On Radio

Not having a gay old time

On BBC radio’s preoccupation with Americans and identity politics.

Does the sexuality of an artist matter? Do we derive particular meaning from a book or a painting if we know its creator is homosexual?

Noel Coward is best known for Private Lives; Tennessee Williams for A Streetcar Named Desire. Both are tales of marital tension (after a fashion) written by homosexuals. Does it count? Only to those who, yelling “cultural appropriation”, like to scale the ramparts and summon the mob.

Cultural appropriation, a silly phrase favoured by dullards, has been going strong since the Pharaohs. “If you’re gonna steal,” Leonard Bernstein told a friend, “steal classy.” Lenny, according to that friend, had borrowed from Stravinsky for West Side Story. So what if he did? The world is a better place for the theft.

Tchaikovsky: a composer, or a homosexual composer? The question is absurd. What would Wystan Auden have made of gay liberation? Not a lot. He preferred to get on with his life. Benjamin Britten presents a more complicated study. He was a cold and selfish man, rude to colleagues and even to children. He was also a composer of genius. Michael Tippett was liked by everybody. He was a third-rater.

At all times, in all places, it is the work that matters, not the strength or purity of the artist’s convictions. As Oscar Wilde said, a truth in art is a statement whose contradictory may also be true. But it doesn’t stop people trying to erect barriers, as Radio 3 proved with a concert from St George’s, Bristol, that formed part of a “Queer Song festival”.

What a treat for connoisseurs of modern jargon! Introduced by Linton Stephens, who has difficulty reading the most basic of scripts, listeners could bathe in a warm tub of clichés, starting with “the diversity and range of the human voice”. Not really. We heard only two singers: an English soprano, and an American tenor.

Given a free hand, Stephens was determined to make his mark. It was “a boundary-breaking event”, which revealed “the creative culture” of the homosexual community. Kunal Lahiry, “the curator” of the event, played “collaborative piano”. When you are supporting singers, is there any other sort?

Lahiry, an American of Indian ancestry, rose to the challenge. The festival took root, he said, during a concert for “queer refugees” in Berlin, which was “a healing experience” for “marginalised communities”. Queerness was “an opportunity to bend the rules, and listen to your own soul”. Rather like straightness, then.

This was a coercive evening passed off as light entertainment, received uncritically by an audience which had to come to honour the tellers, not the tale

There was “spirituality”, “universality”, “ownership”, “rejoicing” in difference, and a puzzling codicil: “anyone can identify”. In which case, why go to such lengths to indicate that some people are so different they need a festival just for them? It’s not as if homosexuals have ever been excluded from the world of music.

For some reason the concert opened with Schubert, who was co-opted for the night as an honorary gay. So we had “a queer, modern-day trans journey” based loosely (very loosely) on “Winterreise”.

It ended, for reasons that require little explanation, with “Strange Fruit” — the conflation of queerness with the struggle of black Americans. In every egg a bird.

This was a coercive evening passed off as light entertainment, received uncritically by an audience which had to come to honour the tellers, not the tale. That tale is simple. Homosexuality is not an affliction, nor a lifestyle choice, nor a badge of honour. It is woven into the human condition, and therefore takes its place in the drama of life, as Auden, Britten, Bernstein and dozens of other remarkable people knew all too well.

As an evening of music it was an abject failure. Not even a dash of Schubert, and Earl Wild’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”, could save it. As a slice of propaganda it was a success. But that’s never a triumph to savour.

Michael Goldfarb, as this column has noted, is a fine presenter of talks about American public life and culture. Invited back to Radio 3 (where he keeps his pyjamas in the studio), the man with the gentle voice concentrated on five writers who stirred things up in the Sixties. “Controversy” was the name of the game.

Philip Roth, the best of the scribblers, was honoured with an examination of Jewishness, and the author’s eagerness to hack off the hand that fed him. It brought to mind Lenny’s refusal to acknowledge people who called him Bern-steen: “Sounds too Jewish.”

Yet again, though, one wondered why the producers at Radio 3 concentrate their resources on American subjects. Radio 4 is even more insistent. By some rule of thumb Start The Week must have at least one visitor from the Land of the Free each Monday, and Amol Rajan, everybody’s favourite presenter, welcomed the novelist Barbara Kingsolver to the Today programme as if she had declared the abolition of poverty.

Still, it’s good to have Goldfarb on the wireless. His 15-minute talks, mixing close reading with historical perspective, are masterly.

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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