Maxing the Whammy

Joan Armatrading’s favourite guitarists end up stating the bleedin’ obvious

In MI6: a Century in the Shadows (27 July, 9am, Radio 4) we went on "an unprecedented journey inside the service" to find the present chief, John Scarlett, who confirmed that he was interested in "human sources". As in: "People capable of telling you secrets." By which he meant: "Information." Clarifying dangerously further, he narrowed this down to: "Ie: information that other people don't know."

Next, a former deputy chief suggested that when it comes to the delicate business of recruiting spies, it is generally a good idea to actually "know the other person".

In the background you could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock that belonged to the first head of M16, Mansfield Cumming. Cumming took a while to get into the role of destroying the German naval Establishment from a small, high room in Whitehall with nary a single typist and only one leg - he was said to have hacked the other off with a penknife after an accident in France. Diaries of his first day on the job record: "Sat here alone all day. Saw no one. Nothing to do."

But this was back in the olden days, before Toyota pick-ups with .50-calibre machine guns mounted on the roof, and when men married the first person who allowed them to unclasp their brassiere.

Mind you, I used to know a spy, and he always said that it mostly involved sitting around in vans in Bosnia waiting for people to come out of flats, which they hardly ever did. And when they did, they would invariably be accompanied by high-minded sisters who were devoid of make-up. He said he and his colleagues never had any fun and were forever losing telephone numbers or forgetting to bring maps, and in general it was a complete shambles.

This friend was what my mother would call "delicately balanced", had been to Harrow, and held his shoes together with string. He
had, however, also been taught how to change into a wig and shellsuit in a car park in under two minutes (not at Harrow, I don't think), and would tell the story of the one time he had implemented this skill so well ("Oh tell it again!" I'd beg in the pub), that it came as a big disappointment to us all when he got a call from the secret service, which told him that if he didn't stop telling, he would find himself even further up shit creek than he already was, which we all thought terribly impressive - the wiretaps actually working, etc.

Meanwhile, Joan Armatrading's Favourite Guitarists (27-31 July, Radio 4, 3.45pm) was a series of 15-minute interviews that featured the occasional thrilling sentence, such as: "He's off the frat and maxing a DigiTech Whammy." Again, much stating of the obvious went on. "The thing I like is sound," confirmed Mark Knopfler. "Sound meaning volume," nodded Joan the presenter. A couple of days later John Williams confirmed that “it's all to do with the fingers". Joan said she plays with her fingers, too, but agreed that mastering the guitar was mostly "to do with rhythm". Then there was a pleasant interlude wherein Williams played his theme from The Deer Hunter and we all got to feel like Meryl Streep standing wrapped in a towel watching Robert de Niro passed out on the bed in a motel. "You can definitely hear a tune going through that," said Joan, admiringly. I've always thought that, too, Joan.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.