Robert Temple - Author of The Sphinx Mystery

I began playing the Radio Game by moving to the square marked `Start the Week' - a suitable first move. And the directions there were: `Proceed to Broadcasting house and collect £25', which I accordingly did. A benign Oriental, Richard Baker, presided over this small salon like an imperturbable Mandarin, nodding effortlessly to the various players as he orchestrated the proceedings like Wallace Stevens's idea of god:

And as his keen intellect applied its laws,
He moved not on his coppery, keen claws
A stone-faced Kenneth Robinson sat at the left hand of this deity and uttered only at one point, neither did he look to right nor left nor speak at any other time, so sublime was his detachment. It was otherwise with Patrick Moore, who like an ocean liner sat in berth chattering away in Moores Code with the telegraph key which passes for his tongue nervously tapping out the gist of his new book, The Next Fifty Years in Space.

Since my own book, which was being discussed on the programme, also concerned outer space, Patrick and I were introduced by the almost inevitable 2001 music. The atmosphere of `Start the Week' is very clique-ish. Cars are sent for guests. Everyone looks at the others bleary-eyed, the taste of coffee or bacon lingering around the lips; hot drinks are offered. They sit at a round table and wonder what clever things they are possibly going to say so early on a Monday morning. The regulars have typed pages of witty anecdotes which they have composed during the previous week, slightly soiled and hastily crammed into their pockets on the way to the `Beeb'. All the players had my book spread out in front of them like hands in seven-card stud but only one of them actually referred to it, and he was a little man with small pointed teeth eagerly shifting a weasel jaw whom I did my best to ignore.
We shift scene now to the land of hoi polloi, whose most sacred precincts are at Radio 2. There, on another floor of Broadcasting House, dwarfed by his sound studio the size of Westminster Hall, sits a tall, sad man with prematurely greying hair and pock-marked face, but with a voice like Hymettus honey.

`Could I have a copy of your book?' he pleaded, as if all his toys were always being taken away from him, `the producer always nicks them.' And it was true. The copy beside the microphone had a piece of paper ostentatiously glued inside saying: `This copy belongs to Angela THE PRODUCER!!' The gentleman was Pete Murray, disc jockey and waif.

`Here, let me give you my home address,' he said, and looked furtively into the other room as if he might be being watched. `If you send it here I may not get it,' he added with emphasis. `Where's this producer Angela?' I asked. `Oh, she has a migraine again.' I had already had an unpleasant confrontation with the temporary substitute producer, and told Pete Murray about it. `Yes, he's a ......!' said Pete with gritted teeth , a sentiment with which I entirely agreed. And so we got down to business, having this rapport. `I had that other man, the German, who believes in spacemen in here,' said Pete. `Who, von Daniken?' 'Yes. He seemed to believe it all...'

Off to the provinces, taking the message to the hinterland. How can there be so many hinterlands? Great discussion as to whether it is worth going to Swansea, as they have only one book shop. I go, the woman puts the book in the window at Swansea and looks dazed - an author!? `Wales's first independent radio station' announces a sign in front of a bare new building housing Swansea Sound. It is six miles from Swansea, in a desolate valley surrounded by scrub and gorse. I am interviewed by a man of late middle age who tells me he has `done a Gaugin' and quit business for show business. `It's now or never,' he said. Sara Kesselman's husky voice on tape is finishing ... we are on. It is all on a chart, crisp, timed, punctilious. I leave in a fierce hailstorm - will I make the only train? Twenty minutes to the station from this but in the middle of nowhere. No time for food. Cardiff was a sirloin steak ordered and eaten in ten minutes. Liverpool was a bowl of flied lice in five. Didcot threatened to be my grave: `You have a layover of two hours in Didcot.' - Didcot? - I fell into a shaky bus at Didcot which took half an hour to make a lurching circuit round a huge concrete chimney. No one ever escapes from Didcot, not even by bus.
At Manchester the interviewer dried up. During a break he worriedly said: `What can I ask you now?' I had to think of something. At Radio Medway in Kent the local vicar, their religious adviser, dropped in. We brought him into the discussion and extended it a further fifteen minutes. `I see no reason why spacemen conflict with religion,' he said. A girl was working the control board, just as at Radio Merseyside. The interviewer was in a white collar too - from a whiplash injury, no end in sight after six months of it, and yet he was the most cheerful of persons and smiled so much I thought his cheeks would wear out and have to go into plaster as well.

