4 December 2023

Remember the days of the old schoolyard : 1963-1969 : Cordwalles Junior School, Camberley

 “I don’t wanna go,” I was shouting as I struggled to hang on to the car door for dear life. I was being kidnapped and forced into a vehicle outside my home that was wanting to carry me away … to my first day at infant school. My mother was trying her gentlest to push inside the family car her five-year-old son who was usually well behaved and never angry or upset. Passers-by on their way to work in town were gazing. Passengers were pointedly staring out of a passing double-decker bus. What was wrong with that belligerent child? My mother was equally horrified to witness my first tantrum.

I enjoyed being at home. I had plenty of activities to occupy myself there. I never found myself at a loose end. My parents had a remarkably hands-off attitude to my upbringing, letting me put on records, listen to the radio, watch television or play in the back garden whenever I wanted. There was no regime to follow. I was perfectly content organising my own life and did not require a school to instruct me what I should do and when. During the past year, my mother had been sending me to Mrs Potten’s ‘Gay Tree’ nursery school on Grand Avenue in order to mix with other children because I was an only child. I had found most of my peers there to be noisy and bossy, whereas I was quiet and calm. To seek acceptance, I must have adopted their rather posh accents, committed to immortality when my father recorded me on his Uher reel-to-reel tape machine reciting the two ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ books that I knew by heart.

My mother already harboured an aspiration for me to marry ‘above my station’. Whenever we walked into the town centre, on passing Bath Road, she would suggest I call on ‘Wooty’ who lived at the far end of that cul-de-sac in a large house backing onto the grounds of Sandhurst Royal Military Academy. I had met Alexandra Wooten at nursery school but had not developed a particularly close friendship with her, preferring the company of more down-to-earth Liam who lived only four doors away from our home … until his Irish parents moved away to Blackwater. Despite my mother’s persistence, I may have only visited Alexandra’s house once to ‘play’ because, unsurprisingly, I found we had no common interests.

My reluctance to attend primary school was due to anticipation that a new set of peers would be similar to Mrs Potten’s charges, the only children of my age I had so far encountered. I was mistaken! My fee-paying, town centre nursery school had been dominated by the offspring of Camberley’s middle class, whereas my state primary school was located on the peripheral council estate where I had been born, built to rehouse South Londoners whose homes had been destroyed by bombing during the War and subsequent slum clearance. Patronisingly, the council had named the estate’s streets ‘Kingston Road’, ‘Mitcham Road’, ‘Surbiton Road’, ‘Wimbledon Road’ and ‘Carshalton Road’, as if newcomers would feel more at home by eulogising their former hometowns some twenty miles away. Naturally, none of those roads led to the places after which they had been named.

I quickly discovered how wrong my expectations about school had been. My new classmates seemed perfectly normal. Unlike Mrs Potten, teachers did not require us to dress up in costumes and repeat archaic speeches for Biblical reenactments, or to watch violent ‘Punch & Judy’ puppet shows. Instead, we were given interesting creative activities to do and treated with respect and encouragement. Teachers addressed us by our first names. I loved school. I quickly retired my quasi-posh accent. I had already mastered the reading and writing skills with which some of my peers were struggling and was now teaching myself to type. One day at home, my mother had asked me to put away her electric iron and, without realising it was still plugged in, I picked it up by its plate and screamed, burning my right hand. She had to bandage my thumb and index finger for a while, so I continued to learn to type at home using my middle finger … the way I type to this day. I had wondered if my erased fingerprints would ever return, but they did eventually.

After two years, we all moved to the adjoining primary school where teaching was more structured. I attended my first morning assembly in the main hall but was baffled when the principal instructed us to recite something called the ‘Lord’s Prayer’. Everyone around me bowed their heads and recited a kind of mantra I had never heard. It felt unnervingly as if I had mistakenly been invited into some kind of cult in which all the teachers and children had already been indoctrinated … except me. I had no understanding of what was going on around me, more so because next we were told to sing strange songs from a thick book of incomprehensible ancient lyrics I had never heard played on the radio. It was impossible to sing when you had no idea what the tune should be.

Afterwards, having observed my bafflement, a teacher asked why I had not participated in the religious part of our school assembly. She seemed shocked that I had never heard of ‘hymns’ or ‘prayers’, asking whether my family was ‘Christian’. I had no idea what that word meant, so I returned home and asked my mother, who replied that we were not religious. She wrote a brief note to my teacher explaining that simple fact and, thereafter, I was excused from the section of daily assembly devoted to hymns and the like. Every day for the next four years, I would sit in a nearby small side-room alongside several children including classmate Jacqueline Dixon, a Hindu who initially asked me what was my religion. I had to tell her and the other non-Christians sequestered there that I did not seem to have one. I was an oddity.

Although my aunt Sheila worked as a ‘dinner lady’ at the school, I always returned home to take lunch. I would stand alone at the bus stop at the top end of Upper College Road, staring across at the modernist St Martin’s church on the opposite side of the roundabout, puzzled as to what might go on inside. I had heard classmates talk about attending something called ‘Sunday School’ there, next door to the home of classmate Annette van Hartaan Veldt. This church must have been where almost everyone else at school had been indoctrinated into their cult. It seemed to take an age until Aldershot & District Traction Company Limited’s number 1, 2 or 3C bus arrived to carry me one mile home for a halfpenny fare. (Once I had grown to be amongst the tallest in my class, the bus conductor insisted I pay the adult one penny fare despite me still being a child.) Arrived home, I would have just enough time to snack something and then catch the bus back for afternoon classes.

After school finished at four, if it was not raining, I could save the bus fare by walking home alone the length of Upper College Ride. This downhill route passed through a 400-yard stretch of Ministry of Defence woodland, a natural barrier intended to isolate the council estate from private housing around the town centre. It was always a lonely journey bereft of fellow pedestrians and scary on dark winter afternoons, me worrying an escapee from Broadmoor might jump out from behind a tree. The money saved I would blow in the sweet shop near my school on ‘Batman’ bubble gum packets, ‘Flying Saucers’, ‘Swizzels Love Hearts’, ‘Lemon Sherberts’ or a ‘Lucky Bag’. I was obsessed with the ‘Batman’ TV show and, as well as requesting my mother fabricate the superhero’s ‘utility belt’ for me to wear, I saved enough sweet wrappers to send for a ‘Batman’ poster that would grace my bedroom wall.

My favourite school activities were summer days when the teacher would take our class outside, thirty of us sat cross-legged in the shade of a huge tree behind the main building, writing essays in exercise books balanced on our laps. Those remain some of the happiest days of my life, before homework and exams impinged on my childhood, and before my parents sent me to a faraway school stuffed with posh boys and requiring a bottle-green uniform.

My least favourite school activity was ‘swimming’ in the newly constructed, unheated rectangular above-ground pool on the playing field. Alongside were two tiny windowless wooden huts in which girls and boys were shepherded separately to change into their costumes, and where I hated my mates spying me naked. I was so rake-thin that the bottom of my rib cage protruded, making me imagine I had some kind of physical deformity not evident in my schoolmates. My acute embarrassment destroyed any enjoyment and inhibited my capacity to learn to swim … which sadly I never overcame.

In my final year at Cordwalles, teacher Mr Hales encouraged us to open savings accounts with Trustee Savings Bank [TSB]. Once a week after class registration, he would ask if we had coins to deposit, record their value in our individual bank books and update our balances. It was a great way to make us understand the value of money, particularly as the monetary system was about to convert to ‘new pence’ from shillings. Would a school today actively encourage ten-year-olds to manage their first bank accounts in class?

I made some really good friends – including Paul Rowell, Michael Heinrich and Martin Bell – who would invite me to their houses on the estate after school. I was surrounded by peers of both sexes, of various religions and diverse races. I feel very lucky to have been educated in such a safe, sympathetic and uncompetitive environment, full of stimulation and encouragement that immensely shaped my attitudes and life thereafter. Unfortunately, it made my subsequent education and career make me feel all the more like a fish out of water, forced to navigate pathways amongst privileged, entitled people who seemed to have had very different childhoods that had fostered their cold, cutthroat, self-centred outlook on life.

I was sad to leave my primary school in 1969, after which I no longer saw the classmates with whom I had spent the previous six years. My parents failed to appreciate that their decision to continue my education at a distant school tore me away from roots I had forged on Old Dean Estate and isolated my social life by forcing me to travel daily to the other end of the county. At Cordwalles, I had felt like a normal boy living a normal life. I was never again made to feel that I fitted in so comfortably.

Postscript. The first time I went to church was in 1967 to accompany my mother to the final service of St George’s, built by the local Middleton family in the 1890’s on St George’s Road at Knoll Road, prior to its demolition to create a car park adjacent to Herman Solomon’s Garage. Despite never having known my mother attend any church, she was annoyed that our nearest one had been sold off as part of Camberley town centre’s modernisation. 

