From Fule Magna to the Groucho Club

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The Independent Culture
Well; I had my chance, and I think I blew it. Remember Down Your Way? I was going to be on it, not as a media stooge, but as guest, an interviewee, a local; in short, an Actual Person. Remember those refreshingly lovable characters you used to get on Down Your Way, and everyone said "Oh, how nice to hear actual people on the wireless, instead of all these smart alecs with left-wing ideas"? That's what I was going to be: one of those.

Had it not been for my computer. My diary is on my computer, you see, because as well as secretly being Actual (and you ask my old Mum if you don't believe me; just say "Is your son Actual, or what?" and see what you get) I am also Modern. And, as everyone knows, being Modern involves a number of irksome sacrifices, including having your diary on your computer.

So when they rang up and said "Would you like to come on Down Your Way and be Actual at four o'clock on Tuesday?" I said "Cor blimey, strike a light, how utterly marvy, not 'alf," because it doesn't do to show you're eager, and put it in my diary. On my computer. It doesn't understand basic human concepts like "Four o'clock", being a computer. You have to tell it "18:00" and, though the more astute of you will have spotted my mistake at once, it took me until 18:00 on Tuesday, by which time everyone had been gone for an hour or more.

I was expecting them to ring up and say "It's terrible, we're desolated, it's almost certainly our fault, could we possibly ask you to come along and do it tomorrow instead?" but they didn't. Probably lost my telephone number in their panic and despair, so I did the decent thing and called them myself. "Oh," they said, "it didn't matter a bit. We had AA Gill and Andreas Whittam Smith and they were both wonderful, then Marcelle did a brilliant monologue about how you were always late for everything, so in the end we didn't need you at all. We probably couldn't even have interviewed you anyway, because Chris Evans was upstairs playing snooker in his little shorts, so we had to get out of there. No problem."

Does anything strike you as odd about this? Not the fact that they felt they could do without me, which is very odd, but something more significant? No?

Well ... cast your mind back to the days when Down Your Way was presented by that benignant chap whose name escapes me. Soothing theme tune, as I remember, and a despairing Sunday teatime feeling to the whole enterprise, not quite as desolate as Sing Something Simple with the Mike Samms Singers, but getting on that way. In those days, Down Your Way was the secular arm of Songs of Praise, an immutable love-feast of bucolic torpor. Snaggle- toothed old joshers, briefly roused from their perennial submersion in mute rural lunacy, would be propped up in front of the microphone and encouraged to blow off their surplus memories, preferably in lurching, incomprehensible dialect. Majorite warm-beer-and-communion nostalgics to a man, they were.

"Welcome to Down Your Way. This week our programme comes from Fule Magna, and here's an old fool." "I'm remamber as'n ow thas ole Missus Harbinger gan all randy agen, come toime she turn 80. Loiken ole sow she bin, backa thole pumpen ouse with Constable Harbinger till'n th'hang gloider crashes on em, dirty ole sow and him a copper loike. Them'n end up arse in air on ole Doctor Harbinger's operatin table, so they did." "There seem to be an awful lot of Harbingers in Fule Magna, Mr ... ?" "Harbinger. Ar."

And then, after the recording, the trip back to London on the 7:29 stopping train, Daphne clutching the tapes to her flat tweedy bosom while Gerald, bless him, peers earnestly through his horn-rims and speaks lovingly of the Salt of the Earth, and, my goodness, Daphne, doesn't meeting real people like old Harbinger make you feel that our life in Broadcasting House is so essentially shallow? ("Oh I do so agree, Gerald ... look ... say 'no' if you want, but ... when we get back to Town? Cocoa?" And the deep and serious talk - of fruit juice, free love and Uncle Joe Stalin - goes on far into the night in Daphne's little flat at Camden Town.)

Well, bollocks. The world has changed and England has changed; poor Mr Major is barking up the wrong tree (and a withered, lightning-blasted one at that), and if there's any single thing that reveals the spirit of the age in terrible, clear relief, it's that Down Your Way is (a) being presented by a journalist, albeit Marcelle d'Argy Smith, the former Cosmo Person, whom I love dearly and who is quite probably the nicest, most warm-hearted woman in London; (b) being brought to you from London's seething media booze-'n'-schmooze divan, the Groucho Club; and (c) would have had me on it, if it hadn't been for my computer.

Me! Hacks! Bloody Groucho! Something wrong surely, though it's not immediately clear what. Damn it, we media buggers are people too, and Our Way is, on the whole, Down the Groucho Club and out and about in Soho. We are human, Actual, we wish to be loved and, by the magic of radio, invited into your elegant home. The trouble is, in this case, that we're there under false pretences (and there's 50 quid in it for anyone who can give me an example of true pretences). One day something is going to go terribly wrong with you (and indeed with me) and, with a nasty sinking feeling, you go to see the doctor. How would it be if he greeted you politely, removed his shirt, lay down on his couch and asked you to examine him?

Quite so. And having media buggers on Down Your Way amounts to the same thing. We're everywhere, talking and talking and talking, when we should be listening. We hang out together when we should be down your way, finding out. It won't do and it can't go on. My sort are the worst, and the decent, honourable course of action would be for me to resign this column and take up the honest craft of reporting upon the rich lives and the uncelebrated graces of humanity. I shall, of course, do no such thing. I too must live. Decency? Honour? All well and good, but self-promotion is so much more Nineties.

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