WILL SELF: The Archers is now a symbol of our disunited kingdom
- Credit: Archant
After a lifetime of listening, WILL SELF explains why he is no longer an addict of the Radio 4 drama
Billy Connolly used to do a closer for his live act, in which he'd get the whole audience to bellow the theme tune to the long-running Radio 4 rural soap opera, The Archers: 'Doo-d'dooo-d'doo-d'doo, doo-d'dooo-d'doo-d'dooooo!' They'd all plaint, swaying in the stalls, and feeling a deep comity. Anyway, Connolly would make the point that this gnawingly jaunty ditty - entitled Barwick Green, a 'maypole dance' from Arthur Wood's 1924 suite, My Native Heath - would make a far better national anthem than that turgid groan, God Save the Queen.
But let's face it - it isn't just the catchiness of The Archers theme tune that makes it fit for this purpose - it's the blue-remembered hills of Borsetshire that open out behind it. A much loved realm, where despite the steely inroads of modernity, social relations remain happily small-scale… one might even say organic, and however severe they may be, personal conflicts are almost always resolved within 15 minutes - or at worst half an hour.
How long have I been listening to The Archers? Why, I could no more answer this question than I could think outside the Kantian a priori categories of unity, plurality and totality etc. I suckled this warm milk of faked rural kindness at my mother's teat. An American, who arrived on these shores in 1958 (when the show had been running for a mere seven years), she became a convinced fan - and not just of the vicissitudes of these farming folk, but the entire queered realm of Radio 4, where everyone - whatever their actual origins - is securely middle class, and received ideas are promulgated relentlessly in received pronunciation.
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She had several transistor radios dotted around our semi-detached house, and as she revolved angrily from one hated domestic task to the next, me toddling in her wake, thumb in drooling mouth, the 'Doo-d'dooo-d'doo-d'doo, doo-d'dooo-d'doo-d'dooooo!' would rise and fall with a Doppler effect which suggested that while we might be en route, The Archers would forever abide.
And so it proved: I grew up (sort of), my mother died in 1988 when I was 26 - I married the following year, and my eldest son was born in 1990. That marriage foundered three years later, shortly after the birth of my daughter. I remarried in 1997, the same year my second son was born - and the third was born in 2001. The children all grew up - and my second wife and I separated in early 2016, shortly before the Brexit referendum. She died in October last year after a short illness. Throughout all these major life events - you guessed it - I could hear that persistent 'Doo-d'dooo-d'doo-d'doo, doo-d'dooo-d'doo-d'dooooo!' fluting in the background - for I, too, have filled the houses and flats I've lived in with transistor radios tuned to 92-95 FM.
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I never listened consistently to The Archers - I never, so to speak, 'tuned in': it was rather that I thought of the soap as ever-present, a sort of socio-dramatic substratum to my own life, into which I could sink from time to time in order to gain a little lightweight catharsis. I had the curious sensation for decades, that while I might not have any strong sense of the show's various and intertwined narrative strands (that maypole dance again), I nonetheless knew - at this same ulterior level - what was going on. Adam and Ian's surrogate birthed baby, Linda Snell's car-crash Christmas show, Shula Archer's limp bid for ordination - I'd only to drop into these life-worlds for a minute or two in order to feel fully conversant with them and their inhabitants.
In retrospect, now that it's all over, it occurs to me that this sensation must be what other people call 'patriotism': a numinous - but for all that profoundly real - sense of belonging to somewhere. I don't feel there was anything wrong with this - or that it cheapened a noble emotion, more usually associated with pomp and circumstance than a fictional pint of Shires down the Bull (or should I say 'Bee'). After all, Britain was, for most of this period, quite as debatable a land as Borsetshire - at least to me. However, since our disunited kingdom shimmered back into bordered being at the beginning of last month, I've found myself utterly repelled by The Archers - I'd now no sooner listen to this aural pap, than I would cut off my own buttocks, varnish them, and sell them as saladiers in a provincial gift shop. When 'Britain' existed as a part of a larger whole, these confected everyday dramas of country folk had a pleasing unreality - but now it stands alone, the sunny uplands of Borsetshire have become everyone's hinterland, while you no longer need a radio of any sort to hear the cheesy 'Doo-d'dooo-d'doo-d'doo, doo-d'dooo-d'doo-d'dooooo!' of British nationalism.
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