More than two decades later, having recalled that I had once opened a savings account at school, I walked into the TSB Camberley branch in London Road and asked if I could withdraw the balance. It took several weeks for the staff to locate my details and obligingly add years of interest to my balance before I could withdraw a small sum that I had almost forgotten I had.

Virtual Tour of Cordwalles Classrooms

27 November 2023

Health & safety & death in the workplace : 2004 : BBC World Service Trust, Phnom Penh

 We were standing in a concert hall designed like a futuristic room on the ‘Discovery One’ spaceship in the film ‘2001’. Every feature was brilliant white. White plastic seats. White walls. White ceiling. When the house lights were switched on, it was a dazzling sight. In 1968, my father had accompanied me to watch that sci-fi movie at our local cinema because my school project concerned the American space race. Simultaneously, maybe an unknown architect somewhere had exited a theatre, sufficiently inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic vision to design their next project, this room, all-white.

The huge hall appeared little used and surprisingly intact, despite the sprawling two-story concrete headquarters of ‘Radio National Kampuchea’ [RNK] in which it was built exhibiting significant evidence of the raging civil war that had started with the overthrow of Cambodia leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk in March 1970. I wondered to myself whether this concert hall had served as a secret location for the Khmer Rouge leadership to enjoy a Friday night knees-up after a hard week’s work torturing and murdering fellow citizens. There might be ghosts here that would be best undisturbed.

“You will be training our staff here,” ordered Tan Yan, RNK director general, waving his hand around the cavernous hall. 

“Er …,” I replied, on the verge of telling him that this was no suitable venue to train a handful of his staff in radio production. But I managed to restrain myself from contradicting this Cambodia government appointee. I recalled that, only months prior, Chour Chetharith – deputy editor of an independent Phnom Penh radio station ‘Ta Prohm 90.5 FM’ critical of the country’s ruling party – had been shot dead by two gunmen on a motorbike on arrival at his workplace. Like anybody, I would like to live.

From his instruction to me, it was evident that our host likely had never made a radio programme, had scant idea how radio programmes were produced and had never needed to learn. His role, in charge of the government’s one national radio channel, was to ensure that its output caused no problems for his masters. We had just come from an initial meeting in his office, a cramped room awash with paper and lacking any twentieth century technology other than a telephone and an electric fan, but weirdly reminiscent of a North London taxi cab office. Then he had shepherded our delegation into a long narrow room, empty apart from two lines of chairs on opposing walls. Speeches were made in Khmer by government men sat opposite. My BBC colleague said something in English. We all stood up, uncomfortably close together in that small sweaty space, a photograph was taken and printed in the following day’s newspaper, trumpeting the first partnership between the Cambodia government and the BBC to produce radio programmes.

After the concert hall, our guided tour of the radio station took us to a large windowless office crammed with desks piled high with papers and occupied by scribbling staff. Our host explained that this was the nerve centre of his operation where everything had to be ‘checked’. Strangely, there were no signs of radio production equipment. The sign on the office door said ‘CENSORS’. This is where every script written by lowly radio employees was edited by important managers to ensure the words’ suitability for broadcast to the nation. Then it was recorded onto analogue tape in an unseen studio somewhere, to be returned here for checking that the announcer had not inserted any personal inflection or inference into their reading of the approved script. Every item within the station’s output was created this way. Not one minute of ‘live’ content had ever been transmitted. If aliens were to invade, this radio would inform Cambodians a week after their abduction to a distant galaxy.

We were then taken to a large darkened room in the bowels of the building, filled with standalone metal shelf units on which the station’s tape archives were stored. Thousands of items were evident, many in boxes, some not, much seemingly uncatalogued, some unspooling all over the floor. It was an unholy mess. No air conditioning. No organisation. But it was surprising it had survived at all the Khmer Rouge era. Right here, since the station’s launch in 1947 under the supervision of the Ministry of Propaganda, we were told there were priceless recordings of musicians, interviews and news reports spanning the country’s turbulent history … if you could ever find them amongst the chaos. I was awestruck.

Then it was down to work. The BBC had requested interviews with a dozen of RNK’s existing staff, from which we would choose a radio production team whom I would train to create (shock horror!) a live weekly phone-in programme, the first in the station’s history. We decamped to one of several unused rooms whose doors had been removed and that opened onto the compound, where we sat around a group of old desks pushed together in the middle. No air conditioning. Just a bare room and the three of us: the BBC’s radio manager in Cambodia, Chas Hamilton; BBC translator Keo Sothearith; and freelance me. We had a list of staff names and that was all. No CV’s. No idea who we were about to see.

One by one, our candidates arrived and what ensued was the most bizarre round of interviews I have ever encountered. Asked what their present job entailed, what skills they possessed and what they wanted to achieve in their career, most failed to answer anything at all. Some just stared at us as if we were mad. Several answered “I do what my boss tells me”. None appeared enthusiastic about their work or the potential of training with the BBC. Reluctance would be a gross understatement. I wondered to myself how they had secured their jobs in radio in the first place if their communication ‘skills’ were so poor. They seemed to consider our polite enquiries as interrogation, as if we might incarcerate them for any incorrect answer … or worse. Perhaps the government radio station staff were still being managed through ‘fear’, just as the Khmer Rouge had terrorised the population not so long ago.

By the time we reached our last interviewee, we had noticed that all our candidates had been dressed in black. We asked why. Our last man explained that one of their female colleagues at the station had recently been killed by falling masonry from the crumbling war-torn building, so the staff would be attending the funeral that afternoon. We looked at each other open-mouthed. We were sitting in a death trap. Oh dear! What were we doing there? Despite me having interviewed potential candidates for radio jobs in many countries, this selection proved the most difficult to assess because we had elicited almost no relevant information. We remained there a while afterwards to discuss our preferences, deciding to select the marginally least reticent six staff and hope for the best. I felt anxious about how I could train people who appeared so disinterested.

Our morning’s work done, we left the room and headed to the director’s office to thank him and say goodbye. It was empty. We walked out to the front gates of the compound and were astonished to find them locked from the outside. We walked back to the building and wandered around offices on the two floors, shouting ‘hello’. It was completely deserted. Like their former colonial masters, the staff must have left en masse at precisely midday and would not return for two hours. We had been locked in without anyone anticipating that their morning visitors might still be present.

All the three of us could do was walk through foliage around the inside of the high perimeter zinc fence and look for a gap to escape. Eventually we did find a small hole where the metal had suffered damage, we prised it open and, bending down, could just about crawl through. By then, we had been outdoors in the midday sun for a while and, once returned to the BBC office, we desperately needed refreshment. It was a bizarre end to a bizarre morning of meetings at the government radio station.

That afternoon, after reflecting upon our experience, I told my local line manager, Chas Hamilton, and the BBC Cambodia project manager, Giselle Portenier, that I considered the RNK premises a wholly unsuitable venue for me to train staff. Was there a room in the BBC building I could use instead? The local staff showed me a conference room with a boardroom table that seemed ideal. I almost fainted when I realised I had seen this exact space, with its large circular motif embedded in the marble floor, during a dream five years earlier. Not for the first time, ‘déjà vu’ sneaks up out of nowhere to surprise you in the strangest situations.

To me, it seemed self-evident that this room – in a secure, air-conditioned environment with access to a kitchen and toilet facilities – was the perfect solution to hold my training sessions two full days each week for the next few months. I was taken aback to be told that neither Hamilton (who had visited RNK with me) nor Portenier (who had not) agreed. Apparently, the BBC’s contract with the government insisted the training would take place on-site at RNK and that was considered the end of it. Before making that agreement, had anyone from the BBC actually visited the RNK building? This stalemate lasted more than a month. Maddeningly, in January the BBC in London had sent me to Cambodia to start work with the utmost urgency and yet, by March, I was still unable to commence training one of my two radio production teams.

In desperation, I felt forced to send this formal email on 30 March to Hamilton and Portenier:

“I feel I should flag that no specific resolution has yet been agreed to the health and safety issue of the RNK building.

After my visit to RNK on 2 March 2004, I immediately expressed my concern (verbally) to Charles and Giselle about the health and safety risk of undertaking training work at the RNK premises. In subsequent conversations with Charles, Giselle and Lori [McDougall], possible remedies were discussed that involved training RNK staff off-site.

Paragraph 10(5)(a) of the WST [BBC World Service Trust] Freelance Terms Of Trade requires the Freelance to “make an assessment of all risks to health and safety reasonably foreseeable by him/her that may affect the WST or any others arising out of or in any way connected with the performance of the Contract” and to “promptly make and give effect to arrangements to eliminate or adequately control such risks.” The Freelance is made responsible for health and safety issues.

The Freelance is obliged to “notify the WST accordingly,” which I have done (verbally), and I will reiterate (in writing) my assessment: The RNK building is in a terrible state of repair and looks as though it has not been maintained for at least a decade, maybe longer. Most exterior windows have no glass and many of the rooms no longer have doors. Only a few rooms seem to have air conditioning. We learnt that a member of staff has recently been killed by masonry falling from the building. There is little or no visible security, and the large front reception area within the building is completely empty. When we went to leave the premises at noon, we found all exit gates were padlocked, and the building devoid of any staff to assist. We eventually found an exit through a gap in a zinc fence to the rear of the building. We have yet to see any kind of refreshment facility, or inspect the toilet facilities.

I do not feel that this is a safe environment in which to spend several days a week training RNK staff. Such training could be arranged off-site without any loss of relevant radio facilities (since RNK has no live studio/production environment relevant to the training). As you are aware, I suggested that training could instead be conducted at the BBC office and/or ‘FM 102’ (or elsewhere).

I am sure that we can work together to resolve this issue and commence the training of RNK staff.”

Still enduring no local approval, I then had to write a similar email to the BBC office in London which resulted in further queries, more correspondence but, eventually, grudging acceptance that my work could be undertaken in the conference room only metres away from my office desk. The outcome was that training sessions which should have started in January did not commence until April, by which time the plan had been for me to return home. However, having just won such a frustratingly minor victory, I felt it would have been irresponsible to leave immediately, so I offered to extend my time in Cambodia a further few months. Nonetheless, the RNK phone-in programme had still not launched by the time I eventually left, sadly as a direct result of these delays attributable to the BBC. This was the first time I had been employed by the BBC, as well as my first work for an international charity, and my experience with ex-pat managers had proven far from productive.

By contrast, my training sessions in the BBC conference office with the RNK staff, about whom we had harboured such initial doubts, proved to be amazingly positive. They were wonderful people who taught me as much about Cambodia as I hopefully taught them about radio. I was so sad to leave them without having seen through their phone-in programme, which finally launched on-air in October.

I never returned to the RNK building. However, I did run into the station’s director at the press launch of some health project in Phnom Penh that the BBC insisted I attend. We stood together in silence in the garden of the venue, a small high circular table between us on which we placed our free drinks. Conversation was impossible. My knowledge of French proved irrelevant because the language had been effectively extinguished by Khmer Rouge assassinations of anyone vaguely academic in the 1970’s. This middle-aged government man smiled at me friendlily, though I found myself wondering what ‘successes’ he might have achieved in Year Zero to have sufficiently impressed the ruling party.

Once back in London, I wrote an email to UNESCO explaining that I had viewed RNK’s broadcast archives and believed they should be preserved, catalogued and stored in an improved environment because of their historical significance not only to Cambodia, but globally. No reply. I tried my best!

I had had a job to do … flying to Cambodia.

20 November 2023

One little indie music show : 1980-1981 : Saturday night 10 to midnight, Metro Radio

 “You will present a weekly two-hour rock music show on Saturday night,” my manager informed me.

No if’s or but’s. No offer over which to mull. No demo tape to produce. No question asked about previous experience. Without warning, I was appointed as presenter on one of Britain’s largest commercial radio stations. I had just started a full-time backroom job at ‘Metro Radio’ but had never asked to present a show. This was my first paying job in radio and suddenly I was also to be put on-air. The start of my radio career seemed to be heading in a positive direction.

Some aspiring DJs spend their whole life trying to secure a presenting job on radio, often without success. I felt slightly guilty that this opportunity had fallen into my lap without effort. My employer did not even realise that I had started presenting for various London pirate stations seven years earlier, as such lawbreaking activities were not productive additions to a CV then. A decade into the future, employed as programme director of London’s ‘KISS FM’, one young hopeful desiring a DJ job would sit in the station’s reception area day after day, awaiting his opportunity to buttonhole me on my way to lunch at the ‘greasy spoon’ on Highbury Corner. Little did he know that we already had the largest DJ roster of any British radio station, or that management had just cut payments per show by half, or that several loyal presenters had been made redundant within months of launch. Oblivious, he was not so much ‘networking’ as ‘stalking’.

Management at Metro Radio seemed not to care one jot what was broadcast evenings and overnight because commercial stations then believed their advertisers were only interested in daytime shows and that their most significant audience was housewives. My small additional payment for the rock show was eaten into by the cost of driving twenty miles to the studio on Saturday night and then back again in the early hours of Sunday. Nevertheless, the station would jump at any chance to cut its minor expenses, such as the occasion excellent overnight presenter Tony Crosby was replaced in 1981 by a new DJ who offered to do the same show for free. Never mind the quality, feel the penny-pinching! (Tony went on to train as a solicitor.)

No direction was offered me as to what to do in my show. Whereas daytime presenters were required to wait outside programme controller Mic Johnson’s office for individual appointments to hear his critique whenever a JICRAR ratings book was published, management expressed zero interest in what I was doing on-air. There were already two other rock shows on the station. My line manager Malcolm Herdman played two hours of heavy metal and hard rock. Full-time producer John Coulson used his two hours to play an esoteric mix of mainstream rock and read passages from ‘beat generation’/‘new journalism’ authors. I decided to fill the evident gap for the ‘indie’ music that had emerged after several years of punk.

Music trade weekly ‘Record Business’ had published its first weekly ‘indie’ chart in January 1980, following a suggestion by Iain McNay, founder of London’s ‘Cherry Red Records’. I decided to use one hour of my show to run down this chart, playing the new entries and highest climbing singles. As far as I know, mine was the first ever British radio ‘indie’ chart show and was soon mentioned in the ‘indie’ columns of the music trade press. Most ‘indie’ releases were not supplied to commercial radio stations because there was zero possibility of them being playlisted, necessitating me to establish contact with the main ‘indie’ distributor, ‘Rough Trade’ in London, to receive copies. Each week, I would phone its very helpful director and head of promotions Scott Piering to request records that he would then mail to me (later that decade I worked in Scott’s office).

In the other hour of my show, I would play a selection of newly released album tracks, both indie and mainstream. Working full-time in the station’s record library, I had access to all major label releases that arrived either by post or from weekly visits by record company promotion staff. I would place interesting new albums in a holdall I carried back and forward to the show although, with only time to play around fifteen tracks within an hour, my hoard of unplayed recent releases grew heavier by the week. My running order ranged from ‘Steely Dan’ to ‘Joy Division’ to ‘Crass’, none of which were exposed elsewhere within the station’s output.

Although the Tyneside local band scene then was dominated by heavy metal bands and record labels such as ‘Neat’ and ‘Guardian’, there were a few ‘indie’ bands that were recording good quality demo’s or releasing their records independently. I received a nice letter from Paddy McAloon asking me to play his group ‘Prefab Sprout’s first self-published single. I had already been the lone person not walking straight past the stage when the band had performed at the Durham Miners’ Gala, so I was happy to oblige. There were some excellent local bands, including ‘Dire Straits’ and ‘The Police’ who were quickly signed by major labels, but also many that went largely unnoticed until ‘Kitchenware Records’ launch in Newcastle in 1982. I tried to play any local band recordings I found or received.

Because my two hours on-air were so precious, I talked minimally between records and rarely featured interviews. I recall receiving a telegram at home from the station one day asking me to phone it urgently. Our house had no phone so I had to walk to the one phone box in Sherburn Village and call in. Was I interested in recording an interview for my show with ‘Duran Duran’ who were promoting their first single release ‘Planet Earth’? I turned down this opportunity because the group was not local, were not ‘indie’ (having already signed to ‘EMI’) and their music was audibly more ‘pop’ than ‘rock’. However, I did interview local artists such as Pauline Murray from Ferryhill whose first solo album (after the punk group ‘Penetration’) sounded remarkably innovative and remains one of my favourite recordings.

I spent quite a lot of time each week compiling a local ‘gig guide’ from adverts in local newspapers (pre-internet newsprint) and flyers. I would update it each week, type it out myself, pin it on the radio station’s noticeboard and mail copies to all the local record shops. In my show, I would read out the following week’s concerts though I never heard any other presenter refer to my list because, beyond Malcolm and myself, the station seemed to be disconnected from the local music scene. On occasional visits to 'Volume Records', the only ‘indie’ record shop in Newcastle, I would secretly feel proud to see the latest A4 sheet of gigs I had mailed out pinned to its noticeboard. Like my show’s content, the reason for undertaking this research-intensive work was because nobody else seemed to be exposing this information at the time. There was no ‘what’s on’ publication for the region.

