At the time of writing, human touch with all but your closest circle is forbidden. We physically cannot reach out and touch our fellow men, women or children. We can’t even really meet our friends and colleagues. During the lockdown, human interaction has gone into the digital realm. We can talk face-to-face via a screen. Zoom, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams – these strange words once known only to twentysomethings are now in daily use by us all.
Yet as a broadcaster for 30 years, both on radio and television, I know that by far the best way of reaching out to someone is not facially, it is aurally. When you interview someone on the radio, you invariably get a better result than on television. TV offers too much distraction. Vanity gets in the way. People insist on doing multiple takes. They worry about coughing. They insist on brushing their hair. They get in a frenzy about their clothes. In radio, you can interview someone in their pyjamas. Or their running gear. It really doesn’t matter. These days, with social distancing precluding hugs, and when we can’t even meet up outside family ‘bubbles’, the best way of reaching out and having a personal, intimate moment of understanding with someone is not via Zoom. It’s via that item of old technology, the phone.
The other day I was asked to speak to a woman called Barbara, a nurse living in Lancashire. I have never met Barbara but we have a mutual friend. This friend knows that two years ago, I underwent a major operation to remove a benign but large tumour from my brain. Dealing with the diagnosis of this, and waiting for the daunting six-hour operation during which the tumour would be removed, was the most terrifying and tough few months of my life. So, when my friend heard that Barbara had been given the same diagnosis, she immediately urged me to get in touch.
I texted Barbara, told her who I was and said I thought I could help. She rang back immediately. We spoke for about an hour, during which I tried my best to answer all her questions. I also gave her four suggestions for how to cope with having a large but benign brain tumour, which are: 1. Don’t tell everyone. They will all burst into tears and imagine you are about to die. 2. Have a small circle of about five people only, whom you can ring regularly and who will calm you down as surgery approaches. 3. Never, ever resort to late-night Googling of your symptoms. 4. Go running. Running helps smooth the wrinkles of worry in your mind and prepares your body for the worst. As a by-product you might also benefit from the training it gives you for a long-distance race. Last year, six months after a successful operation during which the entire tumour was removed, I ran the London Marathon in under four hours.
On my call to Barbara, I told her what was going through my mind when I saw that finish line ahead of me. It was a life memory. “You will be there,” I said to Barbara. “You will get through this. You will survive.” Although we were both tearful by this stage, I could hear her smiling, and I knew she was ready to take my hand and believe me, even though she was so scared. It was the same as giving her a hug. Actually, it was better.