Diary

Will Self

Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time has become something of a badge to be worn with pride by the contemporary British dilettante. I often find myself groping for conversation, when my interlocutor, perhaps sensing my abstraction, will reveal that she listens to – and loves – the Radio 4 discussion programme on the history of ideas. I, too, am happy to concede that I’m an In Our Time fan, preferring to catch up on it via podcasts listened to on my iPod when I’m walking the dog.

There is always a measure of surprise – from one dilettante to another – when we admit to this fondness for Bragg’s programme. In part, this has to be because of the peculiar position he himself occupies in the sixth-form common room of British culture: though a self-confessed swot, his face displays the sheen of populism – the result of several decades’ spraying by television’s incontinent regard. While other pupils have come and gone, he remains; and when it was announced last year that, after 30 years, Bragg’s principal vehicle, The South Bank Show, would be ceasing transmission, there was – among those I spoke with – a feeling that this was the end of an era: the barbarians were at the gate. Moreover, we would miss Melvyn’s perkily browned features – like those of a handsome walnut – as the camera cut away from this or that artistic nabob, to show him bobbing and grinning assent (shots that are known in the industry as ‘noddies’).

We would miss him, and we also had to acknowledge that when all was said and done, he had performed sterling work in his stated aim of bringing high culture to a mass television audience, while also – more contentiously – entering into the postmodern rubric of treating popular culture as if it were more than mass-hypnotic ephemera. I have to state an interest here: early on in my career a young director working on The South Bank Show who knew me made a film about my work. Bragg came to my house and interviewed me for the programme.

But despite this connection, I’m still as surprised as any other long-term Bragg-watcher by quite how much I like In Our Time. The programme first aired in 1998 when Bragg was bumped off Start the Week, on the basis that there was a conflict of interest between his presenting this flagship show and his acceptance from New Labour of a seat in the House of Lords. (I recall running into him soon after his ennoblement was announced, challenging him to justify it, and his telling me that he was only there to engineer its transition to being a fully democratic second chamber. We’re still waiting.)

Bragg has said that he decided to do exactly what he wanted with In Our Time and expected the programme to last a matter of months – especially since it was going out into that Sargasso of the airwaves, the Thursday mid-morning slot. In fact, starting with a few hundred thousand listeners, over the past 12 years In Our Time has built up an audience of 1.5 million. I find it staggering that something like one in 30 of the adult population of Britain has a regular appetite for listening to a trio of academics discussing the Siege of Vienna, Mary Wollstonecraft or the possibility of a perfect vacuum – to mention just three recent programmes. In our household the quip whenever we hear an acquaintance take to these same airwaves is ‘Radio 4 people we know’.

It is the very intimacy of radio that tricks you into believing that these academics speak to you and you alone; it also helps that you can’t see them, so that you might in fact be closeted under some vast and capacious duvet with weighty somethings being whispered in your ear. I was raised listening to the radio, since my bien pensant parents got rid of our television when I was about five. There were a few blissful memories of being scared out of my wits by William Hartnell in Dr Who, then nothing but The Archers, Round the Horne and Just a Minute for the next decade. By contrast, my wife grew up in a household where radio was virtually unknown while the television was switched on in the morning and remained that way for the balance of the day. When we first got together she found my radio listening at once absurd and bizarre. ‘How on earth did they invent it,’ she once quipped, ‘did Logie Baird accidentally shut a prototype television in a cupboard?’

In time she grew accustomed to blind TV – now she’ll even listen to In Our Time with some enthusiasm, although I’m not convinced she’ll ever be quite enough of a dilettante to surrender fully to a programme that instructs rather than educates, and flatters its listeners with the implicit message that it is better to be very broadly shallow than deeply bored into any given specialism. It is, of course, Bragg himself who manages this by standing proxy for us: he may well have read widely on the given subject of the week, but he chivvies away at the crusty academics until they become dehiscent and disgorge their generative pellets of knowledge. On a recent voyage around A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he asked Katherine Mullin, a senior lecturer at Leeds University, the extent to which Stephen Dedalus’s character was based on Joyce himself. ‘That,’ Mullin reasonably replied, ‘is an extremely complex question.’ ‘Well,’ Bragg snapped back, ‘I want an extremely simple answer to it so that we can move on.’ Truly, he is the dilettante’s dilettante.

On a sodden Saturday afternoon in January, the three-mile trip from the South London suburb of Stockwell to Clapham Junction is a dispiriting proposition. I had to go and get some paint from the aptly named Paint House on Northcote Road, and decided to take the tube to Clapham Common then walk across it, thereby exercising both myself and the dog, a two-year-old Jack Russell called Maglorian, whose puppyish manner complements his diminutive stature. When he actually was a puppy he was so winsome that small crowds used to gather round him in the street; nowadays, thankfully, it is only the occasional passerby who screws up his or her face and starts going ‘Oooh’ as he trots towards them.

