He’s just not that into you, Miss Eyre

How would the great romances of literature have fared in the self-help era?

An excellent documentary about self-improvement manuals (The Grandfather of Self Help, 2 July, 11.30am, Radio 4) told the story of the journalist Samuel Smiles, whose book Self Help was published on the same day as The Origin of Species in 1859, and went on to sell more copies than the Bible that century.

Still a huge seller in Japan, Smiles’s book promotes “energetic action” and “unremitting study”, insisting we can all become Great if we put in the hours. Smiles was a stickler of such stupendous proportions that, by his standards, most historical figures wouldn’t even be labelled talented. Van Gogh dying poor, for example, renders him no greater than a missing-link anthropoid, some git on the bus squirrelling away at his stick of Nicorette. Ditto Modigliani. And Jeff Buckley for being so careless as to go swimming on a full stomach.

Breaking things up, the editor of the Idler came on the programme now and then to insist that charisma beats diligence, and at one point even dissed Tony Benn (is that legal?) and his romantic ideal of people cycling keenly to work with their cheese sandwiches. The whole thing was charming.

All self-help books are useless, of course. I mean, take, for instance, He’s Just Not That Into You, the American mega-seller that promotes hardline tactics for women in dead-end relationships, and apply its advice to some of the great romances of literature: “Dear HJNTIY, I am in love with my boss. He dressed as a gypsy to fool me into revealing my feelings but still fails to make a move. Please help.”

“Dear Jane, if a guy is happy to hang out with you wearing earrings and a petticoat then he’s definitely not that into you. Wake the fuck up.”

“Dear HJNTIY, I turned down a sailor’s offer of marriage seven years ago, but then he went on to make millions in the Indies. Should I travel to Lyme and give it another shot?”

“Dear Ms Elliot. Getting an invite to ‘meet at so-and-so’s weekender’ is not a date, even if you live in Bath. Free yourself. The fucker’s a lightweight.”

The previous day, the sci-fi series Torchwood (1 July, 2.15pm, Radio 4) had settled in for an hour about a girl called Frieda, who didn’t have any T-cells (“Her blood chemistry is just bizarre!”). A visitor from the future, Frieda turned out to be part-German, part-alien, and had really fond memories of her nan (boiling tins of Carnation milk on the stove? There wasn’t much time for detail before the shit hit the fan).

I’m all for the pulchritudinous John Barrowman, but did the BBC really have to bleed this series into the radio, too? And can’t something be done about the horribly defensive way it keeps reminding us it’s all taking place in Wales (“Make us a cup of tea, Gwen”)?

I must admit to a more than passing interest in the TV series ever since I recognised an old acquaintance, a Japanese actress who lived above a fish shop on the Essex Road. I immediately texted our mutual friend Marcus.

“Is that Naoko on Bbc 2” “Yes” “excellent. the american is buff no?” “yes.” “hes so hot” “yes. And extremely gay.” “really? oh i see what you mean. typical”

“I know. The lord giveth. and the lord taketh away.”

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 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!