Being long-standing listeners of Radio Four’s “Desert Island Discs” we’ve spent many an hour listening to various “islanders” talking about their lives and their favourite pieces of music. Within this programme there’s humour, empathy, enlightened attitudes, intelligent thought, humility – and this is just from the presenter.
In the past, on this blog, we’ve referred to various guests on the programme and the conversation between them and Kirsty Young, the presenter of the programme. We’ve commented on how many of these interesting folk have been overlooked at school or even seen as failures in education, and yet have gone on to great achievements in life. We’ve sometimes been bewildered by their choices in music, and have sometimes been surprised by nuggets of wisdom that come from the least expected people.
It’s also interesting how many people request an endless supply of paper and writing utensils to take away to the island. It just goes to show how many of us don’t make time in our busy lives for writing, and indeed meditation.
This week’s castaway was Dustin Hoffman, an accomplished actor with a history of method acting.
There’s a brilliant story about how he prepared himself for the role of Babe in “Marathon Man”. His character is searching for the truth about his brother’s death, and in order to prepare for the role, Dustin Hoffman sat up for days on end so that he could “feel” the weariness of the character.
On looking at his dishevelled features, the late and great Sir Laurence Oliver asked him what was the matter. When Hoffman told him, his response was “Have you ever tried acting, dear boy?”
We could now spend the rest of this post talking about this man of feeling; this man who was deemed a no hoper by his family and school alike. We could talk of his love of reading and learning, in spite of what happened to him at school, and how he never set out to be a star (“I plummeted to stardom”) but went into acting for his love of it. We could talk about his interesting insights such as his belief in the “conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious – anything that’s not the conscience you try to repress and supress and you keep those traumas until you get work through them”. He’s a fascinating character, but today we’re going to concentrate on the presenter instead.
When asked about a particular outcome of his relationship with his father, Dustin Hoffman turned to Kirsty during the interview and said “These are good questions, Kirsty!” On another occasion, when asked whether his various moves in childhood had had a significant impact, his response was “I didn’t think about that. Are you a therapist, because I need one in London!” – to which she happily offered her services for free.
Dustin Hoffman was right. She is good. She’s exceptionally good at finding out about the people that she interviews and giving us more insight into that person than we could ever get through reading, for example, a ghost-written ‘autobiography’. She asks the sorts of questions that are meaningful to both the castaway and the listener; which give us a thought or two about how we should understand our own lives.
She’s extremely humble and very, very rarely shows any sign of sycophancy with her guests. On the rare occasion when she’s seemed slightly overawed, for instance when she was interviewing Debbie Harry, she explained in sensible and uncomplicated terms, that she had been a fan of the singer as a child and was slightly excited about interviewing her.
It’s this humility and a genuine freedom from self-grandeur that enables Kirsty Young to accomplish so much in these interviews. Abraham Maslow talked of the self-actualised person having a kinship with the whole human race, and Kirsty Young seems to demonstrate this. She likes people. She tries to understand them. She draws them out with her spontaneity and quick responses. She doesn’t use cheap tricks, or set out to exploit or sensationalise. She listens. She allows others to flourish, and in doing so, she somehow manages to get even those who may have a little more self-love than is healthy to express a little more honesty and humility than we are familiar with.
How does she manage this? There are various possibilities but we know that it’s nothing to do with any formal training in psychology. Kirsty Young never went to university.
There used to be a programme on Radio Four called “In the Psychiatrist’s Chair” hosted by Anthony Clare. He was often criticised for being too emollient with his guests. Yet it’s this style of interviewing that has given Kirsty Young the warmth that makes her so appreciated by her audience and her guests – and she has no training. She’s a natural.
She doesn’t just limit her thoughtfulness to Desert Island Discs either. Another trait of a fully-evolved human being is one of being attractive and also attracted to other people. The good sense that she speaks and also her manner of speaking are extremely attractive.
In a recent interview she said she didn’t even aspire for her children to be happy. This certainly goes against the grain for most of us. When a teacher asks parents of the children they teach what they want for their child, this is usually the response given – they want them to be happy. We have long since questioned this idea of “happiness” as an ultimate goal, and it seems that Kirsty Young agrees with us. Like us, it isn’t that we don’t want our children to be happy but we don’t want them to expect it, and we don’t want them to expect it to be a permanent feature of every day. What we want instead is for our children and all children to experience happiness as part of their lives and to embrace all manner of virtues and values as a means to live their lives. We want them to value themselves and their own needs as much as they value others and their needs.
Kirsty said, “I don’t want my children to be ‘happy’. They will be bloody lucky if they glimpse it now and then. I want them to be content and have self-worth.”
Exactly so, Ms Young.
Furthermore, like us, she sees value in the creative. On a visit to a nursery school a few years ago, she was horrified to see children doing “improving exercises” – whatever they may be. She said, “If my child’s coming home covered in snot and poster paint, it’s been a bad day at nursery. The idea that they’re going to come home and show me their jotters just makes me want to puke”.
Is this liberal view of education the answer, one wonders? Does Kirsty Young manage to ask the right questions because she’s never been trained into asking the wrong ones? Is her belief in developing self-worth in children a realisation that this is what is important in life, and is as valuable as being literate and numerate? Is her determination to give her children an opportunity to find out about life for themselves, rather than use her considerable matrimonial fortune to help them up the ladder, a telling point about her understanding of human development and the purpose of education? Is her interest in determining the educational experiences of her guests on the programme an implicit commentary on what we are currently offering our children, and to what avail?
Kirsty Young is successful because she appears to have self-worth. She is competent in her job because she appears to care about people. She is attractive because she’s thoughtful and demonstrates a very healthy amount of empathy.
Can all of us be like this? Can we learn how to be more empathetic? Can we all discover how to evolve into thoughtful and considerate human beings, and if so how do we do it?
Our answer is that those who appear to be successful – like Dustin Hoffman, Kirsty Young and many of her other thoughtful guests that we’ve mentioned before – have a balance in life, and that their reflections in this programme demonstrate a way of living that embraces and uses all of the intelligences.
You can’t be a successful person if you have no self-worth and no idea about who you are – things which we call ‘personal intelligence’. You can’t work and live with people effectively and peacefully if you don’t have the social intelligence to understand and value others. You need to be literate to be able to learn effectively, and embracing learning is so important – to develop intellect. You need to know when to act instinctively – simply because it’s the right thing to do. You need to be aware of your senses and be able to use them effectively – physical intelligence. You need to be able to appreciate the sublime things in life and give time to reflect on what is valuable and good in the world – through metaphysical or spiritual intelligence.
It seems that those who are most successful manage to do these things; not all of the time but often. Kirsty Young has a talent to make this worthiness apparent to the rest of us through how she manages to demonstrate these intelligences herself and how she brings them out in others.
As Dustin Hoffman says – following your passion and realising that life is impermanent is a positive way to live. These sum up an attitude that Kirsty Young might want her children, and other people’s children, to consider for themselves.