Why we should embrace being average

Plus: a very Reithian message from Brian Eno in his John Peel Lecture and does the broadcast of Max Richter's record-breaking Sleep suggest that Radio 3 has lost its way?

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

Maybe what we love about radio is the way that most of its programming allows us the luxury of staying content with ourselves, of realising that it’s OK to be no more, or less, than average. There’s no spangle, no sparkle on the wireless; nothing to make us feel we should be aspiring to live in a fake and fantastical world of gilded lives, to be uber-rich, super-tanned, ultra-happy. On the contrary, you could say most radio is a celebration of Ms or Mr Average.

Think of all those short stories, plays, features and real-time, real-voice recordings which take us right inside (too far inside, some might say) the banality of most domestic situations. We can listen in our average homes, with our modest decor, glitter-free wardrobes, our everyday routines and lack of red-carpet party invitations, and take comfort from the fact that the people we are listening to are no different from ourselves.

Such thoughts were triggered by Ian Sansom’s series of essays for Radio 3, About Average (produced by Stan Ferguson). What’s wrong with being average? he asked. Why has outdoing, surpassing average become the mantra of our times?

Sansom reminded us that what was once average — the fact, for instance, that just a few decades back we all (or most of us at least) smoked like chimneys, and wore gloves, hats and three-piece suits — soon becomes exceptional, and vice versa. He quoted from W.H. Auden’s poem ‘The Average’ about a young man whose parents sacrificed everything in their desperate desire to turn their son into something special. But when he saw himself as ‘the shadow of an Average Man Attempting the Exceptional’, he could only run away. Those who despise the average, Sansom concluded, are people-haters.

This thought, you could say, was echoed by Brian Eno on Sunday night. He was giving this year’s John Peel Lecture (BBC Radio 6 Music) in memory of the radio presenter and music buff — an oxymoron in itself, for surely Peel would never have been seen dead behind a lectern. Eno, though, with his signature obtuseness, that ability to look at things backways on (he once advised us, for instance, to ‘honour’ our mistakes and to look at them instead as ‘hidden intentions’), gave us all a surprise by delivering a philosophical/political treatise packed with literary references and fuelled by a passion not so much for music (rarely mentioning his own achievements in that field) but for education, for opening minds, for art as playtime for adults.

He began by asking that somewhat predictable question, is art a luxury? But he gave it an Eno twist by suggesting ‘art is what we don’t have to do’. We have to eat, but we don’t have to create a baked Alaska. We have to wear clothes but not necessarily Dior or Dr Martens. We have to move but we don’t have to dance a rumba. We have to communicate but we don’t have to write epic poetry. Straight away he invited us in to think about art not as a form of activity indulged in only by the lucky few, but art as something we all can (and indeed should) inhabit everyday. He also saw this as something very Reithian, very BBC in fact.

You may have heard about the letter written by the heads of seven Scandinavian broadcasting corporations in praise of the BBC or rather its role both as a democratic enabler at home and as a promoter of British interests on the international stage. Steve Hewlett, on last week’s The Media Show (Wednesday), talked to Cilla Benko, the director-general of Sweden’s publicly funded radio station, Sveriges Radio. What struck me about the interview was not Benko’s enthusiasm for the BBC, or her warning that diminishing the BBC at home would diminish Britain’s stature on the international stage, but Hewlett’s line of questioning, which was both aggressively interrogative and surprisingly defensive, as if he himself was not convinced about the BBC’s role and future.

First he seemed surprised that the Scandinavians knew all about charter renewal and the licence fee. Then he barged in, ‘Did the BBC have anything to do with the writing of this letter?’ To which Ms Benko replied, tartly, ‘This was our initiative …We are quite aware of what is going on in your country,’ wrongfooting Hewlett.

