Magazine article The Spectator

Crackle of the Universe

Magazine article The Spectator

Crackle of the Universe

Article excerpt

'Is there anybody there?' is the question that Anne McElvoy could have asked Diane Abbott in their now-infamous Today programme interview last Wednesday.

If by chance you missed this classic radio moment, Ms Abbott had just been telling us how she intends (as a candidate for the leadership of the Labour party) to address the issues that 'ordinary members' of the party want to talk about - rather than to indulge in the highfalutin conversations of those who walk the corridors of power.

With remarkable adroitness, Ms McElvoy then dropped the bombshell question. So what about your son James who's in private education? What will the ordinary members of the party think about that? Ms Abbott's reply spoke volumes. Or rather it didn't. She said not a word. Not a squeak. Not even a harrumph of protest or sigh of indignation.

All we got was the crackle and pop of the ether for 17 whole seconds, as we, the listeners, digested the fact that a politician had for once been totally silenced.

I rather wish Ms McElvoy had kept us all in suspense for a while longer before interrupting, 'Aren't you going to comment on that?' Silence is never dead space - but surprisingly it's rarely used on radio, the perfect medium for exploring the powerful resonances of non-verbal communication in the aftermath of an incident, a thought, a moment of insight. Seventeen seconds was just not long enough for Ms Abbott to reflect on the question, and for us to ponder her reply as the reactions of interviewee and interviewer crackled through the ether.

Radio itself killed off silence for ever, punctuating our every wakeful moment with voices and music transmitted to us invisibly by means of electronic signals about which most of us have little comprehension and much fear. Sunday night's drama on Radio 3, Between Two Worlds , took us back to those early days of wireless communication, developed commercially by Marconi, Tesla, Fessenden and Hertz while other scientists such as Dr Oliver Lodge were intrigued not so much by the possible communication in the here and now but by what else they might be able to tap in to once it became possible to create connections through space. What about all those voices flying around in the ether, the voices of the once-dead? Will these new wireless boxes enable us to make contact with them? Is it their voices, struggling to get in touch, that we can hear in the popping, scratching and squeaking of the static between radio signals? …

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