The Diary: Martha Kearney

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We have been having a bit of trouble with bad language on The World at One lately and in the most unlikely of circumstances. I was interviewing the spokesman from the French foreign ministry about the crisis in Syria. In fluent and impassioned English he denounced the Assad regime, at one point claiming that the president was “shitting with the international community”. I came out of the studio slightly stunned after the recording and talked it over with my editor. Tough words certainly but wouldn’t it be wrong to edit them out? So when I introduced the item live, I added a caveat warning that there would be some undiplomatic language ahead. All fine, except it turned out that the spokesman hadn’t sworn at all. A French speaker emailed to say the phrase was “cheating” with the international community.

Not long after that we broadcast an interview with a Cambodian rap artist who is coming to the South Bank for the Cultural Olympiad. Afterwards our planning producer came over to say “that was brave”. In BBC terms, just like in Sir Humphrey’s, that phrase generally means “career-ending disaster”.

I know, I said to the producer, rap on Radio Four! But I think it’s good to shake things up a bit.

“I didn’t mean that. It was when the poet said he wanted to f*** the world.”

Total panic all around as we gathered round a speaker and tried to make out the words. It was only when we downloaded a transcript from the poet’s own website that we realised our guest just wanted to “spark the world”.

I have a history of apologising for swear words. My worst example was when I was presenting a programme live from the Latitude festival at 9am. Irvine Welsh had been booked. In what world was that a good idea? He certainly seemed like he had pulled an all-nighter and within five minutes had used the F-word. We might have got away with that if the actor Alan Davies hadn’t then decided to play to the crowd by discussing his teenage bedroom habits. All this, just minutes after Morning Service.

At LBC radio, where I began my radio career, they used to control swearing on air by means of a “profanity button” or prof for short. The broadcast always had a 10-second delay to allow a short musical sting to be played instead of the swearing. I only used it once, when a phone-in caller, amid a rant about double yellow lines, shouted an obscenity about the Queen. I quickly pressed the prof button and assumed all was fine. Unfortunately it misfired, so the listeners heard the swearing followed by me doing a time check. “It’s 11.35 and you’re listening to LBC,” as if this were normal behaviour.

There were plenty of reminiscences about LBC at a party on Saturday night given by friends I had met at the radio station in the 1980s. The invitation promised plenty of food, wine and dad-dancing and we weren’t disappointed on any score. The party, for a silver wedding anniversary, was held at the same venue as the wedding and it was quite funny to see how people had changed over the years. My favourite moment was watching one glamorous friend, renowned for her high living in the bars of Fleet Street, carefully looking after her 19-year-old daughter to make sure she wasn’t drinking too much. She caught my eye and we both burst out laughing. Our favourite haunt back in the day was the Newspaper Workers’ Club, complete with a phone box in the middle of the bar where you could phone in copy to the office. Women weren’t allowed in there at night, which was probably just as well.

There will be more radio reunions on Monday night for the Sony awards, hosted by Chris Evans. It’s a big night for The World at One as the show, which hasn’t been nominated for the past 12 years, is up for Best News Programme. Given the top-level competition, I have decided to focus more on what to wear than on the awards themselves. Luckily I am quite flush at the moment after a very successful day at the races not so long ago. I had texted a friend who used to be a journalist and now describes himself as a “pimp for horses”. Before you press the prof button, I think that means he is involved in breeding. Anyway, his first three tips were so good that I splashed out £40 on the last race and got 16-1 odds on the nose. My inner Cockney broke out in the last few moments as my horse took the lead and I shouted myself hoarse. There is something so satisfying about being handed a wad of £50 notes, some of which will go towards a frock for the Sonys.

I have had bee problems lately. My last remaining beehive (the other was killed by wasps) survived the winter but lost its queen, as we discovered during a spring inspection. A friend put me in touch with an experienced beekeeper called Eric, now in his 80s, who has decided to downsize his operation. He very kindly agreed to give me a colony. Like me, Eric has traditional hives, though his are now painted brown to make them less visible to thieves. A friend of his recently had his white-painted hives stolen from his front garden. Bee rustling has become a real problem as the price of colonies rises. Six frames can cost as much as £200. I used to laugh when I saw bee veils advertised in camouflage print “so that no one can see where you keep your bees”. Now I can see why.

Eric had already wrapped up the vital parts of the dismantled hive in a hessian sack from the chocolate factory where he used to work. We set off to drive home and listened nervously to the passengers in the back. It’s amazing how loud buzzing can sound. When I tweeted about this experience, I was bombarded with links to the Monty Python song “Eric the Half-a-Bee”. For younger readers:

“Half a bee, philosophically,

Must, ipso facto, half not be.

But half the bee has got to be,

Vis-à-vis its entity, d’you see?”

Despite the traditional bank holiday downpour, we went to a bluebell wood at the weekend which is only open to the public once a year. Botanists come from all over to see the very rare Suffolk lungwort. The last time we visited there was some seriously competitive wildflower identification going on. “I think you’ll find that is a barren wild strawberry if you examine the sepals.” This time it was a gentler experience, although I was most taken by the revelation that the wildflower Lords and Ladies has many rude names. Given its shape – a hooded green cowl embracing an upright red poker – perhaps that isn’t so surprising. Thanks to Flora Britannica, I discovered it’s also known as priest’s pintle (from the Anglo Saxon for penis), parson’s billycock, cocky baby, cuckoo cock and (a late 20th coinage by a nine-year-old) willy lily. But there I am, apologising for bad language again.

Martha Kearney presents ‘The World at One’ on Radio 4 and ‘The Review Show’ on BBC2

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