It is not every day of your life that you hear the phrase, “When Nicholas Parsons comes out, Nottingham will be waiting for you.” And, once heard, it is a difficult phrase to forget. How could anyone forget anything involving the prospect of Nicholas Parsons coming out? Let me explain.
Having written a book about the arms trade, it seemed only natural that I should want people to read it, so, at the publisher’s request, I spent two days at the BBC’s Broadcasting House. Within the bowels of this august organisation is a unit with four studios, a reception area, a sofa and a coffee machine. The studios link to BBC regional stations all across the country, where promoting books is the sturdy fair of programming. Its here that a handful of folk wait to go into one of the studios to sit at a desk with a microphone on it until suddenly, through headphones, comes a voice: “Hi it’s Sue here from Radio Jersey; we’ll be with you straight after the travel.”
After a couple of interviews I begin to get the hang of this promotion lark. “So,“ says an incredulous presenter’s voice from Wales, “what’s a comedian doing writing about the arms trade?”, “I should say the book is called ‘As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela’ and the title comes from an arms dealer’s website; he was advertising South African-made leg irons and this was the advertising strap line: As used on the famous Nelson Mandela.”
“Good Lord,” I hear the Welsh voice say and carry on: ”And this is at the heart of the book. Arms dealers really do not see themselves as others see them. Most decent folk see the arms industry as distasteful at best, even Daily Mail readers; it is not something they want their children to do. One arms company I phoned in South Africa to talk to about electroshock stun batons put me on hold (‘Wait while I get the expert’ the clipped Africaans voice had said) and I had music piped down the phone at me. Thus far fairly normal, except that the music they played was ‘Love me tender’ and this was an electroshock manufacturer.”
The more astute reader has noticed that I didn’t answer the interviewer’s question. I sort of gave up doing that after I managed to do an entire interview without getting to mention that I’d written a book on the arms trade. Almost all the presenters I spoke to started from a position of “This gun selling is a bit off, isn’t it?” but what eventually seemed to fascinate them was the scale of the UK’s subsidy to the arms industry. Using the work of Paul Ingrams (BASIC) and Roy Isbister (Saferworld), I came up with the rough figure that the UK subsidises each job in arms exports to the tune of about £13,000 per year.
“So it isn’t even good for the economy!” was a phrase I heard in various regional accents over the two days. It seemed the presenters were most shocked not by the 640 million small arms at large in the world, but by the fact that selling them didn’t even benefit the British economy.
Back on the sofa the receptionist nods at me. Nicholas Parsons has just walked past so it’s my turn again. I gulp a final mouthful of coffee and mentally run through a story I’m going to tell the radio listeners about working with school children to buy torture equipment and expose the UK government’s loopholes in the law. “Remember to mention the 13 grand,” I say out loud as I head into the studio, “and the title: ‘As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela’.”