John Tusa makes a noise – but softly

12 May
photo pf Fernando Bagué

John Tusa ©Fernando Bagué

It’s a funny old thing. For someone with a memoir entitled Making a Noise, its author, John Tusa, did anything but in delivering his lunchtime talk at Swindon’s Arts Centre. Which is not to say he whispered – that’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is that he had a considered, measured and calm method of delivery. Nothing frenetic here.

The subheading of Making a Noise, ‘Getting it right, getting it wrong, in life, the arts and broadcasting’ attracted me. Who hasn’t done and who isn’t still doing that? Well, the getting it right and wrong part at least.

Anyway, what a revelation Mr Tusa turned out to be. You may be less ignorant of his origins than I so forgive me if John Tusa’s nationality is old news to you. If it’s not: John Tusa is Czechoslovakian by birth, British by naturalization. Also interesting is that his father worked for the Bata shoe company. I know the shoes well – but had no idea it was a Czech company. One might liken Bata to our Rowntree and Cadbury entrepreneurial families, with its company town of Zlin. Though where Cadbury housed their workers in a Tudorbethan garden village called Bourneville, *the Bata workers had Bauhaus-influenced homes.

*Bourneville being the name of a river where the village is located. The chocolate bar came later.

Tusa’s family came to England as ‘part of Tomas Bata’s relentless global expansion. England, with its imperial, colonial trading links and connections, was an obvious site for a major shoe-manufacturing plant. Just as the British Empire had spanned the globe with its trade, its connections and its values so would Tomas Bata’s shoes.’ All of which brings to mind a certain Swedish furniture store …

This was the summer of 1939 and John Tusa was three years old. He didn’t know then how fortunate the family were to be out of Czechoslovakia. And how much more fortunate still they were to be in England, to have employment and to be in a friendly Czech community. It was only later that John formed questions about identity and who and what he might become.

So what’s the noise about?

The noise that Mr Tusa’s memoirs refer to is his sixty years of professional life. Years in which, as the flyleaf of his book explains, he fought for and, when he felt it necessary, against, this country’s major arts and political institutions. Hurrah!!

What’s more he made a public stand on the matter of an independent BBC – not quite the same as an unbiased BBC … that’s a different can of worms. He’s also made lots of noise about the need for public funding of arts –  yes, I agree – and for universities to have integrity. I agree there too.

Along with reading extracts from his book and recounting some of the ways in which he’s used his professional life to make noise, Mr Tusa made much noise about British identity. He spoke with feeling about the preciousness and privilege of being British. One of the questioners at the end asked if we, that are born British, undervalue Britishness. Tusa’s response was an emphatic ‘Yes’. He feels that, as someone given Britishness, rather than it being his birthright, many of us do undervalue how fortunate we are. I note with that he’s not the only broadcaster I’ve heard express this sentiment.

So, feeling driven to know more about the life and times of Mr Tusa I bought the book. I reasoned that £25 for a book that doesn’t make a noise but which promises to be an entertaining account of a life in broadcasting and in the arts feels like a fair Bata.

PS: I saw Michael Rosen’s talk last night and now can’t think the word ‘noise’ without seeing Rosen’s rendition of his father’s gesture when the schoolboy Rosen and his brother were being noisy. If you saw it you’ll know what I’m talking about.

John Tusa, author of memoir Making a Noise, spoke at Swindon Arts Centre as part of Swindon Festival of Literature, 10 May 2018.


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