Books: A Point of View: Introduction (Picador) |
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A Point of View

To Peter Goldsworthy


When I began broadcasting my share of the BBC Radio 4 A Point of View programmes early in 2007, it was the age of celebrity, fraud, religious fanaticism and global warming. By the time I finished, late in 2009, the global warming scare had passed its fashionable peak but celebrity, fraud and religious fanaticism were as prominent as ever. One was perversely grateful for these big, mad themes because the format of the programme — it was slightly less than ten minutes long — demanded a simple argument. On the other hand, the simple argument had to be nuanced in its expression, or there would be no reason for the listener to stay tuned. About three million of the brightest people in the country were within arm’s reach of a button that could turn you off. I was only one of the small team of people who took turns doing a short season or two during each year, but I think my colleagues would agree with me that putting the weekly piece together was the devil of a writing job, if only because you couldn’t afford for it to sound like that. It had to sound like speech.

Before I got as far as the first draft of my first show, I had already learned that the family honour was on the line. Now that I had taken it upon myself to climb into a pulpit and preach the same sermon twice in a weekend with the whole district in attendance, I needn’t think that my opinions were going to be passed for publication on the nod. At a lunch table that usually consisted of at least five people not counting my little granddaughter and her blue plastic-handled spoon, I was obliged to make clear exactly what I meant by democracy, free speech, women’s rights, the right to strike, the obligation of immigrants to adapt to their new country rather than requiring their new country to adapt to them, and the advisability of at least listening to a bunch of old climate scientists who said that the climate was not in crisis, even if there were thousands of younger ones who said it was. Always keen to pronounce myself left-wing in politics — in the sense that I thought nobody’s idea of either conservatism or progress should penalize the worst off — I found myself grappling with the opinion, sometimes shared by everyone except myself, that my principles, when articulated, sounded pretty rigid, not to say fossilized. I tried to take this kind of obstructionism calmly but something about my face would make my granddaughter ask her mother and grandmother what was wrong with me. She pointed at me with her spoon.

But it worked. The whole agonizing process was a lesson in the validity of the scientific principle by which our theories should be thrown open to every possible objection. More often than not, my script for the following week would be less about my initial opinion on a subject than about the various other opinions that could rationally be had about it. This is not to say, however, that I abandoned my convictions. Far from it: though I might have acquired them early, they had cost me a lifetime to refine. But I did clarify them, and that proved crucial, because in a script only 1,600 or so words long you have to say exactly what you mean. At greater length you can waffle if you wish, and if you have no idea at all of what you mean, but a tremendous urge to be taken as someone who has, you can write a book. A large number of putatively serious books are written out of just that impulse, and in this great age of fraud they do quite well.

Even in this introduction I keep coming back to the subject of fraud because in these few years it was in the air like influenza. Nominally lawful activities were infected by it with daunting ease: management-speak, for example, was the linguistic equivalent of selling real estate in the Everglades. Even the legitimate financial system had all the trappings of a racket, including a wonderful mechanism by which the banks that lost your money were saved from ruin by being given more of your money so that they could award it as bonuses to the very people who lost your money in the first place. This was a Swiftian scenario vividly recognizable to anyone who had ever read Gulliver’s Travels, a book which I kept near my desk for three years running while I tapped into its author’s spirit without making the capital mistake of trying to copy his voice. It can’t be copied, any more than Dr Johnson’s can, but their joint example should be kept in mind when we ponder the sad truth that one of the effects of modern flim-flam is to make us forget how it had its noxious beginnings hundreds of years ago, at a time when tulips were traded like carbon futures and there were only a few clear heads to warn the public that their gullibility might cost them dear. First Swift and then Johnson had that rare voice of hard-headed sanity. It was a pity that Johnson did not speak more warmly in Swift’s memory, but that’s life.

Or it might have been the celebrity culture, making one of its early appearances. Perhaps Johnson found it hard to brook a predecessor in his role. We can be sure, however, that the mania for celebrity did not really get going until the twentieth century, when that hydra-headed monster the Media — eventually referred to in the anomalous singular — grew big enough to assume its historic task of trivializing even the greatest human lives. Yet more depressingly, it managed to trivialize everything else as well, reducing even science to the vocabulary of a computer game. By the twenty-first century — which, for all its absurdities, I am still grateful that I have lived to see — the language of mass delusion was more common than not. Words and phrases of objective description gave way to ideological bumper stickers. Mrs Thatcher never really meant it when she said that there was no such thing as society — she was simply trying, in her tone-deaf way, to say that individual responsibility should come first — but she might have been making an accurate statement about the immediate future. In the time we inhabit now, the word ‘society’ has almost disappeared from print, crowded out by the word ‘community’. A big community consists of smaller communities, and you have to go a long way down before you get to actual people. Conflicts within society have given way to problems in community cohesion. For anyone sensitive to language, it was obvious from the start that talking about community cohesion was a device for glossing over the brutal fact that some poor kid had just been stabbed.

In the face of this universal temptation to overblown rhetoric, the Point of View format offered the welcome discipline of requiring the broadcaster to put his written language back in touch with the spoken language. Incipient bombast could be more readily detected, and thus more easily staved off. One conceived of a kind of bonsai sermon, with overtones of the eighteenth-century essay, in the rich period when essays entertained the educated classes from week to week, before the rise of the novel in the second half of the century. The Augustan essayists set the mark for the modern broadcaster by combining gravity and gaiety so that each was a vehicle for the other. They also set the volume levels. At the start of the Augustan century, Swift gave an example for all his successors by confining his choler to his house, and always being cool on the page. As the great critic George Saintsbury later observed, Swift was quiet. That same rule carries double force in a radio studio. Let the sound engineer do the amplifying.