Although I had competently operated radio studio equipment myself since my days at school recording pirate radio shows, management at Metro Radio insisted I sat in a soundproofed studio in front of the microphone while a ‘technical operator’ facing me from an adjoining control room played the records, advertisements and mixed the audio. I was unfamiliar with this arrangement, which the station’s managers had brought with them from overstaffed BBC local radio stations at which they had worked previously. I was extremely lucky to have had John Oley assigned as my ‘T.O.’, one of the most professional and enthusiastic people I have had the pleasure to work with in radio. His contribution to my show was enormous and freed me to talk my rubbish on-air and answer the phone line when I occasionally held competitions.

Metro Radio showed no interest in promoting my show so it seemed a miracle when I started receiving letters from listeners who had discovered it. In the days before internet or community stations, each region of Britain was served by only one local BBC station and one commercial music station. Although my show was tucked away in the weekend schedule, it still felt groundbreaking to play music little heard outside of John Peel’s weeknight show on national ‘BBC Radio One’. There were quite a few records lasting only two or three minutes that each required several hours’ work transferring them to quarter-inch tape in order to edit out swear words with a razor blade and white editing tape on a metal block. If only those bands knew how much extra effort was necessary just for them to receive one radio play!

Living in a rural village, there were Saturday nights during winter snows when I was unable to drive to the station. Snowploughs would habitually clear the roads eastward from Durham City as far as the junction with the A1(M) motorway but, frustratingly, not the further one mile beyond to my home. I would have to trudge out in icy temperatures to the public phone box and call either Malcolm Herdman or John Coulson at home, asking if they could reach the studio to fill in for me on those days. Because they lived in Newcastle city, I think they found it hard to believe that I was literally ‘snowed in’. Unfortunately, my salary was insufficient to contemplate a relocation nearer my workplace, meaning I missed out on concerts and the city nightlife which I would have loved to explore.

All good things come to an end. Quickly in my case. Metro Radio made me redundant from my full-time job. I continued to present my Saturday night show for a while through 1981 but the expense of maintaining a car to drive to Newcastle was proving greater than my payments from the station, which had to be subtracted from my Unemployment Benefit. The final track on my last show was 'Decades' by Joy Division. I was applying for any relevant vacancy in the radio and music industries but getting nowhere. In the end, I had to follow Tebbit’s advice and get on my bike (well, in my car to be accurate), leaving the region where I had lived the last five years in order to take a totally different job 218 miles down south. It was disappointing because I had acquired so much knowledge of indie music, the regional music scene and had built an audience for my unique radio show.

The start of my radio career now seemed to be heading in a negative direction. I was unable to secure work in the broadcast industry for a further four years and, only then, by taking a contract in Israel on a pirate radio ship that paid little more than expenses. However, I have always treasured the memories of my time working alongside John Oley and Tony Crosby late on Saturday nights when the only other person in the darkened Metro Radio building on a bleak industrial estate was the security guard downstairs. This was when innovative radio programmes were made … even though Metro Radio probably never realised it.

"... Open then shut, then slammed in our face."

Postscript: Forty years later, I received a polite email from a member of a former local band enquiring if I still had their demo tape I had been sent and played on my Metro Radio show. Sadly, no.

14 November 2023

An elite academy for aspiring rent-a-gob politicians : 1976 : Durham Union Society

 “I’m sorry but you must wear appropriate attire to attend,” the usher told me sternly.

I thought I had been dressed normally enough, but apparently not. I was waving my club membership card, having paid the annual subscription during Freshers’ Week. Only then did I learn that it was insufficient merely to be a paid-up member. Nobody had told me I needed additionally to wear an academic gown to be admitted, one of those flimsy black material things belonging to previous centuries or ghost movies. Since my arrival at university, I had spotted a few students wafting around the streets wearing such gowns and I had considered their fashion sense preposterous, particularly in the ‘Year of Punk’. Why would I waste £37 of my Surrey County Council student full grant on such an anachronistic garment? Now, to my frustration, I was being refused entry to the society’s first debate of the academic year and had to walk the mile back to my college in autumnal darkness.

I was unaware then that Durham University was so normalised to its elite status that it even labelled its relationship with the local population ‘town and gown’. Evidently it never had considered itself an integral part of Durham, one of Britain’s poorest working-class regions, because its students were not drawn from the locality but from some of Britain’s poshest families whose offspring had proven insufficiently academic to gain admission to Oxbridge. I recall my shock during a party at fellow student John Cummins’ town centre flat when I learnt that his parents had purchased that property for the duration of his studies. Whilst processing my astonishment, I rudely fell asleep on his sofa in the midst of the revelling. Only later did I discover that such investments by rich parents were commonplace. (Despite showing little interest in the pop music with which I was obsessed, later John landed a job at ‘The Tube’ music TV show and was then appointed Channel 4’s launch head of youth television.)

Clubs had never been for me. At school, the only one I had joined was ‘Strode’s Film Club’, a sixth-form wheeze by classmate and film buff Martin Nichols to legally screen in the main hall X-rated movies such as ‘Straw Dogs’, ‘Lord of The Flies’, ‘Canterbury Tales’, ‘North by Northwest’, 'Celine and Julie Go Boating' and ‘Closely Observed Trains’. Now, as a naïve fresher at university, I had been told it was essential to join numerous clubs, particularly the debating society, so I had paid my money, only to be turned away from its first event. A historian had written in 1952:

“When a young man comes into residence in Durham, in seven cases out of ten he decides to become a member of the Union Society. […] And he is then in the succession of many whose first experience in oratory and official administration, gained in the Union Debating Hall and clubrooms, has stood them in good stead for the rest of their lives.”

I was unable to benefit from this ‘experience in oratory’ until later in the year when I discovered the club held one annual debate where neither membership nor a gown were necessary to attend in the Great Hall of Durham Castle. It seemed bizarre that the town’s castle operated as neither a tourist attraction nor the home of some wealthy bigwig, but as a college of the university in which 150 students had lived and studied from 1837. Apparently, between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, its oversized dining room had been renowned as Britain’s largest ‘Great Hall’. I sat at the back in my usual student-wear to quietly observe a debate dominated by white males wearing gowns.

What I witnessed stunned me. It was difficult to decide what impacted me the most. Adolescents of my age acting as if they were already middle-aged men, seemingly in imitation of their family’s upper-class characteristics. Boys confident enough to stand up and talk loudly and at length on global issues about which they displayed only the most basic understanding. Conversely, their peers not replying with factual corrections because they too were eagerly awaiting a chance to stand up and mouth their own ignorance. Overloud voices and theatrical flourishes as if the debater were the lead actor in a school play. Mob-like cheering and jeering at speakers as if it were some medieval tournament. Rude audience comments shouted out during speeches, eliciting rumbustious laughter. Loud banging of fists on tables and foot stomping like a mob of noisy yobo’s.

What proved most baffling were the moments when a participant whom I vaguely knew would stand up to argue a point of view that I had thought was the opposite of their personal beliefs. It appeared that, in this playground, moral certitude had to be sacrificed to the altar of argument purely for argument’s sake. It was an intellectual game whose purpose was to impress one’s peers with wit and verbosity rather than facts or evidence. The medium WAS the message, not the content that was being spoken … or more often bellowed. During an evening of insufferably posh accents, visions of fencing, guns at dawn and gloves smacked across opponents’ cheeks crossed my mind. It was evident that many of my fellow students must have already practised this parlour game for years in ‘debating societies’ at their private schools … while, in my parallel state school universe, I had been occupied presenting pop music programmes on London pirate radio stations.

At the event’s conclusion, I stumbled outside into the night air, reeling as if I had been returned to Earth after abduction by an alien civilisation. Perhaps you required blue blood to feel at home in there. I resolved not to renew my club membership nor to attend further debates. The academic Sir Walter Moberly had commented in 1950: “Undergraduate debates are not conducted at the deep level at which convictions are really formed.” This notion that an individual can lack personal conviction to debate or argue a point forcefully was a foreign land to me. I could frame an argument for my principles, but why would one propose a point of view that is not one’s own? Unless you never bother with ‘convictions’ and follow a path of merely blowing with the prevailing wind.

It was not until 1990 that Britain’s primary legislature, the House of Commons, allowed its proceedings to be permanently televised, following its eleventh vote on the issue during the preceding twenty-two years. The motion was opposed by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher because "my concern is for the good reputation of this House.” Initially, only close-up shots of the politician holding the floor were permitted because a wider view would have shown the public the faces of their elected representatives jeering, hectoring, desk banging and rabble-rousing during many speeches. This restriction was later relaxed, allowing the rest of the world to witness for the first time the childish habits of grown men who had never moved on from ‘bunfights’ in oak-panelled dining rooms during ‘High Tea’.

