Saturday, 6 October 2007

Death, whatever happened to thy sting?

Since so many of the population watch the X Factor, it is probably not good news but the fact remains we are conquering Death.

Whatever else war was, it was an absurd waste of the flower of manhood and a greater condemnation of our collective intelligence even than watching the X Factor.
It is inconceivable that in the 21st century we are still resolving arguments, and stealing each others’ tribal lands and riches, by sending our young men to kill perfect strangers with whom they have more in common than in dispute. We should have got over that when we left the cave and abandoned the club. It defies common sense. If a farmer knew a field was full of poisonous weeds, he would be unlikely to test it by sending in his finest herd of young pedigree cattle.

Curiously, Russia, which has spent most of its existence either killing itself by the million or other people it has never met, takes the lead in showing us that killing people is unnecessary. All you have to do is switch off the light, as this week it threatens to do with Georgia. At a stroke, the country is helpless.

Another country which is demonstrating that it is quite unnecessary to go to all the trouble and expense of killing people is China. In fairness, this is a country which has so many people of its own to kill by the million that it has no need to look for fights with its neighbours as a means of population control. It now shows how absurdly easy it is to defeat an opponent by hacking into the IT systems by which we are governed - and we pass quietly into governance by Chinese restaurants, which I have been convinced for years ,judging by the number of waiters they employ have been outposts of the Chinese SAS. Though recalling the excellence of service and the delicious quality of the food in the ones I use, a Chinese take over might be the logical extension of a take away and not entirely a bad thing. We may not understand what our new rulers are talking about - but what else is new?

It is a sobering thought that in any contest between Western civilisation and a computer nerd, Western civilisation would be about ten to one against. Not only is warfare on its last legs: no sooner does nature invent a new disease to get rid of the human race which is wrecking its planet than our scientists invent a cure. Thus we are able to sink deeper in the primeval mud of old age, our minds blanked by Alzheimer’s disease, our bodies wracked with Parkinson’s or eaten by cancers.

Keep fit, keep well, the Government advises us, so you can spend long years sitting in rows in Non Care Homes, wetting yourselves and watching the X Factor.

I have never kept fit, nor consciously tried to be well. When a doctor warned me I was so fat that movement was a risk, I reduced movement to a minimum and survived. I even failed the entrance exam for a Slimmers’ Clinic.

Some years ago, an Anglesey doctor admitted, as he wrote approvingly “growing old disgracefully” on my medical records: “If we kept dogs alive in the state we do people, we would be summonsed by the RSPCA.”

I am like that character of Somerset Maugham’s in “The Razor’s Edge” who admitted he would not complain if he died tomorrow. I have seen the finest pictures in the world, listened to its greatest music, read its books, seen its plays. I have known in the biblical sense some beautiful women. I have enjoyed happiness in marriage, bred good children, been a professional success, eaten in the finest restaurants in Europe. I write this with my dog at my feet, surrounded by my books.

As an aspirant Buddhist, I do not believe in death, anyway. I am one with Dylan Thomas who prophesied “Death Shall Have No Dominion”. John Donne put it even more strongly “ And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.”
Though, mind you, for many years he kept his coffin by his desk. A great man for the each way bet was Dr Donne. And I am quite ready for my next body, too. Not for Enlightenment.
Enlightenment sounds too much like Alzheimer’s with attitude, celebrated in a Celestial Care Home.

I wouldn’t mind coming back as a grape.


Readers may have been puzzled at the press cutting for my BBC Wales programme, “Radio Brynsiencyn”, which appeared by some quirk of word processery unknown to me on this page some weeks ago. This is its story
The best editor I had in my years of Taff-railing for BBC Wales was called Bob Atkins. He was an Englishman too, so he was scuppered from the first day on the job.
He called me to Cardiff and said he enjoyed a programme I was doing at the time.
It was called Skidmore’s Island, and how it worked was that a producer called Jack King knocked at my door with his tape recorder playing and for the next half hour I talked: about books and about neighbours. If anyone knocked at the door, I interviewed them and I played music on my radiogram. No scripts; no conception of what was going to happen.

