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?

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.