TERRY PRONE: At a time of doom and gloom let’s hear it for two of the good guys

I AM going to choke the girl who sings the ad for the sat nav gadget.

Either they’ve paid a fortune to have her on every ad break or the radio stations are so short of ads that they’re running her for free, but the fact is that no matter what station you tune into, there she is, going “Givagivagiva”.

She’s driving me nuts, not least because somebody DID give me one of those yokes last Christmas and I was enthusiastic until I discovered it had a software glitch that convinced it we were in London. The weird thing was that it worked away quite happily on this assumption.

The icon representing my car moved when the car moved. But it moved me in London. Half the time I was in the Thames. It was quite exciting, finding out where I would be if I wasn’t where I really was, and also extremely distracting.

The posh-voiced woman kept giving out to me for not taking her instructions. After three days, it got fed up of London and switched itself to Dublin and the same day it fell off the windscreen and split into three parts.

For the past year, I’ve been meaning to take it off the floor and re-assemble it because it could save me a lot of time. Whenever I get to travel outside the Pale, I have to allow an hour for getting lost and the man in my life gets very ratty when called on to act as air traffic controller.

“Where are you now?” he begins. To which the truthful answer is that if I knew where the hell I was, I wouldn’t be lost, but when the Red Cross arrives to rescue you, you don’t stick a finger in their eye, so I look out for distinguishing features in the surrounding terrain.

Except that there’s a lot of Ireland without distinguishing features, so I find myself describing hills and hedges and mansions.

When I was booked to give a talk in a Cavan library during the summer about writing and getting published, I was so intimidated by the impending presence of the next speaker – novelist Colum McCann that I decided an hour’s safety net wasn’t enough. I asked the man in my life to act as chauffeur, since he knows, not just the way to everywhere in Ireland, but the fastest unofficial way.

No problem. Until we arrived at an unexpected slowdown and stop. You can’t legally get out of a car and wander up a kilometre or two to find out what’s gone wrong. Nor can you do a U-turn. We sat. He fumed. The local radio station, after 20 minutes, told us what we had already guessed, due to squad cars and ambulances yelling their way along the hard shoulder: major accident up ahead involving an articulated truck. Which, by the sounds of it, was now a disarticulated truck.

My driver ordered me to ring Cavan. I would, I told the librarian, be at least 40 minutes late. I grovelled. I apologised. She said the library was already filled to overflowing and went off to think about her options, which seemed, from where I sat, to be limited.

Five minutes later she rang back, in high good humour. I was not to worry at all, she told me. No problem if I was even an hour late. Colum McCann had already arrived and was quite happy to go on first. Not only was he happy, he had asked her to tell me not to be anxious. He knew how awful it was to be trapped in a car in that kind of situation and I wasn’t to be getting myself tense.

When we arrived, an hour late, I slid in at the back where I could hear but not see him as he read from his most recent book. At the end of the extract, he stopped.

“By the way,” he told the enthralled audience, “make sure to tell me when Terry arrives, because I don’t want to run into her time, she’ll have much more useful stuff for you”.

Now, here’s a man whose earlier novel, This Side of Brightness, managed to be both breathtakingly beautiful and – in that useful cliché of reviewers – unputdownable. Here’s a man whose latest book, Let The Great World Spin, prompted David Eggers to remark that you could “leave it to an Irishman to write one of the greatest ever novels about New York”. Here’s a man who this year won the most prestigious US literary award. And he’s as self-deprecating and other-directed as if he was only beginning to write.

Colum Mc Cann is young and has a lifetime ahead of him in which to write wonderful books. At the other end of the age continuum is a man of genius in another genre: broadcasting. Terry Wogan has spent more than 50 years playing on the radio, creating a community of friends who want to play with him.

Part of the game is the wordplay. Although Sean O’Casey described PJ Wodehouse as the English language’s performing flea, the phrase could also describe Terry Wogan. It must be 30 years since he made fun of the words of one of Kenny Rogers songs, where a man berates his wife for abandoning him with “four hungry children and a crop in the field,” but to this day, when that old hit surfaces, some of us hear it as Terry Wogan persuaded a generation to hear it: as “four hundred children and a crock in the field”.

Wogan gave the impression of effortless fluent wit. But it was never effortless. It was the result of concentrated attention. Of reading. Of listening. Of observation. And of the determination to be a “fingerprint” broadcaster: the personality who may be imitated, but who never imitates.

His careless self-deprecation was never careless. He knew precisely how good he was, and, in his autobiography, was blunt in his disapproval of broadcasting stations who had tried to use him in ways that didn’t make the best of his capability.

The self-deprecation was matched by amused abuse of his listeners and of those who worked with him.

“People say ‘you and your team’,” he said this week, on his retirement from breakfast broadcasting. “I don’t have a team. I have underlings. I feed them like turkey cocks and they are always ungrateful.”

The abuse had nothing to do with the reality of Wogan’s attitude to people. I met him twice, with a 10-year interval between the two encounters. The second time, he remembered the first time. Now, apart from the incredible flattery, consider the generosity demonstrated thereby. He told stories of broadcasters we both knew and sent specific, funny messages to the ones he knew I was in contact with.

Wogan and McCann are ambassadors for the best of Ireland in their talent and in its diligent application. But – here at home at a time of constant condemnation and self-righteous blame-laying – both offer a useful object lesson in unpompous generosity and self-effacing good humour.


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