I often don’t have much to say. The only place I might ever truly be considered the life and soul of the party would be a wake at a Trappist monastery. And only then if they let me at their homebrew. My career path has gone quite happily from computer programmer (sitting on my own, staring at a computer screen) to senior software analyst (sitting on my own, staring at a computer screen) to freelance writer (sitting on my own, staring out of the window).
So it was with some trepidation that I found myself being interviewed on live radio.
It all began on Friday in the National Railway Museum in York – a fantastic place, and also an absolute bargain as I discovered at the entrance...
ME: (suavely flashing NUS card) Do you do a student discount?
CONFUSED MAN: Er, no. It’s free for everyone.
ME: (suavely putting NUS card away) Good. Thanks very much.
Anyway, en route to the Royal Trains section I found that I had a voicemail message from the BBC. Not a “yes” to the script they’ve been reading for the last seven months (I’m really starting to empathise with John Kennedy Toole these days), but they wanted to interview me on Sunday about another play that I wrote last year.
I didn’t want to do it. I really didn’t want to do it. I’d had enough problems doing a pre-recorded interview to go with the original play to the extent that I’d convinced myself afterwards that I’d got my girlfriend’s name wrong and had had to email them and ask them to check. Speaking live to the nation would be many times worse. Secondly, I had begun to see myself as the JD Salinger of pre-school television/minor radio plays and didn’t want to break the enigmatic façade that I had been cultivating. (Note to self – did Salinger ever write about his testicles on the internet?) Finally, I would spend the rest of my time in York worrying about the interview instead of enjoying looking at the Flying Scotsman like I had planned for this romantic break with my girlfriend.
So I phoned back and left a message on the producer’s voicemail to say that I was in York for the weekend and thus unable to make it to the studio. This was both technically and actually a lie as we were coming back on Saturday evening. But it got me off the hook.
Then, whilst taking a short trip down a siding on an actual live steam train my phone went off again. I didn’t want to conduct top-level showbiz negotiations in front of a carriage-full of children who were already staring at me anyway, so I switched it to voicemail. Then, after getting off and politely thanking the driver I checked my messages. They could do the interview over the phone. Clever, clever...
My Mum was right. You can’t just tell one lie. You always have to tell another one to cover it up. Then another one. Until you begin to wish that you’d never opened her damn make-up bag in the first place.
So, I started concocting tales of intermittent laryngitis. Of being on the moors out of mobile contact. Of being at a funeral. (Note to self – check they actually have funerals on Sundays. If they query it say it’s a Sikh custom. If they query that say you meant Jewish. Or just say enigmatically that it’s what he would have wanted).
But a little nagging voice (my Mum would call it my conscience) said that despite taking 209 days and counting to read fewer than 7000 words the BBC had been quite good to me. That I should repay a little of that by answering a few questions. So I rang the producer...
“Er, I thought I was away all weekend. But I’m not.”
Not put off by my obvious lack of eloquence he told me what time to get to the studio. Which is how I found myself sitting in the BBC reception area checking my pre-prepared, spontaneous answers (“How I got into writing”, “How I got the idea for the play”, “How to get out of doing live radio interviews”). After all, if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail (©1998 Glenn Hoddle).
Just as I was called into the studio the producer casually dropped a bombshell...
“We’ve just lost an item so we’ve got some time to fill...”
I’d like to think that I was all right to begin with. My pre-prepared, spontaneous answers felt more spontaneous than pre-prepared. OK, so I wasn’t Alistair Cooke in his heyday (honeyed tones talking informatively, wisely, expansively and wittily on a cornucopia of topics), but then again I wasn’t Alistair Cooke now (completely silent).
Then we moved from the subject of writing to the general events of the day. Still with quite a lot of time to fill. Why had I started the papers that morning with the Funday Times instead of the Observer editorial? Why? My self-image that despite being quite quiet, I was still an erudite, interested, socially aware individual able to converse with anyone about anything was disappearing fast. I began to realise what it must be like to wake up and find that you’re David Beckham.
I hadn’t willed a clock hand to move round so much since double French, and with each slow second came a grudging respect for Vanessa Feltz, Chris Evans, even Terry Christian – anyone who can just keep talking about anything. My insightful, incisive, yet also time-filling answer on whether Steven Gerrard would stay at Liverpool?
“I hope so.”
I began to pray for any interruption...
INTERVIEWER: “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to stop you there as the news desk need to fill the rest of our time with a report about a deadly fire at an orphanage.”
ME: “That’s fantastic!”
Finally, finally, my ordeal was over and I slunk out of the studio. Back to sitting on my own, staring, I think. Or maybe I could join that monastery.