My latest Something Understood for Radio 4 on Sunday April 19th was conceived as a sequel to The White North Has Thy Bones, about our fascination with the Arctic and the North West Passage. Together with producer Natalie Steed we have, I think, sourced some beautifully evocative music and poems. And where else to begin but with a shimmering desert horizon and that first glimpse of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia to Maurice Jarre’s majestic score? Laurie Lee’s poem Scot in the Desert, which I found in an old school anthology, places the Antarctic hero in the heat and dust, quickly I hope taking us down a more subversive and less macho, Western-centric exploration of the desert landscape, its inhabitants and its heroes.
JG Ballard in The Atrocity Exhibition ponders why so many religious and political leaders emerge from the desert. And Frank Herbert’s Dune plays with the language and imagery of jihad, battling tribes and the geopolitics of a much desired buried commodity.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael is the heart of the programme. It was one of the first Bible stories I was taught at Convent School and it disturbed me deeply and seemed to challenge even, at the age of 5, any complacency about the narrative of the Old Testament. Hagar is an Egyptian slave; cast out not once, but twice, to face death in the desert; saved only by an Angel of the Lord.
Her son Ishmael is fathered by his own slave master. This mother and child form a parallel narrative in Genesis – saved by the same Lord of Abraham and he is blessed with twelve sons of his own, to mirror the twelve tribes of Israel. Ishmael has long had a special resonance with African American Christians for that reason, but is also revered in Islam as a prophet ancestor of Muhammad. His story is that of the black slave son, the perpetual outsider. Hagar the African woman suffering such indignity and yet enduring. No wonder their place in scripture still unsettles and disturbs and that so many great artists have tried to capture on canvas the powerful emotions buried within a few Biblical verses.
A fantasy novel She Who Remembers – was a gift when I was a teenager. It introduced me to the lost world of the Native American Anasazi whose abandoned canyon cities have left such a mystery about why they disappeared.
The idea of sand as a force of nature, encroaching over the ruins of mankind continues to hold apocalyptic power over our imagination. The ruins on Delos near Mykonos, which I visited a couple of years ago are now what comes to mind when I think of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.
But it was important to me to end the programme with Ishmael, married and settled, accompanied by Natacha Atlas and Jocelyn Pook’s exquisite Adam’s Lullaby. Atlas also featured on The White North Has Thy Bones. The image of Hagar at the point of despair, failing to protect her baby son from the cruel sun and the thirst of the desert contrasted with the reality — that to millions of people — this environment is no sterile wasteland, but to those who know how to live in harmony with its unique ecosystem, a place called home.
My Spotify list of Desert music from the programme with extras – including a particularly lovely and less known Frank Sinatra track we couldn’t fit into the edit.
The White North Has Thy Bones – companion Something Understood programme on the Arctic (January 2015)