It really is amazing the things you hear on Talk Back. Thursday’s programme was quite a hoot, starting with the ritual pillorying of Labour MP Phil Woolas, who had been rash enough to make an off-colour joke about the late George Best during a Commons debate. Since Bestie is fast becoming Norn Iron’s answer to Princess Diana, this led to a furious blast of hot air from the terminally offended section of our population. Dunseith also brought in a couple of his regulars, so the hapless Woolas ended up having to apologise personally to Mark from Rathcoole.
But the show got its biggest response for ages with a contribution from Telegraph columnist Gail Walker. I found this astounding on a number of levels. Firstly, I had long suspected that Gail Walker didn’t actually exist, and her column was a clever spoof headed by a photofit. Secondly, Gail’s usual fare is to stick the boot into the “liberal left”, a term she uses even more promiscuously than Nick Cohen to include everyone from the SWP to Hillary Clinton. These columns annoy my brain, not just because they’re wrong but because they’re usually unbelievably stupid. Imagine Nick Cohen without the coherence, accuracy and sense of proportion, and you begin to approximate the awfulness of the Gail Walker column.
What Gail was banging on about yesterday, however, was not part of the Cohen repertoire. Instead, she was deeply concerned about schoolgirls from Methodist College wearing their skirts too short. She spoke about this at some length, implying that the girls were encouraging seedy old men, and further opining that a bad example was set by Comic Relief publicity photos of popular beat combo Girls Aloud in saucy schoolgirl outfits. What Gail wanted was for school authorities to strictly enforce dress codes.
This received a rather dusty response from the listening public. One punter commented that Gail seemed to have a chip on her shoulder about Methody, which she writes about on a suspiciously regular basis. Another had some fun with a regular feature of her column, which is drooling over Calum Best and his toned physique. You at the back, if you’re thinking Gail is scared of the competition, you should be ashamed of yourself.
I want to be kind to Gail and acknowledge that she has some empirical evidence for her argument. When you see girls from certain schools about town, you can’t help notice lots of skirts well above the regulation knee length. Actually, Methody is far from the worst offender in this respect. Girls from Victoria are a pretty racy bunch. I sometimes have occasion to share a bus with Bloomfield girls, and it’s a bit like being stuck in a St Trinian’s movie, only with the volume up to eleven and added effing and blinding. This also goes beyond Belfast – a little while back there was a big barney in the Ards Chronicle about Regent girls’ dress habits. Oddly, the phenomenon appears to be concentrated in Protestant grammar schools – dress codes seem to function better at Catholic schools or working-class secondary schools.
But the thing that struck me was what an unsexy city we have here. It’s probably a legacy of Puritanism, but it’s telling that there should be a massive response from radio listeners to something so innocuous. Teenage girls who wear their skirts short generally do so to be fashionable and to attract male attention. Elsewhere, this would be accepted and probably go unnoticed, but in dour, puritanical Belfast, it can become cause for a major scandal. It’s at least a little encouraging that most readers seemed to feel the scandal was all over nothing.