How I Keep Calm: Desert Island Discs

The long-running BBC show is more than the audial equivalent of a cup of tea — it provides much-needed escapism from the global horrors and uncertainty.

The swell of strings and squawk of seagulls that begin the Desert Island Discs radio show punctuated my childhood. Back then, the theme song was an indication that my dad had taken a school-run stand: We would be subjected to the drone of BBC Radio 4 instead of Britney’s latest album on cassette. So unfair.

Turns out, daddy knows best.

Desert Island Discs, I now understand, is a British institution. The show has been on air since 1942, and with over 3,000 episodes, the archives are an audial treasure trove. In recent years, large swathes of them have become available as podcasts, which is how I — and a whole new generation of fans — started listening. With such an extensive archive, I don’t have to ration episodes. I can indulge, safe in the knowledge that I will not run out — now there’s a calming thought.

The premise sounds undeservedly trite: Guests are invited to pick the “soundtrack of their lives,” eight tracks that they’d take to a desert island — along with a luxury item and a book (the Bible or other religious/spiritual text and The Complete Works of Shakespeare are thrown in for free). But the mix of fantasy, music, and a shrewd host always makes for a compelling interview.

Initially, I was drawn to the show because it was comforting. I’d just moved to New York and former (and by far my favorite) host, Kirsty Young’s, soft Scottish accent in my ear made me feel less homesick.

But during this pandemic, Desert Island Discs became more than the audial equivalent of a cup of tea — it provided much-needed escapism from the global horrors and uncertainty.

At its core, the show is about make believe. Guests must imagine how they’d cope alone on an island: which book would keep them occupied for, potentially, a lifetime; what luxury they could never give up (Simon Cowell’s, predictably enough, is a mirror; athlete Dame Kelly Holmes picked chocolate).

As a listener, you are witness to each guest narrating their life story, brought to life through their chosen soundtrack. If the interviewer is canny enough — as most have been, though present host Lauren Laverne has polarized fans — the episode should take you along their trip down memory lane. It’s comforting to be reminded that there is so much more than the here and now, that a lifetime spans periods of peace and unrest, success and failure.

It’s been a relief to escape, for a while, to the England that food writer Anna del Comte encountered on her quest to introduce devotees of meat-and-two-veg to pasta. Or experience Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism through the eyes of foreign correspondent Hella Pick.

That’s the other thing about Desert Island Discs: though they’ve featured their fair share of A-List celebrity guests (George Clooney’s episode proved him just as achingly suave as I’d always imagined him to be, Tom Hanks reduced me — and himself — to tears), the “castaways” run the gamut from politicians, dancers, journalists, entrepreneurs, botanists, and more — all among the best in their chosen field. It is a celebration of talent and an introduction to all sorts of fascinating personalities and professions I’d never have come across on my own. Each episode has provided necessary fodder for my imagination, which ground to a halt after weeks locked up inside staring at the same four walls.

I can’t pretend that I haven’t escaped reality by curating my own “soundtrack” — something I never allowed myself to indulge in prior to the pandemic, preferring to wait until I deemed myself worthy of joining the castaway ranks. It’s helped to transport me to happier times, to remind me that I’ve endured and enjoyed before, and will do again.

“Layla” by Eric Clapton — a song that’s curiously shown up at numerous significant moments, like the day my grandma passed away or my first date with my husband — will have to feature. So will “Blinded by Your Faith Part 2” by Stormzy, my jam while I was heavily pregnant with my son. I never let myself get further than that — there’s so much more life to live. In true British fashion, there seems nothing left to do but keep calm and carry on.

how I keep calm

How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.

Rachel Myerson

Rachel Myerson (she/her) is a freelance journalist from the UK, now based in New York after a five year stint in Tel Aviv. She writes about all things cultural, with a focus on food, and has been published in Time Out, Vice, and the Forward, amongst others.

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