You might think "talk radio" is a media anachronism – night watchmen with delirium tremens and paranoid truck drivers arguing with disgraced football pundits and Yewtree-absolved former DJs about everything from Simon Mignolet's form this season to the Gaza Strip – and you'd be exactly right. But for those very reasons, it's also the most consistently, accidentally brilliant form of discourse in British culture.
If you really want to know what's going on in this country, you won't find out on #BBCQT, where inner-city English teachers with half-finished novels pretend to fancy Ed Balls. You won't find it on Comment Is Free, or in the audience at a UCL talk with Yanis Varoufakis and Owen Jones. But you will find it on those bawdy slagging matches you can just about make out when you're trying to find Magic or Heart or Rinse or Absolute 80s from the back seat of a Prius.
Among all the noise and fury of UK talk radio, one man stands taller than any other. It's not Gaunt or O'Connor, not Hawksbee or even Jacobs; it's George Galloway, the host of the self-proclaimed "Mother of All Talk Shows", now coming back to radio – specifically talkRADIO, a new station from the people behind talkSPORT – after a five-year break, in which GG was elected in Bradford West, defeated in Bradford West, announced as a London mayoral candidate and presumably soon de-announced as a London mayoral candidate.
Gorgeous George might be one of politics' most notable characters – a man who can't seem to leave his front door without threatening to sue someone or being assaulted by a Zionist; a man who once used the phrase "cock-a-hoop" at a US Senate hearing; a man who once pretended to be a cat in some strange game of quasi-sexual role-play on national television. But for me, it's his recently re-commissioned radio show where his finest work has been done.
Between 2006 and 2010, The Mother of All Talk Shows became required listening for me. I think I first heard it drunk in the back of my dad's car, high and dry from some terrible half-night out, and found myself immediately captivated by the burning ire on show. From what I remember, Galloway was berating someone who was asking how "the Great could be put back into Great Britain", screaming him down with fire and brimstone. It was like nothing I'd ever heard on radio before – a weird mix of Tim Westwood and Billy Graham. On another show I seem to recall him stonily reading out a Sun report on the displays of wealth at Wayne Rooney's wedding, before shouting about how Wayne should read The Great Gatsby and learn a lesson or two.
I thought I could be the only one listening. Surely this was only for me and maybe a few people who had died with their DABs on? But the switchboards were white-hot with bullshit. Every time Galloway cut someone off for offending him, somebody else would prop up, ready to dine in hell. Many were the talk-radio standard – white men working late-nights looking to vent about those they'd perceived as fucking them over – but the demographic also seemed to stretch far beyond that. There were racist housewives; waffling lefty professor types; young Muslim guys bigging up Galloway; even a self-proclaimed modern Nazi from Loughton. This was American History X sponsored by LDV Vans, I was hooked.
In his first stint on talkSPORT he survived a few controversies, notably trying to rally his listeners to come to a massive anti-Israel protest. In the end he committed a political hara-kiri: quitting to stand for parliament again. But in its afterlife, the show has perhaps found even more fame, with people uploading the classics to YouTube and racking up a community of obsessives in the process. Some have even gone on to make playlists and compilations, such as "Galloway reads nutter texts compilation" and "Galloway getting tore into hun callers".
I spoke to a few friends who have become similarly obsessed with the MOATS archive. One long-time listener, no-time caller described it to me as "one of the greatest unbroken runs in broadcasting history [...] my favourite thing is how he sees it as some high brow show for intellectual debate, but all he gets is lunatics and knuckle draggers. By the same token he despises anyone parochial – Protestants, Tories, Zionists, little Englanders, Rangers fans. That collision is probably the funniest thing about the show: armchair Hitlers from Ascot and Barnet ringing him to say the police force doesn't need more black people."
And it's Galloway's remarkable self-seriousness that maintains the gold the whole thing was built on. He will argue with anyone – anyone "who thinks they're hard enough", as he says repeatedly. But many of those who think they're hard enough are more mad or sad or bored than hard, so Galloway's "good fight" is reduced to him basically shouting at faceless people with generic aliases who either don't care or don't make sense. It's the "Don't Feed the Trolls" mentality realised in audio-only Technicolor, a man with an enormous sense of self-importance shouting into an anonymous void of cackling, disembodied ghouls.
My personal favourite moment in the show's history is the notorious "Jean in Twickenham", a quietly fuming and presumably quite pissed suburbanite who "doesn't want Scots, Irish or anyone here". She declares that she is 100 percent English and that "life was so nice" before they came. Galloway is, of course, not happy. "Have you heard of William the Conqueror, JEAN? Have you heard of the Picts, or the Celts, or The Anglo Saxons?" he bellows with his eloquent, educated, but totally incandescent rage, with not a second to stop and worry if this woman might not be sound of mind, or really that invested in her grim opinions. "Why don't you go and live in Gibraltar," mutters Galloway before cutting her off into the darkness.
Another fan favourite is the cult-hero "Ken from the Highlands", a frequent caller who some Galloway heads have gone as far as to label a stalker. Ken – a born-again Christian who at one point started using cunning aliases like "Kenny from Blackpool" in order to get past the producers – and George had many a clash on the show, usually about issues of faith and war. Between them, there's a strange, possibly sectarian, definitely Highlands vs Central Belt feud going on; a very Scottish beef played out on nationwide radio. At one point Ken suggests that Galloway is anti-Christian because he declares himself a Catholic. It is not the kind of thing you'd hear on Question Time; it's both much more weird and much more real than that.
Galloway regards Ken as a superstitious fuddy-duddy, unfaltering in his love for Jesus and Bush. Ken regards Galloway as a fiend, a menace, a scoundrel, a child of some eastern devil. Yet, like with many of these situations, there's an odd romance to their relationship, like two ageing boxers who can't stop meeting each other in increasingly desperate promotions.
With him back on radio, it's almost like Galloway couldn't live with out his bigoted nemeses, the people who wind him up, the people who keep him going. His dedication to arguing is such that even when he's taking a few years out of arguing in politics, he's still arguing about politics. For a man who doesn't drink, he's remarkably similar to the bloke at the pub who won't stop talking about ISIS. But whatever you think of his politics and his dealings, you have to respect his ceaseless pursuit of a barney, and his total refusal not to take it seriously. To him, every teardrop is a waterfall; every throwaway comment is a defamation case; every late-night talk show is a revolution. God knows where his latest show will go, but he'd promise you it won't be boring.
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