Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 12th June 2017

THERE was always something strong and stable about former Penrith and the Border MP Lord Whitelaw — even to the extent of his choice of luxury item when he appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1981.

It’s often been said that Whitelaw, who served as Penrith and Border MP for 28 years and held numerous Cabinet posts, kept Margaret Thatcher’s wilder excesses under control. It is rumoured he dissuaded Maggie from heading north to Leeds to take charge of the Yorkshire Ripper case.

Mrs. Thatcher spoke highly of her deputy. “Willie is a big man in character as well as physically,” she said. “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie!” Nearly 1,500 celebrities, ranging from politicians to entertainers, musicians and scientists, have appeared as castaways on Desert Island Discs since Roy Plomley created the concept in 1942. Plomley hosted the program for most of its life, and subsequent presenters have been Sue Lawley, Sir Michael Parkinson and the current incumbent, Kirsty Young.

It doesn’t need much explanation. Guest castaways on a hypothetical desert island choose eight records they can take with them. They also have a bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, but can choose another book and one luxury item. This is where it gets interesting.

Lord Whitelaw, who was Home Secretary at the time of his appearance on the program, chose a bath with a hot water system. Not exactly the sort of luxury one finds on desert islands, but Plomley was probably too surprised to question it. Lord Whitelaw’s choice was one of the more memorable ones mentioned last week when the BBC showed again an Arena special about Desert Island Discs and its inventor to mark the program’s 75th anniversary.

Nowadays the program is probably little more than background Sunday morning sound for radio listeners, although I have no doubt there are Desert Island Discs aficionados who never miss a program and savour every word spoken on it. But I remember, as a youngster, my mum and dad never missed a program. In a largely pre-television, pre-celebrity culture era, Plomley’s gentle probing introduced the “real” persona which lay behind the famous and the fascinating.

Often, if he supposed that his castaways were nervous, or reticent to spill the beans, he would invite them out for a couple of stiff gin and tonics and dinner at his club. Watching the compelling Arena documentary, it seemed that Plomley regarded everyone and everything with that same enigmatic half smile. One I would certainly have found unnerving.

As a matter of added interest, Lord Whitelaw selected Bing Crosby’s White Christmas as his favourite disc. The American crooner was a guest of the Stafford Howards at Greystoke Castle at a time when Lord Whitelaw lived not that far away at Ennim, so maybe the pair met. There is a comprehensive website which contains recordings of every one of those 1,500 Desert Island Discs programs. Few castaways chose a luxury item as British and practical as Willie Whitelaw’s plastic bath and heating arrangement.

I have this irresistible picture in my mind of Willie lounging in a hot bath at the end of a long day’s foraging in the forest for something meaty and edible for supper, while Bing croons away on the wind-up gramophone. Whitelaw was remarkable man. We could do with a few more Willies in today’s political climate.

SATNAV TROUBLE

I SUPPOSE the idea is well-intentioned, but I’ve only one word to describe the Department of Transport’s move to include satnavs in the driving test, and that’s crackers.

A satnav came as standard with the car I have now. I didn’t want it, although I tried it. It was a waste of time and a distraction. Give me an old-fashioned road map any day.

The DoT thinks that teaching learner drivers to use the technology properly will make the roads safer. What it will do is take away common sense and we’ll still see motorists getting lost at the most inconvenient moments.

Satnavs have been guilty of sending HGVs up country lanes. There have been plenty of examples of blindly following the information they put out only to become well and truly stuck up farm lanes in the Lake District.

My satnav was used just the once. I chucked it in the boot and now I’ve no idea where it is. I’ve got a good, up to date map, and as far as I’m concerned there’s no substitute for map reading skills.

Motorists waste an average 29 hours every year following bad directions, according to one study in which drivers said they were “zoned out” when using satnavs. It destroyed their concentration, turning drivers into “unthinking, unquestioning zombies.” Even the taxi operators who commissioned the survey of 2,000 motorists admitted the systems are far from flawless. AA president Edmund King said: “There is a risk of becoming over-dependent on satnavs. Map reading is a basic skill that can get you out of a lot of trouble yet too few people have mastered it.”

These days, whether it’s on the roads or the fells, people are increasingly reliant on technology to sort out where they are. And technology is only as good as the people using it and the information fed into it. It’s alright until it fails. Just ask BA’s bank holiday passengers.

A LOW FLYING RESPONSE

ON the subject of the British Airways debacle, and the limp response from the company’s boss, where were all our political parties when tens of thousands were left queuing and sleeping in airports, unable to regain their bags, complaining that the airline’s customer service was no service at all?

Did someone miss a trick here? There was a great big open goal waiting for the first political leader to come out on the side of the poor downtrodden consumer. Instead the BA chief eventually did an interview in which he blamed a local power problem. A caller to a radio phone-in, until recently a BA worker, said it was more likely to be an issue of cuts to technology staff and outsourcing to India. I know who sounded the more convincing.

The politicians were notably silent when BA’s customers needed someone on their side. After this shambles, the airline hardly deserves to bear the name “British.”

SHAKING ON IT

APPARENTLY Donald Trump’s tactic is to handshake people into submission. However the president met his match recently when he tried to put the squeeze on the new President of France, Emmanuel Macron. Monsieur Macron was forewarned. He was ready for the Trump crusher and out crushed the Donald.

I came across a crusher towards the end of the last football season. I had an interview arranged with the manager of a League Two side and I was advised by a helpful press officer that he liked a firm handshake. Firm in this case being a euphemism for a bone cracking iron grip. So, like President Macron, I steeled myself when that hand the size of a dumper truck bucket wrapped itself round mine. I think I gave as good as I got. Enough to persuade the manager I must have been tipped off about his eye-watering handshakes. He was very polite and answered my questions.

The origin of the handshake is in medieval chivalry when you did it to prove you were not concealing a weapon in your hand. Nowadays it’s a sign of friendship and trust which is why Bargain Hunt contestants shake hands when sealing the deal on an antique.

Handshakes are revealing. I would have said Putin had a tough, manly handshake. Well, apparently it’s quite soft. Nelson Mandela reputedly had a gentle handshake, so did Churchill. However Trump’s handshake tells you everything about this wannabe alpha male and his bid to assert his superiority. And yet, on balance I prefer the firm handshake. You never know where you are with a damp cloth shake.

But not when it becomes an arm wrestling contest. As a journalist you meet a lot of people, and encounter a lot of handshakes. One of the firmest I ever came across was by a female politician. I would not have liked to upset this particular lady. Long experience of wet lettuce handshakes, and those occasional grips where your skin turns white and you hear your ligaments and bones cracking, has taught me the old boy scout adage — be prepared. President Trump, I’m ready for you.