I can't stand Sylvia Plath's poetry, but you should hear her comic material

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The Independent Online
Brian Walden attracted a flurry of publicity the other day by saying the unsayable - that is, for saying that he thought Nelson Mandela was not a wholly admirable person. The late Enoch Powell will be remembered, poor chap, entirely for saying the unsayable on one single occasion, even though it is paradoxical that such a scholarly, academic chap should have caught the public fancy entirely in the character of a fiery racialist. Prince Charles caught the attention of the public by saying the unsayable about modern architecture.

A lot of us in private life probably risked a lot of flak by asking unsayable questions about Princess Diana. (Questions like: "Who cares?" and "Why has everyone gone mad?")

But I think it is very healthy to say the unsayable, to question comfortable assumptions. For instance, there is a goody-goody assumption on the programme Desert Island Discs that everyone will want the Bible and Shakespeare along with their chosen book. I don't know how many Muslims or atheists have been on the programme, but I wonder what they thought of having the Bible forced on them. And I do remember at least one occasion on which Shakespeare has been rejected. When Carla Lane was a guest on Desert Island Discs she was presented with the obligatory Bible and Shakespeare by the mandatory Sue Lawley. Unusually she told Sue Lawley she would rather not have the Shakespeare, as she didn't get anything out of him.

I can't remember the reasons she gave, nor what Sue Lawley said in response, if indeed she could think of anything to say, but I do remember a) disagreeing with Carla Lane, b) admiring her courage in saying what she said, c) envying the amount of free time she must have accrued through not bothering with Shakespeare.

And yet we must all have deaf areas which are totally unresponsive to things we really ought to respond to. I, for instance, spent many years as a jazz reviewer in which I never once confessed to my inability to enjoy Billie Holliday's singing. She was the ultimate jazz singer, we are always told, which is a shame, as I actively dislike the sound of her voice and find her style unpleasantly mannered. On the few occasions that I voiced my inability to appreciate her, I got the sort of reaction from other jazz lovers that the Archbishop of Canterbury might get if he let drop at the Synod that he wasn't too sure he saw the point of God, so I started to keep quiet about what I felt about Billie Holliday.

Same about Sylvia Plath. I have tried on several occasions to tackle her writing, and have always found it so gloomy and nerve-racking that I have ended up flinging it joyfully across the room and swearing never to try again. The only time I have ever liked the idea of Sylvia Plath was, oddly, when I came across a tape of her voice in the BBC Radio Archives. She wasn't reading poetry. She wasn't even talking about poetry. She was talking about the British weather and landscape, and how it struck an American newcomer to these shores, and what she said was bright and funny. Bright and funny! Sylvia Plath being bright and funny! It seems incredible, doesn't it? You can keep her poetry, I'm afraid, but I do like her comic material ...

(I sometimes feel the same about Dylan Thomas. I like Under Milk Wood a lot better than anything else he ever wrote. I once dared to say so in a Welsh gathering, and I could feel the glittering hostility immediately. I shall not make the same mistake again. Dylan Thomas is the only world- renowned writer produced by Wales since the War, and criticising him constitutes more than just voicing an opinion - it's tantamount to trying to sabotage the Welsh economy.)

As a jazz lover, I am very well aware that a lot of people feel this way about jazz. Jazz people always think they are hard done by when it comes to air-time, and never cease to badger BBC Radio for more jazz coverage. Recently things have got better and there is more jazz, especially on Radio 3. So I should have foreseen the letters which were read out on Feedback the other day, indignantly saying that there was FAR too much jazz on Radio 3 these days ...

But when it comes to saying the unsayable, and voicing prejudices, and airing blind-spots, it was a jazz musician who came up with one of the best examples ever. It is said that when Buddy Rich, the hard-driving, hard-bitten jazz drummer, was in hospital for his last major heart operation, the surgeon came past his bed one evening and said to him: "Everything all right, Mr Rich? Anything bothering you?"

"Yeah," he said. "Country music."