Voices in the Sky

I resigned my commission in the Army, bought a motorbike and plotted a journey. It was 1988 and I felt that I’d done quite long enough in green, there also being the danger that at any time I could be asked to start taking things seriously, which would be most inconvenient. I had a last night on the tiles with my best buddy and as I left his Army house in the hazy morning he pressed a bottle of whiskey into my hands, telling me he would see my in a year when I returned, and I rode for the ferry.

Snapshots of embedded memories of France, journeying south. Avenues of trees slicing the low October sun into wide bars across the road, a gigantic moon in an ultramarine sky an implausible afternoon vision, warm autumnal air pushed aside as I rode, empty roads along which my bike flowed to quiet towns. I rolled into a deserted, damp campsite and unpacked one of the two maps I was carrying, scale 1:2000000 so together they could cover the whole of the continent of Africa. For the thousandth time I thumbed through a Lonely Planet backpackers guide and I opened the whiskey bottle, then set up my camera on timer, capturing a pensive look which captured my mood of, ‘what the hell am I doing?’ 


Riding into the pretty town of La Roche Posay I touched the gentleness of French provincial life, open air markets, decades away from returning to England, and an easy pace among pretty, elegant houses. I said to myself that if I ever lived in France then this would be the place I would come to.

Decades later I mentioned this to the brother of my whiskey friend, who worked in my finance business, and he replied that he knew it well, it was the town he always stopped off to buy croissants and wine before arriving at his gite, on his tri-annual French holidays.

A couple of months into my journey and I had already covered a couple of thousand miles in the northern Sahara, crisscrossing and exploring. I’d survived a big ‘off’ at the end of one day, when tired I’d been travelling too fast and had crested a rise on a road to find a low sand dune blown across the road, spilling the bike and slamming me into the tarmac. I’d learned to camp early as once the sun set, the light and the temperature went out like a thrown switch, frost quicky forming on metal parts. I’d tried to get used to the winter cold, doing 11am press-ups next to my bike to get blood flowing after having ridden for the first hours of the day; but feeling that I was probably just being weak. I’d occasionally meet other travellers, such as the gigantic leather clad Germans, Jurgan and Hans, who stepped off their bikes, crushed my hand in greeting and windmilled their arms exclaiming, “It’s fucking cold, ja?” I didn’t feel quite such a wus after that.


During the day the sky was epically vast, seeming stretched taut and pinned to the desert floor at the horizon, pure from edge to edge. At night it became dizzying with oceanic depths of stars and, standing next to my bike, it felt as if I should be holding onto the ground to save myself from falling, vertigo when looking up; were the galaxies soaring above, or were they swimming below me?

I had with me a Sony shortwave radio and would run a wire antenna from my tent to the handlebars of the bike, then lie in my sleeping bag and tune into the BBC World Service.

Now I would feel as if I was floating through space, voices of calm and knowledge from across the globe telling me about geopolitical politics, wars, economic matters, natural history and literature. 'From Our Own Correspondent' brought individual voices and opinions, carried through the night sky to a tiny tent in an arid vastness, world events to an insignificant speck. I tried Voice of America, but it was a function of its title and carried an agenda on the airwaves, so I could not trust its impartiality, no matter how knowledgeable the presentation. Sometimes I would tune into other stations, as I carried a book which detailed the frequency and broadcast time of hundreds more, but I would always return to the World Service, welcoming old friends to my canvas world.

One time I camped by some low trees, sand humped around their trunks, and gathered fallen wood, hard as old bone, and made a small fire where I brewed endless saucepans of coffee and rationed my cigarettes deep into the night, my front hot from the fire and my sleeping bag draped around my shoulders to protect against the freezing darkness. I was rooted to that spot, warmed by the flames and captivated by voices from the void.

As a small boy I would be packed into the family car for camping holidays, holding onto the back of my father’s seat as he drove and talked to me about the places we were going to see, the castles we would visit and the history behind them. His quiet deep knowledge would draw me closer to the history as we travelled, and I longed to see the places he described. He was a link which carried the past and great events directly to me, and I had the same experiences with a small radio with a wire antenna in the Sahara. There is a magic to a simple voice, the listener's mind creating images for an unfurling story, a tapestry of the imagination.

It is now decades from the desert and I listen with dismay to the baked in ideology of the BBC, its self-selecting political beliefs that have created a bias so deep that the new Director General has been forced to acknowledge them. It has become an old steamer with a faulty navigation system forging through turbulent and dangerous waters, the rocky shores of media giants and streaming services a growing danger, whilst defunding torpedoes are loosed from periscope depth by a government who will not forget jibes about ‘in spite of Brexit…’

The future is uncertain for the venerable corporation, but all those years ago, deep in the desert, this wondrous news and cultural service was powerful in its knowledge, clear in its impartiality, a friend inspiring respect. Without it, the U.K. is at risk of becoming simply a production resource for overseas media giants who are able to promote, without a counter argument, their chosen agendas, robbing us of part of our cultural identity and access to facts which can be freely discussed and analysed. If you have something of value, it is worth polishing or refining to restore its lustre and relevance, as once broken it is unlikely to be repaired. As I look back, I remember how authority, information and insight was carried around the World, unblocked by dictators, unimpeded by borders, connecting listeners in cities, in town, in villages, and in tents.