Radio Hallam in Sheffield wanted me on four times in a month. The last was a phone-in. An incoherent caller wanted to know `What about the monsters, then? - From the planets, you know.' I discoursed on what we find repulsive in creatures even on earth and mentioned the difference between planets and stars, which no one seems to know throughout the whole length and breadth of Britain. At Radio Hallam there is a rule that no alcohol may be consumed on the third floor. `Why's that?' 'You can drink on the second floor but not on the third floor.' `Why's that?' `Well, knowing our disc jockeys, who broadcast on the third floor...'

Until Ian Rufus became News Editor at Radio Hallam, the suburb where he lives was simply known as Loxley, I was told. Since his ascendancy, it is invariably referred to on the air as `the desirable Sheffield suburb Loxley.' House prices have soared as a result, the staff muse. The chap next door to him in this desirable Sheffield suburb wanted to teach his girlfriend to ride his motorbike. She got on and at full speed rode it through the French windows across the street. `Landed in the middle of the sitting room, slashed her ear off in the process.' Rufus was too squeamish to make it a story: `too bloody, too messy.' He was ticked off by a colleague who reminded him that he was, after all, a News Editor and mustn't be afraid of a little blood.

A sadder incident occurred at Radio Birmingham a couple of years ago. During a phone-in programme about euthanasia, a woman phoned in and said something had been bothering her for a long time and she wanted to get it off her chest. She then proceeded to confess to having killed one of her own parents several years previously as an act of `mercy killing' because the parent was painfully dying of a fatal disease. The police were round to the station straightaway to trace her, but the station refused to surrender the tape which had the record of her identity. The police were very upset by this but mumbled something about how the statute of limitations had probably run out anyway, and went away with their tails between their legs.

BBC Radio Sheffield had me on live with the Canon of Sheffield Cathedral who surprisingly addressed his listeners by saying that `every Christian should read Mr. Temple's book.' An audience of dozing old age pensioners sat watching us broadcast inside a converted shop with its glass window, and at this some of them perked up. Obviously there were some good Christians left. Religion keeps coming into it. The chairman of my publishers, Lord Longford, had eagerly quizzed my local vicar at the launching party in London for my book: `How often does Mr. Temple go to Church?' The interviewer at ATV in Birmingham kept chatting about religion to me before we went on camera, and managed to fit it into the interview as well. Phone-in callers at various cities raised the issue too. In a Birmingham phone-in I was repeatedly harried on the subject of reincarnation. I have had to become an amateur theologian to satisfy the demands of the media. How many souls am I leading astray? It is too soon for a dog collar, but do I need a license?

Back in London. A phone call somehow reaches me at a friend's house. It is Toronto, the Canadian Broadcasting System calling. Can they do a fifteen minute interview over the telephone? I have to call them back five times to get a good line, each time giving lengthy computerised numbers for their account. Bob Parker comes on - obviously an interviewer with big ideas about himself. `Mr Temple,' he begins the interview, `I would say you have been smoking funny cigarettes.' `I never smoke them,' I deadpanned. `Mr Temple...' he begins again, sans smoke; just as well it's on tape.

Bristol, Oxford, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nottingham. On and on. Between Manchester and Liverpool the train breaks down - a points failure. Commuters clamber out halfway between stations, women jump off with their skirts up to their necks, holding bags of shopping. They climb up the embankment, and over the barbed wire fence to walk home. `You'll never make it to the frontier!' I shout after them. Not a flicker of a smile. `Nobody knows we're here, do they? The signals aren't working. What if the next train along this track rams us?' I ask the guard. `Well, we hope that won't happen,' he says with jollity, British Rail optimism at its best. I thrust my head out in the freezing wind and scrutinise our rear for half an hour. The next train is coming!!! I throw open the door, I am about to warn the other passengers. The train coming round the bend has seen us. It stops 100 yards short of us. The remaining passengers sit stoney faced, the guard remains gormless, all equally ignorant of the event. No point mentioning it. Just a normal hazard of travel by train these days. As long as they're still alive they don't care that they've missed death by 100 yards.

On the way from Newcastle to Derby a girl confides in me for the whole journey and before I leave the train she kisses me with desperate passion on the mouth as if she were on her way to the gallows and I were her last human contact before dying. I wave sadly at her from the platform and she looks at me in deepest misery and turns away as the train moves out. On the way from Brighton to London I buy whiskeys for another girl who is sobbing uncontrollably and who later admits she was considering suicide. I stick to her like glue until she is safely on a train at another London station which her father will meet; I phone her the next day and she has recovered. Yet another girl tells me that her father is selling up his scrap metal business in Guildford to move to Nashville, Tennessee, so that her father can live near the Grand Ole Opry and hear perpetual country music. A recent Tory cabinet minister's daughter touchingly tells me of her newfound religious salvation in Christ, which leads to a long religious correspondence. She also tells me that when the I.R.A. tried to blow up her father, she was sitting on the floor of the sitting room sticking Green Shield Stamps into a book. Saved! - by little green shields! A gang of jolly geordies teach me how to play "five-card brag" and inform me that I am a "fine gadgie". A woman named Vera from Hereford thrusts £7 into my hand and takes my travelling copy of my book, saying it is for her son who is a hairdresser: `He'll love it,' she says. A very pregnant girl married to a professional football player timidly admits that she loathes football but could never tell her husband. A housewife confesses to me that life is empty for her ...

At Radio City in Liverpool the front entrance to the radio station is laboriously locked and unlocked for each single visitor by a girl with a size 44 bust - see her reach the top lock! At Leeds the train cannot enter the station for half an hour because of a bomb scare. At Newcastle squads of police scrutinise every passenger looking for an IRA man. At Piccadilly Radio in Manchester they want to detonate my briefcase which I have left in the lounge. Everywhere the IRA are a shadow on the land. Eyes widen when the word "bomb" is mentioned. People shift nervously. All the luggage lockers in all railway stations in Britain are sealed off. My pyjamas have to accompany me into every bookshop, every newspaper office, every radio station. In Derby I live in a taxi, in Cardiff I leave my gear in the boot of a car. In Hull I cannot set my bag down on the platform while I walk 50 feet to stretch my legs in plain sight; it will be blown up, I am told.

At Pebble Mill, the BBC headquarters in Birmingham, strict security is maintained ever since a little old lady wormed her way in, opened her bag, took out a brick, and hurled it through the plate glass because she was unhappy with life. The security annoys the staff of BBC Radio Birmingham, who grumble at being in the same building with the television boys - `all their guards keep us from having closer contact with the local people.' Radio Nottingham has much less trouble maintaining contact, however. Their Dennis McCarthy and his `Sunday Show' has the reputed largest audience in all British local radio. The GPO did a study and found that so many thousands of listeners were trying to phone him at 44444 that every single Nottingham telephone number beginning with the digit 4 was jammed and out of order for the duration of McCarthy's show every Sunday due to Nottingham's exchanges being unable to handle all the calls.

Radio Nottingham also had other eccentricities. I saw a news bulletin constructed as follows: `May 25th. Joolry worth about £500 has been stolen from a car parked on Maid Marian Way.' I remarked on this to Freddie Gaunt (described by her - yes, she is a woman - producer as the station's leading eccentric, more so even than McCarthy who is `obsessed by buying useless junk which he carts out to his farmhouse and puts with all his chickens and cows'), but she had a ready answer. It isn't that nobody at Radio Nottingham knows how to spell, she said. Joolry had become inserted as a joke, but would they know? ...

At Radio Derby while waiting, I am ushered into a tiny room containing only two major items: a bed and a girl. I wonder if they are both functional. The girl is a teacher, co-opted to the station for a year to run educational programmes: `Too few teachers know that such schemes exist.' Before I can quite take this in, she has vanished. Over the bed is posted a notice: `Will persons who have come to spend the night in this room please make the bed.' I try to imagine the implications of this, I contemplate testing the springs, but then I am summoned to do an interview. It seems I have just left the interviewer Maggie Mash at Radio Humberside. She is not a big bruiser despite her name; she is petite and amusing. Nothing in radio is exactly what it sounds. According to Mencken we have perfumed tonsils, those of us who enjoy inhabiting the air waves. A Sheffield interviewer's wife savagely attacked me over dinner: `You're just interested in your media image.' `No,' I say, `I love radio. Anyway, I used to work in radio in America.' But what in the blur of a tour of the British stations does one learn? I don't have time to think. All I wonder is - Will I catch the next train?


© Robert Temple 2009-2022