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Defining the Discographic SelfDesert Island Discs in Context$

Julie Brown, Nicholas Cook, and Stephen Cottrell

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266175

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266175.001.0001

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Personal Spin F

Personal Spin F

Castaway, 31 January 2010

(p.205) Personal Spin F
Defining the Discographic Self

Mary Beard

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

Bob Dylan: It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Henry Purcell: When I Am Laid in Earth (Dido’s Lament) from Dido and Aeneas

John Dowland: Lachrimae

Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin: Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves

Roy Harris and the Pump and Pluck Band: The Man that Waters the Worker’s Beer...

Disc choices

Bob Dylan: It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Henry Purcell: When I Am Laid in Earth (Dido’s Lament) from Dido and Aeneas

John Dowland: Lachrimae

Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin: Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves

Roy Harris and the Pump and Pluck Band: The Man that Waters the Worker’s Beer

Janis Joplin: Me and Bobby McGee

Johann Sebastian Bach: Aria from Goldberg Variations

George Frideric Handel: Endless Pleasure, Endless Love from Semele

When I received the email, I thought, ‘Isn’t that everybody’s ambition?’ And vanity always wins. I can’t imagine there are many people who refuse. There’s not much persuasion has to be done. I am sure part of the programme’s success is that it always makes you think, ‘What would I do if I were on it?’ Like almost everybody I had eight choices on tap. I knew some Bob Dylan piece would be there. But when you do it for real you basically start again from scratch, because all sorts of other factors come into play.

It’s about self-presentation. I don’t mean I was thinking, ‘How am I going to skew myself so I look better than I might do?’ But you start to think about how your tracks go together and you hope that it’s not going to be boring: ‘How am I going to make it feel interesting, how am I going to make it seem as if this isn’t just some academic tosser?’ And actually you also think, truthfully, about your friends and your family and your job and everything, and you think, ‘I am going to have to talk about myself for this programme, and if I never mention the children they would be a bit miffed. If I never mention my husband, he would be a little bit miffed too.’ So it does turn out rather differently from when you are just imagining it on the radio, as you’re listening. You think about parity and fairness and wanting to represent yourself, and you have to make choices. In that sense it’s bound to be tactical. Writing a letter is tactical, it’s a form of self-presentation, and I don’t think what you do on Desert Island Discs is any worse than that, but it is something you consider quite hard. Also it has to be plausibly true, because you know people are going to ask you about it. If you actually had made a complete pretence of listening to the stuff you chose, then that would have crossed a boundary between tactical self-presentation and lying.

And then I wanted to say, ‘Look, you don’t have classicists on this show very often.’ I can’t remember the last person on Desert Island Discs who was a professional classicist. I wanted to say that my kind of subject is meaningful outside the library, and I had to use the music to say that. I did it through Handel’s opera Semele, and there was a very specific reason for that. I used to do quite a lot of pre-performance talks for the English National Opera. One time I had given a talk about the myth of Semele, but I hadn’t realised how wonderful Handel’s music was—I thought it was absolutely brilliant. So that choice actually came out of a live performance I had memorably enjoyed. I am a million miles away (p.206) from those people you hear on the programme who say, ‘Oh, I particularly wanted you to use the rather excellent 1972 recording.’ I suppose overall my selection represented my real-world tastes, with all the baroque music, and the American popular music of a certain date too. But one thing you don’t do is sit there and say, ‘Now what are my favourite tracks?’ You don’t start with your favourite 20 pieces of music and whittle them down. That wouldn’t make any sense. And because you don’t start that way, I think in the end the choices are kind of easier. I mean I could have had another bit of Handel opera, but Semele is bloody good and it was in my mind.

When it came to the recording I had a terrible cold, though it doesn’t sound like it. I felt a bit rough, and actually I remember very little of the session. I just remember it lasting much longer than I imagined, and there was never any sense that you felt that you’d been cut off with something left to say. One thing in particular I can’t remember is what discussion there was about the order. I just have no recollection of that. When you listen to it now, it’s in very good order. But who decided on that? I don’t know. Then of course, after the recording, you’ve got the gap until the broadcast and you have to wait. I remember the anxiety. You always feel a bit anxious about any radio programme, but it’s more so with this one because it is explicitly self-revealing. I mean, it doesn’t take much to see what they could do to you if they wanted. The idea of remembering what you couldn’t remember is slightly paradoxical, but my recollection is that you don’t much remember what you said. And when it is broadcast, you need a good gin and tonic to listen to it. You have to brace yourself for it—but in the event I felt quite pleased. The editing is extremely skilful, and you sound much more intelligent and fluent than you really are. My friends and relations listened to it, and my College was very pleased. But I don’t remember a huge avalanche of responses. People were very nice and I got a fair number of emails. Mostly they were things like, ‘Oh gosh, I was so pleased you chose such-and-such’, that kind of thing. There were a few jokes about choosing the Elgin Marbles.1

I listened to it a couple of days ago. (I hadn’t listened to it for ages—I don’t exactly think, ‘I know what I will do, I will listen to myself on Desert Island Discs.’ It would be like playing your wedding video.) And I thought, ‘that was interesting’, so if they asked me to do it again, in a way I’d love to. But actually, if I did it again I think it would be boring musically, because I would perm the choices without making any real differences. I would have something by Patti Smith. And the Rolling Stones might go in, but I wouldn’t really like to get rid of Annie Lennox. Otherwise it would just be a shocking amount of opera, and another bit of Purcell, you know. Oh, but I know what I would have, and this is something new. We went to see Terry Gilliam’s Benvenuto Cellini at the English National Opera, and we had an evening of such amazing fun, it was memorable forever. When you think of all the things you’ve been to, whether it’s the theatre, a movie, or a concert, it’s not very often that it was a joyous fun occasion from start to finish. So that would go in. But otherwise it would be the same, so I think they had better not ask me.

Overall there’s no doubt it is a pleasurable experience. What does it do? It fulfils an ambition, because any Radio 4 listening person, particularly of my age, has been so much brought up with this idea that it’s very flattering. The BBC think of it as a gong, and you treat it like that. So there’s definitely this feel-good factor. But there’s also an intellectual interest to it. You’re fitting yourself into a tradition, and there’s a kind of a self-awareness, (p.207) a self-reflexivity about it, that makes it interesting. And then there’s the exciting terror of self-exposure. It’s actually fun, because it is such a silly game. I am sure there may be people whose lives are riddled with tragedy and wouldn’t be able to face it, but basically, it’s an excuse to talk about yourself, and there’s not many people who would reject that.

Mary Beard FBA is a Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Newnham College. The author of numerous books and articles (including Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town, which won the Wolfson Prize for History, and most recently SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome), she is a Fellow of the British Academy and a regular contributor to both radio and television. (p.208)


(1) Beard chose the Elgin Marbles—sculptures removed from the Parthenon to the British Museum and long an object of controversy between the British and Greek governments—as her luxury item.