Gwyneth Williams' Diary: My baby grandson’s eyes, intelligent news, and reaching towards the artist’s gaze

To escape the tyranny of the rolling news cycle we urgently need to draw on other fields of knowledge  – history, science, philosophy, and the imaginative truth of art

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How could I anticipate that a work by Martin Buber, which I read as a young person growing up in South Africa, would come back to me so forcefully now, in this time of the virus? Waking early to greet Remy, my five-month-old grandson (my daughter and her husband have locked down with us), I am aware that the rhythm and beat of my life has changed utterly, perhaps forever.

In I and Thou, Buber suggests two fundamentally different ways of being in the world: I-It and I-Thou. The former is the way we live day to day, and the latter is about inhabiting the present in all its overwhelming fullness, in relation to people and objects. In these changed days I am plunged increasingly into I-Thou moments and notice a collective yearning in this direction. Who could have imagined, a few months ago, exchanging poems with strangers through chain email or listening to music on the Today programme? And this doesn’t touch on the midnight depths of Remy’s blue eyes – amehlo amakhulu aluthlaza as they might be described in Zulu. Time itself feels different. As Buber writes:

"The world of It is set in the context of space and time. The world of Thou is not set in the context of either of these…  It is not possible to live in the bare present… But it may be possible to live in the bare past, indeed only in it may a life be organised… And in all the seriousness of truth, hear this: without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man."

A dazzling final lecture

Time before the virus feels ever more distant. I spent the spring semester at Harvard as a Walter Shorenstein Fellow. On my last evening in early March, when the Democratic nomination was still dominating the news, a friend got me a hot ticket to hear Thomas Piketty lecture on his new book Capital and Ideology. Piketty was dazzling – his passion and French-accented fluency hard to resist. The theme, inequality, has been highlighted by the virus in ways that he could hardly have imagined while writing the book.

The laptop of the woman next to me flickered, showing a steadily growing map of the spreading virus. As guests converged after the lecture, kisses and handshakes were still the norm. We made it back to London just as Covid-19 closed down Harvard.

The welcome return of expertise

My theme at the Kennedy School, explored at a public event with the brilliant philosopher Michael Sandel (who has a kind of rock star status at Harvard), was how to ensure that ideas play a greater part in the public conversation. Together we launched the Public Philosopher on Radio 4 soon after I became the station’s controller. Our goal was to expose and explore the underlying ideas behind issues and events. I was glad to hear him recently on Radio 4 discussing the ethics of pandemics.

At the BBC it became my mission to deepen understanding of news. The tyranny of the 24-hour news cycle developed while I was running the English World Service and it is now an endless, rolling, meaningless, repetitive drama. My aim was to keep programmes intelligent, to give audiences the understanding they need to make good choices. I am convinced that news alone is not enough. We need urgently to draw on other fields of knowledge such as history and philosophy. Science, too, as is self-evident now. It is a relief to see the return of expertise and authority in public life.

Truth in a time of tumult

Now is the right time to break the rolling news mindset. Sometimes I find listening itself unbearable. There is one transforming area notably suited to this moment. Art reveals its own kind of “imaginative truth”.  I heard Grayson Perry, one of my Reith Lecturers, say on Radio 4 that artists are communicating at an unconscious level. Perhaps artists, writers and musicians can help us towards Buber’s I-Thou relationships, forging deeper connections with ideas of truth.

Just as we left Harvard I was invited by another Reith Lecturer, Hilary Mantel, to attend the Boston book launch of the final novel in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy (tailor-made for lockdown reading). “History and science,” she said in her lectures, “help us put our small lives into context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.”  She quoted Auden:

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

At the BBC, I scaled up the use of literature, art and drama over the years in search of this imaginative truth. Across one New Year’s Day we broke the schedule and broadcast Lampedusa’s The Leopard, to reflect a society facing tumult.

Through the artist’s eyes

Last year I took my husband to Vienna to see the Bruegel exhibition for a birthday treat. I became fascinated with the vivacity and energy of three young women in The Hay Harvest. The central figure, looking directly at me, brought to mind the shining eyes of my goddaughter’s baby girl, Ada. I now spend some of my most enjoyable moments of the lockdown working these figures in silk embroidery. My goddaughter is an intensive care doctor so there is added respect and care in each stitch. In Bruegel’s work we understand ourselves anew a little. In The Painter and the Buyer, where the artist looks into the distance, his gaze fixed and passionate, it is hard not to ask, “What can he see?”

As I listened to Jeremy Bowen reading “Fern Hill” on the Today programme, and Allan Little quoting a Shakespeare sonnet as part of his own love story, I wondered whether we are all now reaching, just a little, towards that artist’s gaze. Who knows where it might take us? 

Gwyneth Williams is a former controller of BBC Radio 4.

This article appears in the 08 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain

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