Eight tracks, one book and a luxury item

I don’t know how many people outside the UK will have heard of Desert Island Discs? It’s a BBC Radio 4 programme which has been running since January 1942. It’s a British institution along with Doctor Who, the children’s programme Blue Peter, the sacred Shipping Forecast and that ghastly, never-ending Northern soap Coronation Street. All are much loved, much mocked and never likely to be forsaken by viewers and listeners. This little cluster of programmes is infinitely reassuring to the British. Whatever else may change – terrorists threatening to blow us up, immigrants battering down our borders, farmers releasing cows in supermarkets to protest at the price of milk, an unlikely person with a beard being elected as Leader of the Opposition, weather forecast data no longer to be supplied by the Meteorological Office – as long as we have this handful TV and radio programmes we are going to be OK. No need to worry. Have another cup of tea. All’s right with the world. Underneath, we are a very nervous nation.

The basic premise is this: each week a guest, called a “castaway” during the program, is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item that they would take if they were to be cast away on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices. (Thank you Wikipedia for the definition).

Why discs? These pieces of music would once have been encoded on gramophone records, children. Gramophone records were black discs originally made of something called shellac. Shellac was easily breakable, as I can attest, having accidentally parked my teenage posterior on my ancient shellac disc of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly’s True Love – oh, I loved both the song and Bing Crosby. I’m sure sitting on and shattering them set an unlucky precedent for the rest of my life .


Latterly shellac was replaced with plastic, and plastic was replaced by downloadable tracks. Unless something has replaced tracks? Forgive me, I’m old and still listening to CDs with occasional recourse to a Tesco generic MP3 for yomping along the sea-front. Actually, I don’t so much yomp as totter nowadays but the fresh air is good for me.

Guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and to choose eight pieces of music to take with them. Excerpts from their choices are played or, in the case of short pieces, the whole work. At the end of the programme they choose the one piece they regard most highly. They are then asked which book they would take with them; they are automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and either the Bible or another appropriate religious or philosophical work. (Wikipedia again. Why bother to rewrite something when it’s perfectly well-written already?)

There’s one final element. Guests are allowed to choose one luxury item to take with them. It must be inanimate and can’t be something you could use either to escape from the island or to communicate with the world beyond. Comedian John Cleese of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame was allowed to take Michael Palin with him on one condition – that Michael Palin would be dead, and stuffed. People tend to ask for pianos, and champagne, for example. If you’re fascinated to see a list of what people actually do ask for (I love lists, don’t you?) here is the link:


The above list answered one of my questions – what about electricity? I suspect the desert island must be attached to the mains by an underwater cable, since people have asked for electric guitars, cappuchino-makers, a Sex and the City DVD boxset (why on Earth…?), though others, when requesting laptops and i-pods, and taking the whole frivolous concept ultra-seriously, have been careful to specify solar-powered.

Working out and Desert Island Disc list is something I have never attempted before but, for your edification and delight, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am going to attempt it now. I suggest ‘Desert Island Discs’ as a good game, perhaps for power-cuts, or at Christmas when full of brussels-sprouts and Yorkshire Pud, or to amuse the children on a rainy Saturday afternoon. As long as you take it seriously – but not necessarily so seriously as to suggest solar-powered laptops – you might discover a few profound somethings about yourself and your fellow players. It might also be an idea to repeat it every ten Christmases or so (concealing the previous list from yourself) to see if your tastes have changed.

So, my current eight Desert Island tracks would be:

  • Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, Tallis Scholars version
  • Fire at Midnight by Jethro Tull (Songs from the Wood)
  • True Love by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly
  • Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen, but Jennifer Warnes’ version)
  • Another Monday – instrumental, by John Renbourn from the album of the same name
  • The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • Eternity by Dougie MacLean
  • Who Will Sing Me Lullabies by Kate Rusby

My ‘most highly regarded’ would have to be Spem in Alium. I have blogged about that before. Also about desert islands, actually, though in a slightly different context.

