey or, when he neglects to ask why Roald Dahl fell out with Walt Disney (1979). 

The series has since been hosted by three subsequent interviewers, the warm but unchallenging Michael Parkinson (1985-88), the feisty and antagonistic Sue Lawley (1988-2006) and the current incumbent of the interviewer’s chair, genially astute Kirsty Young. More recently, interviewers have grown comfortable with digging more forcefully into their subject’s character. Today, almost every interview contains that most innocuous of requests: "Explain to me what was it like growing up", a simple trick that time and again proves its power to unlock a person. Then there’s its suckerpunch sequel about the parents (Were they cloying? Distant? Pushy? Indifferent?) to find out the myriad ways in which the family helped form the subject and/or, to borrow the poet Philip Larkin’s colloquial, fucked them up (Larkin himself escapes this line of questioning – he appeared on the programme in the easy-going 1970s).

The differences in each host’s approach, and the responses they elicit, make for captivating listening to anybody who works as a professional interviewer. Sometimes Parkinson’s soft approach works wonders with otherwise guarded men (Robert Maxwell, 1987; Kingsley Amis, 1986) while other subjects thrive when faced with Sue Lawley’s wounding vernacular (Armando Iannucci, 2006). At other times, the interviewers clash with their subject: it’s a painful moment when Martin Amis parrots the cliché "And that’s where it all began" back at Lawley or when she rudely asks whether Robbie Coltrane put the three stone he lost that year “back on again” or, most recently, when Kirsty Young counters the columnist Julie Burchill’s assumptions with the knock-out line “you don’t know me”.  

The power of the series is that it manages to make for compelling radio, regardless of the subject’s willingness to bare themselves (the author Bill Bryson, 1999, is unexpectedly guarded while Daily Mail’s editor Paul Dacre, 2004, is expectedly so). It’s always interesting to compare subjects who appear on the series twice, at different moments in their career. Contrast the somewhat dour and self-doubting 1996 version of Hugh Laurie with 2013’s confident, post-House iteration. And while the emphasis, at least on British subjects, remains on white, Oxbridge graduates, Plomley and his successors have managed to welcome a diverse church, from Nicolai Poliakoff (1963) to V S Naipaul (1980).

Nevertheless, the most enduring episodes are those that bring to light the extraordinary stories of less well-known subjects, such as journalist Robert Fisk (2006), who recounts his experiences interviewing Osama Bin Laden (a scenario that ends with a personal invitation for Fisk to join the Taliban), or former MI6 secretary Margaret Rhodes (2012), who recalls, at the age of fourteen, emptying her shotgun at a low-flying German aeroplane during World War II.

Desert Island Discs, as well as providing an extraordinary aural archive of many deceased luminaries, is also a trove of trivia. We learn the music that Arthur C Clark and Stanley Kubrick would listen to while co-writing the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica) – minutiae that would likely stay buried were it not for the series’ unique angle. We discover that Salman Rushdie was the author of Lyon’s advertising slogan "Naughty But Nice" (1988, on the un-anticipated eve of the fatwa), that Roald Dahl invented the word "gremlin" (1979) or that David Attenborough first suggested that the BBC televise Wimbledon.

At the end of each episode the interviewee is asked which of the eight records they would save from the waves if forced to, as well as what purely luxury item they might take. These choices are often quietly informative (“My lucky sixpence” - Chris Tarrant, 2001; “potato chips” - Whoopi Goldberg, 2009; “A cyanide pill” - Stephen Fry, 1988; “Nelson’s Column”-  David Bailey, 1991) but by then, in most cases, we already have the measure of the human, and their selection merely confirms our hopes or misgivings. 

BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs is on hiatus for the next five weeks, during which time a series of "best of" editions will broadcast. The archive can be accessed here.

A desert island. Photograph: Getty Images
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.