Desert Island Discs celebrates its 80th birthday today. Like many, I’m a fan. I am well-versed in the language that it speaks. And yet, despite its popularity, it speaks a language that many of us are afraid to converse in; the language of vulnerability.
I discovered Desert Island Discs as a kid, while flicking through radio stations one long, hot and boring summer in the 1980s. I was an avid reader and I immediately liked its form of storytelling from real people with real lives. I didn’t know the person who was being interviewed, I just knew that some songs on the show made them cry.
The whole premise of Desert Island Discs is one that puts someone in a place of vulnerability. They imagine being destitute, stranded on an island, with only eight songs, a book and one luxury item with them. The tracks, chosen by the guest, are played and we are invited to travel through their memories through music with them. It has vulnerability at its core.
Throughout my life I have been accused of making myself too vulnerable by being too “sensitive” and “thoughtful”. I marvel at life with the same sense of inspection one has while solving a Rubik’s Cube. I have been told that if I wanted to get ahead in life I shouldn’t be so “open”. But exploring vulnerability is what has made Desert Island Discs a national institution. We enjoy someone’s personal journey, first through their own words, and then through their choice of music. We are delighted at the unravelling of formidable and notable characters. At this moment, they are stripped from their OBE, Oscar, Booker Prize, or whatever it is that separates them from us, and we are left with what connects them to us: pain and joy.
I have always been OK with showing vulnerability; it’s why I write. I’m at my happiest when I’m openly bleeding all over my keyboard. A friend once told me she could never be a writer, she’d feel too exposed, too vulnerable. But there’s no point in writing if you’re going to leave out your humanity.
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I don’t want to be someone who wonders whether a person I care for knows how much I love them. I want a person to know how much they mean to me with no ambiguity. So I am vocal with my feelings, which makes me vulnerable. Having a strong emotion that is not vocalised is hellish to me, a form of locked-in syndrome. There’s disharmony in thought, feeling and non-action. I would burst if I couldn’t express my love for someone or something. It’s this vocalised honesty and vulnerability that has made Desert Island Discs a success; a person who climbed Everest is the same person who has a song that can move them to tears.
Mutual vulnerability is how we create bonds. It allows us to say “me too”. No one warms towards a hard and steely exterior. We are vulnerable because we are situated. Where we find ourselves socially and economically has significant consequences for our chances of survival. And this awareness of our vulnerability to life, and to each other, makes us better people. We become less self-congratulatory. We see opportunities, outside ourselves, and it helps us become who we are.
Desert Island Discs, with its easily recognisable music, feels like a balm in its old familiarity. It has become “our song”. The seagulls transport us to a place, perhaps reminiscent of our own childhood. It gives us, what the Welsh call “hiraeth”. Roughly translated, it means a blend of homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home that perhaps never was; and a yearning and the grief for the lost places of our past.
Desert Island Discs has remained with us for 80 years because it speaks to us in ways that we are often afraid to speak to ourselves. It speaks of love, loss and truth. But at its heart, there’s one message, and we’re all happy to hear it – that, in actual fact, no one is on a desert island.
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