First thing in the morning the nice, bouncy producer-man from Talk Radio UK rings. "Julie? How are you? ... Love to have you on again... Can I run some subjects past you? Mmm? OK, to start with: how important is it to you that your partner, um, performs well?"


"Sexually, I mean."

"Er ... " It's ten past nine.

"OK, OK, forget that one. What about 'Death of a Parent'. I saw you mentioned your father in a recent piece."

"Well, yes." I try to be honest. "But that's an odd case, because our relationship had been over for some time and ..." "That sounds great - just the ticket. Would you come on and talk about it?"

I agree to go on the lunchtime show.

As I put the phone down, my partner comes in waving a letter. "What are you going to do about this? You promised you'd handle it. Have I got to do everything for you?"

"I'm on the case."

"You've been on it for a year."

One day last May I dropped my son at school and came out to find the back of the car buckled in, rear light smashed. Luckily a man came straight up to me. "It was the refuse van," he said, "I saw it back into you. Here's the registration."

I thanked him profusely.

"Poor you," the woman at the relevant Lambeth department said with surprising candour. "They back into people all the time, but it's very hard to prove."

Well, thank God for my witness. But then our insurers sent him the relevant form to fill in and sign and we heard nothing. I tried the phone number, but it was dead, probably cut off.

"Three months ago you said you'd go round there," Jonathan says, exasperated.

"OK, OK, I'll do it today. When I get back from the radio."

Mum phones again. A family row is raging about my tactlessness, my bull- like insensitivity. "I'm just very disappointed in you," she laments, "You've hurt people. You just can't put yourself in anyone else's shoes."

I wonder whether this is perhaps true. Sometimes I wonder where and what exactly my own shoes are.

An apology is required here, I don't have a leg to stand on. But instead, with the grace of a Lambeth Refuse Vehicle, I grind past the point of no return. I scream and shout at her. I am Unnecessarily Rude.

"Thanks very much," Mum says, "for that undeserved attack. Why on earth did I have children?"

I hastily change my clothes three times, apply eyeliner. "You're only going on the radio," says Jonathan.

The cab arrives. Maybe the driver has just had a blowout with his Mum, because we surge around London, jumping red lights and cutting dangerously close to an innocent cyclist. "See what happens," snarles the driver, "if you come up on the inside like that." The cyclist shakes her fist - at both of us. I shut my eyes, feign dissociation.

We arrive and I am ushered into a squashy brown chair in front of a glass of water and a microphone. What am I doing here? The engaging and tactful presenter asks me to describe my adolescence with a father who hated me. She is so nice and so American that my impulse is to burst into tears and say, "Never mind about him, I've just had an awful fight with my Mum," but instead I give a little speech about the pain of family disintegration. Well, I should know.

After an ad for a liquid that dissolves excess earwax, we put our headphones on and listeners call in. The producer had said there might be "some calls", but I never expected to find myself doing the counselling.

The problems are diverse and genuinely heartbreaking. A daughter who never told her parents she loved them; a father estranged from his children and unable to understand their needs; grown-up kids who cannot forgive themselves for burdens that adults foisted on them. Regrets, remorse, searing loneliness.

Shirley from Esher missed her mother's death by an hour because she left the hospital and went home to bed. We urge her not to blame herself; what mattered was that she loved her mother very much.

I tell the father-of-10 he must do everything he can to stay in touch with his kids, to keep the channels open. "It's not as simple as that," he replies.

Don't I know it?

I feel I'm the one who should be ringing in. I love what is left of my own family but seem unable to communicate it successfully. Yet here I sit, telling other people how to handle their lives and relationships.

Thank you, they say, as I'm escorted back into the marbled reception area. That Was Lovely, Come Again.

An hour later, I am standing on the edge of an estate in Stockwell with my accident witness's address in my hand. A concrete quadrangle surrounds a square of yellowed grass littered with dogshit. A lone tree leaks dirty blossom. Rubbish spills from doorways, windows are boarded up, graffitied with screams.

I bang on the door. No reply. Finally, I knock on a neighbour's door. "Who is it?" a tiny voice shrieks fearfully.

"Sorry," falters the Talk Radio agony aunt. "Excuse me ... "

A very old woman visibly cowers through the crack of the door. I ask her whether my witness lives there.

"Young man with two little girls?" she whispers. "Out." The door clicks shut.

"So? Any luck?" Jonathan asks, as I return to our safe, honeysuckle-clad domain.

"It's a long story."