The wall of silence - and how to get round it in style

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The Independent Culture
At around half-past one last Tuesday afternoon, during The World At One, Nick Clarke was interviewing David Philips, chief constable of Kent and chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers, on the subject of banning knives, when the line went dead.

Clarke took a very brief moment to collect himself and then explained what had happened: "I seem to have lost all communication with him. And, indeed, with everyone. [A pause.] I don't know whether anyone can hear me at all. [A longer pause.] At the moment I am in complete non-communication with everyone... At the moment I can hear no one and speak to no one. [Another pause.] At the moment, I still can't communicate with anybody. I have been cut off in my studio. There's a lot of anxiety here..."

As where is there not? As a summary of the futility of the human condition this can hardly be beaten: alone, talking into the silence, struggling to keep a hold on composure and meaning, while all the time not knowing whether the struggle has any point. Hone the prose a bit (and under the circumstances, it was reasonably well honed to start with: no swearing, at any rate) and it's practically text-book Beckett: I can't go on, I'll go on.

What this rather gripping incident highlighted, aside from Clarke's coolness in the face of catastrophe, was the utter isolation of the radio broadcaster, the complete disconnection from the outside world. Alone in a noiseless and (usually) windowless studio, headphones jammed on ears, the broadcaster knows nothing but what he hears from a producer who is in turn tucked away behind glass, or down the telephone line. It's not surprising that some of them adopt such flagrant tactics to keep themselves from being spooked. Listen to the unnatural affection of the Jamesons, clinging together in the goblin-infested night-time, or to Chris Evans and his breakfast crew yattering away, scrabbling at the encroaching silence like dogs at the back door.

Not surprising, either, that some broadcasters react to this imprisonment in unforeseen and unlikeable ways - lapsing, like Scott Chisholm on Talk Radio, into solipsism. One of Chisholm's most intriguing quirks is that, when any current news story is under discussion, he magnificently pooh- poohs any version his callers may have come across: the one that he has read in his paper becomes canonical, a rock of fact in the stormy sea of opinion, simply by virtue of his having read it.

Possibly this detachment from reality and the consequent absence of any points of reference contributes to the mild surrealism of his language, the way that imagery sometimes goes into freefall. One typical opening riff - a couple of weeks ago now; this just happened to be the one I managed to take down at the time - ran like this: the morality bandwagon rolls on... it's swept up guns and knives, and now the spotlight is on that evergreen, violence on TV... three MPs have jumped on the bandwagon, each firing a broadside at the broadcasters...

Is this a case of mixing his metaphors or just taking his cliches straight? Either way, in the public bar that is Talk Radio UK, the man has earned his stool, personally engraved tankard and bag of crisps. Prawn-flavoured would be appropriate.