Tuesday, 22 April 2014

What BBC2 taught me about television

I'm doing a public lecture on BBC2 as part of a 50th anniversary conference at the Science Museum in London on Friday evening. Details here:


The lecture is free and anyone can come. It’s called ‘What BBC2 taught me about television’ and will be followed by a screening of the final episode of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, first shown on BBC2 in 1969.

I was on BBC Radio Wales talking about the anniversary of the launch of BBC2 on 20 April. It’s here about 40 minutes in I think:


Mundane quote for the day: ‘Of all the human plants, habit requires the least fostering, and is the first to appear on the seeming desolation of the most barren rock.’ – Marcel Proust

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The lure of the lighthouse

I did this piece for the Guardian last week:

When I grew up, I wanted to be a lighthouse keeper. Just like Moominpappa in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, my ambition was to live on the loneliest lighthouse on the remotest skerry farthest from land. It didn’t end well for Moominpappa, the island he and the other Moomins settled on being barren and desolate, inhabited only by a silent fisherman who turned out to be the ex-lighthouse keeper driven mad by loneliness. It didn’t put me off.

I have since met many of my compatriots who had or still have the same dream, for there is something about lighthouses that seems to speak to our islanded souls. Now, to celebrate the quincentenary of Trinity House, the organisation responsible for the lighthouses of England and Wales, an exhibition is opening at the National Maritime Museum. “Guiding Lights” will display intricate models of lighthouses and lighthouse keepers’ personal effects. It is hard to imagine a similarly pulse-quickening exhibition about air traffic controllers or road safety officers, although our lives are similarly in their hands.

“I meant nothing by the lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf wrote of its role in her most celebrated novel, “but I trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions.” Lighthouses, Woolf realised, are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other. Countless British artists, from John Constable to Eric Ravilious, have made them the focus of their paintings, which can’t simply be to do with their pleasingly vertical contrast with the horizon.

I suspect that lighthouses appeal especially to introverts like me, who need to make strategic withdrawals from the social world but also want to retain some basic link with humanity. A beam sweeping the horizon for the benefit of ships passing in the night is just that kind of minimal human connection. “Nothing must be allowed to silence our voices … We must call out to one another,” wrote Janet Frame, a shy New Zealand writer also fascinated by lighthouses, “across seas and deserts flashing words instead of mirrors and lights.”

I finally cured my lighthouse fantasy by reading Tony Parker’s Lighthouse, his oral history of the lighthouse keepers. Looking after a light – no keeper ever called it a lighthouse - was, I learned, a tedious job, with little to do but linger over meals and make ships in bottles. The clincher was reading about the keeper who was so lonely that in the middle of the night he switched on the transmitter and listened to the ships radioing each other, just to hear some other human voices. The tower lights, the ones that rise impossibly out of the sea and carry the most romantic connotations for landlubberly ignoramuses like me, were the most dreaded by the keepers. Without even a bit of rock to walk around on and escape from your housemates, they were the lighthouse-keeping equivalent of being posted to Siberia.

In any case, I was well out of it because lighthouse keeping was not a job with prospects. The lighthouses began to be automated in the 1970s and the last keeper left the last occupied lighthouse in 1998. Now, in an age of radar and computerised navigation systems, working lighthouses are an endangered species. Their haunting fog signals are being switched off. Their black and red painted stripes, meant to stand out against the land and sky, are being left to peel off without being retouched. And many lighthouses are being decommissioned, turned into holiday cottages or expensively renovated homes.
No doubt satnav will now do the job just as well, but it will be a shame when the last lighthouse turns off its light. In an age when we have to justify public projects with reference to the consumerist language of stakeholders and end users, lighthouses still feel like an uncomplicated social good that belongs to us all. They are the concrete symbol of our common humanity, of the fact that people we may never meet – whom we may do no more than flash our lights at in the dark - are also our concern.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Fail better

Why do ‘high achievers’ (not a phrase I care for) so often feel like failures? ‘We share our lives with the people we have failed to be,’ writes Adam Phillips in his book Missing Out. ‘Once the next life - the better life, the fuller life - has to be in this one we have a considerable task on our hands. Now someone is asking us not only to survive but to flourish, not simply or solely to be good but to make the most of our lives … Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life - the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life - the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legimated by nothing more than the desire to live it.’

In the modern university, as in most market-led public services, failure is no longer considered an option. Everything must be satisficing, which means that much is mediocre - neither a ruinous failure nor a spectacular success. Google, by contrast, has a sub-division, Google [x], which it describes as a ‘moonshot factory’, where its engineers collaborate on audacious ideas. Its head is reported on the BBC news website as saying: ‘You must reward people for failing … If not, they won’t take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don’t reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences. That wastes time and saps an organisation’s spirit.’

I would love to set up a moonshot factory in a modern university that rewarded failure. For surely any creative activity worth doing contains within it the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of failure. Most conversations, at least the ones I seem to be involved with, are failed attempts at communication. Teaching is mostly about failure, because it is based on conversation and words are always liable to fall on stony ground. Reading is about failure, because most of what we read we forget, and quite a lot of it is not as interesting as we thought it would be. Writing is about failure because, even if we manage to finish something and send it out into the world, we will mostly come up against a wall of indifference made of people who have other things on their mind and other things to read and write. ‘Any kind of effort to make linkage via signs is a gamble,’ writes the philosopher John Durham Peters in his book Speaking into the Air. ‘To the question, How can we really know we have communicated? there is no ultimate answer besides a pragmatic one that our subsequent actions seem to act in some kind of concert.’  In other words, you just keep throwing enough mud at the wall until some of it sticks. Maybe you only have to succeed once, or at least to fail less catastrophically. As Samuel Beckett put it in Worstward Ho: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘If your daily life seems poor do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.’ - Rainer Maria Rilke