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 Gramophone records were black discs originally made of something called shellac.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…

Dictionary Dip and Doodles

When I was young I used to play a solitary game, or rather the solitary game seemed to play me. It was called Dictionary Dip and I actually thought it was a proper game, but it doesn’t pop up on Google so I guess I must have invented it.

You see, I just wrote  ‘…I used to play a solitary game, or rather the solitary seemed to play me…’ and now in my head I can hear someone singing, and now I know it’s John Lennon, and now I know it’s

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me…

That’s the kind of thing that happens all the time. It gets on my nerves sometimes. Sometimes I feel I’m just a kind of engine, and words are my fuel. The trouble is that words are not discrete; they run into one another like liquid. In the end, I believe, there is just one word, containing all the others, and in the end I might know it. I wrote that, and then I wondered what on earth I meant by it, and then I heard:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Have I gone all religious all of a sudden? No, I think I mean a Something Else, a Something even bigger than God. But then the meanings converge and overlay one another, like coloured acetates, and I wonder whether I do in fact mean God, or whether God means the Something Else. This is the way I think, on paper. Unfortunately thinking is not communicating, so back to Dictionary Dip.

I was lucky in having access to dictionaries – big dictionaries, not the useless pocket kind; lucky also in being a solitary child who made her own amusements. Other amusements were available; I just wasn’t all that interested. I remember a deck of cards, and my father teaching us to play something called Sevens, the rules of which kept falling out of my head, much to his disgust. I remember toy tanks made out of cotton reels, matchsticks, wax candle and elastic bands. Those were quite fun. You could race them, like snails. Kinder than snails. I remember endless, dull buildings in something called Sticklebricks – and Snakes and Ladders, or more specifically the colour of the board and the devious forked-tongue flickering expressions on the faces of the Snakes, but my sister kept cheating at that. We played Hangman sometimes – something to do with trying to reconstruct a mystery word before the scaffold was completed. By the way, did you know Hangman is known as Galgenmännchen in German? Galgen is gallows, so I am guessing Galgenmännchen means Little Hanging Man. We played noughts and crosses, but that was too easy. We played ‘I Spy’ but that was far too easy, and besides my sister always came up with something silly that nobody in their right mind could have guessed.

I found Dictionary Dip all the more absorbing because I would never set out to play it. I’d look up one new word, but in the definition I’d find another new word. So then of course I had to look up the second word. And then it gave a Greek word, or a Latin word that that word had come from. So what did that mean? And then having found out what that meant, I’d remember other words that had the same bit of Greek or Latin (or Middle French, or Anglo-Saxon English) in them, and then the words would all line up in my head, in an array, and I’d see how they were connected. If somebody asks me how to spell something, I read it. There it is, somewhere behind my left eye; I just look. If somebody asks me to define a word, I don’t get a nice neat definition – well I do, but along with it I get reverberations, associations, etymology. There it is all around me – or there I am, within it – like a fog.

If only it could have worked that way with maths I might have been spared many a tormented hour being invisible at the back of the class whilst drawing pictures in my rough book of what I imagined an ouzel bird might look like, and right-facing profiles – couldn’t do left – and endless loopy daisies with coloured-in middles and little stalks, with two leaves each.

I did at one point get urban slang emailed to me. It wasn’t that I thought I’d ever use such words, but I couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on anything. But after a while I realised urban slang was so ephemeral and often – let’s face it – so crude and show-offy – that there was no great enjoyment to be had from it. However, I do still collect new words of the more mainstream variety.

I just found a list of new word entries for the Oxford English Dictionary, and here are a random five that caught my eye:


Now, this one just illustrates the dangers of assuming you know what something means. Looking at Comedogenic I would have assumed it was related to Schizophrenogenic – a now more or less taboo term among psychiatrists meaning a mother, or family dynamic, likely to trigger schizophrenia in susceptible individuals – and so would mean anything likely to give rise to comedy. But no, it means tending to cause blackheads and is related to comedone, which is a kind of pimple. Eurgh!


Free-climbing a route, while lead climbing, after having practiced the route beforehand, either by hangdogging or top roping. (Hangdogging? Top roping?) This word apparently comes from the German Rotpunkt, which goes back to a gentleman called Kurt Albert in the mind-1970s, who painted a red X on any fixed pin that he could avoid using. This was probably the way free-climbing movement began.


Is another name for the Jerusalem Artichoke.


Is a chef’s cutting technique for leafy green vegetables. You seem to have to roll or stack them tightly, then slice them, which gives little curly strips. Doesn’t work well with narrow-leaved things like coriander, parsley or rosemary. Chiffon is the French word for rags or ribbons. In English it refers to a particular type of lightweight material. Chiffonade, therefore means Little Rags or Little Ribbons, which is what the chiffonaded leaves look like.

Graffiti Knitting

Also known as Yarnstorming or Guerilla Knitting, this is ‘ the art of conjuring up a piece of knitting or crochet, taking it out into the world, releasing it into the wild, and running away like a mad thing’. So knitting escapes from old ladies’ front rooms and down beside the sofa, and instead festoons phone boxes, statues, trees and such. I quite like this idea. It’s obviously a form of art, no less valid and a good deal less unpleasant than half-a-sheep in formaldehyde or ‘our Tracey’s’ unmade bed. However, so time-consuming and so – ultimately – pointless. For me, Graffiti Knitting, whilst admirable, would have to be placed in the same category as mushroom-stuffing.

(Life is too short to stuff a mushroom – Shirley Conran, 1975)

Which just gave me an idea for another post.