Results, riffs and rhythms: Remembering James Alexander Gordon

Listening to Jag was very much like listening to a musician in the zone.

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Remembering James Alexander Gordon
BBC Radio 5 Live

A tribute to the late James Alexander Gordon (24 August, 11.30am), “the voice of Saturday afternoons”, revealed that he had suffered from polio as a child. He spent a great deal of time immobile, playing his clarinet or listening to the wireless with his father, who would vociferously complain, “Too fast! Too fast!” at any reading of the football results.

Gordon, known as “Jag” to his colleagues, went on to deliver the classified results on BBC radio for four decades until he retired at the age of 77, just a year before his death, and there was witty archive material of him recalling the first time he was handed the results on BBC Radio 2 in 1973. Nobody advised him how to discharge them – the list of names just went on endlessly. Immediately, he thought of his clarinet and said to himself, “If I get a rhythm going, I’ll get it near enough right.”

This revelation was key: listening to Jag was very much like listening to a musician in the zone. Across the country, people sat in cars tuned into him speaking, as though fazing out to a long stoner-rock track. Danny Baker, who was interviewed, said that Jag ought to have patented his technique (if such a thing were possible) because it has been so globally imitated and is so strangely appealing and magically logical. It would have made him a very wealthy man.

Much was made of Jag’s habit of inflecting his voice upwards for winners and down for the losers but nobody pointed out the way he could transmit many other tones – his wonderful little “Now here’s a turn-up for the books” riff, for example, delivered with a tremendous delicacy that also implied a scintilla of soul-deep satisfaction. What a master of micro-technique. There was also the simple fact that he had a middle name – nobody else on the radio had or has a middle name – which made him sound like something from the distant past. And then there was the accent, which was so beautifully old fashioned, even in the 1970s.

That Gordon didn’t seem to do anything else apart from deliver football results – which, crucially, he could complete without making a single mistake – made him a deeply mysterious character, a kind of Dumbledore. His favourite name to read? Hamilton Academical. How quintessentially Jag. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate