You did a fine job, @IainDale

I’ve had my disagreements with Iain Dale over the years but I have to commend him for his handling, here, of a very difficult situation:

One call on Iain Dale’s phone-in show on LBC last week stopped me in my tracks. The washing up had to wait.

When I spoke to Dale (above) about the call afterwards, he said he’d been aware that “one word out of place and you could provoke something very dramatic that could lose you your job”.

The subject of the phone-in was depression, and the caller’s name was Bill. Before being put on air, Dale told me, Bill had said he had recently tried to end his life. But once he was live on air the story became more immediate: “I’ve even tried today to end it,” Bill said.

What’s more, he said he still intended to kill himself. He didn’t want to do something theatrical such as jumping off a bridge, but “I just want to stop feeling like this… I just want to end up in the ground.”

Dale told me his rule on this kind of subject is not to play the amateur psychologist. On air, he told Bill he was “not qualified to offer advice”. But he did urge Bill to call the Samaritans or another service for help.

Bill told him that the Samaritans were “absolutely wonderful”, and so was his local mental health group – but “I can’t waste any more people’s time”. There were others to whom these charities could more profitably give attention: “I need help but I don’t want it.”

Dale said afterwards that Bill’s cold rationality made the call all the trickier: a more emotional call would have given him “something to hold on to”. But here “there was nothing I could do to break through the armour.”

Indeed, Bill told Dale, as politely as possible, that he didn’t think he would call the Samaritans. Dale signaled through the glass to his producer that they weren’t going to interrupt this call for the travel news.

In handling an intense call like this, Dale told me he found he could at the same time be aware of it being so public (“London’s biggest conversation” is the station’s slogan) and also “kind of forget that you’re on air”.

He tries to respond to callers as he would if he were talking to them privately – partly because “the worst you can do is exploit the situation because it makes good radio.”

Many years ago, I worked the graveyard shift on directory enquiries and while I was fortunate never to have deal with a would-be suicide I did, like other operators on that shift, get my fair share of calls that gave me pause for thought.

Some of the most worrying, because of the regularity with which they came in, were the late evening calls from children who, from the sound of their voice, could only have been a matter of 8-10 years old, asking for the telephone number of a local pub so, one would assume, they could contact their parent(s) and find out what time they were likely to get home. If you’re wondering why no one pull in a call to social services, we couldn’t – the systems we were working on didn’t display caller ID information for ex-directory numbers, so there was no way to get that information without it going direct to a 999 operator.

Another regular – again ex-directory – phoned almost every Friday evening at around 10pm with the same request for the number of a local take-away. Again the caller was a relatively young child – primary school age from their voice – but what made the call stand out was the aural backdrop to these calls, the sound of child’s father ranting and raving in the background and yelling at the child to ‘fucking hurry up with the number’ because there’d be hell to pay if the lazy bastard didn’t get his order in in time for it to be delivered.

The most difficult, and longest, call I ever took on the service came in at around 3am on a Sunday morning from a young woman who’d been put clubbing with her boyfriend, dropped an E earlier in the evening and then started to feel a bit off. She’d asked her boyfriend to take her home, but charmer that he was, he’d dropped her off on a main road near their flat and high-tailed it back to the club on the assumption that she’d manage to walk the rest of the way under her own steam.

She didn’t – she was having a bad reaction to the drug, became disoriented and, by the time she called directory enquiries for help on her mobile, she hadn’t got the foggiest idea where she was or how she’d got there. Luckily, for her, the system had picked up her phone number and so, while one of the 9s operators was working away in the background with the Police and Ambulance Service in an effort to trace the location of the call, I was left with the job of keeping a very disoriented young woman talking – and conscious, of course – in between the bouts of vomiting, until we could get an ambulance to her.

What happened after that, I don’t know and never will. After about about 45 minutes on the line, the call ended with a brief word of thanks from the Ambulance crew that had arrived at the scene and then the line went dead – time to reset the system and wait for the next call. That’s perhaps the toughest part of dealing with these kinds of situations; rarely, if ever, do you get to find out the end of the story so you can never know for sure whether what you did really helped or not.

I dare say Iain probably feels the same way about his caller, even though his producer managed to call the guy back after the show and have a long conversation with him. You hope things will turn out for the best but you can never be totally sure that it will – it’s an experience that will inevitably leave you with a nagging sense of doubt at the back your mind, one that you can never quite shake.

Still, Iain, you handled it well.

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