In 1977, when I set up the South Bank Show for ITV, I wanted Paul McCartney to be on the first programme. His unique talent apart, I thought he would be the key to unlocking one of my chief aims in the new programme, which was to disrupt the accepted order of play in which classical music, ballet and opera were at the top of the pyramid while down at the bottom was pop music. McCartney took some netting, but he came on and we met at Abbey Road Studios at about midnight and the programme was launched. Not without criticism: the Daily Telegraph critic wrote that as far as arts programmes were concerned, it drew the line at Lennon/McCartney. Those were the days. Clive James saw what the programme was trying to do and backed it and that was vital. Forty-five years on, pop music is now well dug in as one of the major creative springs in the arts and, at 80 years old, even more impossibly handsome, relentlessly prolific and immovably grounded, McCartney still seems to be a ruler in that world. His lyrics now run alongside contemporary poetry, his music is orchestrated, but above all the songs go on and so does he. Who would have thought that an 80-year-old would dominate festivals and television as he has done these past few weeks? What happened to 64?
Hunter Davies, author of 103 books, wrote the first full biography of the Beatles in the 1960s. His most recent book is on Hampstead Heath, that postage-stamp Lake District that is a unique, complex open space in a world city. Hunter points out in his book that again and again this (for a city) vast heathland has been saved by obstinate and far-sighted individuals who are prepared to be awkward. We need people like that again now. ‘Developers’ are on the march. It seems that the best way to get what you want is not to apply for permissions, but to just go ahead, do what you want and hope that a council which does not have resources will give retrospective permission to what has been done unlawfully. In the neighbourhood, for instance, I know that very extensive excavation/landscaping has taken place in a large back garden, with at least 100 skips of soil removed. Flats have been turned into short-term-letting apartments and much else. It’s odd to watch the law being ignored in what I still believe is essentially a law-abiding country.
It’s difficult for me not to compare this recklessness to England 1945-1958, the timescale for my memoir Back in the Day, which is set in the small town of Wigton. Wigton is essentially a market town but had two small factories, 5,000 people, 12 places of worship and, most of all for myself, my friends and every one from my background, an astonishing Ali Baba’s cave of hobbies. The often numbing, ill-paid and repetitive work was overlaid with layers of wonderful local examples of these passionate private pursuits. There were dogs of dozens of varieties, including those who won at Crufts, church choirs, school choirs, town choirs, a cycling club, a swimming club, football, rugby, cricket, tennis, the Scouts and the Guides, mini copses of allotments, of course, regular dances and socials. There were fights in pubs and at the dances sometimes on Saturday nights, and by contemporary standards some of the accommodation was near intolerable. But the people came out of two wars and an economic breakdown to build what became a better place. The book is a memoir and not social history, yet as I was writing the story of my time, it seemed England then had great stoicism and a deeply textured attachment to community. The problem is, this sort of stuff can run into a blizzard of nostalgia. But there were differences and it’s sometimes hard to remember that we live in the same country as back then.
This is the last week for this season’s run of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time. Rarely has there been a more misleading title. One of our rules is to be ‘never knowingly relevant’. Another is to rove wherever we want – from the Far East to medieval Europe to the Ancient World, from astrophysics to philosophy to religion, each time guided by three outstanding academics. We now bring in contributors from all over the world and a ‘panel’ can regularly include someone from Washington and Germany, as well as a British university. Simon Tillotson, the producer, and I take great pleasure in hopping from Mao to Dylan Thomas, to Chinese warlords to key points in religious history. When it came up at the BBC, after I’d left Start the Week, I was offered, rather gingerly, a six-month contract. We have been going now for about 24 years, and the podcast seems to whizz around the world like Ariel. I can’t think of any other broadcasting institution in the world that would put on, sustain and nourish such a programme.