The Radio 4 presenter and columnist recalls working as a studio manager

"I absolutely didn't want to be on air or have a byline. I was asked, at my BBC 'board' for programme operations assistant, why on earth I didn't go for a news traineeship instead. I said, 'I want to have a razor blade and a screwdriver.'

"I have respect for engineers, people who make things work. We have lost respect for people who do things: create irrigation systems, build bridges, keep trains running. After years of Beowulf and Milton, I wanted to be a technician and do something with my hands, something that could be seen to be done. I was interested in the technical end of radio.My first experience had been as a volunteer in the studio for Radio Oxford and the first piece I ever wrote was about doing vacation work in local radio."

Some of us remember it well: the piece was published in the now defunct Punch magazine, where it won the prize in a student competition on "What I did in my Holidays." Annoyingly, it was better than not only the other students' entries but also most of the contributions produced in the same issue by those of us who were allegedly the professional scribes.

As well as her ten novels, she has written a more permanent record of life on the airwaves. Her fascinating and funny memoirs, Radio: A True Love Story (Coronet, £7.99) chronicle her slow shift from fading microphones up and down, to speaking into them. It began in Bush House, her first posting: "BBC World Service. English by Radio," she announced to a listening Planet Earth. Then it was back to Radio Oxford, this time as a professional, where one day, while tidying the gramophone library, she was told to present Mid-Morning Melody (aka Mid-Morning Misery). Despite mis-identifying a BBC orchestra recording of "Yesterday" as "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" by Swinging Sid Cheese and the Ontario Cheesettes, she was soon reporting and presenting, notably on Radio 4's Today.

And that was it on the knob-twiddling front.

"Nobody edits with a razor any more," she admits, "and I've never upskilled to the computer age." The nearest she gets to her old skills is working out why her stereo is on the blink. Yet she has not lost the keen ear acquired in the studio: "I know if something is 'one-legged', that is, missing out on a range of frequencies, or is running with a 'flutter' or a 'wow' or 'crunching on the peaks'. I get very upset with poor quality radio like the tape starting at the wrong speed."

She adds: "I actually mind it more than if people spout rubbish."

So long, presumably, as they're not on Midweek.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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