Watching those early televised broadcasts vividly recalled the one debate I had attended more than a decade earlier. I suddenly understood that Durham Union Society had been established in 1842 as ‘A Nursery of the [House of] Commons’, as noted a headline in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper. My privileged contemporaries had been in training to become politicians since an early age. Durham had merely been the latest stop on their route to the elevated roles to which they had forever been told they were entitled. Articulating this notion of ‘power’, Sir Winston Churchill had once observed at the Oxford Union: “If you can speak in this country, you can do anything.”

House of Commons rules strictly forbid members to call each other ‘a liar’ or to make an accusation of ‘lying’. As a result, just as I had witnessed in Durham, speakers are permitted to spout any old tosh that comes into their heads and get away with it. How can a critic ‘speak truth to power’ in a forum where the currency of ‘truth’ is not merely devalued but prohibited? Politicians know they can say whatever is expedient in the moment without any recourse, while the rest of us would be sacked from our jobs for what our world considers to be lying.

In my own field, the lack of, ahem, ‘conviction’ of politicians responsible for the British government’s media policy has been evident often. In March 2010 whilst in opposition, Ed Vaizey MP said “the government has set a provisional target date of 2015 [for digital radio switchover] and we are sceptical about whether that target can actually be met.” However, by July that same year and after an election had appointed him the new government’s culture minister, Vaizey conversely said that “2015 is an achievable target date and we will work to support that ambition.” Ho hum.

During the period when I seemed to be the only City analyst covering the radio broadcast industry, I would occasionally be contacted by the BBC to be interviewed for a programme. Before sunrise one day, a BBC car collected me from home to take me to the studios of the ‘Today’ programme on ‘Radio 4’ for a live item about digital radio switchover. On arrival, I was told that I would be answering the presenter’s questions and then the government minister would be introduced and quizzed. However, the minister had insisted that I not be permitted to follow up or respond to what he would be saying. It was obvious that my presence in the studio would suggest a semblance of ‘balance’ whilst not actually allowing genuine debate or argument.

I had arrived at the BBC early and spent an age waiting in the show’s ‘green room’. The minister arrived late, accompanied by a flunky, entered the room and said to me: “So you are the person they have brought here to tell me that everything I am about to say is wrong.” 

Just as I had witnessed in Durham, patronising privileged toffs like him function in a world where they insist upon immunity from contradiction or correction to the drivel they shout. Despite my anger at his comment, I followed the instructions for that morning’s appearance, but have refused every BBC invitation since. Where there is purposefully no genuine debate, what would be the point?

Is this the “honourable tradition” maintained by graduates of debating societies like Durham Union Society, the phrase attributed to the club in 1952 by its historian who suggested it:

“… should always retain at least some its present rooms as a gentlemen’s club. There may it long offer to future generations those opportunities for the making of friendships, for argument, and for training in life and thinking …”?

‘Training’ for a ‘life’ as a conviction-free politician?

7 November 2023

Things you say you love, you’re gonna lose : 1973 : the curse of The Blue Pool, Camberley

 The couple put the huge dog in the back of their car and, before setting off down our driveway, smiled and waved at us. We did not smile. We did not wave back. My mother was weeping. Uncontrollably. I had never seen her so upset. She had just said goodbye to her beloved pet dog. For the last time. I hugged her. But that day’s heartbreak consumed her … for years to come.

It seemed like a lifetime ago that we had excitedly carried that dog home as a tiny puppy in a cardboard box. It had been smaller than a cat then. Now it had grown heavier than a human. One cold, dark winter’s afternoon years earlier, we had brought back our new pet on the train from Waterloo. Thick fog had enveloped our route, prolonging our usual one-hour journey home to more than two hours, and rendering the suburban landscape spookily invisible through the train windows. Stopped at Bagshot station, the guard walked down the carriages’ central corridor carrying a bright torchlight and explained that our train would be held there for quite a while. Because the double-track railway narrowed to a single line beyond Frimley, the British Rail timetable regularly disintegrated into chaos in both directions when even a single train was delayed. I pulled down the window of the carriage door, peered outside but could make out only a pinprick of the red stop light at the top of the westbound platform entirely masked by thick fog.

That day the scary darkness through which our train had clickety-clacked had been unable to spoil the delight of having collected our new puppy from London. Now, years later, we were having to fight a route through a different abstract kind of foggy darkness that was undeniably dampening our spirits. No longer able to afford to feed the dog who had been her loyal companion for years, my mother had become resigned to placing a ‘dog for sale’ advertisement in the ‘Camberley News’. It was the hardest thing she had ever had to do. It felt like selling a member of her tightly-knit family. But she had recently become a single mother with three children aged between two and fifteen to support and had to accept her budget could no longer stretch to the expense of the huge volume of meat our pet required.

That dog was the last in a line of Saint Bernard’s that had been our pets since I was small. The first had been named ‘Samantha’ after the lead character in the ‘Bewitched’ TV series. I had chosen the name ‘Suna’ for its successor. They had died of old age but, on each occasion, my mother had combatted her sadness by promising herself to buy a similar puppy and transfer her unconditional love to it, which she did. This occasion was very different. A lifetime of big shaggy dogs had been brought to an abrupt end, not by death but by austerity. As children, the three of us had grown up around a Saint Bernard that had been taller than us in our earliest years and, despite drooling over us and our furniture, had been as gentle and friendly as any family could want. Why did my mother have such an affinity for this particular breed of dog, which was so unconventional in that era?

Her trip to Switzerland in 1953 or 1954 had had a long-lasting impact. My mother had returned with three things: a large rusty metal cowbell, a love of Lindt chocolate and her first encounter with a Saint Bernard. For someone from her ‘modest’ background who had never before had an opportunity to travel abroad, the trip proved an eyeopener, particularly after her mother had vetoed her post-school ambition to study agriculture in Denmark. Back then, international travel remained the privilege of the elite and Switzerland was a destination reserved for those attending private ‘finishing schools’ or wealthy skiers.

My mother always claimed that she had made the trip with ‘work colleagues’, though I have always considered it more likely that she was accompanied by a manager (the manager?) in her workplace, Peter, who was providing her with a daily lift to her first workplace, the Elizabeth Shaw chocolate manufacturer recently relocated to Camberley. In earlier years’ annual roll photographs from Camberley Girls’ Grammar School, portraying long rows of its entire student and staff body, my mother was easily identifiable in the back row by her bouffant hair and radiant smile among a sea of rather dowdy girls who looked browbeaten by the War. She had the air of someone who aspired to a brighter future. Maybe it was during this trip to Switzerland, ostensibly to view how chocolate was manufactured at the Lindt factory, that Peter had made his marriage proposal … which she rejected.

A keen swimmer, my mother had managed to persuade her parents to buy her a season ticket during school summer holidays for the Blue Pool, a large outdoor lido-like pool on the London Road adjacent to Portesbery Hill Drive, a half-mile bike ride from her home. This was the only place in Camberley for young people to meet then, there being no youth club or coffee bar to fraternise. Boys and girls thronged to the pool during its summer season, unguarded by parents or chaperones, indulging in fizzy drinks and snacks of which their parents might not have approved. This is where my mother first met my father, who was almost two years older than her and had already left school to work as an apprentice. Like her, he looked more glamorous than his peers with his sleek jet-black hair and olive skin. She was rather reserved while he had the gift of the gab and a roving eye. It was a match made in …

My mother’s family refused to attend the couple’s Registry Office wedding because my grandfather knew the reputation for roughness of my father’s family and considered they and their youngest son no match for his smart youngest daughter with whom he had enjoyed such a close bond, particularly during wartime. He considered no good would come of their relationship … and he was eventually proven right! The day a few years later when I was born at home, my father was nowhere to be seen because, my mother alleged, he was with his ‘girlfriend’ who was simultaneously pregnant by him. Soon afterwards, instead of paying the rent on their council house, my father unilaterally purchased an unaffordable car, resulting in their eviction. My maternal grandfather was generous enough to help the couple buy the semi-detached house adjoined to his home (after evicting his tenants there!), an arrangement permitting my mother’s parents to assist with childcare, in which her husband showed no interest.

My father’s philandering continued until 1972 when he finally decided to walk out on our family and start a ‘new life’ elsewhere with a recently married teenage girl from our street. Not only did he remove his own possessions from our house when he left, but he would return unannounced while we were out and take whatever he wanted. My mother stubbornly hung on to the belief that her husband would one day return to her (as he had done previously) and so failed to safeguard her own future by changing the house locks or hiding our valuables. This immunity only encouraged him to return and take time picking and choosing what he desired.

