Why the BBC & poetry can touch your life
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
How long have you lived here?
Since I joined the BBC in 1989.
Favourite local haunts?
Adam's Café, the Sufi restaurant, CJ's on the Uxbridge Road. And all the charity shops.
Where did you grow up?
Surbiton. Suburbia. It marked me, growing up in the suburbs, a life in waiting, London's waiting room. Everyone always said, one day you'll go to London, but I fought it. First I went to Oxford, then abroad.
People thought the BBC was magic
A twin sister, Fiona. Some twins are competitive, especially boys, but we're very complementary. I remember, when we inherited a piano from my grandmother, my mother asked who’d like to learn it, and my sister said, I do. And I thought to myself, that’s Fiona’s then, I’ll do something different. You’re a twin forever of course – there’s a constant sense that someone is travelling with you. We come from a long line of twins. Our mother was a twin.
Is your family creative?
Moderately. But leavened with a lot of practicality. My mother was a teacher – and we were always encouraged to learn things, do things, pursue our passions. Never waste time. Ironically, my family said, don't become a teacher, and that was the first thing I did after university. I taught English in Italy and France. It was the best of educations, and gave me time to think, time to absorb and fall in love with other cultures. Coming back to the UK, I worked in local journalism, publishing, and for the last 20 years or so at the BBC.
You're now Head of BBC History. What's the role?
Primarily, it’s to tell the story of the BBC, which I take to mean why the BBC matters and how it’s touched people’s lives and made a difference. I usually describe my role with four verbs: Celebrate – that’s marking our achievements with anniversary events; Engage – that’s getting the public involved so they can tell their stories, which might be via exhibitions and activities; Explore – helping those who want to know more in-depth about our history, academics and the like; and Interpret – bringing our buildings and public spaces to life via art, graphics, interesting interventions. I love my job because it’s very eclectic, and largely self-scheduling, which is rare in a bureaucracy like the Beeb.
What's your favourite BBC story?
I love the story of the cello and the nightingale. One day in 1924 a famous cellist, Beatrice Harrison, was playing her cello in the garden at dusk. Suddenly, a nightingale began to sing along. Beatrice was so utterly charmed by this, that she decided the duet must be heard on the newly-invented radio. Somehow, she managed to persuade the then Director-General, John Reith, to agree to record this – not easy in those days. Cables had to be trunked from the post office. Everything was live and, of course, there was no certainty that the bird would sing. But finally, sing it did, and the first broadcast hit was born. Listeners sent thousands of fan letters to 'The Nightingale Lady', the BBC's first star. And I still find it poignant that a bird should bother to answer a human. It’s the same reason we still seek a connection with nature now ¬– via programmes like Countryfile and The Archers.
How has the BBC changed our lives since it was founded in 1922?
Enormously. It's impossible to imagine the impact of radio right at the beginning. People thought it was magic. With the flick of a switch people had the voice of the King in their living rooms, or the Prime Minister. And of course it connected us to a wider world and made it seem immeasurably closer. Life was never the same again.
What are your favourite programmes?
As you can imagine, as a writer, I'm a great fan of radio and the spoken word: Radio 4’s books and arts programmes, The Echo Chamber et cetera; Desert Island Discs – for Kirsty Young’s fabulous interview technique; contemporary drama, and of course Saturday night wouldn’t be the same without Strictly.
The BBC licence fee is compulsory. With pay-per-view subscriptions becoming the norm will the licence become voluntary?
The BBC was born out of pragmatism. We looked east and saw total control and we looked west and saw no control. The Licence Fee is not a perfect mechanism, but it’s somehow survived as no one has found anything better. However, I suspect it will be reinvented, eventually.
As well as working for the BBC you're also a poet with four published collections. Why do you write poetry?
Because I type so badly! No, I've always written, since I was a boy. In the beginning, it was the sheer magic of words. "Is there anyone there?" said the Traveller. I’ve never forgotten hearing those words of De La Mare’s for the first time. What I really like about poetry is that it gets to the essentials, as well as tilting the world and allowing us to see it differently.
But I fully understand that for many people poetry’s completely irrelevant. I remember when I was making a short radio feature, I did a street survey asking people what they thought about poetry. "I don't" was the commonest reply. Yet it’s strange that people do seek it out at the most important times in their life: when they fall in love; when someone dies. That does point to some universal relevance.
For those put off poetry by memories of Shakespeare and Chaucer, how would you reintroduce them to poetry?
I’d start with where it’s relevant – a football chant, a rap song, a recipe, a love confession. At root, poetry taps into deep inside us. It combines thought and emotion with precision. And it's relevant because we hear rhyme and rhetoric all the time. We're already listening to poetry every day – we just don’t call it that. Poets have to bring their stuff to life.
Who are your favourite poets?
Doing a degree in English I read lots of the literary greats – Donne, Tennyson, Yeats – and I absolutely loved them. But now I mainly read my contemporary poets. Some of my favourites are Jane Draycott, Jane Duran, John Burnside, Emily Berry, Jean Sprackland... There’s a long list.
What do you write about?
They say a poet always writes the same poem, and I'm not sure exactly what mine is, but I know the themes I'm drawn to: a life in waiting, reinvention, selfhood, love, language. But with every book I try and take on a new challenge, do and say something fresh.
Given the brevity of much poetry, have smartphones increased the chances of it being read? Yes. The Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, said tweets are the perfect invitation. I agree, and I always cut. I want just enough, not too much.
You've chaired the Poetry Trust and judged many poetry competitions. What's your advice for an aspiring poet?
Write and read. You must practice any craft. I don’t accept the dictum of waiting for the poem to fall from a tree. And you’ve got to be listening to the language around you, responding to life as it’s lived now.
If you weren't a historian and poet, what would you do?
For years I wanted to act, but I don't any more. I still go to the theatre a lot, but it's a very difficult and undermining profession. I’d seriously like to be a gardener/garden designer. It’s one of the most satisfying things – creative, humbling, surprising. Not unlike poetry really.
Thank you, Robert. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
You can read Robert's poems on his website robertseatter.co.uk.
Interviewed Nov 2017