There’s no programme in the world like Desert Island Discs

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

At the end of January, I had the honour and pleasure of being on Desert Island Discs. I liked Lauren Laverne and enjoyed talking with her. Afterwards I wondered if I’d been careful enough about what I said. Had I made a fool of myself? As the transmission date approached I was anxious. I told hardly anyone about the programme, in the totally unrealistic hope that people wouldn’t notice it was on. But it was OK. A few things I was worried about had been cut in the edit. The post-broadcast feedback has been amazing. I’ve been on the radio quite a lot over the years. Sometimes I’ve had a couple of messages from friends, sometimes nothing at all. This time I’ve received dozens of nice letters and emails from friends, acquaintances, ex-colleagues and a few people I’ve never met. I assume this happens to most people who are on Desert Island Discs. The programme evidently has an audience that other programmes don’t reach. No wonder it has lasted since 1942. There may have been negative comments on social media but I have a good way of dealing with that. I don’t look.

As usual, one of the good things about January and February is the pile of books I’ve been given for Christmas. They are mostly from a wish-list, so I’d been looking forward to reading them for a while. It feels extravagant to buy hardbacks for myself and I like to be helpful to people who need to think of something to give me. Late every autumn I tell my husband not to buy any books for himself until after Christmas. If he takes any notice, I have a few ideas for his children when they ring up and ask for advice about getting something for Dad. The most enjoyable item from my Christmas pile, so far, was The Spy and the Traitor, Ben Macintyre’s book about Oleg Gordievsky, subtitled The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War. It is certainly the greatest espionage story I’ve ever read — even more compelling than early Le Carré, because all of it actually happened. And the hero is as brave and admirable as any you’ll find in fiction.

I’ve never read Les Misérables or seen the musical. A few years ago I heard parts of the story on the radio and wanted to know the rest. Once a week I’ve been sitting through another episode of the television adaptation, closing my eyes when it became unwatchable — as in the scene where Fantine has her teeth pulled out. Dominic West’s performance as Jean Valjean was tremendous but, even so, the experience was grim. In her book Becoming, Michelle Obama writes about the time she and Barack went to see the musical: ‘Grunts and chains. Poverty and rape. Injustice and oppression.’ They left at the interval.

An exhibition of embroidery called ‘The Beautiful Stitch’ can be seen in Ely Cathedral until the end of this month. Is embroidery art? I’d had an argument about this before I went but it was soon settled. There is a section called Embroidery as Art, as well as sections called Embroidery as Fashion, as Education, as Industry and as Status. Among many beautiful items are a Japanese kimono, an Afghan cap and a modern wall-hanging by Lucy Goffin that I would love to have taken home. The most horrible exhibit is a lavishly decorated pair of Chinese foot-binders. The cutest is a miniature deckchair. And the most moving is a sampler worked by a board school girl called Mary Cox in 1879 when she was 11. She can’t have imagined that it would be in an exhibition more than a century later. Well done, Mary.

A couple of weeks ago, for the first time ever, I was interviewed by an opinion pollster. A young man with Ipsos Mori identification turned up at the door. My husband was around, so I decided it was safe to let him in. He told me the questions were to find out about people’s competence with technology. I expressed disappointment that he wasn’t going to ask me about Brexit. ‘What is your view on Brexit?’ he said, and patiently let me tell him. Then he got on with the job he was being paid to do. Nice chap. In case anyone is curious, I voted Remain and am moderately competent with technology.

‘Twenty-First-Century Woman’ is a song and video that will be released on YouTube and on music platforms on International Women’s Day, 8 March. It was composed and devised by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange and features an all-female choir and band. It also includes brief appearances by women from different walks of life. Joanna visited my home to record me singing ‘We are poets’. In fact, I only needed to mouth the words because the pictures will be synchronised with the same words sung by the choir. Other women involved include Bishop Sarah Mullally (‘We are bishops’), Joanna Lumley (‘We are actors’), Prue Leith, Joanne Harris, and many more. All proceeds from the downloads will be given to women’s charities.

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