What did he steal? My mother’s car, an American Motors ‘Gremlin’, one of Detroit’s first compact hatchbacks which we had only recently travelled to an M1 service station to collect new. My father then gifted this car to his new ‘girlfriend’ before discovering that she was too young to be insured to drive it. My mother’s extensive jewellery collection that she had built since the 1950’s and comprised unusual, artistic pieces. Thousands of pounds of cash in plastic bags stashed in the top right cupboard of our white, Hygena living room storage unit, my father’s cut of dodgy property deals with his newest business partner Bill Beaver. Artwork and paintings hung in our hallway and living room. Imported soul records I had bought with my pocket money. The list went on and on.

My mother took two jobs to try and make ends meet, daytimes as bookkeeper for British Car Auctions at their site opposite Frimley gravel pits, evenings cleaning offices in Yorktown. My aunt Pam generously paid for a coastal summer holiday for our diminished family of four. However, we returned home to find even more of our belongings had vanished while we had been enjoying the seaside. To add insult to injury, my mother later found photographic evidence that my father had even organised a party for his ‘friends’ at the house during our absence. It appeared that he had been informed about the dates we were to be away by my younger brother who was the only one of us to maintain a close relationship with his father … until the day he died.

As a result, aged fourteen, that was to be my final ever holiday with my family. Pam continued to fund UK summer vacations for my mother and siblings, during which I had to stay alone at home to guard what remained of our possessions. Occasional nights, I was awoken by noises outside and got up to see the inside door handle being turned in darkness. It was as scary as a horror film, even though I was now protected by interior door bolts and I would switch on the lights to show someone was at home. For many years afterwards, we lived in that house in perpetual fear of losing what little was left of our possessions to an embittered father who demonstrated only cruelty and vengefulness towards his former family. 

That was why the necessary sale of our family’s dog proved the last straw for my mother. She would never again be the same optimistic person evident in her old school photos. It was not just that the family life she had nurtured since her Blue Pool days had finally crashed to the ground and burnt her fingers. It was not just that the warnings two decades earlier from her father about the unsuitability of her husband had proven correct. Moreso it was that her Saint Bernard dog had been a reminder of the ‘time of her life’ she had enjoyed in Switzerland and the possible future she might have enjoyed with Peter if she had only accepted his marriage proposal. It was too late now to turn back the clock. She had three children, for whom she had tried her hardest to provide a better life, but who were now growing up in much reduced circumstances with a mother who was forever at work. During the intervening period, Peter had married someone else.

Life for me became more difficult too. In 1969, my parents had promised to drive me every weekday two miles to Camberley station to catch the 8:10 train to the faraway grammar school they had selected for me. Now, the only replacement car my mother could afford was a tiny second-hand ‘NSU Prinz’ that we called ‘the sewing machine’ because of its engine noise and which regularly failed to start. My mother needed it to reach work so I was forced to make my own way to the station and back by infrequent bus or, more often, walking. To achieve this, on weekdays I was always the first to get up and leave home, but the last to go to bed, usually after midnight as I never returned home from school before six o’clock and had considerable homework to complete. Additionally, I had to look after my baby sister during school holidays while our mother was at work.

When our home’s central heating failed, local tradesmen came and looked blank as the gas air system my father had imported from America was then unknown in Britain. I wrote enquiry letters to dozens of heating specialists listed in the local library’s Yellow Pages directories, none of whom replied positively. I even wrote to the manufacturer in the United States but it had no agent in Europe. As each winter approached, I would once again dissemble the boiler mechanism myself and spend hours trying to discern the problem, to no avail. We were forced to live for years in that unheated, uninsulated house with its swathes of glass sliding doors, a factor that has forever made our bodies vulnerable to cold weather illnesses.

Somehow, we struggled through this terrible period in our lives and kept our family together with much practical and financial help from my maternal grandparents, my aunt Pam and my older cousin Lynn. Sadly, my father somehow poisoned my other aunt Sheila’s opinion of my mother so that the two sisters never spoke for decades afterwards. If this narrative appears one-sided, understand that my father’s parents, also resident in Camberley, were conspicuous by their complete absence from our family’s life. When I was young, my paternal grandfather pushed his wife down the staircase of their council house, resulting in her death. I had visited the couple only once previously with my father, purely because my mother refused to go. I visited the remaining widower only once after he was moved to a tiny old people’s flat on the London Road opposite Gibbet Lane. My father alone attended their funerals.

They say that ‘once is an accident, but twice …’ In the 1990’s, I returned to my mother’s house to retrieve several large cardboard boxes I had packed into the attic of my treasured childhood books, school projects, toys and personal items. When I climbed into the roof space, they appeared to have gone from where I had left them on the left side of the attic hatch. However, on the right side were many similar boxes. I opened them and was baffled to find they contained magazines and papers belonging to my younger brother. I could only presume that, when he had emigrated in the 1980’s, he must have taken with him MY boxed possessions but bizarrely left HIS behind. I now have almost nothing from my childhood, particularly the precious family photo album that I started in 1964 when I had been given my ‘Kodak Instamatic 25’ camera and which I had maintained religiously with dates, personnel and locations of each shot. Had my brother inherited from his father some kind of ‘cruelty to family’ gene?

During the winter of 1996, the central heating failed in the large Victorian house in Toronto where I was renting the top floor. I inspected the gas air system in the basement and was astounded to find it identical to the mechanism I had dismantled and tried to repair so many times in our Camberley house, installed three decades earlier. Bad memories came flooding back of our cold lives.

In her old age, my mother received a phone call from her former chocolate factory boss Peter informing her of his wife’s death, so she attended the funeral and visited him on the South Coast. Could have? Should have? In some kind of parallel universe, my mum might have enjoyed a longer lasting, more fulfilled married life … with somebody else.

30 October 2023

One good turn deserves a cold shoulder? : 2004 : BBC World Service Trust, Phnom Penh

 “I understand you’re an expert in messaging,” said the woman sat behind the desk.

I looked blank. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. If she meant SMS text messaging, I did not even own a mobile phone!

“I was told you are experienced in capacity building,” continued the woman, undeterred.

I looked even more blank. What on earth was she talking about? I had just flown half way around the world. This was my first meeting with the boss of the project where I was to work. Yet I had zero understanding of what she had just said. I began to wonder if the office back in London had mistakenly sent the wrong person (me) to the wrong location (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). Did she think I was someone else? I had been sent here to do radio training. Had the international wires become crossed somewhere?

It took me several weeks to understand that Giselle Portenier, manager of Cambodia’s BBC World Service Trust project, had been addressing me in ‘NGO-speak’, an esoteric language I had never before encountered. People working in such ‘Non-Governmental Organisations’ (er, international charities) apparently use terminology that substitutes long words for concepts which the rest of the world refer to with short words. Some might call this professional obscurantism.

During my first week, Portenier insisted I attend a two-day workshop organised by the Centre for Disease Control concerning drama programmes created to communicate health issues to the population. My takeaways were that NGO staff love the sound of their own voices and try their utmost to turn simple tasks into overcomplicated diagrams and flow charts. I strained to stay awake in Cambodia’s oppressive daytime heat and quickly tired of hearing NGO people talk to each other in a language that was apparently English, but might as well have been Mongolian for all I could understand. Luckily, I managed to excuse myself from a similar two-day workshop about ‘messaging’ the following week.

Why was I in Cambodia? In July 2002, I had been unemployed and applied in desperation for an advertised role with the BBC World Service Trust in Ethiopia. The only thing I recall about that interview was sitting alongside dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah (born two days before me!) in the lobby of Bush House. Having neither attended Oxbridge nor benefited from a family member or acquaintance employed in the Corporation, I was hardly surprised to receive my thirty-seventh consecutive BBC rejection letter. The Holy Grail I had coveted since childhood was receding further over my horizon with every CV submitted.

Fast forward to December 2003. I was in a dead-end job at Ofcom where my line manager Neil Stock had met me on Christmas Eve to say “there is nothing for you to contribute to” the media regulator’s work schedule during the first quarter of the next year. I had just discovered a voicemail message on my work phone from the BBC, asking if I was the ‘Grant Goddard’ who had applied for a job the previous year. My contact details had proven a dead-end and it had resorted to contacting a referee in the United States I had listed who advised that I now worked for ‘The Radio Authority’ … which was found to have closed. I phoned back, confirmed it was me and explained that I had since changed address. Would I be interested in a consultancy role lasting two to three months? Though I had accrued eight weeks’ unused holiday at Ofcom, it refused me paid or unpaid leave to pursue this opportunity … so I resigned.

