Class conscious - Andrew Martin advises care when on local radio

He devoted his youth to escaping from his home town. Now he must go back

Sebastian Faulks wrote recently about the inauspicious publication of his eventual worldwide bestseller Birdsong. There was a handful of reviews, and he was interviewed on a local radio station. Most authors are interviewed live by a BBC local radio station to coincide with publication of their book. It's usually one that covers the town in which they were born or - in certain desperate cases of people who aren't actually really from anywhere - it might be the radio station of a provincial town they once visited, possibly after taking a wrong turning off the M1.

Clutching his publicity schedule, the writer goes to reception at Broadcasting House, announces his name and says: "I'm here to be interviewed by a local radio station." Now authors being interviewed by local radio stations are to BBC receptionists what children with mild tummy bugs are to chemists. They are to be dealt with compassionately, but above all quickly.

The writer is shown up to a studio complex with the low-key designation of 1U. Inside are a lot of technicians surrounded by computers, digital display screens and gently pulsing electronic lights. They seem to be engaged on some momentous project - perhaps transmitting radio signals to the furthest reaches of space - while running the connections to the local radio stations as a sideline. One of them will eventually step forward, and escort the author to a dark cubicle where there awaits the familiar still life of broadcasting: a digital clock, a felt-topped table, a microphone and a pair of old-fashioned-looking earphones. The writer picks up the earphones and waits, in silence, for the connection to be established. Meanwhile, he slides into a state of class-conscious agony.

It is possible that he devoted his entire youth to escaping the town in which he was born, and whose attention he is about to crave. It is possible that he has satirised the town, either in his present book or some former article. Would his remarks have been noted? He resolves that he must avoid any suggestion of speaking de haut en bas, then immediately castigates himself for imagining that he has any right to do so. He is, after all, pretty obscure as an author.

Suddenly a pop song begins to ooze from the earphones: "Crocodile Rock" by Elton John. As it fades out, the voice of the presenter of the local radio show fades in. He is laughing at some joke pertaining to a subject raised immediately before the playing of "Crocodile Rock", and which the writer down in London can only guess at, but which he doesn't like, because it is not him.

The writer notes that the presenter does not begin the interview with "Now we have with us today on the line from London . . .", because that would be a tacit betrayal of his listeners in whatever the town happens to be. This is a cue that must be picked up, and when the presenter continues, after the laughter has died, with "Lovely day today . . .", the writer congratulates himself on not responding: "Yes, and it's a lovely day down here in London, too."

The tussle then begins in earnest. The presenter is friendly, but sharper-witted than the writer had bargained for. He displays a deep familiarity with the blurb of the book, and the author finds himself grateful for this at least. Under questioning, the author oscillates between hubris and unconvincing self-effacement, while subject to the distraction of trying to calculate the percentage of listeners who might be the book-buying type.

At some stage, the presenter will ask: "So, do you come back up here to your native town very often?" "Oh yes," responds the writer, "I love it up there." There is a pause in which the presenter withholds the obvious sharp retort: "Why don't you live here, then?" But his magnanimity has been noted by all concerned, and he wins the tussle hands down.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Can Islam change?