Always on my mind

An insight into the true meaning of fandom delights Antonia Quirke

Don't Start Me Talking About Elvis

Radio 2

Radio 2's Elvis season was pretty good, its jewel being a very simple programme made up of the man's music interspersed with fans speaking about his appeal (1 January, 7pm). "December 1956, it was," recalled one woman. "My dad was by the telly and he wasn't - well, he was very Victorian so I kept my feelings inside. But I was really thinking, that's it, yes."

Which is a terrific description of fandom. When I was 14, a similar thing for James Dean descended on me, like a super-saturating mist. No real reason. One day I just bought a novelty bin with a picture of the actor on the lid - the headshot of him in a black polo neck looking like he's been up all night taking crystal meth. I can remember thinking as I rolled the bin along the road home, ok then, let's go. Because this is what fandom is: you attach yourself to somebody for no reason and then spend the rest of your life learning about your own capacity for loyalty. (Or at least that's what fandom used to be, when careers were longer and people had fewer lovers.)

And it wasn't even particularly sexual. It was more like putting something in a potting shed and spending two years watching it. It never occurred to me to actually seek out the actor's films. I was perfectly content to sit there looking over a book of photos of him posed in a farmyard with a dog. If he were my boyfriend, I thought, Dean would be the kind who would always be clambering up a climbing frame to impress you. Whatever you were doing, he'd be off doing something else. Not that I wanted him to be my boyfriend. I just wanted to be his fan. He had very little to do with it, really.

“I thought, God. Power," said another wo­man, calling to mind her first glimpse of Elvis, in a magazine. And another: "I thought it was a ridiculous name. Elvis Presley? I'd never heard anything like it in my life! But then when you hear 'Treat Me Nice' with his hiccupping in it, there's just no going back."

Cut to a particularly good recording of "Can't Help Falling in Love", in which a late-career Elvis appears to be pressing the words des­perately to him, like ice to a sprain. "And the thing is," concluded one woman towards the end of this perfectly shaped little programme,
a little annoyed, "how can a person actually call a record 'Hard Headed Woman'? How? So I just bought it. It was one and six. And that's how it started."

Meanwhile, on Book of the Week, Mark Rylance read from the letters of Vincent Van Gogh. The artist wrote 600 letters to his beloved brother Theo in the couple of years before his suicide in 1890, and extracts from these formed the narrative. Rylance brought such a freight of quiet dread to the later letters, giving us a man the conditions of whose life had become so difficult, he could do nothing but shrivel under them. Bit by bit the inroads of sorrow and shame made their way into Rylance's boyish voice - and still, always, miraculously, this tiny spark of Rylancean levity. It was stunning.

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 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously