Matthew Stadlen’s Notebook: back on the festival circuit

Willow warblers, rock star vets and the best time of night for a radio phone-in show.

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The goldfinches haven’t returned to our wisteria this year, but down the road my mother’s birdfeeders have been busy and a pair of greenfinches still come to feast on the seeds. Wherever we live, there is beauty all around us, if only we open our eyes and our ears. I’ve taken my birdwatching to six continents, but I’ve spotted at least 20 species from my parents’ London garden alone. The ubiquity of avian activity and the wonder it can inspire in us is a message I hope to spread, and to that end I’ve been reading through the proofs of my imminent photography book, How To See Birds. Ever since, as a small boy, I watched a golden eagle flying high in the Scottish sky, birds have helped me to escape the often frantic flow of everyday life and led me through thrilling landscapes to moments of meditation, as well as of intense excitement.

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It’s been a busy time between my weekend radio shows on LBC. While the freelance life brings with it insecurity, it also opens up opportunities. And not just for twitching. Since leaving the BBC in 2013, I’ve tried to build what Joan Bakewell calls in her book, Stop The Clocks, a portfolio career. I’ve interviewed Bakewell several times and I bumped into her again over lunch in the speakers’ canteen at the Hay Festival.

I was in town to interview Robin Knox-Johnston and TV’s “Supervet”, Noel Fitzpatrick. In 1969 Sir Robin became the first person to circumnavigate the world alone and without stopping, after 312 days at sea. He did it again in 2007 to become, at the time, the oldest to achieve the mind-boggling feat. Such accomplishments remind us what humans are capable of at our outer limits and, maybe, inspire us to live more adventurous lives. But perhaps the most impressive thing about Sir Robin is that he donated his prize money in 1969 to the family of Donald Crowhurst who, in the same race, died at sea after faking his progress in his attempt to sail around the globe.

Fitzpatrick emerged from a challenging childhood in rural Ireland, where he suffered physical and emotional bullying, to become a pioneer in bionic veterinary science. A rock star vet who wants to change the world through love, he managed to persuade a thousand people to sing “Happy Birthday” to his 90-year-old mother while he filmed them on his phone. I filmed him filming them. Obviously.

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I was picked on at school myself and I use my early morning slots on LBC to talk to callers not only about Brexit, but also about bullying, mental health, alcoholism and drug abuse. I hope to encourage callers to share deeply personal experiences. I’m on air between 1am and 5am, which is a particularly intimate time, and listeners have told me things they haven’t revealed to their closest confidantes. I can reach audiences of approaching 200,000 across the weekend, but what I can’t sense when I’m on air – beyond the calls, texts and tweets that come in – is how the listeners are reacting to what I’m saying. Are they shouting at their radios? Are they laughing or wincing at my jokes?

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It’s different when you come face to face with your audience and, back on the festival circuit for eight events in five days in Salisbury, I took to the stage with David Lammy, where he made a passionate case for a second referendum. Fans of the MP for Tottenham might be disappointed to learn that he is put off any leadership ambitions by the fetters it would place on his capacity for speaking his mind (and he called out the “hard left cabal” that he says has taken over his side of politics). His words were arguably an indictment of our political system – although Lammy’s party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, felt free to speak out against the American president the following day.

Back in London at the end of the week, I hosted a disturbing phone-in on LBC about the decision by the Department for Work and Pensions to extend the contracts of two firms responsible for deciding whether disability claimants should be granted financial support in the form of Personal Independence Payment (PIP), or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). PIP is available to people in or out of work and is intended to cover some of the additional costs associated with a long-term health condition, while ESA is an out of work benefit for those under the state pension age who have limited capability to work. The system, overseen now by Amber Rudd, has been described as another “hostile environment”, in which vulnerable people can be left disempowered, humiliated and impoverished. As caller after caller pointed to the devastating failure of the state’s safety net, I was forced to read out the number of the Samaritans, staffed, of course, by volunteers.

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Volunteering is also at the heart of the efforts the RSPB makes in its bid to preserve British bird-life. Not far from where I heard the yellowhammers singing on the slopes of Salisbury’s Old Sarum, an Iron Age hill fort, the organisation’s global director of conservation, Martin Harper, spelt out to us the threats our birds face from habitat destruction and climate change. Divided by Brexit we may be – Harper explained both the positive and negative impacts of the European Union on our birds – but I hope we can come together again through the respectful sharing and airing of views, as well as a celebration of Britain’s natural beauty.

Travelling between the festivals that add so much to the cultural life of this country, it’s impossible not to be struck by the jaw-dropping scenery and, if you choose to pay attention, the birds with which we share it. From the tiny willow warblers recently arrived on our shores from their sub-Saharan territories, to the mighty white-tailed eagles of the Scottish Highlands and islands, there is so much to appreciate, and protect. 

Matthew Stadlen’s show airs on LBC on Saturdays and Sundays, 1am – 5am

This article appears in the 14 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind