Steve McClarence talks to Rony Robinson about broadcasting, writing books and plays and life in general.
On the bus to the Radio Sheffield studios, I sit next to Eric, a neighbour from many years ago. I tell him I'm going to talk to Rony Robinson, stalwart presenter – 26 years, man and (to stretch a point) boy – about his newly-published memoirs.
Eric's face lights up. "Ro-ny Rob-in-son," he says, stretching out the syllables like socks on a washing line. "Do you remember that Saturday morning he came and did a programme live from our street? He had the radio car with him and he talked to all the neighbours..."
Eric gets off, and we wave goodbye, and it suddenly strikes me that it's 20 years since I moved from his street. So that programme must have been at least two decades ago, and Eric remembers it vividly. It's a wonderful tribute to Robinson's role in the community, as a commentator, a confessor – well, as a friend to many listeners for three-and-a-half hours a day.
But that's enough sentiment. His book, Who's Been Talking? quotes a Yorkshire Post description of him as "South Yorkshire's favourite uncle". Which gets his radio persona about right: a warm, understanding man with huge rapport with his listeners, and a dirty laugh.
However... he's also a writer: seven novels and 127 plays. There were three dozen of them in the 1970s alone, written for theatres, clubs and church halls in Sheffield, Doncaster, Lancaster, Chester, Coventry and London. They included I Am the Vicar! ("The Rector of Stiffkey, on the day he is eaten by a lion, discusses sex and revolution with a showgirl and a newspaper reporter"). And Skidaddle ("High-rise family take on the local council to keep their pet dog and win with the aid of a helicopter."). That gets some of the off-the-wall, snook-cocking radicalism of his writing. Still to come, as they say in radio, were another 100 plays, including The Beano, based on his sharp, poignant novel about a brewery works' outing to Scarborough on the eve of the First World War and influenced more by one of his two Dylan heroes (D Thomas) than by the other (Bob D).
Like The Beano, Who's Been Talking? has an original structure. This is a mosaic of memories and half-memories, engaging and wistful and funny and full of energy. It skips about, takes an event and riffs with it, as though, as Robinson says, "all the past is simultaneous". It's about the telling of the tale as much as the tale itself; as random and unpredictable as memory can be; as random and unpredictable as a radio phone-in.
Which is what's going on at Radio Sheffield when I arrive. It's towards lunchtime and the end of the phone-in part of Rony's show (we'll call him Rony from now on, because everybody does). He sits in a studio, his back to a window with a grand panorama of Park Hill Flats and the spick-and-span railway station and a few old industrial buildings.
It's a sort of potted recent history of the city where he was born during the Second World War and where he moved back to after Oxford and London teaching. Moved back to a house a few hundred yards from his childhood home, back to the woods and moors and fields of childhood. "I'd never left really," he says.
He's wearing casual clothes and looks a bit like a poetic bargee ready for a pint in a Whitby pub. On the cabinet to his right is the dried-out remains of his breakfast, a bowl of the Fruit and Fibre he brings in a rucksack and sometimes pours fruit juice on.
There's a lot of banter with the callers about night buses and karaoke evenings. People are phoning in with places they'd like to go: Antarctica, Switzerland, Sheffield's long-closed Heeley station, the Playboy mansion. Ken, "The Darfield Owl", wants to go to Scotland. "You've set us a real poser today, you scamp," says one regular, very clubby. "How are you, Rony?" asks another. "I'm luscious," he says. Which he says a lot.
He joshes and busks and fades in and out of Traffic and Travel Updates, scrolls through emails on the screen in front of him, full of the adrenalin of live radio, hunches up to the microphone and communes with it, and by extension with "the listener". He listens as much as he talks, a rare gift among radio presenters.
He puts on Bruce Springsteen and tells me it's been a bit of a scatty, unfocused phone-in. Does he ever worry that no-one will phone? "Every day. But if they don't, you wouldn't be doing it for long." How long is it, then? He reckons about 6,900 programmes. Who's been counting?
