It’s quiet at Broadcasting House on a Saturday morning. Once you’ve found the right entrance, a security pass is pushed into your hand, then you’re led up to an empty corridor – reminiscent of a thousand council offices – to wait.
Tired buns and tea, a nervous tricklepee, then with the clock terrifyingly close to 9am – TRANSMISSION TIME – into the studio for a very quick hello with the Rev Richard Coles.
I liked him immediately. I knew I would, though. Someone who’s done very different things in his time, in extraordinary and challenging places, with at least the outward appearance of now having one foot rooted in a Northamptonshire churchyard and the other in the clutter of celebrity – what’s not to like, or indeed, to resonate?
Then the show’s on. No rehearsal, little briefing (“don’t mention Scottish independence” was about it – shame – I’d got some thoughtful comments ready just in case.) Head reeling a little from the dramatic trail I heard at 0830 (“Fresh from the pit of alcoholism…Paul Clarke”)
Flitting in and out of headphones, the red eye of studio vitality blinking next to the orange glow of ON AIR. On air. On air to millions (?) of people out there, including some very close to me. Some, I’m sure, for whom this would be a distinct surprise.
And yet, through all this, we managed a bit of a chat, usually only broken by Richard grabbing his headphones, or a proffered sheet of A4 with some new tweets or emails to read. A wave of the fingers, a glance at the script on screen, then honey voice gliding to the mike again.
An hour and a half of this. It flew by. Though I’m never normally short of words – especially when talking about something close to me, or that I believe in – with these two I was the rank amateur. The third person in the studio was Val McDermid – a wonderfully erudite writer with a brilliant array of anecdotes, and no shortage of opinions. I mean that in a very good way. She was strong, confident and lovely, and very reassuring to the newbie next to her.
Behind a window, a group of producers, watching, listening, typing, running… Me the goldfish, they the cats. My glasses kept falling off when I moved my headphones. I couldn’t decide if I should take them off, so I could see Richard properly, or keep them on, so I could scribble comfort notes on the pad they’d given me. I imagined the crew murmuring – ah, bless – as I wrestled for the fifth time with tangled specs and cables.
I can hardly remember any of it. Just be yourself, everyone said. Be yourself. Who’s yourself? What am I saying? What do I mean? Are they same thing?
The introduction – several times – ThePhotographerPaulClarke. Yeah. It’s true, of course. It’s what I do – intensively. But you know the little voice. The one challenging my right. The one I’d use at the radio in my kitchen listening to another privileged wannabe talk about his ohsodifficult struggle to make a living by poncing about doing a bit of clicking.
I wasn’t promoting a book. I wasn’t promoting me (I would be very surprised if anything I said in a few minutes on radio would make a material difference one way or another to my business). So what WAS I doing there? At 9.28, in the studio, it’s probably a bit too late to be overwhelmed by that thought. But as the finger waving and mouthed “Paul, you’re next” oscillated through the-gel-that-is-studio-air towards me, I was.
So I did my best. Of course, nothing that I’d prepared came up: who inspires me*, my favourite photo, most interesting anecdote from a shoot… Zip.
Instead, something about sport, Elyar Fox (not Justin Bieber), loneliness. A schoolboy joke about boobs. Oh, and drinking.
Yeah, that’s why I was there. Because through whatever alchemy of support, friendship, luck and bloody-mindedness, I was the guy who’d put down alcohol, started using a camera to cope, and to self-express, and unexpectedly found himself confounding all predictions to build a successful business taking pictures. Pictures that people wanted to see; that they paid for.
And if, just if, something I said might be useful to just one person, that would justify my early start, quaking terror, and some embarrassing family conversations in the future. Ok, maybe two people. But I was doing it because my interesting little talk had been picked up by the researchers as an example of something that might speak to a rather wider audience.
At five years in, I’d felt able to do that talk, and a year earlier, to write just this one piece which I hope some also find resonant. But that’s all. It’s not a secret, but neither do I think I wear it on my shirt.
Of course, there’s dramatic alcoholism, and there’s the other sort. In my experience, it’s the other sort I’ve come across time and time again, and maybe in some ways it’s more deadly. Because it’s the sort that rumbles on for years, for decades, eating its host away without ever quite triggering an epiphany.
Being media people, the steer was very much towards the “so just how bad was it, when you were at rock bottom and your life was destroyed, Paul?” Being me, I did what I could, not to play down those dark times, but to emphasise the grinding normality of repeatedly doing something you don’t want to do. Of using a substance or a habit to deal with troubling inner voices. That the hardest thing for me – the point that told me it was time to change – was simply the realisation that I’d lost my choice. If it was 6pm, I drank. Simple as that. Whether I wanted to, or not. And in the latter days, I rarely wanted to, nor did it lift me up anywhere other than temporarily out of a craving.
Breakfast whisky? Nope. Blackouts at work? Nope. Uncontrollable trembling? Nope. Loss of job because of drinking? Nope (though I heard that in Saturday’s script, presumably as a result of a researcher conflating some other comments in my talk about my career shifting around me. Journalism, hey?)
Relentless, day-in-day-out, repetition of patterns that were hurting me (and those around me) more and more. Yes. YES. That.
And, in the aftermath, it seems that message was perhaps the most resonant I could have made. Had I crumbled, and gone along with the offered line of park benches and breath mints, it might have made a more dramatic storyline. But it wouldn’t have reached some people – people with far less flamboyant stories and issues to deal with.
I know this, because I’ve since heard from some of them. No details, obviously, but even before the programme had finished I’d had messages from others out there. Some known to me, others not at all. I’ve done (and will continue to do) what I can to help, and am grateful that my target of two was swiftly passed. There’s also a hint of something coming out of this, which if it’s meant to be, will be one of the biggest and most exciting things I could possibly dream of. But I’m doing a serenity prayer on that one right now, because it’s definitely something I can’t directly control.
So that was live radio, on a tricky subject. Much, much more difficult than I’d realised. But I do like to take on the difficult. On balance, I’d do it again. Just better. (You can listen to the show here, and I’ve got a chunk at about 30 minutes in, plus other brief moments.)
I haven’t heard from my Dad yet.
[UPDATE – 18 Sept. I have now. It was so fantastic. He said he was proud of me.]
*if you’re interested, it’s not a photographer, nor someone particularly well-known. It’s not even an adult. It’s a 14 yr old boy called Adam Bojelian. A couple of days ago, Adam clocked up an unbroken year in hospital, with some pretty intensive physical challenges. Despite these, Adam is a regular and happy tweeter, organises quizzes and competitions including a World Cup sweepstake, campaigns relentlessly for the voice of children in hospital to be heard, and writes poetry. Great poetry. Oh, did I mention he is only able to communicate by blinking? And yet I know about his world of outings in the park with his dog, and the tireless strength of that small body. Yes, that inspires me. And if you’ve liked this post, maybe follow him (@adsthepoet) or just say a nice hello. He’d like that. If Adam can do what he does, what excuses have the rest of us?