Fan's Eye View: Finding the right wavelength

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The Independent Online
WHEN John Cleese was asked on Desert Island Discs what luxury item he would like to take with him to his island, he said that he would like a life-size dummy of Margaret Thatcher and a big stick. On my own desert island, the priority would be a short-wave radio to tune in to the Saturday afternoon sports report on BBC World Service, but a dummy and stick would be a useful accessory to turn to if Blackburn Rovers lost.

I remember tuning in to World Service in Mogadishu during the first week of the 1992-93 season. Blackburn had just begun their first season in the top flight for the first time for over a quarter of a century. Outside, Somalis were chewing qat and firing their AK-47s into the air. Technicals - trucks with gangs of clan warriors crowded around a big gun on the back - were tearing up and down the mud streets. By my right ear, the news from Ewood Park was that Rovers were beating Manchester City 1-0. My clan was on top.

There is perhaps a way in which one's concern for one's team becomes deeper the more alien the country one is in. I spent the 1980s working in Zimbabwe. As the government became increasingly authoritarian and the economy increasingly frail, I took more and more interest in whether Rovers would ever return to the First Division.

I would tune in, knowing that my emotional state would be dramatically transformed for better or worse within seconds of hearing the most recognisable signature tune in the world.

The problem was, I didn't always hear the tune. First of all, it was necessary to get the time right. October and March or April were always dangerous. Tuning in an hour ahead of British Summer Time in the Zimbabwean winter, two hours ahead of GMT in summer, were knacks that could take a week or two to acquire.

Then there was the business of getting on the right wavelength. BBC World Service waves seem to have different lengths at different times of day, for no doubt exceptionally good reasons that remain mysterious to me. There was a pretty reliable spot on the dial, near the number 6, but at critical moments this could fall entirely silent. It was as if Britain had suddenly disappeared. Supposing one did find the station in time for the Second Division, interference could break in half-way through a given result, refining the agony wonderfully: 'Millwall 2, Blackburn Rov. . . Cardiff 3, Portsmouth 2'.

The force driving the global weather system also knows how to time its interventions to perfection during live commentaries. A goal or a dreadful miss are, as listeners around the world will know, denoted equally by a raucous, continuous explosion - a mixture of ecstatic crowd, climactic commentator and sudden deafening atmospheric interference that could only be produced by a dark and perverse planetary intelligence. Something big has happened, but what?

Sometimes, of course, results came through loud and clear. My daughters Claire and Antonia - small then, now the keenest of Blackburn supporters - remember my leaping up and down in what must have been to them a strange and disturbing delight or, more commonly, my slump over the radio in an equally disturbing attitude of despair. What I remember is how an African sunset looked more gloomy or more gorgeous, depending on whether Blackburn Rovers had won or lost.

And I would muse over a Castle lager on how all the club needed was a wealthy benefactor to enable the team to hold its own in the top division again.

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