Unfortunately, Bob, who liked a drink, took me to the BBC Club in Cardiff and as he carried me out and poured me into a taxi he said, ‘I won’t ask you to explain how the programme works now…’ (Which was just as well; it took me ten minutes to tell the driver where I wanted to go). ‘…Do me a memo.’
I didn’t remember that until I was back home in Brynsiencyn, on Anglesey, when still, in Milton’s words, flown with wine and impertinence, I typed out the following:
‘Radio Brynsiencyn: - This is your smallest outpost. In the customary fashion of BBC bosses, I have slept with the entire staff. But since we have been married for ten years it may not count. Our Uher tape recorder is so old it has a pebble glass window and a thatched lid. Our music department is a wind-up gramophone and our record collection includes Teddy Bears’ Picnic and In A Monastery Garden. In fact that is the extent of our collection.’
Then I sealed and posted it and it wasn’t until I sobered up that I realised I had probably dashed the prospect of a glittering career with an audience of sheep and men who wore clothes that looked as though they had been made from the covers of old prayer books.

What happened was that I got a letter from Bob: ‘Forget Skidmore’s Island. I want a series of twenty Radio Brynsiencyn.’

The trouble was I had forgotten by this time what I had put in the letter.
But… I had a title for my programme, twenty slots at peak listening time, and a Uher tape recorder I bought for sixteen quid on the same stall at Llangefni market where I had found the wind-up gramophone that was my music department. I had an outside broadcast unit in the shape of a sit-up-and-beg bike with an errand boy’s basket on the handlebars and a wife with a posh voice. And not an idea of what to do with any of them.

It struck me that was par for the course in my ‘parent’ BBC so I decided to do what they did in similar circumstances: surround myself with a staff.

Anglesey being an island, I needed a Foreign Editor to handle matters in the dark lands on the other bank of the Menai Strait. Fortunately, a chap I had first known on a Bangor weekly paper had just retired. His name was Angus McDairmid and he had some experience of the role. After brilliant coverage of the wrecking of a sailing ship in the Menai Strait, he was poached by the BBC and went on to become a distinguished foreign correspondent, covering Washington at the time of Watergate and various wars for the Corporation.
Eminently suitable to look after Bangor.
Angus had interviewed world leaders but he remained obsessed with his home town, where he was still ‘Gus’ McDermott (his name before being swamped by the Celtic Renaissance of the Sixties). He used the job to indulge a secret vice. Wherever he had been in the world, however great the crisis, he always found time to visit any town called Bangor. Every week on Radio Brynsiencyn, until his sad death, he told an eager world about them.

Then there was the matter of a Cleaning Staff, vital because broadcasters are a messy lot. Fortunately, one was at hand: the love of my life, Rose Roberts, who already cleaned for us and ruled us with a rod of iron. I christened her Attila the Hoover and I was only partly joking. Dirt was terrified of her and dust disappeared at her touch.

Rose had a voice with the carrying power of a giant crane. She had appeared in the programme for only a few weeks when she took a day trip to London. She was queuing for the Palladium and passing pleasantries with her companions that could have been heard in Newcastle upon Tyne. ‘Blimey,’ came a voice from far down the queue, ‘it’s Attila the Hoover!’

No Welsh broadcasting station is complete without a choir. At a lifeboat charity evening I heard a quartet called the Oscars, and immediately recruited them. A pal of mine, Derek Jones, was a bit worried about his teenage son whose singing voice had just broken. He was keen on broadcasting so Derek asked if we would teach him the art of interviewing. I was a bit reluctant. Whenever I heard the lad sing, the hair on the back of the head lifted and I had a sense that he had been touched by God. His name was Aled Jones. Done quite well since, but at that time his preoccupation was a sandwich toaster he had bought with his first earnings and he was forever thrusting toasted sandwiches at you.

But I thought, ‘Give the lad a chance’, and employed him at a fiver a week. Aled did nothing by halves. He played tennis to county standard; a fine footballer, he was offered trials with professionals; and he was so keen to get his GCSEs that in the interval of a concert before most of America in the Hollywood Bowl, he sat in his dressing room, swotting. Aled went out with my wife on a couple of interviews and picked the art up so quickly he was soon doing them on his own. His dad told me he nearly drove his parents mad practising interviewing on them.

