Don't Log Off, Radio 4, Monday
Outlook, BBC World Service
You see a clown – I see a betrayed divorcee trapped by her wig
A few years ago, Alan Dein, oral historian and broadcaster extraordinaire, devised the wonderful Don't Hang Up, which involved ringing up public phone boxes around the world at random and speaking to whoever picked up.
It was a great idea, and he's updated it for the social networking age with Don't Log Off, in which he does a similar thing using Skype and Facebook. (There's an interesting account on the Radio 4 website of how it was set up.)
By and large, the people he spoke to made you feel glad to be living a safe little life in dull old Britain. Among his chatmates in the second of two episodes was Amir in Tehran, who uses a Virtual Private Network to try to evade official snooping. "Is it safe to talk?" Dein asked. There was a long, long pause. "I don't know, Alan," Amir said, finally.
Julio in Caracas, meanwhile, apart from telling a terrifying story of being carjacked by two kids with guns, took the opportunity to have a good moan about Venezuela's controversial president, Hugo Chavez. "The criminals are better armed than the police," he said, "and who gave them the guns? The government! They're arming the thugs to keep us afraid."
Things weren't entirely dissimilar for Kevin from near Nashville, Tennessee. "I have some friends in college," he said, "but some are in jail now, and some have kind of passed on. The people I know who are successful are basically drug dealers."
My only complaint is that the interviews were cut up and spliced together, fading in and out in an impressionistic patchwork. This is, I realise, the way things tend to be done these days, presumably because attention spans are not what they were, but I can't help thinking it would have been more powerful to present each conversation more or less intact.
There were more intriguing glimpses of other lives in Outlook, which has a consistent ability to uncover fascinating stories. Monday's programme was a perfect example: Matthew Bannister – radio executive turned expert presenter – spoke to a woman who's opened Afghanistan's first bowling alley, an American who married a clown, became one herself, discovered her husband was gay, divorced, and is now trying to break out of clowning with a blog and a book deal, and an artist who coped with the death of her two-year-old by publishing a graphic novel about it.
It was interesting to hear from the reluctant clown, Juliet Jeske, about the rigid hierarchy in that strange world. Top of the heap are theatre clowns, who look down on their circus counterparts; birthday party clowns are regarded as a joke, though they make the most money; then, in descending order, are gospel clowns (yes, they do the Lord's work in big shoes and false noses), then rodeo clowns, and lastly volunteer clowns, who visit hospitals and such like but are seen as the lowest of the low.
Jeske found that after the divorce she was stuck with clowning. To potential employers she had the status of a sex worker, she said, unsuitable for respectable employment. "People don't take you seriously. People would look at me as if I was crazy." It must have been the red nose.
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