Ever since I first heard the show in my early teens, I have longed to be a castaway on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Does anybody else interview themselves, start having an imaginary conversation with Kirsty Young? I have drafted an introduction: ‘My castaway this week is the writer and cultural commentator, Michelle Dee. Hailing from the city of Hull in East Yorkshire she is described as a doyenne of the arts, writing extensively and prolifically on music, poetry, theatre and dance. Her appearance on the cover of Time magazine served as a rallying cry heard around the world, championing the power of arts participation to change lives. If that wasn’t enough she has just published a new collection of her award-winning verse. Welcome Michelle Dee .’
Before all the picking and probing at the past, we’d have a little earnest tete-a-tete about what the recent successes mean to me. She’d enquire as to what lies behind my drive to succeed, not forgetting the importance of my humanitarian work of course. Then, slowly and inevitably, Kirsty would take the story back to my beginnings. But before the trip down memory lane she’d ask for my first disc.
I would have been in the throes of indecision for weeks, maybe months beforehand, as I wrestled with my choices. How does one pick eight tracks that somehow reflect a life, soundtrack a journey?
My first would surely be Blondie and Tide is High. It happens to be the first song where I remember thinking this is a song, this song is different, I like this song.
I would paint a picture of the four/five year old me in 1980 on a coach trip to Filey, as the opening bars played underneath my voice…’I remember being sat at the front near the stairwell, just behind the driver’s seat and this track played out over the driver’s transistor radio. ‘
‘I’m wondering where, does all the passion and constant need to write come from? I’m thinking about your unconventional start in life and this desire to make sense of events and experiences and hold them down on the page’…. she talks just like that does our Kirsty Young. She does that too, constantly adding the surname of her guest during the conversations, in a way that makes you start a little.
Every time I go through this game in my head it is different. Sometimes I begin externalising while making the coffee and preparing a late breakfast. All the while, fine tuning pruning, the playlist in my head. Will I include that one classic piece or will the listeners think I’m being oh so pretentious? ‘Bach’s Cello Suite… could have seen that coming.‘ Or do I alienate everybody and plump for some obscure Japanese industrial post punk number; being provocative on purpose, in order to shake the rest of Radio 4 from their Sunday morning reverie.
‘What the hell is that awful row that Kirsty’s playing?‘ the controller of R4 will say spewing out black coffee and croissants all over the Sunday supplements.
Family has to come into the choices somewhere. Can you imagine a guest going in and saying every single one of these tracks are all about me? Do you choose a tune that you think the family would recognise? So you can say something like, ‘This one is how I remember that precious time spent with the family.’ As I said my choices constantly change. I’d be a nightmare on this show. There I’d be having picked the Beach Boys and God Only Knows and then during the track, saying this doesn’t speak to me, I should have picked Fool on the Hill after all. Maybe I’d fall into that cliched trap and think I was representing, being a spokesperson for trans… feel a need to include things like Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side or Lola. God forbid I do that.
‘Time for some music, tell me what you have picked for your second track and why? Kirsty would say in her mild Scottish brogue. I would pronounce grandly, ‘This is a track by one of the best British singer songwriters of a generation, Richard Thompson. It is a song we’d all sing along to on car journeys.’ I would then add a memory connecting the track to a time and place for the listener. ‘I can hear my mother’s shrill vocal as she sings the high bit at the end of the chorus.’ Then the opening bars of guitar from ‘Woman or a Man’ would start up.
And there would be the cliche I would have hoped to avoid.
As I said each time I play this game it is different, dependent on my mood. If I feel hard done to that week, I will play out the misery memoir, focusing on all the dark details and getting Kirsty to dig a little deeper with each question: Kirsty Young as shrink by proxy.
And of course the list of tunes is constantly being revised and edited: tracks that looked like surefire shoe-ins suddenly being replaced, by ones that have some kind of momentous meaning attached. One such piece of music, that has all kinds of emotional resonance, is Pachabel’s Canon – the one my best friend Elsie played every single morning. I would go on to describe the little house we shared, the cool trouble free evenings sprawled out on the air raid shelter. I’d recall her talent for piano and the way the music would drift through the house, how I’d listen intently, waiting to see whether she’d finally get through that third movement, or whether she’d break down at that exact same point yet again… I’d paint an idyllic picture for the listeners and my heart would soften, as the strains of my second classical track faded away.
Two classical tracks! I’ve only six pieces left for the whole show now… maybe that Bach will have to be binned after all. And didn’t you want the Missa Corona Spinea by Taverner, sung by the BBC singers and conducted by Stephen Cleobury? Maybe the Morse theme tune would cover all those classical wonts and bring in the penchant for tv detective shows. Was not that particular interest going to be introduced by Ane Brun and the Fleshquartet? You see how difficult it is.
On every other occasion when I begin to play this game I am interrupted. Sunday takes over, making demands on my time, distractions and deadlines pull me far from from my pleasant fiction. This time today, I began to write some of it down.
The story will change next Sunday, just as surely as new records will fight for their place in the hallowed eight, but it amuses me and I do love the format so very much. As for luxury and book I haven’t even got started yet.