In a world of tweeting and texting and blogging and Facebooking and using keyboards rather than voices to communicate, phone-ins are an endearing survival, full of personality and potential danger. The show finishes and he hands over to fellow presenter Paulette Edwards. She does a quick interview with him about the book. "It's like being dead," he says. "People are saying things as though it's a funeral."
I've asked him to bring in five family photographs he wouldn't be ashamed to see used in a newspaper. So here he is at three, a cherub with blond curls, son of a teacher and a town hall official. Then in the 1950s in a sleeveless pullover at a Prestatyn holiday camp, where he won Most Beautiful Child competition.
Then in early 1960s as a student, leather elbow pads on his sports jacket. Then in a duffel coat as a London comprehensive school teacher in the late 1960s, when he generally wore a bow tie and smoked a pensive pipe. And then as a playwright, looking slightly like Shakespeare. And a few extra ones from his quarter-century as a... well, who are you, Rony, a broadcaster who writes or a writer who broadcasts? He never quite says, but I reckon it's the latter.
So, I say, what five questions would you ask if you were interviewing yourself about these memoirs (which he suggested writing to raise funds for Sheffield's Children's Hospital Charity). He gazes through the window, less outgoing and more vulnerable off-air, and duly interviews himself...
"What have you learned about yourself from writing the memoirs? The important things in all our lives – mum, dad, my children – of performance, on stage, on the radio. The book's a performance. I'm trying to hide from the reader how interesting I find myself.
What have you hidden? I've hidden, but not very well, some anger and disappointment about my failure to be a father who kept a family together. That's the big mistake of my life. It's the only thing I've failed at; I never tried to be a famous playwright or novelist or to work for the BBC in London.
"What will be the effect on the rest of your life? I did wonder whether I'd think it was all over and all written. How do you follow it? How can you have another life after you've already written it?
"Was it enjoyable? It's the most enjoyable thing I've written since The Beano, because I was making the rules up as I went along. I had to find a way of telling it that recognised that the past is fragmentary.
"What's the reaction of people been? There's been a very great kindness and generosity. Luckily no-one has said: 'You're conceited for writing your life story'."
The kindness and generosity are in evidence at the launch of Who's Been Talking at Sheffield Hallam University. About 250 people turn up. Many of them are mentioned in the book: the words made flesh. There are two women Rony taught 40 years ago and hasn't seen since. He remembers their names, which class and which room they were in at the school.
There's more unpredictability here, more randomness. The book is arranged in sections with headings in alphabetical order, so the audience shouts out a letter and Rony reads and actors enact. Just like life, you don't know what's coming next.
As I don't as I sit here now and sift through two dozen scraps of paper scrawled with notes I've made while reading the book. Here are some of them, picked out at random:
"Achingly lyrical, nostalgic writing": about childhood and life in one family home.
"Subversive": about a paragraph on page 53... "If you bought this book hoping it might have more famous people in it than it seems to have so far, hold tight..." (for The Queen's brief guest appearance).
"Cigarettes": it's a roll-call of vintage nicotine: Park Drive, Capstan, Wild Woodbine, Olivier Tipped (smoked by actors, darling).
"Footnotes": Also subversive, more "indiscreet", as he puts it, than the text.
"Duke of Devonshire": a snook-cocking reference to "vast unearned estates".
"School": a blistering attack on his old boys' grammar school, including "most of the teachers were shabby bullies". ("Ere, ere," shouts someone when Rony reads that out at the launch).
"Reviews": He quotes more bad ones than good ones.
In the studio, I mention Eric on the bus and that Saturday morning programme all those years ago. Rony remembers it, and Arthur and Renie's corner shop, and him and me trundling round the streets on the back of a milk float. And I think: the play of the book of the life can't be far away. Phone in and tell us what you think.
Who's Been Talking? by Rony Robinson ALD Print (0114 267 9402; www.aldbooks.co.uk) 9.99, with royalties going to the Sheffield Children's Hospital Charity. Order post-free from ALD Print, 279 Sharrow Vale Road, Sheffield S11 8ZF.
YP MAG 11/12/10