If I told you that yesterday I met the architect Zaha Hadid, the director and playwright Gurinder Chadha and (!) artist and director Steve McQueen all in the comfort of my own bedroom you’d tell me to stop dreaming and go away. However, Its true! Well sort of.
To put this rather bold statement into context, the second admission I have to make, is that I’m an avid fan of BBC Radio 4, and more precisely Desert Island Disks. Now, many wouldn’t bat an eyelid at this and quite rightly so; there’s a large variety of culture and education to be had! However, when you consider that I’m sat there, headphones in, amongst my peers at Chelsea (who are undoubtedly listening to the Adeles, Zaynes and Biebers of the world*) it does feel quite surreal.
The beauty of Desert Island Disks, is that you have access to intimate lives of so many influential people. My particular favourites are those who are artists or designers, as they are the people whom I can relate to, in terms of their practice. Its insightful to know how they gained success, and how they faced the challenges that are yet to come for so many of us still studying.
Amongst the list below there are renowned poets, directors, visual artists, peace makers and writers. Aside from getting to be a little nosey, these podcasts are a great way to understand the cultural influences that have shaped their work.
Writer, director and producer behind the films Bend it like Beckham, Bhaji on the Beach and Bride and Prejudice, she began her career as a BBC news reporter.
She was born in Kenya to Sikh parents and grew up in Southall in West London. Her political awakening came in her teens in the 1970s against the backdrop of the National Front and race riots in the capital. The bands she listened to, including the Clash, the Jam and the Specials, were fixtures at the Rock Against Racism concerts which galvanised her desire to make a difference.
Bend it Like Beckham, which launched the career of Keira Knightly, is now a hit musical on the West End stage. Her next film, Viceroy’s House, tackles the Partition of India in 1947.
She was awarded an OBE in the 2006 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to the British Film Industry.
Lord Indarjit Singh
Creator of The Sikh Messenger newspaper and co-founder of the Inter Faith Network he also has the distinction of being the first member of the House of Lords to wear a turban. He was appointed as a crossbench life peer in 2011.
He has contributed to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day from a Sikh perspective for more than thirty years and arrived in Britain in 1933. He began his career as a mining engineer and in later life has been involved in inter-faith community work.
In the New Year Honours 2009 he was awarded the CBE for services to inter-faith and community relations.
Dame Zaha Hadid
The first woman to be awarded architecture’s highest honour, the Pritzker Prize, she designed the Aquatic Centre for London 2012, Glasgow’s Riverside Museum and has twice won the Stirling Prize – first for the MAXXI museum in Rome and secondly for her design for the Grace Academy school in Brixton, London. She recently became the first woman in her own right to receive the RIBA Gold Medal.
She was born in Baghdad in 1950 where her father was a prominent member of the opposition National Democratic Party. After attending school there, she travelled to Switzerland and England to boarding school before returning to London in 1972 to study at the Architectural Association.
As a poet, writer and playwright, much of his work tells the story of his search for his birth parents. Born to a young Ethiopian woman who wanted him temporarily fostered while she completed her studies, he was with a family until he was 12. He would spend the next five years in a number of children’s homes where he began to write. On leaving care at 17, he self-published his first book of poetry while on the dole.
Several poetry collections, plays and programmes for radio and TV followed and his work has taken him around the world. He was the first poet to be commissioned to write for the 2012 London Olympics and his success has also brought him two doctorates and an MBE for services to literature. He is about to be installed as Chancellor of the University of Manchester, an elected post he will hold for the next seven years. He takes writers’ workshops for care-leavers and set up Culture World, the first black writers’ workshop.
Winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for her work, her life seems a perfect reflection of the inter-relatedness of The Commonwealth. Born in Pakistan she was no more than a few months old when the family packed up their belongings and flew four thousand miles to start a new life – exchanging the blistering, dusty lanes of Lahore for the blustery, rain-slicked roads of Glasgow.
Her father worked hard and, from scratch, built a big, successful business and a comfortable life for his children. But the immigrant fairytale came undone when his restless, well-educated, westernised daughter married in secret, running away to Bombay. Her parents disowned her and she would never see her mother again.
Her work centres on themes of freedom, cultural intolerance, everyday life and gender politics.
His work is studied widely in British schools. He was the BBC’s first poet in residence and along with WH Auden and Philip Larkin, he’s a recipient of The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
Born in Guyana he arrived here in the mid-1970s already playing with words like some people play with musical notes. If his style is often satirical, his subjects provide wincing realism – examining the scars of slavery or the historical myopia of a shared past judged solely through European eyes.
He says he believes that “the poet keeps us in touch with the vulnerable core of language that makes us what we are.”
Always concise, frequently counterintuitive and unexpectedly beguiling, his work orders the world in a way that gives fresh insights into human behaviour.
He believes that a knowledge of people’s backgrounds is necessary to understanding their success; his own achievements may presumably then be attributed, not just to his keen mind and polished prose, but also to his parents – an English mathematician and a Jamaican psychotherapist.
He says, “I am the bird attached to the top of a very large beast, pecking away and eating the gnats…. I am someone who draws inspiration from the brilliance of others and repackages it … I am a populariser, a simplifier and a synthesizer.”
These days his talents are well recognized – his art has won The Turner Prize and his most recent movie, “12 Years A Slave” scooped an Academy Award, a Bafta and a Golden Globe. He wasn’t always as lauded: at school in West London he was “shoved to one side” in the belief that the best he could hope for was to earn a living as a manual labourer. Instead he portrays the extremes of what human beings put themselves and others through. Expression is where his heart lies – he describes it as “dancing with ghosts”.
Along with reaching the top of two professions he has also managed to please the diverging demands of his parents – his father wanted him to get a trade, his mother urged him to do what he wanted.
*If you don’t know who these artists are, I’m guessing you’re a R4 listener?
Biographies taken from BBC