Listener's Guide

Alan Coren Remembered

Back then, radio had to be waited for.

Tree-huggers would mourn the wasted watts soaked up in valve heaters. Cathodes would spawn clouds of electrons ready to cross the great divide to a high-tensioned anode.

Lamps dulled by thirty years of dust would light a radio dial, but only just. A red pointer would suggest that you are tuned to BBC Light. Moving that pointer would lead to certain death as Dad, who fought the first electronic war, had no idea how to get it back again.

Mums role in all this was purely maintenance. Once a week, a round flat tin of polish was cracked open to administer a shine to an already shiny wooden cabinet. The polish had a colour that suggested it might have been squeezed out of a dog but it's the memory of that just-polished smell that lingers now. The scent would carry across a dusty room, convected on the warmth of five radio valves, some hotter than others, each tasked to bring Round The Horne to an eager family.

These are the values Alan Coren held dear. England, his England. He felt his appearances on the News Quiz should be heard in the nation's parlours on a proper wireless, over a harassed high tea, scones chomped in quiet desperation, the English way.

Was he a reluctant broadcaster? The News Quiz came to us at the end of the week, a droll delivery carried a sub-text with every word. He wanted to be somewhere else. In truth, he loved it. Head of the table, the elder statesman showing the younger wits that fewer words meant more. And when those words came, each was planted ready to bloom in the imagination long after the programme was over.

Goaded by a question that forced him to look toward Europe, a brilliantly contained rant about Germany would ensue. All he wanted was another crack at them.

We came late to his pieces in The Times. We knew they were there; it was, like so much in Alan's public persona, a question of getting around to them. His was the loneliness of the long-distance writer. An attic room overlooking Cricklewood, a constant vigil, waiting for something, anything, to happen. Not much did, but when it did, its consequence was never lost on him.

Junk mail, garden projects not worthy of note to the ordinary man, litter and the inactivity of the builders on the roof opposite was all that was needed to trigger a set of values we don't see anymore.

His publishers would, when they felt like it, put together his Times pieces in a slim volume ready to spoil somebody's Christmas. Our regret is that there will be no more of these anthologies, so we may have to cheer up.