I overheard him: "Gladys may be no Sarah Bernhardt but, by 'eck, she sure knows 'ow to lean over a balcony!"

In my self-imposed role of drawing the nation's attention to the really burning questions of life, I recently wrote a piece for a Sunday newspaper concerning a common but dreadful malady which I named "Persistent Irritating Song Syndrome". Otherwise known as the complete inability to evacuate annoying pop tunes from one's consciousness, it is an affliction from which I suffer to a disabling degree, and the purpose of the piece was to find a cure for it. No less an authority than Edward de Bono recommended heavy breathing to reduce the supply of oxygen to the brain (a sort of neurological power cut) but, try as I might, this method never wholly removes Hear'Say, Wham, Wheatus or that most persistent of offenders, "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime" by Paul McCartney. I mention all this only because the piece found great favour with radioheads who started discussions of the malady with presenters ranging from Radio 2's Richard Allinson to Radio Jersey's Fraser Martin. The reason I was on the radio at all was to promote my new paperback, a comedy of country manors, Pastures Nouveaux (Headline, £5.99), but the topic always drifted back from the hilarious consequences of townies in pursuit of rural bliss to Persistent Irritating Song Syndrome. Martin even went so far as to introduce me by playing that most egregious of immovable ballads, "Hotel California". He compensated to some extent for this treachery by revealing that the song acts as a sort of mayday signal among DJs - being a near-unbearable six minutes and 40 seconds in duration, "the long song" is often played while trouble at t'mill is sorted out at the station. So the next time you hear it, you'll know the weather girl hasn't turned up. Glad it has some use, then.


One of the most unforgettable theme tunes in all radio has to be the unfeasibly jaunty introduction to Radio 4's literary quotation panel game Quote . . . Unquote, a melody now welded to my brain thanks to an afternoon spent last week as a panellist on the programme. The main effect of having an English degree - not to mention being a novelist - is to render any environment where literary knowledge is required utterly terrifying, so I arrived at Broadcasting House in an apprehensive frame of mind. I was also worried that the quote I had brought along for a category called "formidable women" was simply not grand enough for the BBC. Having racked my brains and bookshelves in vain for something smart about Cleopatra, I fell back in the end on a tale the Lord Mayor of Leeds once told me at a literary lunch. It concerned a local production of Romeo and Juliet, in which Miss Capulet was played by a somewhat superannuated and extremely buxom lady. On the way out of the theatre post-performance, an admirer was heard to remark: "That Gladys Arkwright may be no Sarah Bernhardt but, by 'eck, she knows 'ow to lean over a balcony." Fortunately, the anecdote went down a storm.


Another Quote . . . Unquote category for which the panellists had to supply their own quotations was "family mottos". This was easier, as I have the great good fortune to come from a Yorkshire clan with a positive embarras de richesse of colourful sayings. My father to this day greets a freezing morning with the observation that "it's cold enough for two hairnets", while a particularly dark night is "black as inside of a cow". My grandmother would spurn the standard exclamation of surprise "I'll go to the foot of our stairs" in favour of "I'll go to our 'ouse on a pig". Furthermore, as children, my brother and I were frequently snapped out of sulks by being told we had "a face like a spare dinner that's fallen on a mucky rug". Another panellist, the American theatre critic and playwright Bonnie Greer, offered her Nashville mother's exhortation to "keep your dress down", as her motto; meaning, to stay out of trouble, be honest and be careful. As we trooped out of the recording and into the green room for lunch, Neil Hamilton, whose wife, Christine, was another of the panellists, told us the just-announced verdict in the trial of Lord Archer - a man who, we all agreed, certainly hasn't kept his dress down. Moreover, his face could be said to have a hint of mucky rug about it.


After all this gallivanting about the airwaves, it was relaxing to return to our Derbyshire village at the end of the week. This despite the fact that country life is an incessant parade of excitements easily rivalling the town (a discovery that formed the main inspiration for Pastures Nouveaux). In fact, it's a quite literal parade at the moment, as preparation for the annual village carnival is in full swing. Many of the floats are adopting a space theme this year, in reference to the "fact" that our village and its environs have borne witness to a staggering 27 UFO sightings since last September. One of them, reported to be the second best sighting ever, was captured on video by a local housewife and sold to an American production company for £20,000. Although life goes on largely as normal in the village, an increased interest in alien life forms can be detected. Alan, the landlord of the Barley Mow, has erected signs over the bar requesting owners of space ships to stack their vehicles when the car park is full; a neighbour admits to having seen a glowing orange oblong hovering over the garden wall; and, to top it all, last week's Matlock Mercury was dominated by the story that a local woman had been interrupted in her viewing of the Big Brother eviction by a huge spaceship flying past her front window.

Some aliens really have no sense of timing.

This article first appeared in The Murdochs: a family saga

2001-08-06