God and the powdered dragons

BOOKS EXCITING TIMES IN THE ACCOUNTS DEPARTMENT by Paul Vaughan, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
A MEDIA critic once declared that "When God speaks, he uses Paul Vaughan's voice." Unlike those of the Almighty, Vaughan's measured tones are well known to the loudspeakers of radios and televisions tuned to the classier of the BBC stations. He was for some time the voice below the Horizon of BBC2 and he also goes back to the first shaking of Radio 4's Kaleidoscope.

Yet this is no showbiz autobiography, nor is it about double-entry book- keeping. As with his book about growing up in the Thirties, Something in Linoleum, he has chosen a wonderfully downbeat title to express a neatly downbeat era, the Fifties. My birth certificate shows that I was alive then but it feels as distant as a long-gone, brief holiday in somewhere alien like Romania.

Vaughan brings it to life, if indeed life is what we experienced in those tightly buttoned times when the way to get ahead was still to get a hat and when, inviting your friends round for a slap-up dinner, you could serve bacon and eggs without them lynching you. It is hard to accept that the Age of Austerity could have evolved into the Swinging Sixties. Derek Cooper, one of Vaughan's Oxford contemporaries, actually owned a car, but that was in Malaya where he worked on the national radio station.

Young Paul took the train, commuting from one south London suburb to another where he went through the motions of being an assistant export manager for a company selling such patent medicines as Fenning's Fever Cure (allegedly made from powdered dragon's blood). As an arts graduate who had written a few film reviews for the student magazine, he might not have been an ideal recruit for the drugs industry but job prospects were different in those days - that is, they existed and they were for life.

It took Vaughan almost half a decade to escape from the powdered dragons but finally, on the strength of his pharmaceutical knowledge, he was taken on in the press department of the British Medical Association. The BMA, a sort of medical trade union only more militant, was anxious to obtain favourable publicity for its permanent financial gripes. Since doctors, even when wearing heavy-duty surgical gloves, were unwilling to dirty their hands by dealing with journalists, this task was delegated to 30- year-old whippersnappers like him.

He seems to have been one of the few denizens of the imposing BMA headquarters who actually approved of the infant National Health Service. Today doctors are as furious as their patients at the demolition of the NHS; yet in its early years many would have driven the bulldozers themselves. It must have been like working for the National Rivers Authority and disapproving of the existence of water.

Vaughan could have been there for life, entertaining himself with jokes at his colleagues' names (of a silent Dr Catto it was said that "Catto, as usual, lay doggo"). However, he was once asked, by virtue of working for the BMA, to join in a radio discussion with a medical theme. Despite drying completely, he began moonlighting in the media and finally ended up on the now deceased World Medicine. Because of that he became the token science presenter on the infant Kaleidoscope. And when that programme decided to rid itself of the science strand, he stayed on as an arts presenter. The student film reviews had finally come into their own. Maybe he had a career plan after all.

Exciting Times in the Accounts Department is as enjoyable as any of the books that Kaleidoscope holds up to the light. Perhaps Vaughan could interview himself about it. That is not quite as unlikely as it sounds, to judge by his experience when interviewing a critic about a new book on the comedian Fatty Arbuckle. He discovered that he was having to provide not just questions but answers as well - the poor interviewee had temporarily lost the power of speech; he abandoned live radio at once and soon left the country. It turned out that the critic had been knocked out by mixing alcohol with a cold "cure" produced by the very south London drugs company whose exports Vaughan had originally laboured over. The powdered dragons had finally had their revenge.