A remarkable boy. Never a trace of nerves. Singing for the Royal Family, he forgot the lyric and made up one as he sang along. He went to record Memories for Andrew Lloyd Webber. ‘Like to do a run-through?’ said Lloyd Webber. ‘Can we go for a take?’ asked Aled.

They did, and the first take was all that was needed. ‘Good God,’ said Lloyd Webber, ‘it took Barbra Streisand a week to do that.’

His Dad told me later: ‘I didn’t like to explain he was in a hurry to watch Match of the Day.’

Aled was blessed with three gifts: the voice of an angel and his parents, Derek and Nest, who kept his feet firmly nailed to the ground.

When he was awarded his first Gold Disc, the BBC planned a huge reception in Cardiff for the award ceremony. ‘Out of the question,’ said Derek, ‘he would have to miss school.’ The BBC had to hire a helicopter to get him to the ceremony; it landed on the playing field of his school in Menai Bridge.

The programme was beginning to take shape: a ‘pirate’ radio station that parodied the commercial radio of the day. We had a signature tune; a group of producers and broadcasters sang the jingles to announce the items; Celia (Celia Lucas, ex Daily Mail, Mrs Skidmore) did interviews and I headed the whole thing with a rant.
Wearing a dinner jacket, of course.

The BBC printed T shirts, ties and mugs with the station logo which started to appear in the oddest places all over the world. We had the highest listening figures on BBC Wales; a ‘club’ of listeners was formed in Boston in the USA and the daughter of a friend started a Radio Bryn fan club at Oxford University.

Islands can be dull places in winter. Anxious to get away, a neighbour toured the Loire. By the river one day, he switched on his radio as he unwrapped a picnic… and heard the signature tune of Radio Bryn doing an outside broadcast – outside his house.

Celia recorded the programme in our kitchen, rough cut it and sent it to Dewi Smith, head of light entertainment in Wales, for final polishing and transmission.

Then a funny thing happened.

Everyone was convinced it was a real station and I started to get applications for jobs. W.I.s, youth clubs and at least one school asked if they could tour the studios. Then BBC Controller Ulster heard it while driving across Anglesey and rang my editor to ask, ‘Do you have a studio in the cottage or does it come to you via landline?’ We were even a page lead in the Daily Mail.

The series ended seventeen years ago. It is still talked about in Wales. Everything in what I laughingly call my career was an accident. This was the happiest of them all.
I won a Golden Microphone after thirty years as a ‘celebrity’ presenter on Radio Wales and a fortnight later they dropped me because I was English. I took the BBC to a Race Relations Tribunal and there was quite a lot of fuss about it.
I had been rewarded with many by-lines on the Daily Mirror over the years: now I was the subject of a front page lead. The Head of BBC Wales told the paper I was a Victor Meldrew figure and the editor said I was too old. He didn’t say the same about Jimmy Young, Humphrey Lyttelton or Alastair Cooke, to name but a few. So perhaps the ruling just covred the foot soldiers. But the BBC gave me a few grand to keep quiet, and I did. Within a month, both the Head and the Editor had been sacked.

But as I sit by my pond, keeping herons off my koi, I do ponder a bit. My Manchester accent has softened on account of marrying above myself and marinating the throat muscles in the benevolent sweat of the juniper. But I hope and pray I have not lost it.
At the time I had 26 million listeners worldwide to my rants. Plainly my bosses at BBC Wales were not among them. Or they might have noticed that I seldom said Yachi da (I didn’t even know how to spell it).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, well, well - so here you are after all these years! "The series ended seventeen years ago. It is still talked about in Wales". Sir, it is still talked of in Blyth, Northumberland, and Darlington, Co. Durham. Radio Brynsiencyn (and I can still hear the jingle as I type - or, more accurately, prod the keys), introduced by the intrepid SkiddyWiddykins, was required listening in our household.

And yes, I was one of the many who wrote in (about duffle coats, on one occasion), and yes, I was rewarded with a navy-blue Radio Bryn tie - to be joined later by a maroon one. And yes, I still have them and YES, I still wear them. And yes, people still peer at the logo and ask me what it's all about.

As a famous Welsh chanteuse once sang, "those were the days, my friend".

Why not go into podcasting instead of broadcasting? Go on - you know you want to!