We all have our eight choices: but do we understand how much they reveal?

Everyone knows what happens on Desert Island Discs, which has just celebrated its 70th anniversary with a fourth appearance by Sir David Attenborough (who I have to admit, though a legendary national treasure, is one of my pet aversions, so I won’t be listening to that one).

It’s a simple but invariable formula. Guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and to choose eight pieces of music to take with them; discussion of their choices permits a review of their life. At the end of the programme they choose the one piece they would save if all the rest were swept away by the sea.; they are automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible: they are then asked which other book they would take with them. They also choose a luxury of some sort.

Would you appear on the programme if asked? Of course you would: so would I, just as I would accept if I were offered them both a knighthood and membership of the Order of Merit (than which an appearance on Desert Island Discs is scarcely less prestigious). The fact that I won’t be asked to appear on the programme has never been a disincentive to my thinking up, repeatedly over the years, what my eight desert island discs would be. You’re not asked on, of course, for your musical taste, but for your distinction and achievements. But a surprising number of people think it’s all about the music. I think it was Sue Lawley (the last regular presenter before the present incumbent –the best – the admirable Kirsty Young) who said that people were always coming up to her with their own list of eight choices, under the impression that if she thought they were a really interesting selection she might ask them on to the programme.


The point is that what you choose is supposed to elicit some anecdote or other explanation of why you chose them (apart from any possible musical merits) which will be revealing about the sort of person you are. This was charmingly epitomised by the selection of the great cook, Nigel Slater, who chose some excellent music, but when it came to the record he would save before all the others chose “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” because he always found it so comforting at times of anxiety.

Well, as I say, I’m not going to be asked on to the programme, not now, not ever. But I’ve been refining my personal Desert Island Discs for many years now and the anniversary provides me with my last big chance, one which will never come again: this is my big opportunity to tell the world what I would choose if I were asked. So, here goes (log off now if you’re not interested):

1. Louis Armstrong Hot Five (1928), “West End Blues”
2. Elgar, Violin Concerto (played by Jascha Heifetz)
3. Duke Ellington (1940), “A portrait of Bert Williams”
4. Beethoven, Cello Sonata no 3 in A major (played by Jacqueline Dupré)
5. Jelly Roll Morton, “Doctor Jazz”
6. Schumann, Piano Quintet
7. Mozart, Final sestet of Le Nozze di Figaro
8. JS Bach, B minor Mass: Sanctus (Karajan and the Berlin Philarmonic

But what does that tell you about me? And why on earth should you be interested? Well, what it may indicate – which might be of interest to someone else, and not just to myself – is how very revealing the Desert Island Discs basic formula really is. That choice of eight pieces is never just about the music, since musical taste is always, at least in part, about who you are, sometimes even about how you came to be who you are. I thought I was just choosing some of the pieces which over my lifetime have meant the most to me on purely musical grounds. The fact is, though, that when I look at them from an autobiographical perspective, how much they explain about my own attitudes over the years becomes blindingly obvious to me. That Louis Armstrong piece, for instance, certainly explains not only why I have always detested racial prejudice against black people: not because it made me an anti-racist, but because when it comes to the music I really loved at that time (I was 16, I think, when I discovered the early Louis Armstrong) I was actually distinctly racially prejudiced, but in favour of black people. White jazz musicians like Bix Beiderbecke were all very well. There was nothing actually against them; I travelled down on the train (still pulled by a vast steam engine) from Yorkshire (in 1957, for heaven’s sake) to see the very white Humphrey Lyttelton, one of my great heroes, in his famous club at 100 Oxford Street.

But it wasn’t just that black people were better jazz musicians: it was that only they reached the level of actual musical genius. That recording of “West End Blues” wasn’t just great jazz: it was music which operated at a level which can only be described as sublime. I still think so more than half a century later. Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton underlined my sense of black people’s musical superiority, which came to be balanced, but never entirely expunged, by my slightly later (though overlapping) discovery of dead whites like Elgar, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

It was the great classics which, I suppose typically enough, came with age to move centre stage in my musical tastes. And here, too, it wasn’t just the discovery of the music which was life-changing. I was still a Protestant atheist when I had to depart early from a rehearsal of the Bach B minor Mass to be performed a few weeks later by the Dublin University Choral Society. The choir was singing Bach’s majestic Sanctus. I noticed a Catholic priest, just inside the double doors which formed the main entrance to the hall: he was in tears. My companion, a theological student at this still very Protestant institution, explained: the priest, he told me, said the words the choir was now singing every day at the altar; they were at the very centre of his life: he had never heard them like that before.

I thought about that scene many times over the years, every time I listened to the B minor Mass in fact. Little by little, it was the Sanctus I found myself waiting for when I put on my increasingly worn (and now replaced) CD. What part did that day, long ago, play in my conversion 30 years later? God knows, not I. But this story does exemplify one thing: music that really matters to us is never just music, it always puts down roots to intellectual and emotional levels well below anything we fully understand. I could write about all my eight choices at equal length: but in the immortal words of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, I have “delighted [you] for long enough”. Time to sign off. Cue: “By A Sleepy Lagoon”…