Week 112: The Beeb

bbcI try to steer away from politics.  No, let’s be honest; some years working in the House of Commons exacerbated a natural distaste for the egregious, the smarmy and the downright dishonest.  Despite a sensibility that would gnaw off its own arm rather than vote Conservative (the legacy of That Woman apart from anything else), I am happy to live amicably and without comment with my head tucked quietly below the parapet.  But when the government (I use the term loosely) of the day casts its glazed and lifeless eye around the sea of Things To Do and chooses instead to mount an all-out attack on the BBC – well, bring me my Bow of burning gold is all I can say.

Let me count the ways.  First, there is the cultural truth that the BBC isn’t the government’s plaything; it’s ours.  I neither know nor care what the statutes, rules, regulations, terms and conditions say: the BBC belongs to the people and is part of us.  Next, the whole point of the BBC is that it is not under the thumb of political despotism.  Across the world, journalists put themselves in peril in the struggle to report what is happening rather than what Beloved Leaders would like us to believe.  The very fact that political parties of all colours regularly whine that it’s not fair, Miss, the BBC hates us, is shining testament to its clear-eyed impartiality.  Fourthly, kneecapping the BBC so that your chums in commercial broadcasting can make huge profits without fear of competition is not cricket.  Fifthly, obsessing, year in, year out, about something that has a far better reputation than you do smacks of petty-minded, mean-spirited, pathetic inadequacy.  If a government is at a loose end and simply longing to take something over and regulate it, try the banks.

'Here is the news, and this is Alvar Lidell reading it'

‘Here is the news, and this is Alvar Lidell reading it’

So here are some books for this week’s shelf to strengthen our sinews as we gear up to fight for the BBC and show it that we care.  Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices reminds us of the war years and the BBC’s vital role as the embodiment of life free from dictatorship (and the BBC dramatised Fitzgerald’s novel earlier this year).  Charlotte Higgins’s This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC exactly captures the way the corporation has come to be so much part of our social, emotional and cultural fabric.

Some BBC broadcasters have themselves become instantly recognisable voices and part of the collage of sounds, pictures and memories that go towards making us feel like a people.  David Attenborough, of course – and I join the nation in wishing Sir David the happiest of happy birthdays;  generations of Dimblebys; James Naughtie, Eddie Mair and John Humphrys (if politicians fear you, Mr Humphrys – and they do – you’re getting it right); Jeremy Paxman (ditto); Kirsty Young, Sue MacGregor and Jenni Murray; we each have our favourites and our special memories and the list could stretch out to the end of time if the government would only keep its greedy little paws off.

Remember, too, the part the BBC has played and still plays in bringing a trusted voice to people who are not free.  The cuts to the World Service has been a hushed-up scandal that we should be ashamed of ourselves for not having taken to the streets to protest about.  As Mr Putin closes in on what he seems to regard as his lost colonies in Eastern Europe, how the people there might come to rue the decision that was made a decade or so ago to close down the World Service broadcasts in their languages.

wolf hallBut let our bookshelf also celebrate the astonishing contribution to our collective imagination made by BBC dramatisations.  Hurray that Hilary Mantel’s fabulous Wolf Hall (and Bring Up the Bodies) won deserved glory at the BAFTAs this year.  It can take its place among legends of sublime television alongside Pride and Prejudice, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People (and now we can add The Night Manager to the BBC tick-list of a job well done), Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth brought heart-breakingly to life in Cheryl Campbell’s luminous performance, Middlemarch, Bleak House and Little Dorrit: it turns out that the great Victorian novelists were just waiting for television to be invented.

And then there’s radio.  Alan Bennett – Wind in the Willows just edging it from Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner – will have to be the one recording I save from the waves for Kirsty’s desert island.  So many books, from the iconic to the obscure, have come to life and lodged in the heart thanks to Radio 4’s readings and dramatisations.  Try this week’s Radio 4 Book of the Week, which I think might well turn out to be the NorthernReader Book of the Year, Chris Packham’s searing autobiography, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, a blistering, glittering kaleidoscope of shards of memory.  And then go straight out and buy the book, because you’ll want to read it again, and again.

