Living in a cloud of her own certainty: Kirsty Wark

Stop the Wark Coalition

BBC Radio has lost its purpose

On Radio

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Future historians of post-war Britain, thought Auberon Waugh, will ponder an overwhelming question: why did the middle class have such a death wish? Social demarcation, true, is a minefield which can imperil the most careful sapper. It’s usually wise to plot another course. Yet the great provocateur’s point stands: why are so many middle class people eager to be punished?

Waugh’s question has acquired greater force in the two decades since his death. A certain kind of person can barely last a week without expressing shame at the life of privilege into which he or she has been born. All cultures and beliefs, they tell us, ignoring the lessons of history, have equal merit. We should not be judgmental, even though observation and experience reveal that without the capacity for judgment we would still be running around in woad.

Sometimes all one can do is laugh

The natural home for this boundless self-laceration is Radio 4, whose listeners are bombarded daily by hours of programming designed to make them feel small. Overwhelmingly these are men and women of intelligence and curiosity, with an interest in what is going on around them. But thousands are turning off their radio sets, saddened by the disregard the programme-makers have for their non-metropolitan ears.

What strange urge, for instance, compelled the martinets of Langham Place to run five 15-minute programmes on “The Political Poets” immediately after The World at One? We’re not talking here about Shelley and Byron, or Auden and Yeats. No, Lemn Sissay, the host, invited us to share the bounty of poets who roam the internet and dominate “slam” events. 

Somehow they have “stormed the poetry establishment”, and offered a voice to the voiceless. Funny. They seem to appear all year round on Radio 4, pouring ullage down the throats of gullible presenters who imagine they are striking a blow for democracy.

Sometimes all one can do is laugh. One of those comic interludes arrived at 9am on the first Monday in March. On Start The Week, Kirsty Wark was anxious as ever to explore “the creative spark”. Wark, famous for swallowing words like oysters, was at her relentless best, egging on the guests like a schoolmarm delighted by little Johnny’s realisation that two and two no longer make five. 

And what guests they were! Kwame Kwei-Armah (born Ian Roberts), the director of the Young Vic, waffled for England about Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, two artists of no discernible talent who pop up in a new play on his watch. Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, did his best to talk up Louise Bourgeois, an artist who means rather more to critics than viewers.

Many of the familiar arts programme cliches were trotted out like Lippizaners at the Hofburg: abandonment, empowerment, alienation, healing, intensity, psychic disturbance, unending originality, and — a new one — something called “a psychic tax”. Where’s Madame Arcati when you need her? 

Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet who lives in Los Angeles, read a poem about refugees that might have come from the pen of EJ Thribb. “Wow!” said Kwei-Armah. “You’re an icon,” she responded. Of Louise Bourgeois she offered a clinching argument in favour: “how grotesque it is — I find so much beauty in it.” United in self-congratulation, they all did.

Wark loved it. She bowled a succession of half-volleys on leg stump. For someone who claims to be interested in that elusive “creative spark” (the books she reads! the exhibitions she attends!), she appears to be in thrall to celebrity and dosh. 

How many listeners really want to tune in to gilded mediocrities at 9am? 

Warhol and Basquiat were, as Wark phrased it, “a mega-money art world sensation”. Their joint exhibition, described as “incredible”, made “tons of money”. Not that they were Warhol and Basquiat to her. “Andy” and “Jean” sufficed. Maybe she had them over for tea and scones when they visited Glasgow.

It was a wretched 45 minutes, and now that Andrew Marr has left the building listeners are going to endure many more weeks starting like it, as Wark and pals flaunt their carefully tended tastes. Wark one week, Amol Rajan the next! As Bill McLaren used to say when Scotland claimed a last-minute try, they’ll be dancing in the streets of Hawick tonight.

Though an extreme example of what is wrong with Radio 4, that Start the Week was not unusual in its tone. There are people within the BBC who really do think their task is to reshape the lives of folk whose annual subs support their lives. 

How many listeners really want to tune in to gilded mediocrities from the arts world at 9am on a Monday morning, to endure platitudes about “healing” and “empowerment”? People do not talk like that in Ebbw Vale, Bangor or Crieff, and they are not impressed by those who do.

As for Wark, isn’t her long race run? She has never been very good at listening to people, preferring to live within a cloud of her own certainty. Surely we’ve all heard enough.

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