The Kevin Myers Experience
"Exposing myself to many sensations" The Kevin Myers Experience. Middle England, a place that's proud of being dull, shares this smug sense of itself with one of its best-known exports. The voice of Kevin Myers familiar to other mediums rang hollow on the airwaves. By Marie Louise O'Donnell
I was in Stratford-Upon-Avon for some of July watching Shakespeare plays. The town is a wallpapered, frayed and dimly-lit place, but it is where millions of visitors go to travel the theatrical road of the bard, visit his birthplace, his home and his seat of inspiration.
I saw three plays at the Courtyard while I was there. A very badly directed and badly acted Merchant of Venice, an average and vocally incoherent Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew.
The Shrew directed by the Irish director Conal Morrison was outstanding and is transferring to the west end because of its brilliance. The colour vibrancy, energy, emotional intelligence and vocal music of the production was not matched by the surroundings of middle England.
Middle England now there's a thought. It is a dull place lacking a European influence in food, colour, music, design and in the ordinariness of the day. But behind its arras it is cocky, full of self belief and a quiet arrogance. Dullness is not something to be proud of, but the English do not seem to care.
The bed and breakfast was an example of this. It was set in an English living-below-stairs past, like a downstairs flat I used to have in the 70's on Raglan Road and had a fashion sense of flowery plastics, chalky tablecloths, cheap electric showers, exposed water pipes, cardboard furniture, patterned linoleum and a guarded unknowing welcome. No cooked breakfasts or porridged good morning here. And I wouldn't recommend it for an affair as each time I turned in the bed it moved across the shiny plastic floor. A daunting thought but one well felt.
Speaking of middle England and its smug sense of itself, Kevin Myers was born, bred and educated there in Leicester, before coming to Ireland to UCD to study history. Myers, a writer, journalist and historian, is travelled, opinionated, confident and articulate and was in front of the microphone at Newstalk for the past few weeks.
He was sitting in, or broadcasting in, or filling in for George Hook. Unfortunately he was not doing any of the three. George Hook may be swimming with sharks in South Africa but we were at home here on our island swimming with oral platypuses.
The microphoned-Myers and indeed others raise some interesting and communicative questions about our national radio stations. The established pattern of the RTE summer schedule continues with great copying technique at Newstalk as the deck chairs of the Titanic now move to the Lusitania (a ship which sank in 18 minutes) where new voices of all ages splash around in high seas and are given no life lines or platforms of breath in the vacancies left by holidaying regulars. Why do radio directors think that because somebody is a self-styled self-positioned and self-wrought controversial journalist they will make a good broadcaster ?
In the case of other lesser spotted sit-ins on the Newstalk station, why do producers believer that somebody who has been visibly and adhesively stuck to a couch on afternoon TV should be an automatic choice for mid- afternoon radio ? I speak of Joe O' Shea who muddled and startled for Ireland on RTE's afternoon show Seoige and O'Shea. Joe is ‘filling' in, as he says himself, for Newstalk's Sean Moncrieff.
He is certainly doing that — filling in — like quick dry poli filler around light bulbs, droning on and on like an over-honeyed bee in laborious thick and unmovable tones across incoherent emails, abbreviated texts and extremely badly and over-written introductions. Introductions that he cannot vocally or rhythmically grasp and where there is no semblance of meaning and not a solar imaginative panel of thought or idea in aural sight. Stay away another few months Moncrieff your job is as safe as our vacant apartment blocks.
But back to middle England and the Myers munch on Newstalk.
I have always felt that good broadcasting is firstly about the creativity of research and ideas. It is then about great instinctive, inquiring conversation, good listening, engaging voices, animation, something new, real feeling, a sense of the craft and a bit of finish. Somewhere in the whole Batman city of studios and microphones I expect a broadcaster to have somewhere in their psyche, in their language, or even in their water, at least one of these qualities coupled with a sense of awe and of the curious. And let's not forget the great talent and quality of a natural sense of humour. None of these qualities are alive or evident on the Kevin Myers fill in.
“So the courtship, seduction and consummation will be completed in five hours” commented Myers as the fly and goodbye visit of President Sarkozy of France was discussed. The retort, a rhythmic copy of ‘he came, he saw, he conquered' from another history book that most of us had in our ancient school bags. But it drew me right back to the second rate arrogance of the bed and breakfast in Stratford Upon Avon.
This kind of commentary, retort or attempt at conversation is not natural or inventive radio. It is not even entertaining, inspiring or engaging radio. It is smug and sardonic and a comment from behind an unwashed curtain. It goes nowhere and it elicits nothing but a silence. It was a type of response and reaction that he repeated often and regularly on the programmes.
