Coales' Notes: Trail-blazing for the arts: Lured on to late-night radio, Gordon Coales says more than he means to

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The Independent Culture
TUESDAY: Quite interesting. I had a call today from Silver at London Pipeline Radio, respecting a possible arts phone-in - very cheery. I seem to have been highly recommended. He said it would involve my guesting on the Robbie Wild Nightwatch programme, which he was sure I knew, as 'our resident cultural expert'. He asked if I would be free to come in for a chat and a 'little sound test'.

I mentioned this to Di. She was delighted. She said: 'Oh, you have to do it, you'd be absolutely perfect. I mean I always think of you as a kind of late-night person.' I said, just so long as I didn't have to be too much of a morning-after person the following day. She reminded me that the crucial thing was to get the words Ars Longa mentioned on air as often as possible.

I thought I'd better catch some of the programme tonight. Some sort of emotional helpline was in progress, the resident psychologist saying, 'The heart is a muscle, right, Maria? It needs rest,' and our host adding, 'Sounds like good advice, Maria.' It doesn't seem too taxing. And it's very much the 'wider audience' that we're always talking about.

WEDNESDAY: I met the radio man for lunch. He explained that the particular slot he was looking at was 11pm to midnight on Thursdays - a coveted slot, apparently, because it immediately precedes 'our very popular Spooky Time', in which listeners ring in to discuss their supernatural experiences with 'our resident radio sensitive'. He thought it a promising combination - 'since both the arts and the supernatural reflect, you could say, the deeper side of life'. He told me that Robbie's current guest in the 11 o'clock slot was a DIY expert whom they were trying to phase out.

We returned to the Pipeline offices, where I was introduced to Robbie himself, in the middle of a sandwich - very brisk and professional, claimed to have heard a lot about me. Then we went into a studio for a dry run. The headphones were donned. The green light came on, and the man miraculously switched into his sleepy nocturnal rhythms.

'And now on Nightwatch, I'm talking to Gordon Coales - from the arts organisation Ars Longa - strange name - or maybe not - so, Gordon - the arts - we've all heard of them - but what are they?' I listed a few well-known ones, which seemed to go down well, and the conversation proceeded with perfect affability and blandness.

The only remotely challenging moment was when he said: 'But some people might say, Gordon - I don't know - 'Sounds fine, but what's in it for me?' - could be an interesting question - so what do we say to these people, Gordon? - do they have a point? - or are they just a bunch of philistines?'

I said a lot of mystery surrounded the arts, but we should remember that all art was first and foremost about pleasure. He said: 'Hm, sounds a bit like London Pipeline Radio. So am I hearing the word relaxation?' I told him I'd want to put it a bit more strongly than that. The experience of art could move and thrill and excite.

He said: 'Of course, you can go too far, I suppose.' I agreed you certainly could. I mentioned I had a friend, for instance (thinking of Archie Ogg and his 'Wagner nights'), who used to say to me there was only one word for it - 'Better than sex' - which caused much amusement, and we blathered on a bit more. And then thumbs up all round.

If this is the level, I could do it in my sleep, as I probably would be.

THURSDAY: The Pipeline man rang. He told me he was 'ready to go ahead with next Thursday, if you are?' I said, well, why not? He said great, in that case they'd put a trail out in the programme tonight, just a few words between me and Robbie. I asked when he wanted me to come in, but he replied, no need, they'd use something from yesterday. I said, all right - but for goodness' sake to cut out that mention of my Wagnerian friend. He said not to worry, they would. Much congratulation from Di.

I have just heard the programme. There was a most tedious DIY phone-in. And then, after the last caller, our host said: 'Now. When you hear the word culture, d'you feel confused? D'you feel you're missing out on something? Or as someone once said, d'you feel like reaching for your gun? Well, either way, we've got a man with all the answers - and a little earlier today I had a chat with Gordon Coales, from the arts organisation Ars Longa.'

At this point I was overcome with embarrassment. I went into the kitchen and pottered for a while. I could vaguely make out my tones through the wall. Then I felt it must be over, so I went back into the sitting-room. And I heard my voice saying: 'Personally I would put it rather more strongly. The experience of art can move. It can excite. And it can thrill. There's only one word for it. Better than sex.' Followed by: 'Gordon Coales there - a man who certainly knows what he likes. And if you're feeling a little bit cultural, why not make a date with Gordon, with me between 11 and midnight, Thursday next.'

The DIY man said: 'Sounds to me like one for the helpline, Robbie.' Robbie said: 'Thank you, Vic. And Vic will be back, of course, the following Thursday for all your DIY queries. And now turn the lights down low, put the garlic out on the window ledge, check all the cupboards, because in just a moment it'll be the witching hour of midnight, and on London Pipeline that means . . . Spooky Time.' Owl noises.

Well, I don't suppose many people were listening.

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