Why Eddie Mair won’t return to Scotland – or wear a panda suit (again)

“I realise I’m standing still in an area most Londoners avoid or step through briskly. I’ve also just realised I appear to consider myself a Londoner”

It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m waiting outside a theatre for my friend at Piccadilly Circus in London’s glittering West End. The play, by the way, was huge fun: The 39 Steps at the Criterion. Four deft actors and about a million costume changes. People haven’t removed their clothing so often in the West End since… well you can pretty much insert your own Raymond Revuebar joke here.

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As I loiter, leaning against a wall opposite Eros, an odd feeling sweeps over me. It’s the same feeling I get when I dream I’m five seconds away from going live on the radio and I look down to discover all my scripts are in Swahili. It’s the same feeling I get when I see Martha Kearney walking towards me, her face almost obscured by a swarm of bees. It’s the same feeling I get when I hear the words “This is CNN. And now, for the whole of the next hour: Piers Morgan.”

I realise I’m standing still in an area most Londoners avoid or step through briskly. I’ve also just realised I appear to consider myself a Londoner. That’s taken me by surprise. It brings to mind a not entirely serious chat with Scotland’s First Minister as we prepared to record a down- the-line radio interview. It went like this:

Alex Salmond: “Eddie, when are you coming back to live and work in Scotland?”

Me: “When you get independence.”

Alex Salmond: “Funny, that’s just what Sean says.”

Where was I? Yes, I’m standing in a part of London alien to locals. Foreign languages are everywhere as smiley visitors jostle for photographic position on the steps below the famous statue. There are also two cows milling around. (Can cows mill?)

In fact they’re people dressed as cows and want to be hugged as part of a good-natured protest against slaughterhouses and in favour of veganism. I decline to hug either cow, in part because I must be impartial, but mainly because when I worked at Radio Tay, our mascot was “Tay-Tay” the panda. On outside broadcasts it fell to a lowly member of the production team to wear the panda outfit and glad-hand startled listeners. I usually avoided the horror but on a few occasions it was unavoidable. I have never, before or since, smelt anything as foul as the inside of that panda outfit. It would be less unpleasant to find yourself inside an actual panda.

A passionate man with a loud hailer is trying to reason with the crowds, most of whom, I fear, don’t have English as a first, second or third language. He’s extolling the virtues of veganism, informing them that it’s healthy, there are delicious alternatives to dairy and meat and you don’t have to shop at health food stores. He wants just one person to pledge themselves to veganism, right here beneath Eros. He cheerfully reasons and pleads for about ten minutes. “Just one person… please. Just one…”

No one comes forward and I sense the poor man crack. Gone is the appeal to our better nature as human beings. “I see. So you’re happy to have 150 million animals needlessly slaughtered just so you can eat them, eh?”

Someone claps. My friend arrives and I escape from Eros’s steps to those of John Buchan.

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Eddie Mair hosts PM Mon–Fri 5.00pm Radio 4