The recent celebration of the 75th anniversary of Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs cast me adrift on a sea of nostalgia. We would invariably listen to it on a Saturday evening after coming from high tea with my grandparents. And it suddenly strikes me with all the force of middle-age conviction that there never was anything so misnamed as social media: in that, unlike older media, none of it involves being in the same space as another and therefore, though it may use words like “sharing” and “reacting”, these are entirely solipsistic.
Hearing again the familiar signature tune, with it sighing waves and the mellifluous voice of Roy Plomley, I am instantly plunged into a familiar soundscape in which I can navigate by memory the loved contours of family and home. To the childish imagination, with its tendency to polarise opposites, being cast away on a desert island evoked complicated feelings of attraction and revulsion, by which one processed a developing identity and independence.
On a dark winter’s evening, surrounded by loving parents and siblings, it was exciting and guilty, salutary and safe to fantasise about life cast away on some island paradise. Nowadays I realise just what a safe world it was, in which the patrimony of the Bible and Shakespeare were the sine qua non of the civilised milieu from which one was to be cast adrift, rather than the expressions of one’s prejudice and antediluvian cultural/sexual imperialism.
There was a second, similar shared experience of learning to try music in easy bites, and this was listening to a programme called These You Have Loved on a Sunday evening. I suppose this was a kind of forerunner of Classic FM. It was an hour of classics and what used to be called “light music”, without the distraction of adverts or cheerleading persiflage from whatever the classical equivalent of a DJ is.
It was in such shared moments that I first experienced the power of music to touch the spirit. For me, it was often the sound of the human voice. There was a soprano of my grandparents’ generation, Isobel Baillie, whose voice moved me deeply, singing things such as I know That My Redeemer Liveth, from Messiah. I can have been no more than eight or nine when I first heard a setting of a poem by the Anglican clergyman Sabine Baring-Gould. His poem, “Sleep, My Saviour Sleep” was set to music by one Walter Hedgcock, sometime organist of the Crystal Palace. It begins as a cradle song, complete with a gently strumming harp:
Sleep, my Saviour, sleep,
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