A dispiriting proposition: but I had full waterproofs and In Our Time to look forward to. As Maglorian and I bounded up the stairs from the tube Bragg syringed his guests into my inner ears: Raymond Geuss, a professor in the Cambridge University philosophy faculty; Esther Leslie, a professor of political aesthetics at Birkbeck; and Jonathan Rée, who was dashingly trailed as a ‘freelance historian and scholar’. Their subject: the Frankfurt School. And what could be a more fitting podcast – I thought to myself as I set off across the muddy grass – than a consideration of those who had considered the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility?

I can appreciate that for specialists in whichever field it is that Bragg and his guests are tackling in a given week In Our Time must be a torment. Far from losing themselves in the amiable excursus, they presumably sit at home bellowing at their radios, furious at this irrelevant point, or that partisan analysis. But for us dilettantes, who have only flipped through ‘The Jargon of Authenticity’, and read Hashish in Marseille 20 years ago, while actually smoking hashish in Marseille, a brisk trot from Felix Weil and Carl Grünberg’s founding of the Institute for Social Research in 1923, through the formulation of critical theory, to the exile of Horkheimer and Adorno, the suicide of Benjamin, and Adorno’s eventual repatriation to serve as the Janus-faced figurehead of the 1977 German Autumn, well … it was exactly what I needed.

I’ve never warmed to Clapham Common much: the area immediately beside Clapham Old Town is a gloomy scrag-end of grass, pinioned by Charles Barry’s impressively ugly Woman of Samaria, a statue-cum-fountain that features a pious looking Late Victorian nudie menacing a crippled crone with a ewer. I’ve never actually seen so much as a piddle of water emerge from Barry’s fountain, which, as statuary commissions go, must have been a bit of a busman’s holiday for the designer of the Houses of Parliament, since he lived at a house called The Elms on the north side of the common.

Looming up from behind a screen of dank trees you can see the neoclassical bulk of Holy Trinity (1776), which, although it postdates the establishment of the Clapham Sect, nonetheless always speaks to me of a certain stolid fusion of Anglican piety and good works. I suppose a more programmatic urban walker than me would be inclined to traverse the common following a sectarian ley-line, the one that connects – for example – Pepys’s house in the Old Town with the site of William Wilberforce’s on Broomwood Road on the west side. But while Clapham – like any other inner London suburb – has enough density of cultural associations to warrant an In Our Time of its own, it’s an axiom of city life that wherever you actually live tends to become purged of anything much save dog walks and school runs, paint shopping and child-exercising.

For me, the flat expanse of the common – which in any weather feels exposed, and in rain hopelessly drear – is reminiscent of nothing so much as Jean de Brunhoff’s illustrations for his Babar books, with the solid chunks of the 19th-century apartment blocks along The Avenue taking the place of Celesteville’s Palaces of Work and Pleasure. Besides, there are never any elephantine therianthropes frolicking on the common, only the usual strollers and beer drinkers, cyclists and pushchair jockeys. True, in fresh changeable weather, the cumulus clouds whip across the ridge, and the centre of the common is an excellent place for spotting vaporous shapes in the sky, but even so there’s no real prospect of the city afforded – as, say, from Primrose Hill in the north – and if you’re inclined to claustrophobia, the very expanse seems paradoxically to reinforce a sense of being shut up inside South London.

Not that there was any visibility at all on this Saturday afternoon. Bragg goaded his guests on through the dense thickets of theory: ‘And the fact that this was an independent institute for social research was important, wasn’t it, the independence was a very important factor.’ It’s perhaps unfair to read too much into someone’s academic title, but listening to Esther Leslie grappling with the narrative of the Frankfurt School, I thought not of Wittgenstein’s celebrated Cambridge classes of the early 1950s, at which he sat in his deckchair wrestling with the fundamental problems of philosophy; nor yet of simple inarticulacy – though she often struggled to get her words out – but of someone burdened with the ascription ‘professor in political aesthetics’, with all the unloveliness that suggests. Geuss – who has reversed the Frankfurt School’s traverse by teaching first at Columbia, then Freiburg – was rather smoother. ‘For a philosopher, failure is much more important than success,’ he fluted, his nasal, presumably natal Indiana accent forced through the tight aperture of a Cambridge senior common room. ‘Failure is the thing that stimulates you to think: if your society puts all of its efforts into a war and it fails, you have to ask the question why.’

Indeed, it wasn’t just Max Horkheimer who had to ask that question – we all do. However, I wasn’t finding this particular episode of In Our Time that testing as I squidged straight across the common on a trajectory that I knew would take me to the end of Wakehurst Road. From there I could bowl downhill into that strange little gulch of Edwardian terraces surrounding Northcote Road, which is known both to estate agents and the commonality as Nappy Valley. Ah! Nappy Valley, with your branches of Petit Bateau and Pretty Pregnant, with your jolly young French bankers’ wives wandering, fully gravid, from one upmarket café to the next: truly, this is the utopia to blot out all those doomy Margaret Atwood/P.D. Jamesian prognostications of mass infertility and social strife. In Nappy Valley everyone is rich and knocked up. This square mile between Clapham and Wandsworth Common has the highest birth rate in Europe; if you squint you can make out an actual smirr of airborne spermatozoa. It doesn’t matter how ground down you are by the oppressions of late capitalism: a gentle stroll through Nappy Valley is like visiting a day spa and entering a warm plunge pool of false consciousness.

