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In Their Own Voices – British Upper Class Novelists

By Phil Thornton

If you believe, as I do,  that the BBC is just another part of the incestuous toff cabal that feeds upon the same myths of cultural unity which sustains the establishment and acts as a state propagandist to uphold the financial cartels underpinning the monarchy and the political status quo , “In Their Own Words; British Novelists” probably made you want to chop off the hands of almost every writer over the past century. 

ITOV  was an Open University production for BBC4 exploring the development of the British novel in three distinct chronological episodes :


1 Among The Ruins (1919-1939)

2 The Age Of Anxiety (1945-1969)

3 Nothing Sacred (1970 – 1990)


 During the three hours of this series the same voice was heard throughout; the BBC voice, the literary establishment voice, the toff voice! The first voice we heard was Virginia Woolf’s almost comically clipped Bloomsbury tones, the last was the genteel estuary accent of Ian McEwan as he surveyed the remnants of the Berlin Wall. The end of history? The end of literature?  The end of a flawed series that’s for sure.

Each episode was bookended by war; the first and second world wars and the cold war, and whether deliberate or not, this division only reinforced just how elitist and self-consuming the British literary scene (and the education system that propagates it) is. Wars come and go, freedoms are ‘granted’ for women, for gays, for colonials and the workers but one thing remains static; the voice of the British novelist. Even in the last episode that voice remained defiantly oppressive; for example Angela Carter interviewed during the 80s uses the world ‘beastly’ evoking Woolf and her aristocratic set sixty years earlier. As for Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi,  whilst they may have darker skin than their peers at the Booker prize dinner, they nevertheless speak in the same voice, share the same backgrounds and educational privileges .

Those voices of opposition that were heard were given pretty short shrift. Take this amazing example of double think from the script :

“That there was such a thing as the literary establishment, that it spoke with an English accent, that London was its headquarters and the Booker Prize dinner was its tribal gathering angered many Scottish writers during the 80s.”


Well, hey, it wasn’t just Scottish writers in the 80s who were angry about this cultural ghetto y’know but that self-justifying, mocking sentence did provide a neat segue to James Kelman, whose ‘Working class Glaswegian’ voice provided the one oppositional note in an orchestra of complacency  (Jeanette Winterson’s diluted Lancashire Tory burr doesn’t count).  Is Kelman a ‘Scots’ writer or a ‘Glasgow’ writer or a ‘working class’ writer? This only matters if you ask the same question of say Martin Amis. Is Amis an ‘English’ writer, a ‘Home Counties’ writer, an ‘upper class’ writer?  Of course such patronising questions  are never addressed to Amis and his ilk because the people asking them share the same lazy prejudices. Yes,  even Germaine Greer appears charmed by this dashing, sneering  misogynist.  And  whereas  Kelman is  granted a whole three minutes of programme time to cover his 40 year career, Amis is alloted a whole eight minutes on just one book; the ludicrously over-rated ‘Money.’      


These anomalies were bound to happen given the editorial tone of the series itself and the parameters set by the producers; In Their Own Words.  Hence archive BBC footage was the primary source for these episodes and this became much easier in the latter stages than the pre-TV first episode. Some writers did indeed speak for themselves whereas others had their work defended or explained by other authors or critics. Thus it is left for the very posh A.L. Kennedy to upbraid the pompous snobs who balked at Kelman’s 1994 Booker Prize winning novel, ‘How Late It Was, How Late.’  Her critique was spot-on, telling the lit-crit elitists ‘to facking grow ap’ but surely Kelman didn’t need anyone to speak or defend him and his work.  


As a method of assessing how writers write, their own ways of working and systems, as well as their opinions and prejudices, the series provided valuable insights to anyone with an interest in literature. Yet, its self-imposed narrow ‘nationalist’ agenda set everything in terms of Britain and Britishness or at least the producers’ own narrow version of these abstract geographical and cultural concepts.  The influence of French, Irish and American and other ‘foreign’ authors upon the ‘British’ novel was never explored, as if art exists in a nationalist vacuum.  If Flaubert, or Joyce or Hemingway had any impact upon either the subject matter or style of ‘homegrown’ authors then it wasn’t mentioned. The one working class member of the Bloomsbury group and the one who most infamously wrote so freely about the subject of sex, DH Lawrence was mysteriously omitted altogether from the first programme in a detailed discussion about how sex was considered taboo amongst British writers of the era.  Like Lady Chatterley never happened!


Ofcourse there are bound to be huge gaps and omissions covering such a huge area but, as so often happens with these prescribed ‘histories,’ even, or especially those with an ‘academic’ remit (or pretension),  the very selectivity and lack of context  becomes tiresome and frustrating. The narrator of the series was the actress, Rebecca Front putting on her best ‘respectable Hampstead’ voice  and the producer was one Jonty Claypole. Jonty fucking Claypole! How BBC is that? It’s not that the series was bad,  in many ways it was excellent, only that, whether by design or accident, the BBC exposed itself as a bastion of upper middle and aristocratic sentiments by trawling through a vast archive of voices, both living and dead,  that all sounded exactly the same.  BBC Voices.  This is their problem, not ours.


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