December 30th – The Annual Broadcast of Soal Williams’ Final Hurrah

If it were the summer this evening, one of those nights where everyone has their windows open and you can smell their cooking, where a warm breeze flaps the washing lines and folk chat to their neighbours in the tenement building across the street as if there weren’t a twenty foot drop between them, if it were one of those nights then you’d hear the same radio show coming from every window. You’d be able to walk down any road and miss less than a few seconds. In reality the windows will all be closed, and likely all that you’d hear is the cold, howling wind. It’s better to do the same as everyone else: sit inside by the fire with your own radio.

The show is called Soal Williams’ Final Hurrah, and it always starts with the same solo song, a fifty seven year old recording of Williams himself playing the guitar and singing pensively. Williams stopped hosting the show in 1993 when he died, but they kept it named after him anyway, it wouldn’t seem right to change it. The song now serves as a kind of theme tune, announcing the show’s beginning. The main content of the show varies year to year, but in general the format moves between summaries of the year’s events with plenty of guest speakers and live musical segments from different bands and musicians.

The programme, which goes on for several hours as the night progresses, eschews the grating pluckiness and hollow enthusiasm typically found in radio hosts; whenever Williams was actually enthusiastic about something it was easy to tell, and he spoke with such genuine interest that it tended to infect everyone who listened in. Often, after Williams invited the practitioner of a previously little-known art form on the show, such as he did with hair braiders in 1982 or shell painters in 1979, you could be sure that plenty of folks would shortly be looking for shells on the beach or walking about with intricate topknots. Authors and musicians have risen from utter obscurity on the back of the Final Hurrah.

It is often easier to describe Williams by what he was not, rather than what he was. He was not your typical showman, shouting ‘take it away’ to the band, nor was he interested in talking over his guests. He spoke softly, not loudly, and he was not afraid of silence; the Final Hurrah takes things at its own pace, calmly leaving pauses, and even inserting whole sections where Williams just went out and recorded crows in a field, or the sound of the underground on a quiet day. It’s this sort of thing that seems to have made the show stand out from your average talkshow, and even now Williams has gone, his successors, Werner Sallewith and Doste Inge, have managed to maintain its particular feel. It expects an absurd level of patience, but oddly enough it gets it; people are more than happy to have an excuse to sit and do nothing, to curl up on the sofa with a loved one or stretch out on the carpet next to the cat after a whole year of activity. Not that the year is quite over yet.

When he first aired the show on his own station, Williams thought that today was the last day of the year. He’d spent a long time away from the City trying to ‘become an artist’ in the woods, and it seems that he lost track of time. That first airing had no guests, no summaries of the year, just a quick ‘talkshow’ part where Williams talked about a book he’d read a few times out in the woods, a few minutes of his ambient recordings, and the ‘theme song’. He began by saying ‘I’ve been in the woods for over a year but I’m back now and this is all I have for my trouble, and then launched into the song. Some people say they find it melancholy, others that it is warm and cosy, like a hand held beneath a duvet on a cold night. At the end of that first show, Williams, who had clearly been drinking, trailed off a little, and then, quite abruptly as if it had just occurred to him, said ‘It’s midnight. We should all go outside and listen to the new year bells.’ On the recording you can hear him put down his headphones, and then the door goes, and then five minutes of silence elapse, and the door goes again, and as he is fumbling for the off button you can just hear Williams mumbling the word ‘idiot’ under his breath.

‘I had a much better year, back in the City, around other people,’ said Williams, on the show, which was yet to be titled or really gather any notice, ‘rather than out there on my own. I didn’t think I’d do this again, but here we are. I know it’s not new year’s eve but I figured I might as well make a tradition of it. Hi Polly, hi Wistow, I hope you’re both listening like I asked. I guess I’ll get started.’ It would be three years before the show was picked up by the BBS, before he had many guests and managed to really get stuck in, but unknown to Williams he was already getting new listeners. His new friend Polly was herself friends with a local priest, and she made sure that this priest tuned in. ‘I did this last year and it’s stupid, but I’m going to do it again, if you don’t mind,’ said Williams, at the show’s end, in the moments running up to midnight. The next words he said in an exaggerated voice, mocking his former self, ‘we should all go outside and listen to the new year bells.’

Again, you hear the headphones, and the door, and there are a few moments of silence and then, a little muffled through the window, you can hear a sound now familiar to this penultimate day: the sound of church bells ringing enthusiastically. After a short time the door opens again, and it’s hard to tell if Williams is laughing or crying.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of the Capped Cap
  • The Festival of Perishing the Piskies
  • Telehailers Are Here Festival