Maybe the equality inspectors at the corporation didn’t get the chance to vet Richard Littlejohn’s series for Radio 2, The Years that Changed Britain Forever, before it was broadcast on Sunday. Maybe the first programme (produced by Jodie Keane) was an accurate reflection of the year it focused on, 1972. But the most striking thing about it was not so much Littlejohn’s thesis, by which he declared that politically, culturally and musically it was a pivotal year in our national history, determining events that followed much later. No, it was his selection of music to accompany his thoughts about how the miners’ strike of 1972 led to the three day week, which led to the general election that destroyed Edward Heath and brought Arthur Scargill to national prominence. Or that the events of Bloody Sunday, 30 January, in Derry, when British soldiers shot at unarmed demonstrators, killing 14, made it inevitable that the violence in Northern Ireland would go on for another three decades.
All this recollecting and theorising was accompanied by the bad boys of British rock in full swagger — Jagger, Ferry, Clapton, Stewart. Not a woman’s voice to be heard. No Lulu, Dusty or Sandy Denny. Instead, a lot of guitar riffs and male agonising, to which Littlejohn responded, ‘the music was great’. It was like being taken back to that period on air when only the valiant Annie Nightingale was allowed to be heard talking about rock music, and she was only given airtime because her voice, husky and low, could have been taken for a man’s anyway.
Why, too, begin with 1972? Littlejohn, of course, is a Daily Mail columnist, and 1972 (do we need reminding?) was the year we were eventually accepted for entrance into the Common Market, and when just eight MPs, as Littlejohn insisted, allowed the European Communities Act through parliament, Heath ‘signing away our sovereignty and sacrificing our fishing waters’ along the way. Littlejohn didn’t seem to think this in any way contradicted his earlier assertion that at that time we were thought of on the continent as ‘the sick man of Europe’, suffering power cuts, terrible economic stagnation, hyper-inflation and super-high taxes, forcing groups like the Stones to live in exile from the Inland Revenue in the south of France. Why, you might ask, were the six founding members of the Common Market so keen to have us join?
A very different approach to our national history could be heard in Roderick Williams’s quiet, reflective series for Radio 4, A Singer’s Guide to Britain (produced by Chris Taylor). Williams, a professional baritone, wanted to find out how songs could be used to tell our island story, taking us on a journey through traditional songs of the sea, Robert Burns, Welsh-language ballads, Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp. Perhaps by accident or design his guests on the first programme were mostly women, Eddie Reader, Georgia Ruth and Fay Hield, giving his programme a very different sound from the high-octane brashness we heard on Radio 2. It was as if the two programmes by chance illustrated just how divided we have become in how we want to be seen — bold, provocative, divided, Britannia as a brassy, belting hussy; or cool, calm, reflective, Britannia as a bell-like songstress singing her way to harmony.
Billy Bragg recalled how, at primary school 50 years ago, he was taught songs like ‘Hearts of Oak’ and ‘Men of Harlech’, long lost from the curriculum. Yet songs can create a sense of belonging, to a place but much more to a shared past and shared future. Eddie Reader, who has reinterpreted Burns’s ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, talks about songs as a chain, reaching back 200 or more years and picking up power along the way, ‘like a telephone line into the past and all the way back to where we are now’. Such songs, echoes Williams, are an aural embodiment of ourselves, our spirit, history brought to life, not merely reaching back to the past but stretching forward into the future; a force for cohesion.
Alan Johnson, one of Littlejohn’s guests, revealed that he had been woken up politically when he was 14 by reading George Orwell. Open Country on Saturday morning (Radio 4) took us to Jura where 70 years ago Orwell (known on the island as Mr Blair) finished writing his dystopian fiction Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps he was influenced by the gloomy grey slate screes of the infamous Paps of Jura, shrouded in mist. Barnhill, where he stayed, was an isolated house at the far end of the island and very remote with no running water, no electricity, only the open fire as protection against the howling winds blowing in across the sea, ‘extremely ungetatable’, wrote Orwell. Helen Mark talked to a woman whose uncle used to own the shop and she recalls how she was asked to ‘make up messages for Blair of Barnhill’.
The ferry only comes three times a week; there’s only one road through the island. Islanders have to be self-reliant. If something breaks they have to find their own way of mending it. Not a bad philosophy to live by in these times.
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