So now is the time to assert ourselves as readers and audience.  Tell your MP that you will not stand by and watch the annexation of the BBC.  You’ll miss it when it’s gone.




Week 92: Meh

WP_20150522_009… or Baa if you are a traditionalist. Yes, it’s the time of year when the hills are alive to the sound of bleating. On a trip to the torrid southern slopes of Cheshire last week, we encountered sheep who have already been shorn. Here in the more arctic regions of England, no self-respecting sheep or human has been foolish enough to cast any clouts just yet, and everyone is grimly hanging on in full wool and waiting for the promised summer time. Impressively coiffed or newly-shaved, the chief difference between lambs and their Mammas seems to be that one is enchanting and the other is stoically dull; in life, at least. How about in books?

The ovine clan has provided few heroes and heroines. Yes, yes, Shaun the sheep; but (a) he’s an animated bit of Plasticine rather than a fictional hero and (b) he is a man (or ram) who cannot even spell his own name. I bow to no-one in my admiration for Nick Park and all his works, but Shaun? Really? Could we not be trusted to cope with Sean? There are the exceptionally dim sheep in Dick King-Smith’s utterly delightful The Sheep-Pig, the unnerving little stalker who followed Mary to school according to the nursery rhyme, and the object of doggy attention in Joan Lingard’s Morag and the Lamb. Most popular in the long-suffering NorthernReader stronghold when KatePonders was a very small person was Silly Sheep, which is by Eric Hill and Alan Ahlberg and amused its intended readership an awful lot more than it did the designated reader – especially after repeated re-readings.

5.4Lewis Carroll clearly knew a thing or two about sheep when he created the really rather sinister knitting ewe in Through the Looking-Glass. You will recall that the White Queen metamorphoses into an elderly sheep in the middle of a conversation with Alice. Not only that, but the setting shifts and wobbles every bit as precariously, briefly taking on the shape of a shop before re-assembling itself as a rowing boat on the water and then becoming a shop again. Not much of a surprise that so many academic careers have been happily spent within the confines of the Alice books. I’m sure there are reams of scholarly papers, and even quite possibly whole hefty tomes, devoted to this episode alone. All I’m going to say here is that I stand in awe, as ever, at Carroll’s – well, what is it? Inventive genius or sublime revelation? – in choosing, of all the animals in the world, a sheep for this unsettling transmogrification. It’s the eyes, I think, that give sheep that ineluctable sense of the alien. In its dreamlike and hallucinatory quality, the ‘Wool and Water’ chapter of Through the Looking Glass’ feels almost Blakean. Disappointing, then, that William Blake’s own foray into the world of allegorical sheep, ‘The Lamb’, is so comparatively pedestrian. It seems to prefigure the cotton-wool world of the nineteenth-century nursery and to surrender wild imagination in favour of a docile conformity to Christian evangelism. Read, instead ‘The Tyger’, its counterpart from the Songs of Experience.

Bonnie Nadzam doesn’t, on the surface of her debut novel, Lamb, seem over-burdened with the freight of religious significance of her protagonist’s name. But, as you read on in this tale of an American dystopia, and armed with the NorthernReader First Law of Literary Criticism – which is, as you know, that There’s Always an Essay in Names – it just might strike you that there is a sacrificial element to David Lamb’s grim journey.

But revenons à nos moutons. And in Britain, as hommage to the Norman conquests, sheep hang out in fields and mutton beguiles on tables. Ridiculously out of fashion (but now – hurray! – being championed by the Prince of Wales), mutton and hogget is what we should be demanding when supermarkets try to fob us off with spindly New Zealand lamb. Make your way sharpish to your nearest proper butcher and ask, politely but persistently, for good local sheep-meat. Flushed with success, you might find Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book to be your kitchen companion of choice. Our copy was carefully selected from the shelf some years ago by the resident Labrador and … customised; but it is still readable and much-used. I expect there are umpteen recipe books devoted entirely to lamb, but in truth few of us who cook use more than the trusted handful of, in our opinions at least, Indispensable Cookery Books (Fearnley-Whittingstall, Elizabeth David and Claudia Roden, in our case).

And now a sleety hail is pelting down. Hang on to your fleeces, girls, and hope for flaming June.WP_20150522_008