I used to enjoy A Good Read on Radio 4 at 11.30pm, lulled to sleep by the soothing tones of Sue MacGregor and lately the detached calmness of Harriett Gilbert. But like the BBC’s other surviving review shows, guests are now being culled from the stand-up comedy circuit, pop radio stations and the Guardian, people one suspects rarely read anything but their own cuttings. This week, the first to choose a book was Murray Lachlan Young, a bewhiskered poet and ‘performer’ who has been touring with his solo stand-up show How Freakin’ Zeitgeist Are You? I think he answered his own question, he sounded bang on it, until he made a terrible mistake. At first all seemed well as they discussed his choice, Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves. Harriett had read it several times and referred to Graves’s dispassion and ‘real writerly interest’. It sounded as if there was going to be some serious analysis of the works, rare on BBC shows these days which are now mostly celebrity puffs by famous names. Radio 4’s Front Row, for example, has just employed Giles Coren as its theatre critic, even though he never goes to the theatre as he finds the seats too hard.
But my hopes for some interesting thoughts from the radio beside my bed soon dissolved. The second guest was Deborah Frances-White, a comedian who delivers seminars to women in business on subjects including charisma, diversity and inclusion. She had not read Goodbye To All That before and was surprised that Graves didn’t know that he was suffering from ‘post-traumatic stress syndrome’.
Debs was also puzzled that men and schoolboys back then seemed to have gay affairs quite freely, apparently believing that before 1967 and the first reform of the law on homosexuality, gay sex was completely suppressed. But that is the view shown in current films and TV. As a feminist she approved of Graves’s iron-willed wife. ‘She’s a suffragette, isn’t she?’ she cried with joy, and my stomach tightened.
I could feel the programme suddenly veering Left and silly. Suffragettes are currently all the rage, or rather the mistaken view of them as seen in the lying film, Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron in 2015. It has a scene in which an impoverished young wife says to her brutal husband, ‘Why should you have a vote and I don’t?’ The truth was, and someone on the film’s production team must have known it, that he didn’t have a vote at the time either. Only men of property did. The suffragettes around Mrs Pankhurst might have behaved like angry radicals but they wanted women to vote on equal terms with men, which meant having a property qualification. But current zeitgeist doesn’t know or care about such details.
Debs’s chosen book was A Petrol Scented Spring, a recent novel by Ajay Close about a suffragette tortured in prison by force-feeding. ‘Tubes going down her throat, knocking chunks of her teeth out,’ Murray put in sympathetically. There were steel gags used which could damage teeth, but no point in quibbling about facts as any writerly objectivity in the programme slipped away. Harriett said she was in a ‘froth of fury’, an absolute rage about the woman’s fate, and could hardly continue reading the book. Debs was almost incoherent with passion: ‘It was very zeitgeist,’ she said, which might possibly mean ‘relevant’. ‘You’ve got to know your rights and put them on the fridge,’ she said, ‘anif they’re eroded you’ve got to be aware.’
All hope of drifting into sleep was gone as they chunnered on signalling collective virtue. Then Murray, who sounded calm compared with the women, suddenly betrayed the zeitgeist and made his terrible slip. Harriett’s chosen book was Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, set in the 1930s American South. It is the story of a black life-insurance salesman, the grandson of a slave. Murray was keen on it, but in the current zeitgeist, not enough. ‘I loved the black American noir that ran through it,’ he said a bit tautologically. ‘The feeling of being allowed into the African-American culture, yet I found it fifty pages too long. Some of the descriptive work was over-floral and the plot points unwieldy. It needed editing.’ I was now sitting on my chamber-pot, agog. Had he gone mad on air? Debs was frothing along with Harriett. ‘Murray, no!’ she screamed. ‘I honestly feel like, given the amount of words in the world by white men, a black woman going on a bit? I’m sorry.’
He began backtracking madly: ‘But it’s not her that’s going on,’ he cried desperately. ‘It’s the book that’s going on!’ Considering that he had just criticised Toni Morrison, a black woman writer
fully attuned to the zeitgeist, Professor ‘Emerita’ at Princeton University, Debs was very gentle with him, proclaiming piously that she would have liked to ‘spend much longer in her company’. As he spluttered praise for the book, Harriett proclaimed that the issue was not about criticising the style of the book, it was all about ‘How do black people live in this (wicked white man’s) world?’ Which has so trapped them since slavery.
Murray knew. ‘African-Americans see the white people as just being not right,’ he said approvingly, ‘not having the right values, you know, killing black people for fun. Black people would never kill another person for fun, not like the Klan members who kill black people to have a good time.’ ‘Or white people who kill other white people for odd reasons,’ said Debs. ‘But if a black person kills someone there is a reason for it.’ ‘There is a reason for it, with a code,’ said Murray. ‘That code is part of the construction of a culture.’ He had saved himself from disgrace and they went on for some time weighing up the relative moral value of murder, according to which race commits it: white people do it from pure sadism, black people because of some kind of code, integral to the structure of their society post-slavery. So it’s not their fault.
Murray was back with the zeitgeist. I was glad he’d saved himself from the unthinkable disgrace of criticising a black woman, but my chance of falling asleep was gone. I switched over to Radio 4 Extra where The Twilight Zone was beginning. It felt calmer to be there with characters less scary and more believable than the ones I’d just been hearing.