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The Thinking Allowed Newsletter: High rise and low morals

Thursday 18 August 2011, 17:30

Laurie Taylor Laurie Taylor

Ed's note: The Thinking Allowed newsletter gets sent out on Wednesday mornings and while its primary purpose may be alerting listeners to the contents of that afternoon's programme it's always a great read in its own right. In the newsletter this week Laurie Taylor paid tribute to his friend and colleague Robert Robinson so it felt fitting to share it here. There'll also be a special programme on Radio 4 paying tribute to Robert Robinson this Saturday. Details about this and subscribing to Laurie's newsletter at the end of the post - PM.

Robert Robinson, journalist and broadcaster.

Robert Robinson, journalist and broadcaster in 1962.

In the week in which I learned with great sadness of the death of my old friend and colleague, Robert Robinson, it was perhaps inevitable that I should find myself recalling some of his wry observations about how life should properly be lived.

I particularly remember the day when he discovered that I lived in a flat. He told me that quite frankly, he'd expected nothing else. There was something about my bohemian posturing which suggested that I would be unsuited to a proper house.

In his customary manner he then warmed to his theme and suggested that people who lived in flats had a far more transient, nomadic character than those who preferred houses. Indeed, he would expect adulterers and libertines of all kinds to be over-represented in flats. For what flats and apartments lacked was any solidity or weight or sense of permanence.

If you lived in a house you always had the feeling that you were rooted to the space that the house occupied. Your foundations went down into the ground and your house grew up from the ground. You were part of an organic entity.

Flats, by contrast, had no such base. They were merely anonymous units coupled to other anonymous units. They had never been family homes for long periods of time. They had never developed a distinctive history. They had simply been residences for people who were passing through on their way to somewhere else.

I didn't argue with Bob.

By then I'd already learned that there was far more enjoyment to be had from allowing him to embroider a theme than from challenging him to an argument about its premises.

But his views stayed in my head and I often found myself constructing a counter - argument to justify my own continued occupancy of flats.

Couldn't it be said, for example, that the impermanence of flats was a positive virtue? People who lived in houses were surely more likely to develop static conservative attitudes to life than those who occupied more flexible and transient accommodation.

And might not flat dwellers also be far more sociable than house owners in that they were obliged to rub shoulders with those who lived on the same floor as themselves, with those they met in the lift, with those they ran into when they were collecting mail from the communal hallway?

And weren't those who lived in flats also likely to have a more heterogeneous collection of acquaintances than house-dwellers. For whereas a street usually only contained people from one socio-economic class, a block of flats could include rich penthouse owners as well as renters of lower economic status who occupied the basement or lower ground apartments.

Flats could also inspire a real sense of community as residents came together to further their mutual interests, to clean up the common parts, or organise a Royal Wedding party. They encouraged co-operation rather than individuality and privacy.

However, now that I've read a new book on a seventeen storey commercial and residential block in Hong Kong's tourist district, I realise that I've barely begun to understand the range of functions that such buildings can sustain. Chungking Mansions is home to a huge variety of people, but, according to author and anthropologist Gordon Matthews it is not a place of darkness but a beacon of hope - a wonderful experiment in living.

Also today: Is there any evidence that targeting the parents of gang members can reduce children's involvement in gang culture?

Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Did he ever get to talk to Alan Titchmarsh about gardens and develop the theme, I wonder...

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Educated comment,thoughtful conversationalist,politeness personified even when disagreement separated sharers of the airwaves. An ability to remain civilised even when engaged in disagreement. A member of the best of Radio and Television presenters and participants, along with Malcolm Muggeridge, Clive James,Alistair Cooke,less acerbic than some but all the better for it. His measured tones are sadly missed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Like many of us, I grew up with Robert Robinson so I was saddened to hear of his death and was keen to listen to the Archive on Four programme on him and his life. What a massive disappointment. Yes, I got a lot out of the programme as it reminded me of things that I had forgotten and things that I wanted to hear again. The disappointment was the dragging in off the street of four people, three of whom called him Bob and one who dared not call him Bob!

    Then again, it was much better than those programmes that are spewed out on BBC television in which 18 - 24 year olds are dragged in off the street to talk about people who have died whom they could not possibly have seen or known. Such lack of knowledge does not, however, stop them from drivelling on!

    It would be better to have made available a series of programmes, to let us all listen at our own leisure and then make up our own minds and tributes.


  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Well done for the hatchet job you did on Robert Robinson this morning. Not sure if it was deliberate, but a demolition derby it sure was. Revenge on the part of some participants who'd been put down by 'Bob' at some stage? I've always had mixed feelings about him as a broadcaster; I admired his use of the English language, but found his smugness unbearable. Your programme today tipped me into the 'No' camp. I could only listen as far as the Noel Coward snippet, as I had to catch a train. The put-downs from Jayne Mansfield and 'The Master' were delicious, and showed Bob up as the pompous ass he really was. I can only assume these extracts were judiciously chosen from the many available. Put me out of my misery: have I rumbled you, or was the whole thing done with only good intent? If the latter, you got it spectacularly wrong ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Hmmm. Well this morning I heard the opening 2 mins (Stop the Week theme circa 1980) but then had to exit car and enter work. And tonight the iplayer 'listen again' is no longer available. Pish tish indeed. Maybe just as well I missed it if it was a hatchet job. Must say I thought RR on StW was just hilarious 30 yrs ago. I always imagined he knew exactly what he was doing - that persona included more than a touch of (?self) parody. My now hazy recollections are of razor sharp conversation led and facilitated by someone who loved the power of language and who delighted in an argument elegantly crafted and shared with good grace in good company. Intimidating possibly, boorish rarely (surely?) But generally a joy.


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