Last week I spent the day at MediaCity, the BBC's brand new HQ in the north, courtesy of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) New Generation Thinkers scheme. MediaCity is a metro-sexy-looking place, with tall buildings condomed in sleek glass or copper or stainless steel. It overlooks the reclaimed Salford Quays.
It was grey day. Even Robbie what’s-his-name from Strictly Can’t Dance couldn’t brighten it as he jogged past, all über-tanned torso and over-blond locks. It’s my impression that it’s always grey in Manchester. I did a degree there and can't remember the sun shining once.
Fortunately the folk up north are warm and friendly and allowed us to ogle as we stepped into a penthouse-style space called the Imagine room. I tried to imagine what it has cost the license payer but lost count while drooling over the Armani-looking sofas. Shifting my gawp from the million-pound views, I found myself surrounded by bright young things, from the BBC staffers to my ‘rival’ academics. I settled my specs on my nose and reflected on the consequences of having had other careers first.
The New Generation Thinkers scheme is a clever one, providing as it does an ever-widening pool of pundits for the Beeb to call upon when they need panelists or interviewees. And for academics, it ticks the Impact box in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) form, so it's win-win. (If you don't know what I'm talking about re REF, keep it that way. The research imperative in UK universities is onerous these days, especially for someone like me who never meant to be an academic.)
But there I was and soon enjoying myself listening to and discussing the key elements of good Arts and Culture programmes. It struck me that these dovetailed with the elements of good feature writing which I teach to my Journalism students, i.e. start with a hook, use vivid detail to create word pictures, match your tone to your subject matter, present your argument with clarity and consistency and don't shy away from the personal.
I thought it was much harder to embrace the facilitate-stimulate-detonate qualities of a good presenter of panel discussion on public radio. Academic etiquette dictates that one allows one's debating adversary as much time as they’d like to pontificate, obfuscate or annihilate themselves in an argument. Clocks do not tick loudly in ivory towers so seldom does one academic have to baldly point out (especially within the adversary’s hearing) that they are talking tosh. This, however, can make for interesting radio, we gathered from various clips played to us.
But the dissing was missing as we floundered around the banal topic of ‘Is life comedy or tragedy?’ in a dispiriting tag team debate. In desperation, while briefly occupying the Presenter’s chair, I labelled the argument of an admirably spiritual biographer from Hull as ‘base’. It wasn't; very high-minded actually, but he was supposed to be arguing for comedy.) My declaration evoked an un-zen-like riposte. Later I hissed ‘bastard to a sweet-faced fellow from somewhere up north who trapped me into showing the comic underbelly of my argument while I sat uncomfortably in the Tragedy chair. A shame you couldn't see my 'fair cop' grin on radio. I hope the chaps won’t hold it against me. It was all in the spirit of getting them to drop their academic drawers in public.
I think I did better with my mini-thesis pitch though I forgot to mention the dangerous and exciting bits, namely, that my field trip had placed me in the path of an irate bull elephant and a veld-fire the size of a subcontinent — which I had to flee in a fuel-laden Land Rover wheel-spinning in sand turned molten by the surrounding inferno.
On second thoughts, I probably didn’t need that bit. I probably said enough dangerously exciting things at the BBC for one day.
The BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers 2012 finalists will be announced at the end of April.
African novelist, writing tutor and UK academic.