With that ideal measure in mind, I dialled down the exuberance by packing it tight into its own spaces. The aim was to treat the contemporary talking-point while covering the history of the globe in the volume of an orange: an exercise in miniaturization, like reinventing the transistor once a week. In pursuit of this aim, a few gags might help. (These could be tested at the lunch table, in scenes that became reminiscent of Strictly Come Dancing without the footwork.) I hope the centripetal pressure wasn’t apparent, but I really did try to get as much said as possible. One of the secrets of paying your way in the popular arts is to provide value for money, which is achieved by the focusing of energy: and broadcasting is a popular art even in its highbrow form. In fact any highbrow broadcast that doesn’t know how to be popular probably doesn’t know how to be highbrow either. Leaving your listeners behind would be a damned silly thing to try, especially when so many of them are ahead of you.

Spurred by the requirement to get long arguments into a short space, one occasionally — and here I examine my buffed fingernails — came up with a usefully portable phrase, upon whose cogency one could preen oneself. In the course of several years, ‘the rage for simplicity’ was the neatest tag I could devise for evoking the sinister energy of the totalitarian dream, and I was to use it again in both essays and books. It’s essential, though, not to get too puffed up when a snazzy formulation pops into your head. The chances are high of some well-informed listener reminding you that Hume or Burke said exactly the same thing.

Helping to protect me in advance from such embarrassments was my squad of BBC producers, with the excellent Sheila Cook at its head. Let me praise her here as a short-hand method for praising all the others, because they all shared her qualities to a great degree, although only she, when pointing out some bêtise looming in my first draft, could so exactly remind me of Joyce Grenfell’s sketch about the teacher and the unspeakable small boy. An elegant woman, I would mutter to myself, but with a tendency to fuss. Being pecked at, however, was almost always what my first draft needed, and after writing it on Monday evening and taking the objections on board during Tuesday morning, I usually had a finished script by Wednesday, although if the subject was tricky I was sometimes still writing right up until studio time on Thursday morning, and in either Bush House or Broadcasting House — the venue alternated — I would be busy doing what broadcasters have done since the invention of the medium: fixing the script at the last minute. It might sound like an awful lot of effort for a little thing, but that’s what makes a short broadcast more like a poem than like anything else: you have to keep at it until it clicks. My other producers, who took over seriatim from Sheila when she had to be away, were Adele Armstrong — who did a whole series — and Rosie Goldsmith, Sue Ellis, Maria Belinska, Leonida Krushelnycky, Bill Law and Paul Vickers. I mean it as a high praise when I say that they were all remorseless pedants worthy of her tutelage.

Today, with my stint done, I am very glad that nobody can see my first drafts. The final scripts of all sixty broadcasts, in the words that I read out on the air, can still be heard in the Audio section of my website a provision that was made possible by Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer’s far-sighted campaign to overcome the BBC’s traditional retentiveness. The Beeb bigwigs would rather have kept my miniature achievements under their sole control for ever, which I suppose is a kind of compliment. Indeed I know it is, and I remain very grateful for having been asked to do the broadcasts in the first place.

People often kindly want to know whether I have been asked to do any more, and the answer is yes; and perhaps, one day, I will; but by the end of 2009 I rather got the impression that I had covered my major themes, and that the Committee of Public Safety at my Cambridge dining table was getting restive. On top of that, I fell ill early in 2010, and for a good long while I couldn’t contemplate hitting a deadline of any kind. One of the blessings of being legally confined to bed is that you can stop trying to keep up. New books start looking very pale beside old ones. Among other things I read Milton’s three big poems again, still determined to find merit in them somewhere. The politics of the present day, even at their most violent, looked pettifogging beside the tumult of the seventeenth century. In the light of what Dryden was saying about the Earl of Strafford, it was worth the effort of trying yet again to get a handle on Strafford’s character. But there seemed no point at all in diverting any of my precious energy to the task of distinguishing one Miliband from another. Later in the year, I could tell I was getting better when I got interested in Australian politics again. It was time to set aside my studies of how Clarendon helped to develop the English language and turn my attention to what Julia Gillard was doing to destroy it. When she invented, perhaps through a peculiarity of her elocution, a new Middle Eastern threat called the Taliband, I knew I was back in touch with today’s reality. Taliband, Miliband: I could have done something with that.

Would I like to do it again? You bet. But then, I would like to be a TV critic again. Once you have hit a groove in any genre, it always tempts you to return. But there are other things I want to write, and as of now I feel that I have done my share. Not that doing my share made the slightest difference to the world, except in tiny ways that I couldn’t calculate. But those are the ways that matter. The business of the broadcaster isn’t to correct abuses. It is merely to point them out, to those capable of seeing the implications. By definition, that audience is already ahead of the broadcaster, so it doesn’t really need him, except for consolation. But consolation can be important at a time when it feels as if the world is going mad. Probably the world always feels like that. But today it raves in a multiform jargon that sounds all the more demented because of its approximation to common reason: the patois of a Bedlam that confers degrees. This peculiarly modern interlingua of unjustified omniscience, now that it is here, will probably never go away. It will always transfer itself to a new area, because there will always be people with an interest in inflating their own importance by distorting reality. But part of reality, a heartening part, is that there will also always be people who know sense when they hear it. To this valuable audience we must be careful what we say. Hence the importance of scrupulosity, which is not only as valuable as expressiveness, but is actually a large part of expressiveness in its best sense. The best writing is done, by those who care a lot about language, to be read and heard by those who care even more, because they think it must be a privilege to have that knack. Well, yes. It is.


The Times

The Daily Telegraph

[ For Clive's introduction to the BBC broadcasts, and to listen, go HERE — Archive Ed. ]