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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

 

Naturism criminalised: Why not being able to bare all is a bummer

Simon Usborne
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried