On Radio

Misguided and muddled

By inviting listeners to admit their complicity, Eshun failed utterly to make his case

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

How does one define “whiteness”? How can one throw a rope around peoples from different parts of the world, with so many contrasts, and set them marching under a single banner, based on the colour of their skin? Nobody with any knowledge of history or geography would want to try.

If we restrict ourselves to Europe, what yokes Italians to Poles, or Norwegians to Greeks? Let’s be even more specific. The United Kingdom was forged by Angles, Saxons, Normans, Celts, Jutes, and Picts. Their descendants are white, to be sure, but that fact reveals nothing about the nature of “whiteness”.

Quite what possessed Radio 4 to commission such a silly programme is a matter that may only be resolved by its controller, Mohit Bakaya

Notwithstanding these challenges, Ekow Eshun set himself the task on Radio 4’s White Mischief to investigate a subject that, by his own admission, has obsessed him throughout his life. Born in London to parents from Ghana, he seems never to have got over the undeniable fact that most of the people he has shared a country with for the past half century are white.

Quite what possessed Radio 4 to commission such a silly programme is a matter that may only be resolved by its controller, Mohit Bakaya, in a private session with his confessor. Yet confess he should, for The Background Hum, the first of three half hours devoted to “whiteness”, was a misguided venture that would hardly have passed muster as a student exercise.

We began, joy of joys, with a meeting between Eshun and his pal Grayson Perry, the shy, cross-dressing potter. As Perry hooted away like a frightened owl, and Eshun simpered in sympathy, the listener failed to pick up anything that was remotely amusing. What on earth has Potter Perry got to say about white identity? It was embarrassing.

Eshun then toddled off to Tate Britain to look at The Beloved by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. There he was guided through the history of the painting by a PhD student, who invited us all to “take learnings”. As P.G. Wodehouse might have said: I studied my mind; it boggled.

Sloppy in outline, lazy in presentation, and altogether too pleased with itself, this was a shoddy piece of work

By now Eshun, without ever indicating what the core of “whiteness” might consist of, had settled into a rhythm he clearly enjoyed. He has a touch of the Beth Rigbys, being unable to pronounce the letter G at the end of a word. It is not a winning quality in a broadcaster.

From the UK we were whisked across the Atlantic for an American perspective, but the speakers, a journalist on the New Yorker and an academic, shed little light. There is something to be said about the polarity between black and white in American life, as the troubled racial history of that nation suggests, but we learned nothing.

Words were tossed about like conkers in autumn. We heard about privilege, colonialism and prejudice, but these terms mean nothing unless somebody is prepared to buttress an argument with reference to specific times, places and people. It is not good enough simply to assert that black people have far too often been on the wrong end of an ill-defined process called “whiteness”.

Wearyingly, we are asked to apologise for things done and undone, words said and unsaid. If we are middle class, as most of us are, then the punishment is doubled. As students at St Andrews University are told, to suggest that all people should be treated equally may in itself be a sign of inequality. Oh Alice, look what you’ve done. Why ever did you fall down that rabbit hole?

By inviting listeners to admit their complicity in the disgrace of genuine prejudice and, yes, racism, Eshun failed utterly to make his case. The world is more complicated than he imagines, and he would do well to reflect on his failure. Sloppy in outline, lazy in presentation, and altogether too pleased with itself, this was a shoddy piece of work. However, with June Sarpong, the BBC’s “diversity tsarina”, keeping her beady eye on her charges, we shall endure many more gruesome experiences.

For those of a certain age, the sound of Brian Fahey’s band playing “At the Sign of the Swingin’ Cymbal” cannot fail to animate the ghosts of yesteryear. The tune was first heard in 1961, when Alan Freeman presented Pick of the Pops, and it continues to ring loud and clear every Saturday on Radio 2 at three minutes past one, when Paul Gambaccini ushers us down Memory Lane.

“Greetings, pop-pickers!” The traditional welcome always pleases. But Gambo goes one better than “Fluff”. “Saturday”, he tells us, “is our day.” Indeed it is, and he is a splendid host. Running down the charts from the glory days of pop, he likes to say “that if it’s 1966, there must be the Kinks, the Small Faces and the Beach Boys”. Oh yes, there must! It’s like tucking into a feast of fig rolls and jaffa cakes, washed down with jugs of dandelion and burdock.

We don’t hear so many hits from the Sixties these days, and more’s the pity. An edict has gone out from the top, instructing presenters like Gambaccini not to live so much in the past. What a swizz. You can’t have a proper POTP without the first hour being devoted to a year from the decade when pop music came of age. Gambo, who knows this, is keeping his front pad next to his bat. His loyal, frustrated listeners should make their views known.

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