He had insulted her intelligence as a leading broadcaster (of course, she would know about how the BBC works, and especially the debate about how to fund it). He diminished the BBC by suggesting that the Scandinavian broadcasters would not have thought of writing the letter of their own volition, out of their own admiration of and concern for the corporation. And he had not given us, his listeners, the information we needed by asking the right question: why are you so concerned?

Radio 3’s weekend marathon at the Wellcome Collection in quest of answers to the question ‘Why music?’ was a timely illustration of why Benko and co. might be concerned about the future of the BBC. Max Richter’s composition Sleep, which was played through the night, secured Radio 3 a Guinness World Record for longest live broadcast of a single work. Definitely not average. But how many listeners stayed awake to hear it?

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Show comments
  • Ken

    Radio 3 has lost its way long ago. The Why Music? weekend was appalling – endless chatter and hardly any music. All regular programmes dropped. I bit the bullet and tuned to Classic FM. As for “Sleep” – pretentious rubbish.

    • Sue Smith

      Yes, I’m afraid pretentious rubbish is very much a feature of the landscape in art music these days. Having been trumped by every other successful composer for the last 4 hundred years the modern composer has got nowhere to go. Sad. Keep away.

  • Tychy

    A bit unfair to have a headline about “being average” above a large photo of John Peel. There is, in the article, no connection.

  • Dogsnob

    Brian Eno is not average, he is special due to his ability and his achievement.
    Britain is average at best and should stop wasting taxpayers’ money by trying to pretend it is the arbiter of taste for the world.

    • What about his appalling stupido Leftism?

      • Dogsnob

        Yep, there is that alright. Love his work, can’t stomach his political stance.

    • Exsugarbae

      A person can look average on every scale but I do believe with work and encouragement we can call be a bit like Brian Eno and find amazing talents, it’s just a shame education knocks your confidence and crushes creativity.

      • Dogsnob

        With all the encouragement possible, and as hard as I might work, I can not be anything like Brian Eno. Education is not to blame. It’s purely down to me that I am dismal.

        • Exsugarbae

          I think you need to start thinking more of yourself. I did say that we need to be “a bit more” like Brian Eno., you have talent but more importantly you have the capacity to work at your talent. You’re literate, you have a good turn of phrase, work at that, try new things even if you’re not brilliant you can work on it.

          Education can just crush talent because many tell you what you can’t do.

          • Dogsnob

            Thanks but with respect, you only know what I put down here. You would need the bigger picture to be able to draw such conclusions. In my experience, I found that in education, telling people what they can’t do is now verboten. This may have been common practice in the past but these days it is a big no-no, and rightly so.

            However, what has taken root is the tendency to raise pupils’ expectation of their capabilities to a level they cannot attain. When they see that they are not performing as was forecast, their self esteem is knocked and their respect for the system – through its agent, the teacher – undermined.

            Mainstream, state education in the UK operates, above all else and despite the right-on posture of the staff room, to produce a compliant and inane conformity in society.

          • Exsugarbae

            I have noticed my kids are more confident, all I remember was my spelling being criticised endlessly. I think was squashes kids these days is grade chasing, a shopping list of things that will get you the grade so yes conformity is killing education. I also think we are so busy telling kids how clever/wonderful they are the stop believing in the blood sweat and tears bit and that’s more important than talent.
            Maybe we need to see talents in a wider sense, when ever I hear about non academic subjects being cut I cringe. One of my daughters friends is bright, articulate but very dyslexic and has found hairdressing and that seems to be her talent; so maybe that’s her “Brian Eno” skill and what would stop her being brilliant if she works at it? But many people will see a no hoper out of pure snobbery.
            I grew up with parents who moaned about being failing in a big kitchen, interesting jobs and enough of everything, they are talented people but I don’t believe they were born brilliant, I believe they worked hard and maybe their negativity drives them to “over the rainbow” but I think they’re brilliant, so just work on what you’re good at and encourage kids to do the same, most of us are average but with in that we can achieve.

  • Colin

    Clearly, being the right sort of Paedophile ensures that your memory gets to live on at the BBC.