I wasn’t there yet, though: I was still trudging over the common, picking up the occasional sodden stick and throwing it for the dog. It never ceases to amaze me: both the willingness of Maglorian – who doesn’t like the cold or the rain – to run for sticks, and my willingness to throw them. Man and dog are united in this playfully non-competitive relay, endlessly passing the baton. Or at least we would be, were it not that Maglorian is not an especially bright terrier, while I have been dilatory when it comes to training. We have mastered ‘come’; we have essayed ‘heel’ and ‘sit’, but retrieving remains beyond our repertoire. Maglorian gambols excitedly whenever a stick is picked up, when it’s thrown he dashes after it with great ferocity, but he will not bring it back, while I can’t help myself addressing him as if he were a recalcitrant proletariat rather than a small tan and white dog: ‘C’mon, Maglorian, don’t you get it? The idea is to bring me the stick. Bring me the stick.’

This futile discourse was taking us closer to the fringe of London plane trees and ash on the south side of the common. The area round here is a notorious cruising ground for men in search of casual homosexual encounters, and often when I walk through it in the mornings I will spot a used condom, as if it were some strange kind of latex airborne slug that, having leaped for the skies, has ended up dangling from the brambles. I don’t wish to become embroiled in the whole debatable terrain of cruising, although I do find it strange that some gay men maintain a right to alfresco sexual congress while appreciating that there must be a frisson involved in achieving coupling in such a spot. After all, while in summer the undergrowth is reasonably dense, in winter anything but the most furtive movements will be clearly visible in the headlights of passing cars as they sweep along the verge.

Bragg gives short shrift to pretension of any kind, while remaining stalwart in his search for knowledge. His methodology in In Our Time is – it struck me as I gained the path between the trees – not unlike that of a man throwing a stick for a dog: he chucks his questions ahead, and if the chosen academic fails to bring it right back, he chides them. He retains enough of his bluff Cumbrian origins not to be taken in by gambolling and tweedy high spirits. I noticed this when, in a programme on the origins of calculus, he refused to rise to Simon Schaffer’s opening gambit, which was that the important thing to remember about Leibniz and Newton was they both had biscuits named after them. I noticed it now as he slapped down his panel – who had been referring to the author of The Origin of German Tragic Drama with the Germanically correct pronunciation Vall-tar Ben-ya-meen – by observing: ‘Walter Benjamin, as I’m afraid I call him’.

Benjamin or Ben-ya-meen, either would no doubt have concurred with Jonathan Rée’s observation that, according to the Frankfurt School, ‘it’s not just consciousness that is false, there’s something about the whole economic system that is false, because what capitalism brings about is the idea that things can’t be understood just in terms of what they are in themselves, but in terms of what they can be exchanged with. Everything becomes replaceable by something else – that’s the essence of fetishism in Marxist theory …’

And then I froze, unhearing, because lying on the path in front of me was not a sluggish condom but an altogether more rapacious looking tool: a ten-inch-long dildo. The dildo was made of red, slightly translucent plastic, and fashioned artfully in the manner of an engorged penis, right down to its exposed dome and network of veins. There was nothing particularly obscene about it, apart from its hilt, which was a circlet of grooved aluminium such as you might find at the end of any handheld electrical appliance – a whisker, or a hairstyling wand. This juxtaposition between the mechanical and the faked organic was disturbing: it suggested not only that everything was replaceable by something else, but also that there were cybermen nearby – and they were on heat.

As I say, I have no wish to be contentious, but it did seem a little de trop to leave this tool lying in plain view, where children often play, so my immediate thought was to dispose of it. My second thought was of Ron Davies, former leader of the Labour Party in Wales, former Welsh secretary, former candidate for first secretary in the then newly inaugurated Welsh Assembly: all positions that, in reverse order, he was compelled to abandon, having in October 1998 succumbed in this very area to what he subsequently described as a ‘moment of madness’.

What Davies exactly did has never been clearly established, but it involved either propositioning or being propositioned by a man on the common, and ended up with this man – together with several others – depriving Davies of his car, his keys and his mobile phone. In time-honoured fashion Davies attempted to tough it out for a while, but eventually conceded that ‘I did something very foolish,’ and resigned. Later, having admitted to a bisexual past, and having been treated for a personality disorder that led him to seek out risky situations, he stood down from Parliament before the 2001 election.

I, too, have been known to seek out risky situations, but while I don’t have a political career – let alone a government sinecure – to imperil, I still took a good look around before picking up the dildo: establishing that there was no one in view, and that there was a convenient bin nearby. Maglorian, on the other hand, has neither good eyesight nor much prudence, and as soon as I held the dildo aloft he began to leap around me, frantically yapping, desperate for me to throw the dildo so that he could fail to fetch it. Bragg and his panellists of the Frankfurt School may have been involving so long as there was nothing much else happening, but as I stood there in the dank woodland, with the dildo in my hand and the dog jumping up on its hind legs to try to snatch it, it occurred to me that however hard In Our Time tried, it would never capture the zeitgeist.