Another interesting issue arising out of Myers at the microphone is how the voice cannot hide the self while the pen can. The voice presents and conducts itself in a clear and undisturbed echo to the listeners' instinct and inner feelings. As listeners we feel the sound. We do not read it or see it, we feel the truth of the people in their voices whether as presenters or guests. Our sense of belief or disbelief, of like or dislike, registers in our ears. Whether we agree or not, indeed whether we understand or not, we unknowingly lock into the personality that comes behind the voice. We hear and we feel who and what the person is and not necessarily the historical or informed accuracy of what they are saying. This is different from the objective truth that works on paper. Entertainment for the ear is not entertainment for the eye.
Mr Myers does not and cannot make that distinction. Neither do the producers when they put him in front of the microphone under our ready-to-burst heavy summer clouds and around our perceptive ears.
He cannot make the distinction because being on radio also means not being alone as one is on paper. There is a whole other world of knowing and affective communication alive in the ether. There are thousands of ears on the echo alert. On radio it is not always possible to live in your knowledged head. That is not where your voice naturally communicates. It communicates best through the energy and thoughts of others and the generosity and humility of letting others in, up and away.
Entertainment for the ear, Mr Myers, is not about interrupting and correcting guests. It is not about waiting in the microphonic sidelines to pounce at the hint of an admittance or mistake. It is not about “I have been, I have seen, I have conquered”. If it works and when it works, it is usually about the generosity of natural dialogue, of new and inviting conversations, of fresh and inspiring ideas, of the newness of the unknowing, no matter what the context.
The honed format of the guest in the studio and the guest on the phone each with a differing or opposing view is one of the cores of the Newstalk format. It played directly into Myers' Parnassian seat of all knowing.
It lifted him back to the future into the chairman's seat in the debating halls of UCD in the late 60's where I suspect he was in his element — if not elemental — as he tugged, pulled and twisted the argument away, around and back to his personal control of the right opinion despite whatever else was said, while all the time assuring the troubled contributors that what he was concerned with was fairness and fair play. We were not fooled and neither were they.
Throughout the weeks he has lived in between the edges of our real and unreal lives. He has had privilege and privacy since all aspects of life and limb are about stories. But the story of the delights of France, like many other stories on his programme, could not be told and I could not hear it.
“The thing about France is that it is so big,”
stated Myers as he began the first of his 50 interruptions across the maligned Newstalk's travel correspondent. Thus began a history lesson, a pronunciation lesson, a linguistics lesson, a language derivation lesson, and a full scale lecture as Myers interrupted, corrected, suggested, disagreed, scoffed, outsmarted, taught, advised and finally exposed the demented travel writer.
“I stand educated” muttered the fumbling and flustering guide Fionn Davenport as he pleaded for a kind of ‘route-du-vin' mercy. “…..Almost no one alive today has changed the way we live and the way we think compared to you, and you never seem to get any thanks for it…….” exhaled a breathy suppliant Myers. I thought he was talking about the re-emergence of Jesus Christ of Nazareth in the clouds cumulus. But no, it was a different resurrection cloud traveller. Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, was his Thursday interview guest. To be fair to O'Leary he felt the introduction was over the top as he only wanted to speak about his low fares airline regardless of monetary climates. Undaunted, not listening and remembering visits to big houses in Meath, Myers persisted with the Uriah Heep praise upon fawning praise which frustrated O Leary to the point of evident hesitation.
“The reason you are here is because I like you,” tittered Myers.
“The reason I'm here is because I like you,” replied O' Leary and at that, I got my hat and coat and tiny below-weight bag at the ready to run and buy some cheap airline tickets and be part of the gang at the wall. Despite all the personal knowing and the public admiration, a unique interview opportunity was lost. Myers could not pull himself away from O'Leary's private life, a life which he tried consistently to tell Myers, had nothing whatsoever to do with getting us all off this island cheaply and cheerfully. Myers is stuck in a sense of his own volcanic controversy in the hope of our eruptive reactions, coupled with his loose and apologetic lava sense of Ireland. He is also stuck on the M50 at lights that do not co-ordinate, behind lorries going nowhere, in fast slow and side lanes of his own personal opinions.
It was on and around the Red Cow roundabout traffic updates that he came into a sense of himself as a broadcaster, reading out the traffic impasse, panting through the vehicle jams, reacting in rising inflections and high pitched incredulity about the meeting of tar and cement. Cynical, dismissive and jaded wonderments of how we do things so badly in Ireland. And so I suggest a new job for Mr Myers, as a traffic guide and guru for the M50. An operational job, under one of the bridges at night under lights, and an odd trip back to Middle England to show us how it's really done.