Sunday, January 25, 2015


Once, at the age of eleven or so, I was asked what my favourite word was.  I replied, 'Broadcast'.  I'm not sure how my poor interlocutor responded.  But it came to mind the other day that I would probably give the same answer now.

I think it's a glorious word.  It is Germanic and wholesome, so you can get your teeth into it.  None of those Latinate fripperies!  And it has earthy origins: its eighteenth-century sense was agricultural and referred to the scattering of seed across a wide area (Hence the statue of a sower in the foyer of the B.B.C.'s Broadcasting House in Portland Place in London ).

Yet it fits its modern sense perfectly: it is a majestic word with a majestic meaning.  I think that this is what appealed to me at eleven: there is something magnificent about the apparatus and operation of telecommunications - particularly radio broadcasting - which is distinct from their value as scientific achievements.  Newsreaders drawing themselves up in readiness for their task; towering masts, sentinel over whole counties; and also that grave, unearthly, slightly flat voice of Big Ben - all these lend radio and television a poise and a dignity that I find delicious.  This is not least because it is all for the sake of words, and goes to show the weight they carry.

From the B.B.C. website.
Modern broadcasting has lost much of its majesty, I think.  On the one hand this has to do with the cultural change, of course: viewers and listeners are addressed less formally than before (to say the least!), and no clipped voices have reassured us that 'This is the B.B.C. Home Service' since 1967.  On the other, there is the improvement in the sound and picture quality of our sets at home, to the point at which the speakers might as well be in the room with us.  Undoubtedly this is for the better, but we have lost one thing, perhaps the most majestic of all, and that is the ability to hear distance.  Analogue fuzziness around a voice is proof of the journey it has made: we hear and understand in spite of all the hundreds of miles between transmitter and receiver.  And perhaps there is a sense of one's nation as well, in hearing its length and breadth via a method common to its whole people?

You can still hear distance on long-wave radio; sometimes even further on short-wave.  For us of the digital age it is exhilirating to sense the Shipping Forecast calling across emptinesses of dark sea to trawlers and oil-rigs.  The Internet might supply French and German radio in crystal clarity, but hearing it through a warm fuzz reminds me with a thrill of the real distance between us.  I can imagine how thrilling it must have felt to pick up off-shore pirate radio.  Philip Larkin conveys this feeling wonderfully in his poem, neatly entitled 'Broadcast', in which a concert broadcast on the radio is rarefied by the presence of a friend in the auditorium: 
The glowing wavebands, rabid storms of chording
By being distant overpower my mind
All the more shamelessly, their cut-off shout
Leaving me desperate to pick out
Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding.
It must have been a strange feeling to pick up the B.B.C.'s signal in occupied France, once Parisian radio had fallen to the foe.  There is a fascinating podcast in French here (with more info. here) about the B.B.C.'s wartime broadcasts in French of defiant songs and sketches, often containing coded messages, and the General de Gaulle's speeches.  The occupiers tried to jam the signal, with limited success.  I wonder how it must have felt - probably unpleasant and intimidating - to hear this radio warfare going on in one's own house.  There must have been some encouragement, however, in the fellowship of many other French households, also tuned in.  Here, once again, is proof of the the power of words, not least when radio writes them in the sky.

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