For a period in my twenties, I had a boss of whom I was absolutely terrified. There were lots of reasons for this, but what upset me the most was her fondness for hot-desking. Arrive at work five minutes late, and there she'd be, sitting in your seat, using your phone, stubbing out her cigarettes in your used coffee cup. This could last for an hour, or the whole morning, and it was horrible. You felt (and she knew it) displaced, queasy, all at sea.
I thought about this as I listened to Life After Rover (27-29 March, Radio 4), a three-part series that followed the fortunes of the 6,000 workers who lost their jobs when the Longbridge car plant finally closed last year. One of the men described the first few weeks of unemployment. You spend them "wanting to go back to your seat", he said. I could imagine that feeling, and the anxiety it would bring. The workers each got £5,000, and then they were on their own: seatless. Many had worked at Longbridge for decades. The closure felt like a bereavement. The grief was hard to bear. Some days, their eyelids felt heavy as lead.
Listening to people talk about their "salary expectations" is not usually my idea of fun, so what made this series required listening? Two things, I think. The first was the way that, though half of the Longbridge men and women are now back in work, and a further quarter on "courses", Life After Rover balanced necessary optimism with unpalatable truths. Those in work are earning much less than before, and travelling further; they feel newly dispensable. As for those still out of work, well, whatever Patricia Hewitt may have spouted outside the factory gates, they have few prospects. They are too old, or lacking in skills (half of the Longbridge workforce had no GCSEs). They feel ill and apathetic; their weight, or their drinking, may now be a problem. In a shiny economy like our own, such people tend to be forgotten. Not even UB40 takes much interest in the long-term unemployed these days.
Second, it was blessed with a great presenter. I've long admired Adrian Chiles. For one thing, he is married to Jane Garvey, the co-presenter of Drive on 5 Live, which shows excellent taste. For another, he used to present a show on BBC2 called So What Do You Do All Day?, in which he would follow the great, the good and the very grand in order to get a better insight into their jobs, and then, his work done, shuffle off to the nearest Travel Lodge without a shade of resentment. He is also wonderful at fronting Match of the Day 2 on Sundays, somehow managing never to look bored by Graeme Le Saux's dreary "analyses" (Le Saux, incidentally, is still all over 5 Live on Saturdays: I'd devote an entire column to moaning about him, except I'm loath to give him even bad publicity).
In the case of Life After Rover, however, Chiles was surely the only man for the job. He grew up near Longbridge, and has the vowels to prove it. He was able to remind us of the bad old days - of Red Robbo et al - without forgetting that the end of MG Rover was a catastrophe. Talking to workers, he did not patronise; he listened. To state the obvious, no one in radio should ever underestimate the alchemical importance of presenters. They are not interchangeable. The wrong voice can ruin everything - which is why I am alarmed by a rumour that Sandi Toksvig is to replace Simon Hoggart as the presenter of The News Quiz. Oh, dear. To come over all Le Saux about it: someone, somewhere, is in danger of taking their eye right off the ball.