Radio 4 want Will Self as writer-in-residence. But becoming a national treasure carries a heavy price

Plus: Alarmingly, in an age of teenage "sexting" housewife-warrior Mary Whitehouse no longer seems quite as absurd as she once did
  • @TerenceBlacker

The Savoy Hotel has done it, and so has Heathrow. City firms, a railway company and football club have all tried it at some point. Now BBC Radio 4 is planning to appoint a writer-in-residence, with Will Self widely reported to be the proposed laureate of Broadcasting House.

The idea, says the station’s controller, Gwyneth Williams, is that Radio 4 should become “a playground for creative minds”. A resident writer, popping up on the Today programme, writing blogs and stories, would bring with him a spirit of independence. “Politics and economics at the moment are in a kind of stasis, waiting for new ideas to emerge.”

If there is to be a figurehead author at the BBC, representing the creative spirit in a world of fact and news, Will Self is as appropriate a choice as any. He is the right age (51), being neither whipper-snapper nor fogey. He has a dashingly interesting past, but is now pretty much at the centre of the media establishment. His views are provocative, but never go too far.

All the same, the idea of a Radio 4 writer-in-residence is disastrously wrong-headed. As desirable as it is for creative minds to play at the BBC, the appointment of an author as the embodiment of the spirit of fiction has something of a box-ticking exercise about it. More seriously, the effect of giving one writer a central role within a corporate organisation is to institutionalise both the writer and his work.

That, of course, is a rather fashionable thing to do. In recent years, we have increasingly come to see writers of the past in terms of the views they are thought to represent: Kipling and imperialism, TS Eliot and anti-semitism, Larkin and a gloomy, grey misogyny.

The process can work the other way, but the effect is equally harmful. George Orwell, one of the authors who has most influenced Will Self, has become something of a national treasure of late. As Julian Barnes put it in a brilliant recent essay, he is now a “malleable iconic construct”, an emblem of clear-eyed, honest Englishness who is somehow above criticism.

In the forthcoming month-long celebration of Orwell on Radio 4, we are unlikely to hear discussed the entry from his diary for 25 October 1940 in which he writes, “What’s bad about Jews is that they are not only conspicuous, but go out of their way to make themselves so.” Having recounted an ugly story about “a fearful Jewish woman, a regular comic-paper cartoon of a Jewess”, Orwell expresses the view that “any Jew, ie European Jew, would prefer Hitler’s kind of social system to ours, if it were not that he happens to persecute them.” For good measure, he adds the view that members of the working class were more frightened during the blitz than those of the middle class were.

It makes sense to see these remarks in the context of their times, as it does with the letters of Eliot or Larkin, but the problem with the figurehead-writer is that his words become less important than the image he represents. As Julian Barnes points out, Orwell’s champions have resorted to some very odd arguments while trying to explain the liberties he took – “sexing up”, it would be called today – in his essays “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging”. Somehow these distortions do not accord with his reputation as the great truth-teller of the 20th century.

Will Self’s writing, often quite demanding in its linguistic reach, is in sharp contrast to that of Orwell, but is also susceptible to the myth-making of generalisers and lazy minds. It is the work which suffers when a writer becomes a malleable iconic figure. Under those circumstances, being the resident writer at Radio 4 may turn out to be less a playground than a prison.

Children’s text should not be secret

Many of Mary Whitehouse’s most dire warnings have come to pass. The floodgates of permissiveneness did, indeed, allow a tide of filth to pollute our society. Young people are undeniably in greater danger of corruption than in the past.

Alarmingly, the housewife-warrior no longer seems quite the absurd figure she once was.

When Claire Perry, recently appointed to be the Government’s adviser on childhood, is described as “a Mary Whitehouse of the 2010s”, it is not necessarily an insult.

Ms Perry would like parents to invade their children’s privacy when it comes to text messaging and social media. “Sexting”, she says, is going on in “every school in the country”. She wants pop videos to be age-rated. We should recognise, she says, that there is a “clash between family values and the internet”.

For those of us who tend to mock when “family values”, that euphemism for repression, is deployed, Ms Perry’s arguments pose a problem.

Put simply, it is that she is absolutely right.