Import an Irishman to improve your conversation

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The Independent Online
WHEN I read in the Radio Times that Gerry Anderson was to be given his own radio programme every afternoon on Radio 4, my mind slipped back effortlessly to an evening I spent in Ireland a year ago, trapped in a small Irish bar in Glengariff.

I was not unwillingly trapped. In fact, given the chance to escape I would have sat right where I was and ordered another pint of stout. But trapped I was, between a friend called Peter, and a young Italian tourist who kept saying into my ear, 'Why are there so many Germans in Ireland?'

'I don't know,' I said. 'Hold on. I'll find out.'

'What does he want to know?' asked Peter.

'He wants to know why there are so many Germans in Ireland.'

'Why does he want to know?'

'I don't know,' I said, 'I'll ask him.' I turned 180 degrees back to my new Italian friend. 'Why do you want to know?'

'Because I have come here on holiday from Italy to get away from the Germans.'

'He says . . . '

'Hold on,' said Peter, 'I'm trying to listen to this girl.'

I peered round the far side of him. He was not talking to a girl. There was no one there. I followed his eyes. He was watching the television screen over the bar. They were broadcasting the annual 'Rose of Tralee' contest, a competition that brings charming Irish girls from all over the world, including Ireland, and chooses the most charming one to be that year's Rose of Tralee. I suppose the idea is to put Tralee on the map and bring in lots of tourists, but as many of the colleens seem to come from Melbourne and Sydney, it may do more for Australian tourism than Irish.

The show was being compered by Gay Byrne, perhaps the most prestigeful chat-show man in Ireland, and by the time I focused on the screen, he seemed to be taking a rest from interrogating would- be Roses and was telling a long story. What the story was about was not exactly easy to tell through the hubbub of the bar and the soft Italian murmurings in my right ear, but it seemed to be about a priest who had had his bicycle stolen, almost certainly by one of his flock, and did not know how to find out which one. So he asked his bishop's advice.

'What I advise,' said the bishop to the priest, 'is that you preach a sermon to your congregation on the Ten Commandments, and when you get to 'Thou shalt not steal', you look meaningfully and sternly round the church, and I wager a guilty movement will give away the bicycle thief.'

A reader writes. That's all very well, but what on earth has all this got to do with Gerry Anderson's new programme on Radio 4?

I am coming to that. A couple of months later the bishop meets the priest and asks if he got the bike back with the help of the Ten Commandments. 'Yes, I got the bike back all right,' says the priest, 'but not quite in the way you recommended.'

'Oh, how's that?'

'I was going through the Commandments one by one, and I got to the one that says, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery', and then I remembered where I'd left it.'

This seemed such a scurrilous, but funny, story that Peter and I had to compare notes to make sure we had both heard the same ending. We then agreed that you would not get that sort of thing on British television. Not just that you would not get anyone telling jokes about priests and their flocks - except from comedians in Scotland, where they still take the minister seriously enough to joke about him - but that you would not get a compere at a British beauty contest breaking off to tell a long anecdote.

'Maybe they still value conversation over here more highly than we do,' said Peter, as the level of talk in the bar drowned the television again.

'Maybe that's why they have to send an Irishman over every few years to remind us how to do it,' I said. 'We haven't had one since Terry Wogan arrived to charm the listeners out of the trees.'

Which does bring us to Gerry Anderson, the radio man who hails from Derry and whose previous appearances on Radio 4 provided the best talk in the whole of 1993. Of course, they are taking a risk putting him on in Britain. There will be some who think this new fellow must be Gerry Adams and how odd it is to give him his own radio programme. There must be others who know he is Gerry Anderson all right, but cannot think why the man who devised Thunderbirds is suddenly getting his own chat show after all these years . . .

A reader writes: That's all very well, but why ARE there so many Germans in Ireland? They are the ones who cannot afford to go to Italy.

Tomorrow: The art of conversation, part 2, in which we explain why Jeremy Paxman cannot get a civil answer from anyone.