And Now An Urgent SOS Message, Radio 4, Tuesday Joe Strummer's London Calling

A gentle tribute to a frenzied and passionate life

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The Independent Culture

I must confess I hadn't noticed that SOS messages at the end of BBC Radio 4 bulletins had disappeared, but it makes sense in this age of all-consuming connectivity. Who needs an SOS when you can ring somebody's mobile, or send out a tweet, or look at the status on their Facebook page?

Eddie Mair certainly noticed, and it sounds like he's still grieving. In And Now An Urgent SOS Message he chronicled the life and demise of these poignant, dramatic last-resort appeals – they were John Reith's idea, and spoke to his vision of the BBC as public servant – and rued the lack of a proper send-off. He tried to pin down when the last one went out, but – somewhat surprisingly, given that everything seems to be archived nowadays – couldn't manage it.

They weren't just about contacting people with near-to-death relatives. There was the appeal for a wet nurse for newborn twins in Norfolk in 1937, or the burglar who needed to be traced because the owner of the shop from which he'd stolen two parrots had died of psittacosis.

He spoke to a few people whose lives had been affected by them. Linda Miller had the best tale to tell: in 1958 she was six years old, living in the North-east, and was taken seriously ill with osteomyelitis. Her parents were in London, but no one quite knew where. A message was broadcast; they were sitting in their parked car when a man named Mr Clampett passing by on his bicycle got off and knocked on the window. Remarkably, he'd remembered their registration number from the radio.

Mair consulted the 1931 "bible" of the SOS Service, which acknowledged "a strong dramatic element" to the broadcasts while stressing that they should not be thought of in any way as entertainment, but rather as "the urgent private affairs of people forced to make their anxieties public". There was a rather noble conclusion: "the details of the trouble taken by complete strangers to pass on these messages to the proper quarter would be valuable evidence for a Royal Commission on the inherent kindliness of human nature."

Joe Strummer would have been 60 a couple of weeks ago, and to mark the occasion 6 Music dug into the World Service archive and unearthed the programmes he made in 2000. They weren't exactly high-concept: ex-Clash frontman plays some of his favourite stuff and chats briefly between records. But it was a lovely, gentle listen, perfect for its midnight slot.

Given that my memories of Strummer are of him bashing around the stage 30-odd years ago, frenzied and passionate, gap-toothed, as if he'd had just his head kicked in at a Rock against Racism rally, it was slightly weird, listening to his laid-back, late-night voice, serenely and unfussily soundtracking one's slide into sleep.

He brought a lifetime's experience to bear on proceedings: he played the Pogues' "Sunny Side of the Street", then reminisced: "I myself have been on many world tours with the Pogues – you name any jail in Germany and I've been there." Happy birthday, Joe.