I won’t go into all the reasons for my choices. Quite often these are down to personal/ sentimental associations with the tracks as much as the tracks themselves. And by now I am sure you are no longer listening and are busy disagreeing, arguing amongst yourselves or compiling your own list.

How I could manage with only one book I don’t know, since at the moment I have about 2,000 and will never get to the end of reading them. However, the best thing seems to go for value for – not money but words. Mercifully I’ll already have the Bible and Shakespeare – there’s an entire desert island’s-worth in the Bible. Shakespeare is just the icing on the cake.

My first thought was to go for Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill – a fearsomely abstruse book on a subject that interests me greatly. I feel that reading it would be greatly to my spiritual benefit, but wonder if I actually would read it in my changed circumstances, given that it is so challenging, both in terms of subject matter and a thorn-thicket of elaborate and antiquated English. After all, if you can’t meditate and attain a state of higher consciousness on a desert island, with blue sky above, the sound of the sea and a warm, sandy beach, where can you? So I decided to follow the example of many other castaways and ask for the biggest possible anthology of poetry. Poems have such potential for entertainment – not just savouring and studying them, but learning them by heart, making up tunes and singing them, discovering hidden messages in them by opening the volume at random (also possible with the Bible and Shakespeare, of course) declaiming them aloud to the seagulls so as not to forget the sound of your own voice…

And for my luxury item, a solar-powered… no, it would have to be a giant, inexhaustible, damp- and weather-proof store cupboard or underground vault stacked from floor to ceiling with green and yellow A4 writing pads, wide feint, cardboard-backed, and an equally inexhaustible supply of top-quality 2B pencils, with pencil sharpeners. Maybe a ring-binder file or two… and a box of paperclips…

All the way to eternity

She loves me, she loves me not / Where can a simple island boy begin? / This Highland pride is all I’ve got / But in the darkness it means everything / It makes me one with the tide / It makes me strong when I’m burning inside….

I bought a double CD for that one song and in fact for that one verse. Dougie MacLean performed it at the Perthshire Amber folk festival, which I happened to catch on BBC Alba.

So, I was listening to my Dougie Maclean CD whilst Sorting the Books. This is a task I undertake every couple of years because my books shamelessly rearrange themselves on the shelves as time goes by. They even jump from downstairs to upstairs without my say-so. And Dougie? Well, he just makes everything go that much better.

I always fall for a Scottish accent. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s being a sixteenth Scottish, via my father’s father: a  sort of genetic longing for what feels like my homeland. Maybe it’s simply that Scotland’s at the other end of the country. People do seem to be attracted to extremes – the furthest west, the furthest south or the furthest north – mystical places, escape routes, endings or alternatives. And sometimes I dream about a man I never met, who seems to be Scottish although in the dream he doesn’t say a word. I catch a glimpse of him, know him, and then he’s gone, but in those few precious seconds I feel more home than anywhere I have ever been in real life. And no, he doesn’t happen to look like Dougie Maclean.

Down to earth again with a bump. I was sorting the books…

I was sorting them because I have a project in mind, and for this project the books need to be in order. I wrote yesterday about this blogging project as a way of trying to keep my mind functioning as I get older. Writing is a Cognitively Engaging activity. Now to the other Cognitive Engagement projects I’m plotting.

It all began with something my mother said a few years ago. Coming into my house and seeing bookcases stuffed with paperback books on every wall, she exclaimed:

But you’ll never have time to read all these!

That’s a classic example of a maternal sentence with a silent ending. This one ended in … after all, you’re no spring chicken.

I recently had the idea to set myself three simultaneous challenges.

The first is to write every day – barring accident, earthquake or flood – one thousand words of fiction and one thousand words of non-fiction. Or, if this is too ambitious, fiction and non-fiction on alternate days – I’m not sure yet. There are a few good ‘writing prompts’ sites online – also plenty of bad ones – so I wouldn’t need to waste time racking my brains for daily subject matter. In fact the randomness would add to the challenge, thereby yielding a higher Cognitive Engagement dividend, as it were. I am still considering the possibility that one of these longish blog posts could be counted as my ‘non-fiction’ for the day, since my posts are usually in the region of 700 to 1,200 words.

