Almost there: on Wednesday at 10.30 on BBC4 (or this evening, if I tune into German Arte), I can find out what I have to say about poverty in the ancient world, in an animated history of world poverty, Poor Us, appearing as part of the worldwide ‘Why Poverty?’ season. On the basis of the programmes I’ve seen so far – especially a superbly balanced and thought-provoking documentary on the anti-poverty activism of Geldof and Bono, raising all sorts of questions about means and ends (how far do you get into bed with nasty African dictators and self-serving western politicians with hidden agendas in the hope of doing some good?), questions of priorities and the whole issue of whether this just recapitulates the history of western paternalism towards Africa – this should be absolutely excellent, and I have enormous faith in the director and his vision.
Still, it’s a little nerve-racking; even if the programme is excellent, what about me? Quite how stupid is my voice going to sound (are plummy English tones really appropriate for discussing human misery), quite how much am I going to be waving my hands about – and what exactly am I going to say? I was interviewed for nearly two hours, as I recall, and I can’t imagine that more than 5% at the most will make it into the finished programme; I’m well aware that, when I get going, not every sentence that comes out is necessarily as water-tight and well-considered as I’d like in the cold light of day, especially if it’s removed from the context of supplementary explanations and qualifications (as it almost certainly would be in the final cut). That’s my job, as I conceive it; to provide lots of material, and things that occasionally look a bit like sound-bites, from which the director can assemble the finished product (to misquote Hayden White, the raw materials of the narrative – in this case, the words produced by talking heads – don’t determine the overall form of the story).
Fine, but it still leaves me in this state of nervous anticipation: even if I could remember anything much of what I said at the time, I’ve no idea which extracts will be used – or how they will be used. Maybe I’m actually being set up as some sort of villain, whose conception of poverty and/or its history lies at the root of numerous contemporary problems. Certainly I feel nervous that in some (very trivial) way I’ll be appearing as a representative of ancient history in general, implicitly making – or failing to make – a case for its relevance to the present. I think my best hope is that I’m quoted in a way that makes me seem much more radical than I necessarily am, or at any rate than I am generally prepared to admit in public (as opposed to winding up certain neighbours at drinks parties…). Watch this space – I’ll be back to offer further reflections, once I’ve got over the trauma of having to listen to myself – but, more importantly, watch the programme: not to watch me make a fool of myself, but because of the vital importance of this issue for the world.