Roy Head, director of the BBC World Service Trust’s health division, explained by phone that a contract had recently been signed between the Cambodia government and the Corporation to train local staff at two radio stations to produce phone-in shows around health issues. A decade earlier, he had managed the United Nations’ radio station ‘UNTAC’ in Cambodia. Head confided that, only after signing this contract had he discovered that the BBC’s ‘executive producer, radio’ in Cambodia, despite having held numerous posts within the Corporation since 1987, apparently had no experience producing a live radio programme. Neither had the Cambodia project manager who had produced television documentaries for the BBC since 1986. I respected Head’s honesty when he admitted my involvement would help him out of a very large hole. The Cambodia government was becoming increasingly impatient for the training to start, necessitating my arrival as quickly as possible. Yes, the pay (£750 plus US$100 pocket money per week) was not great because it had had to be unexpectedly eked out of an existing budget, but Head promised me better paid similar BBC work afterwards if I would solve his pressing problem.

I nearly never made it to Cambodia. The nurse I was mandated to visit at BBC White City could not locate the required ‘BCG’ vaccination on my left arm and threatened to block my departure for several weeks to redo it. Was I born in Britain? Yes. Did I have paperwork proving I had received the vaccine? Er, I was a child. Where did I receive it? In a health clinic, long gone, at the corner of Upper College Ride and Saddleback Road on the Old Dean Estate in Camberley, 200 metres from the house in which I had been born. After an extended interrogation, as a last resort she inspected my right arm and found a faint tell-tale circular mark there, and expressed astonishment that I was the first person she had encountered with it on the ‘wrong’ arm. All I could presume was that some nurse in the 1960’s had decided it would never matter as council estate children were destined to go nowhere anyway.

On arrival in Phnom Penh, my line manager Chas Hamilton invited me to homemade dinner in his flat and filled my head with gossip about his BBC colleagues. He was particularly incensed that his boss Portenier, before her recent arrival, had allegedly demanded her flat be remodelled at considerable public expense to include, shock horror, a sunken bathtub. As a short-term consultant (given BBC contract number WST001), I preferred to avoid such office politicking. I chose to keep my burning question – how is a BBC employee promoted to a radio management role without having produced a live radio programme? – to myself. The Corporation evidently worked in mysterious ways.

After a morning visit to one of the radio stations in Phnom Penh at which I would be working, the Cambodian BBC driver was en route to the office when I requested he stop for me to buy a takeaway lunch.

“I will take you to a hotel for lunch, sir,” he kindly offered.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I can buy something at one of these roadside shacks and eat it at the office.”

“But they only serve noodles, sir,” he explained patiently.

“Yes, and that is what I want for lunch,” I insisted.

Despite his complete puzzlement, he parked the BBC four-wheel-drive alongside a random food stall, translated my order into Khmer and, minutes later, I left clutching a knotted transparent plastic bag containing my freshly stir-fried order for less than a dollar. At the BBC office, I went to the kitchen, requested a plate, emptied out my food and sat at the dining table to eat it, much to the amazement of the Cambodian staff. My new colleagues found it hard to believe that I ate noodles at home all the time.

From that day forward, I joined the local staff for lunch daily in the BBC kitchen, with between five and fifteen of us gathered around the large dining table for the mandatory two-hour break inherited from French colonialists. Each of us paid the BBC kitchen manager a dollar a day to take our preferences and venture out to numerous street stalls to fulfil our orders. The food was always fantastic and the company was excellent, though I could not understand the Khmer chatter. The project’s Cambodian receptionist sidled up to me and explained with awe:

“In all the time we have been here, not one of the foreigners working here has sat down and ate our food with us, except on special occasions such as Chinese New Year.”

So where did all the ‘foreigners’ go every day? On one occasion, sat at the kitchen table ready to eat lunch, Portenier approached me and insisted I accompany her and the other ex-pats ‘out’. We were driven in several cars to an international hotel that appeared completely devoid of guests, where we were offered menus and then waited over an hour in the lobby for our dishes to arrive. The food, the surroundings and the conversation were all mediocre, though I presume that the BBC was picking up the tab for its employees’ daily lunchtime jollies to various Phnom Penh hotels. Thankfully, I was never invited again.

The BBC had initially ordered my air ticket to return to London three months later. As my work was still far from complete, I had to spend three hours sat uncomfortably on a long wooden bench in a tiny Phnom Penh travel agency that attempted to change the date … unsuccessfully. I decided unilaterally to use the ticket (rather than waste it) to fly home for a quick visit, only to discover that Roy Head, having sent me to Cambodia, was no longer with the BBC, reportedly having become ill after a work trip to Brazil. Back in London, I was called to a meeting with his successor at Bush House, a brusque woman who demonstrated little interest in my work but asked me to spy on my line manager Chas Hamilton and report what he was or was not doing. I refused. I had been hired as a consultant solely to train people in radio, not indulge in espionage. The BBC booked my new ticket to return to Cambodia a week later and gave me boxes of radio equipment to transport in my heavily surcharged, overweight suitcases.

Returned to Phnom Penh, when one of my station projects was about to launch its new weekly live youth phone-in show, I drafted a press release and asked Portenier to approve it, transpose it onto BBC notepaper and circulate it through established PR channels. She refused. I was perplexed. Surely it was positive news to herald the successful completion of part of the BBC’s contract with the Cambodia government. Apparently not. In order not to disappoint the radio station’s production team with whom I had worked so closely for months, I was reduced to secretly commandeering a BBC car and driver when Portenier was absent from the office in order to hand deliver to each of Phnom Penh’s newspapers my press releases in Khmer and English that omitted mention of the BBC's involvement.

This negative response was very dispiriting as it appeared that neither my local project manager, nor my local line manager, nor the replacement BBC manager in London seemed even vaguely appreciative of my success saving their bacon. My second radio station project was almost ready to launch too but I considered now was a good time to return home, having already spent twice as long in Cambodia as my contract had required. The local BBC staff organised a fantastic farewell party for me in the office and gave me presents. Neither Portenier nor Hamilton attended. To be accurate, Hamilton arrived at work after it had finished. At the airport, several of the wonderful Cambodian radio station staff I had trained arrived unexpectedly to see me off. They cried. I cried. They and the lovely local office staff had made my work worthwhile.

By the time I landed in London, my BBC e-mail account had already been cancelled, preventing continuing contact with my colleagues in Cambodia. I sent Portenier an email apologising (ahem!) for not having seen her before I left and thanking her for “all her help”. Her reply lacked a shred of gratitude:

“I know you were planning to do a handover report for David. Did that happen? I know he tried to get in touch in England, but failed.”

My BBC contract had not required me to write a report. Besides, in Cambodia I had been fully occupied each week spending four days from 8am to 5pm training two teams, one day in the radio studio and two days preparing materials for my next sessions, without any BBC input. Meanwhile, the project’s head of radio seemed to have spent most of his time sat in his cosy BBC office. Neither did I know who ‘David’ was. Nevertheless, I offered my services to help out for free in the BBC’s Bush House office, hoping to avail myself of future opportunities. I submitted six applications for advertised vacancies in the BBC World Service Trust during 2004 and 2005, for one of which I was interviewed, but without success. Nobody in the BBC thanked me for my work bailing it out in Cambodia or offered me the better paid, follow-on opportunities I had been promised. I had no idea how to contact Roy Head once he had left the BBC.

When I signed on for Unemployment Benefit, my most recent work in Phnom Penh was viewed suspiciously because, whilst I had been away, British tabloid newspaper front pages had splashed stories about 1970’s pop star ‘Gary Glitter’s exploits with underage boys in Cambodia. The young 'JobCentre' officer instructed me to apply for a radiology vacancy in a local hospital, not comprehending it was totally unrelated to radio production.

Giselle Portenier completed one year in charge of the Cambodia project before leaving the BBC and returning to Canada.

In 2006, Chas Hamilton lauded the youth phone-in radio show I and my trainees had created as the project’s “most popular”, noting that “all members of the production team … had no previous media experience before we plucked them from university and trained them.” His invisible ‘executive production’ role while I was there had apparently proven so successful that the BBC promoted him to manage their entire Cambodia project. I hope he enjoyed the accompanying apartment’s sunken bathtub he had seemed to envy so much.

23 October 2023

Knock me down with a mugger : 1986 : Share A Capital Christmas, Capital Radio, London

 Blam!! A sudden force on my back knocked me over in a second. No time to figure out what had just happened. I was sprawled front-down on the floor with a weight on my back. I shouted. People around me screamed. I could sense a struggle taking place overhead. The object on my back lifted and, from my ground level line of sight, I made out the feet of someone running ahead of me into the crowd.

“Are you alright?” asked one of the group of people standing around me, looking concerned.

“We saw that man push through the crowd,” explained another, “then knock you over and jump on top of you. We managed to pull him off but he ran away.”

