Delusions of a desert island castaway

Desert Island Discs is the perfect opportunity for posturing, preening and pretending to have read Proust.

Patrick West
Columnist

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What would be your choice of songs if you were a ‘castaway’ on Desert Island Discs? Like imagining what you’d have played at your funeral, it’s a hypothesis I suspect many people have rehearsed in their minds. It’s not simply about choosing your eight favourite pieces of music, a book and a luxury item, of course. Your selection would naturally be composed with an audience in mind. This is to say, what people actually choose often says less about them, and more about how they want to be thought of.

Critics of Twitter and Facebook seem to think that it is only since social media emerged that people have started to concoct public personas, to make their lives look happier and more successful than they really are. Yet human beings have always been prone to this. The latest fashion among some Twitter users for purchasing ‘followers’ is indeed pitiful, but new technology merely taps into age-old anxieties: wanting to be popular, and appear popular. Ever since mankind established the division between public and private, people have erected facades for public display. There have always been the tears of a clown. We will always have those (like Wales football manager Gary Speed) who ‘seemed so happy’ before mysteriously taking their own lives.

Anyhow, on a cheerier note, these thoughts presented themselves to me on Monday night, as I listened to the BBC’s seventieth birthday tribute to Desert Island Discs (part of the BBC’s Proms season). It featured some of the most popular musical choices over the years, and little of it was surprising: Bach’s toccata and fugue in D minor, Beehoven’s ‘Emperor Concerto’, Elgar’s violin concerto, some Prokoviev and Puccini, Edith Piaf’s ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ and the Beatles. It might as well have been a sample from Classic FM’s everyday playlist – nothing intrinsically bad about that – but it struck me as a fair representation of the British public’s musical taste. Over the years onDesert Island Discs the most popular choice of classical music has been Beethoven (picked 724 times) and for pop music, the Beatles (picked 225 times).

This is about as genuine as it gets, for Desert Island Discs is otherwise mired in mendacity and delusion. Some book selections would have my younger self stroking the chin, exclaiming ‘beard’. Since the programme began in 1942, 43 guests have chosen Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This displays commendable aspiration, but it strikes me as dishonest. Most people would in reality choose an old cherished book – which they have read – giving comfort in the nightmare scenario Desert Island Discs envisages. Songs by Radiohead have been selected by eight guests. Well that’s not going to help, is it? Heidegger and Sartre have also featured. Oh chinny. The works of Proust have been selected 50 times, which frankly is off the Jimmy Hill-ometer.

Even when castaways are ostensibly honest, there is still a whiff of insincerity, such as David Cameron and David Davis both choosing booze as their luxury item: Cameron requesting whisky and Davis ‘a magic wine cellar which never runs out’. ‘Call Me Dave’ Cameron’s choice seemed befitting of his occasional attempts to get chummy with the electorate. Yet politicians who pronounce they are partial a tipple will forever bring to mind Alan Partridge and his cringe-worthy attempts to befriend his TV crew (‘I got, err, really drunk last night. I was sick everywhere. Were you sick?’ ‘No, not really’).

Rather than feigning intellectualism or pandering to imagined popular tastes, guests who display blunt candour can be far more diverting. In 1958 the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf chose seven of her own recordings. This is admirable, and I think authors would secretly choose likewise, as their favourite books usually are their own. Despite producers’ high-minded concerns about it being an awful cliche, Michael Caine insisted on ‘My Way’; Simon Cowell and Graham Norton requested a mirror; Michael Winner wanted ‘a big supply of caviar’; and Stephen Fry and David Walliams exposed the hideous hypothesis of the show, asking, respectively, for a cyanide pill and a gun.

I admire even more those who refused the invitation to appear: among them Prince Charles, Laurence Olivier, Albert Finney, Mick Jagger and Ted Hughes. This is refreshing in our confessional age, one in which privacy is viewed with suspicion. The Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is openly hostile to the notion of private information, but there is also a casual, unthinking acceptance of this idea: for instance, the late Neil Armstrong was for years described as a ‘recluse’ because he didn’t want to be on telly all the time. Here I bow to the great Danny Blanchflower, of Tottenham Hotspur and Northern Ireland fame. When Eamon Andrews approached him in 1961 and pronounced ‘This Is Your Life’, Blanchflower replied ‘Oh no it isn’t’, and walked away. ‘I consider this programme to be an invasion of privacy’, he explained. ‘Nobody is going to press gang me into anything.’

This is the twin appeal of Desert Island Discs: exhibitionism reciprocated with nosiness. Guests, relating events in their life with music, almost sound as if they are on the psychiatrist’s coach. Its current presenter, Kirsty Young, says: ‘At best, it displays the frailties and strengths of the human condition – how our creativity, grit and humanity can see us through.’ It certainly can give this impression, but I doubt it’s all that real. All biography is subjective, of course, but Desert Island Discs seems excessively contrived.

But hell, subjectivity and sentimentality sell. Its theme music, ‘By The Sleepy Lagoon‘, certainly has charm – like the Shipping Forecast‘s ‘Sailing By‘, it is imbued with nostalgia, suggesting an England stuck in a Daily Telegraph-land that is safe and timeless. The herring gulls you hear as it fades out are reminiscent of childhood trips to the seaside. The programme also reminds me of being a teenager, when you used to Tippex names of favourite bands on your Dr Martens Boots, to tell the world who you were. In my case it was Metallica and Slayer, or Death Metal bands in scary Gothic font, to give the impression of being dark and mysterious, when in truth I was a softy and a nerd. Still, Metallica would be one of my desert island discs. Honestly.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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