A Study in Mustard


I met my husband on The Archers Messageboard, which was shut down on Monday by the BBC.

‘Mustardland’ was named for the colour that the board turned some seven years ago. A few years later, I spotted someone with insight and a wicked sense of humour writing about one of my favourite books. I thought he was a woman, owing to a board name based on a favourite band.

We swapped brief greetings in person at the first annual meet of board members I went to, at Tate Modern, delighted to put faces to names I knew so well: Basia the New York stylist who’d dressed Joss Stone for a Super Bowl, Greenjewel the Irish horticulturalist and musician, Grwg the Welsh medieval academic and triathelete, RUS the London bus driver and many others.

Months later we met at an anti-BNP demonstraton. My daughter, initially charmed by carrying a placard and yelling ‘The BNP is a nasty [Nazi] party,’ soon grew bored and he cheered her up with cake. They did a Nick Cave/Kylie duet and I was smitten.

We carried on swapping Messageboard comments, went to a Frank Sidebottom gig after a British Museum meet and married three years ago. As well as the usual wedding guests – friends from first schooldays, family and colleagues – there were our Messageboard friends.

Basia flew from the US to dress me (i.e. take my running gear off half an hour before leaving) for the wedding and we paid tribute in the ceremony to Greenjewel, who’d died suddenly, far too young, a few weeks before.

Archers Scriptwriter Keri Davies was at the evening reception with a few other Mustardland folk: he’d flown with my husband and Greenjewel to see Nick Cave with Basia in New York and feed the feral cats in colonies that board members helped support.

Basia openly helped countless other board members on a thread about alcohol issues, saving at least one life that I know of. She also found online help with a group supporting people and carers for those with cancer, sticking two fingers up to leukemia by starting to run marathons and raise funds through our online community.

I lurked there more than I posted over the past couple of years: one of 10,000 compared to the active 1,000 that helped make the Messageboard no longer viable, according to the BBC’s Head of Interactivity. He went on Radio 4’s Feedback programme to defend the decision and admitted he did not come out well, unable to provide any figures in support of the claim.

I wrote at length once only: sitting at home literally waiting to hear from the mother who had given me up for adoption at six weeks old. In no time I had kind and thoughtful messages from people who were adopted, had been or knew of those in in my birth mother’s and adoptive parents’ positions or just wanted to offer a word of support, calm, excitement or caution. All human life was there, as the cliche goes.

One person’s comments in particular stayed with me: someone else who died suddenly and young. His sister found his log-in details and came to the Messageboard for the first time to tell his friends. They became her friends and she was there, years later, in tears, at the weekend saying what it had meant to her.

There were some snarky words on Twitter after the Feedback broadcast, about ‘crazy’ people who wanted to keep the Archers Messageboard. It is ironic that it housed a thriving community who wrote on mental health issues, many isolated through illness, disability or geographical location and heartbroken at the loss of contact and community.

I understand that it is not in the BBC’s remit to provide me with husbands, stylists, running partners or crisis support. Licence fee payers should not cough up for people wanting to find the perfect scent, endlessly debate which way round to hang their loo paper, post word games, parodies and poetry or debate politics, religion, the meaning of life or cake. By the way, some did discuss The Archers.

Lots of intelligent and sustainable suggestions were made about how and why the Messageboard could continue. I am sorry that none was taken up. As a professional communicator, I fail to understand why an organisation would silence countless comments and opinions to which it had free access.

I think that this was a bad decision and poorly executed, Auntie.

There have been many articulate, passionate, angry and hilarious words written in the defence of Mustardland. I am going to quote (in full: his unaltered words) a somewhat unusual one, just to show the lovely random nature of the people that the Messageboard reached:

‘A love letter from a notorios lurker.

‘I have been lurking for about six years, and only recently posted the odd comment.
I am not a native speaker, so I always felt a bit unable to be in any way as brillant as a lot of posters here are. I actually laugh in front of the [thing that you look on when using the PC]. I think about politics, radiodrama and ways to view life and have found the board utterly inspiring.

‘I have relationships with quite a few of you (yeah, creepy), in that I almost expect certain comments, regard views of some of you in surprise, I might even be disappointed with someone for reacting one way and not the other…

For being my invisible friends, I want to thank those of you, who knew for a long time to snide and congratulate, love or hate The Archers. Those who took such painstake in annoying me or finding such articulate reasons for what I also vaguely might have thought.

‘Thank you all!

‘I cannot believe the decision to close the board down. As I work in German radiodrama, I know about the efforts there to promote radiodrama (sorry for using this word again) and involve the audience in a forum just like this. To have an ongoing story with numbers of listerners like TA, to have a board like this where intellect meets interest, where people are actually guarding what they cherish would be the wet dream of many a German radio dramaturgue/editor.

‘I will now, that nothing seems to be at stake anymore admit to being a author for radiodrama. As such I have always especially valued the unforgivingness with which the quality of scripts, storylining, wording and continuity are discussed here.
I wonder if, had I ever been a TA writer, I would have had the guts to read your posts on contributions that I wrote, but I am sure that it would be wonderful to know that someone takes as much notice of what they have heard as is being taken here.
Radio authors have normally no way to know what the audience thinks, and the odd letter to the editor will never substitute the (more often than sometimes) profound discussions that are being led here.

‘I loved the message board also for the attitude that the Mustardlanders have towards TA: it is owned by them like a national treasure, all the editors, scriptwriters, experiments with the formats are something to enjoy or endure, but they are but a fleeting phenomenon. Maybe a bit like the way technicians in theaters view directors and performers, they all come and go, but the light will still shine for the next performance in twenty years time, and it will still be them using the switch. Or like an oak watches a person scratching their name into it. Or some other romantic metaphor involving the eternal stream of somethingsomething.

‘I loved you watchdogs, it made me hopeful for the medium.
Again, thank you.’

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