They helped me to my feet and I realised that I was indeed alright and thanked them profusely for their swift action rescuing a complete stranger. I was wearing a thick winter coat that had broken my fall. I had been lucky not to have hit my head and to have landed on the soft bag I had been carrying in front of me. Nothing appeared broken. As I rejoined the throng of commuters journeying home, one of the Good Samaritans added:

“It looked as if he knew you were there amongst the crowd and targeted you. It was very strange.”

Indeed, it was. I had travelled this same journey every day and nothing untoward had happened. I always left work at the end of the afternoon, walked across Euston Road to Warren Street tube station, caught the southbound train and alighted four stops later at Charing Cross, one of London’s busiest hubs. I had been walking through the narrow, low-ceiling tunnel that led up from the Underground platform to the railway station concourse when I had been jumped. The train and tunnel had been more crowded than usual because it was Christmas Eve. It seemed bizarre to be jumped on not when I was alone in the winter darkness outside, but amongst a tightly packed crowd inside a well-lit underground travel conduit.

There was one significant difference between all the other days I had travelled home without incident and that day. Stuffed down the front of my underpants was a white envelope containing a substantial amount of cash representing payment for my last six weeks’ work. I had requested my employer’s accounts department pay me by bank transfer but, for reasons unknown, it had insisted on paying cash and only at the conclusion of my contract. If this money was the reason I had been attacked, then only the accounts department staff and the handful of people in my work team knew I had been paid that day. But the latter had just been paid that same day in the same way. So had I been merely a random victim of violence … or had something more sinister happened?

A few months previously, I had applied for a full-time job at ‘Capital Radio’. I was interviewed by Steve Billington, a social worker who had left his job in 1984 managing a social work team in Harrow to become the station’s head of community affairs. Although my application was unsuccessful, he contacted me weeks later to ask if I wanted to manage its Christmas charity appeal. I was soon to finish a non-renewable, twelve-month job creation role managing a team at ‘Radio Thamesmead’ so it was an ideal time for me to switch to a ‘proper’ job. I had dreamt of working at London’s only commercial music station since it had opened in 1973 and had even contemplated not going to university in order to take a programme production role there like Annie Challis on Tommy & Joan’s daily ‘Swop Shop’ show. Back then, I was innocent of the fact that to secure such a job in the media it was rarely, if ever, WHAT you knew about radio but WHO you knew.

Now, thirteen years after its launch, I was finally working at Capital Radio. My first two weeks were spent in the office, sat opposite the amiable charities manager Millie Dunne who helped me organise files of paperwork for the huge volume of goods she had persuaded businesses to donate, a task at which she was extremely proficient. During the subsequent four weeks leading up to Christmas, I worked in the station’s foyer, organising the receipt of donated goods and their delivery to London charities who would distribute them as gifts to needy families. I managed a small team that Steve had already appointed, all of whom were incredible and worked hard collecting and delivering goods as needed.

Steve had also appointed a ‘deputy’ to help me with the project’s management. His name was Pol. Never call him ‘Paul’! Unlike me, he was loud and extrovert, networking relentlessly with anyone remotely important who passed through the revolving door entrance to the foyer. He seemed to view the job as a sinecure that would permit him to further his ambition to be … something famous. While the rest of us worked long hours and weekends, Pol was AWOL for chunks of that time, claiming that he had had to attend appointments for this or that. In the pre-mobile-phone era, it was impossible to call someone to demand “where the hell are you?” I was regularly tempted to complain to Steve about this young man’s work ethic deficiency but I had no inkling if he had been recruited by some friend or relative within the company. He appeared to possess no relevant skillset for our work so I just had to grit my teeth and hold my tongue.

Despite this frustration, the job turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding I have done. Knowing that the radio station was making a practical difference to Londoners’ lives was incredibly heart-warming. The foyer – our ‘office’ – was enormous, more than 1000 square meters, with a ridiculously high ceiling and permanent home to three freestanding stalls: the ‘Capital Radio Shop’ sold station merchandise, ‘Capital Radio Jobspot’ offered job vacancy details and ‘Capital Radio Flatshare’ produced a printed sheet every Thursday afternoon listing rental accommodation available. The building’s ground floor full-length windows on a corner site enabled traffic passing on busy Euston Road and Hampstead Road to view the impressive Christmas decorations within, including a massive, illuminated pine tree. Pedestrians would stop and peer through the glass at us working inside.

Capital Radio’s decision prior to the station’s launch to rent the foyer and first floor was a brilliant marketing strategy, as its logo and name were emblazoned across the building at ground level around one of London’s busiest road junctions. To passers-by, it appeared that the station occupied the entire 36-storey tower, the capital’s tallest office block when completed in 1970. In reality, its upper floors were filled with unconnected businesses including the UK government’s military intelligence department intercepting mail. Capital Radio’s high-profile visibility was in stark contrast to its competitor ‘Radio One’ which had operated from an anonymous outbuilding (Egton House) since launch in 1967. BBC bigwigs had feared its youthful staff (including former pirate radio ship presenters) might scare the ‘serious’ broadcasters in Broadcasting House employed on its existing talk and classical music networks.

Another significant difference with its competitor was Capital’s open-door policy, permitting anyone to enter its impressive foyer through the revolving doors without a security check. Music fans would stand around hoping to get a glimpse of pop stars visiting for interviews. Radio presenters walked in and out and up the grand curved staircase to the first-floor studios. During the charity appeal, many generous listeners ventured in clutching their donations of toys which we added to the piles of presents. For amusement, we unboxed and put batteries in one state-of-the-art toy mouse that ran around on wheels with a movement sensor, enabling it to independently charge at speed across the polished floor towards anyone who entered through the revolving door and then chase them wherever they walked. Only on one occasion did we have to close and evacuate the foyer for several hours due to a bomb scare.

Christmas Eve was a sad day when the team had completed the charity appeal and parted ways for the final time. Following my mysterious attempted mugging, I reached home and found I was lucky to have escaped with mild bruising on my forearms. I packed a bag and headed to Deptford railway station, only to discover that the last train had already left. I had to return to my rented room, phone my mother and ask if she would come and collect me as there was no public transport during the next two days. Though she hated driving through London, she kindly drove fifty miles from Camberley to pick me up on Christmas morning so that I could spend the holidays with her and my sister.

In the New Year, I returned to the Capital Radio office to type up a report that catalogued, with Millie’s help, the volume of goods we had distributed during the Christmas appeal and the number of charities and families we had helped. Though no such post mortem had been requested, I considered it ‘good practice’ and I hoped to impress my boss with my thoroughness as a manager.

Much later that year, Steve Billington requested a further meeting in his office. Perhaps a full-time vacancy at the station had arisen? Sadly, it had not. I was asked if I would work on the next Christmas charity appeal. I was grateful for the opportunity. However, I was flummoxed to be told that I was to be demoted to the role of ‘deputy co-ordinator’ despite me having believed I had achieved a satisfactory job the previous year. Then I was gobsmacked to be told that the co-ordinator that year was to be … Pol. It seemed like some kind of voodoo that the person within our team who had demonstrated the least commitment last year should now be appointed to manage the rest of us.

Once activity started in December 1987, did Pol step up to his promotion and manage everything smoothly? No change of spots was evident. The only thing he seemed interested in managing was his own social calendar. It was Hobson’s choice: either the charity appeal would rapidly descend into chaos or I would have to manage it, just as I had the previous year. I took the reins informally, even though it proved frustrating when the most regularly spoken phrase by everyone involved was “Where’s Pol?” The charity appeal proved as successful as the previous year, though on this occasion Pol would take the credit. Did he write a report afterwards, as I had done? Er …

With the exception of the baffling change of co-ordinator, Steve Billington had been a fantastic boss and, in the New Year, he invited our whole team to reunite for a lunchtime meal at a restaurant in Tottenham Court Road to express his gratitude. I was appreciative of the start he had offered me at Capital Radio and the opportunity it presented to further develop my management experience. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time working there and, like my earlier job at ‘Metro Radio’, it taught me a lot about the problems that can befall a commercial radio station.

And so to ‘The Epilogue’:

In 1988, Camilla ‘Millie’ Dunne (daughter of Sir Thomas Dunne) married The Honourable Rupert Soames (grandson of Sir Winston Churchill) at a society wedding attended by her friend Lady Diana, Princess of Wales.

In 1989, I co-ordinated and wrote former pirate station ‘KISS FM’s successful second application for a London commercial radio FM licence, beating 39 competing bids.

In 1990, Capital Radio closed its community department as a result of the new commercial radio regulator ‘The Radio Authority’s ‘light touch’ strategy no longer requiring commitments from licensees to community activities. Steve Billington left Capital Radio.

In 1991, I attracted a weekly audience of more than one million listeners a week to black music station ‘KISS FM’ within six months of its successful launch, as its Programme Director, exceeding the Year One target.

As for Pol …