Wiffle Lever To Full!

Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Sci-Fi Nostalgia…

Even Looser Ends

Well, I enjoyed being on Loose Ends yesterday, although more attentive listeners might have noticed Peter Curran and Robin Ince having a strange, brief exchange about me being marooned in Lincoln. They weren’t joking…

I’d been asked to be at Broadcasting House in London for 10.30am yesterday, with the intention of recording the show at 11. So dutifully I set the alarm for 4.45am (yikes!); spent 45 minutes blearily brushing my teeth, falling over the dog, falling over the toothbrush and blearily brushing the dog’s teeth; then drove to Darlington and wolfed down a Marathon bar* and a can of sugar-free Red Bull before catching the 6.30am train (at 6.45) to King’s Cross.

We made it as far as York before a solemn announcement intoned that ‘due to signal difficulties, this service is being cancelled. Please make your way to Platform Five’. I trooped off the train, stared hazily at the paving stones on Platform Five for 20 minutes, then caught the 7.36am train (at 7.45) to King’s Cross instead.

Another solemn annoucement as we hurtled towards Doncaster. ‘Due to an act of vandalism on the line, this service will face severe delays. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause to passengers expecting a free lunch with Robin Ince and Mark Steel’.

By the time we reached Retford (dangerously close to Ye Olde Bell Hotel, where I first acquired the cursed Robin Of Sherwood dolls – could this be the latest act of revenge in their endless reign of terror…?) we were being told that the train was unlikely to progress beyond Newark, and – in a nutshell – we might as well get off there and bugger off back up North again. It was nearly 9am at this point, so I drew on my meagre initiative reserves and phoned the lovely Cathie, producer of Loose Ends, hoping that she wasn’t still at home brushing the dog’s teeth as well.

‘Get off the train at Newark’, she said. ‘We’ll find somewhere for you to do it down the line’. Dutifully, I got off the train at Newark. It didn’t look like there was much else in the town to speak of apart from two railway stations. The only line in sight had sleepers on it and was stretching south towards an act of wanton vandalism. I stood aimlessly on Platform 1 for ten minutes until Amy from Loose Ends called me. ‘We’ve booked you into BBC Radio Lincoln!’ she told me, sounded delightfully excited about the whole adventure. ‘Just jump into a taxi and give us a call when you’re there’.

‘Can you take me to Lincoln?’ I asked genial, bearded taxi driver Dave. ‘Sorry if that’s miles away, I don’t really know where I am’.

It was miles away. About twenty. But Dave was lovely, and told me that his nephew wants to write for a living, and has just found his first agent. 35 minutes and just as many pounds later (yikes!), Lincoln Cathedral appeared out of nowhere, we screeched to a halt, and I found myself ringing the doorbell of a deserted-looking BBC Radio Lincoln.

A nice travel reporter called Graham eventually came to the door and let me in, and I drank a cup of coffee in the news cubicle with manager and presenter Les Sheehan, who told me that he’s been at the station since the day it opened in November 1980. Robin Ince and I spent an hour battling fluctatating mobile signals and playing a sterling game of voicemail tennis that I eventually lost on a nerve-racking tie break when he got through to tell me that Wiffle Lever To Full! had had a nice review in The Times that morning. I was still buzzing from this news when Radio Lincoln’s charming Maria Richmond dragged me onto her live mid-morning show to take part in a feature on sci-fi fans who dress up, inspired by a report in the morning’s Guardian supplement about a man who strides around Hartlepool disguised as Darth Vader.

So I did Loose Ends sitting by myself in an empty studio in Lincoln, listening down the line to Peter Curran, Robin Ince, Mark Steel and the rest of the team swopping bon mots over canapes in a glitzy corner of Broadcasting House. ‘So…’ I said to Les and Graham afterwards. ‘How do I get back to Newark? Is there a train?’

‘Oh no,’ they replied, in scary harmony. ‘Lincoln station is closed for refurbishment. They might be running a bus service, though’. I shook hands warmly, and bade farwell to BBC Radio Lincoln. It was tanking down outside. 45 minutes later I managed to find the shattered remains of Lincoln station, and the shattered remains of two dozen confused-looking rail service refugees wandering around outside.

‘Bus to Newark leaves in an hour,’ the cheery guard told me. ‘Best off finding somewhere dry to sit and wait’. So I did, I found a tiny ledge on the outside of a Discount Book Store and read the review in The Times 457, erm, times.

Then I walked back to the station in the middle of Lincoln’s first-ever tropical monsoon. I slumped into a seat on the bus, and tried to drift off. Just as I was doing so, a man climbed into the seat across the aisle with his wife and young son, and began talking enthusiastically to them about vintage toys and action figures. Somewhere in my sleep-starved brain, his voice was ringing vague bells. Little mental pixies began bringing odd, irrational thoughts to the front of my mind.

‘I know that voice. I’ve spoken to that voice before. But I’m in Lincoln, a place I’ve never been to before and have no connection with at all. But I do know that voice. Has he been on my radio show? Over the phone talking about something? Geeky stuff. It’s a geeky stuff radio guest. Come on mental pixies, work harder… streeeeetch…’

A lull in his family’s conversation. If I don’t ask the question, I’ll never be able to live with myself.

‘Excuse me, I’m going to ask you a really strange question. Is your name Mike?’

A look of nervy amazement. ‘Yes…?’

‘Mike Simpson?’

‘Yes…?’

‘Bob Fischer from BBC Tees in Middlesbrough. You’ve been on my radio show two or three times’.

And he has. MJ Simpson is a sci-fi and fantasy writer and journalist, and a few years ago he wrote ‘Hitch Hiker’, a splendid biography of Douglas Adams. We’ve spoken on the phone a few times, and exchanged the odd e-mail, but we’d never met until a chance meeting on a deserted bus outside a collapsing railway station in Lincoln. When I introduced himself, he exploded with surprise, shouting rattling the spire of Lincoln cathedral with an explosive ‘Bloody Hell!!!!’.

‘Amazing that you’ve managed to find me here,’ he smiled. ‘For those of us who want to come here, this place is virtually bloody impossible to get to at the moment. Yet you’ve managed to tip up here by accident without actually wanting to’.

Anyway, we had a nice chat and that put me in a good mood. Right up until the point when I realised the bus was taking me to the other Newark station, and I’d have to walk another mile in another East Midlands tropical monsoon to get back to Newark Northgate.

So I got home at 5pm, exhausted, dripping wet and starving hungry. I dealt with these problems in the only way I know how… I stuffed my face with chips, then went to a quiet pub and got hammered with my friends.

‘Well done on Loose Ends,’ they said to a man. ‘Did you meet Mark Steel? It was funny when they tried to pretend you were in Lincoln’.

*Snickers, my arse.

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1 Comment»

  Andrew T. Smith wrote @

I’d quite like to think that somewhere the non-spirit of Douglas Adam’s in smiling down from Atheist heaven, noting the improbability of it all.


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