The second challenge is to read one poem that I like every day, adding notes and a paragraph of biography on the poet, and in this way create my own anthology. No point reading poems I don’t like. And anyway, I’ve got a whole bookcase-full of poetry books to be choosy with.

The third challenge would be to read every single book I have before I die. Now, this is a massive undertaking – impossible, in fact. Sorting the Books took me the entire afternoon and at the end of it I sat down – or rather collapsed longwise onto the sofa with a large glass of cold water and several cats, nursing a pain in my right hip – scanned the walls and did a rough calculation of the number of fiction paperback novels in my possession. I reckon I have around 2,000. Which means that even if I could polish off one novel a week I would be approximately 101 years of age by the time I had finished. Of course that isn’t taking into account all the unpredictable occurrences that stand in the way of reading. And it isn’t taking into account Dickens.

I do have the complete works of Dickens. They take up the whole of one shelf and most of them are very, very long. I have heard of people who challenge themselves to read Dickens in a year – a year. Apparently that is four million words.

102, then.


The 2,000, by the way, is not counting the bookcase of poetry and another bookcase of non-fiction. It is also not counting the huge box of books I had to throw away yesterday, some of which I no longer needed or wanted but some because my cats had peed at them. Yes, he/they appear to have gone round and systematically peed at every single one of my lower shelves. I did consider keeping the books regardless. After all, what’s a bit of a pong? And what does it matter, that gritty feel, that stickiness… But it does matter, even to me, so I boxed up the rejects ready for the rubbish collection man who, fortuitously, is due on Saturday. When re-shelving I left ‘blank’ every single lower shelf, ie cat’s bottom level. I did consider storing those giant-sized boxes of Felix and Whiskas there as ballast, and on the basis that ‘If you’re going to pee at anything, Pussies, it’s gonna be your own food’. But decided against.

Quite right too!

Arthur (the boys are all named after Kings of England) is helping me with this article.

I had a faint hope that somehow this would not mean buying more bookcases but, proving once again the old adage that you can’t fit a quart into a pint pot, it will. The end of my alphabet is now stacked double, books behind books, and I hate that. I considered a trip to the community store to look for a second hand bookcase but decided in favour of two of those ultra-cheap flat packs instead. The books won’t know they’re in a cheap bookcase, and who is going to look at a bookcase when it’s full of books? Nobody I want to know.

I actually like the community furniture store because, in spite of its acres of saggy sofas, its piled-high bedside cabinets, its forests of outmoded kitchen cupboards with patterned glass windows, its gloomy volunteer helpers lurking in corners and a general air of impoverishment and unvisitedness, it’s got a sort of romance about it. All those old lives. All those untold stories hiding in broken springs, stuffing-escapes and age-spotted mirrors. The only trouble with the community store is the waste of petrol and time. And its strange propensity for disappearing.

It’s a Brigadoon sort of place, if not Brigadoonish to look at, being a shabby unit on a small industrial estate on the outskirts of a nearby town. Originating from elsewhere I don’t know the nearby town that well, to drive in, and the outskirts even less. Well, sometimes when I drive over there the store is in situ. Other times I end up going round and round in circles and it’s just not there. It’s as if the roads are made of some kind of spaghetti-like substance, rearranging themselves the moment you turn your back. Bit like the books.

I own a Satnav but to be honest we don’t get on. Banjaxed every time by the very high-speed, multi-car junction I need to navigate in order to reach the store, she confidently announces that we are heading towards a town in a neighbouring county that we are definitely not heading towards. Wake up, dunderhead! I bellow, but she fails to do so. I think she is probably an out of date model; in fact it may have been because she was out of date that she was so very inexpensive. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to update her, and I’m not sure I could be bothered to if I did. I prefer maps.