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Reform Magazine | October 22, 2019

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Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘It had woken up my phone, but not me’

Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘It had woken up my phone, but not me’

Paul Kerensa on silence and Siri

On a typically odd Sunday recently, I had two jobs: presenting and prayers. The latter was thanks to the church rota, while the former was thanks to the local radio station rota – or more precisely, the regular presenter being on holiday.

I try and keep Sunday as a day of rest, but many BBC local stations give their Sunday breakfast shows a religious skew, so they like presenters with a religious skew too. I guess it’s in case we have to interview a bishop, so we don’t panic and ask if they only move diagonally.

Six months can go by without the regular host holidaying, so when I drive the desk it’s like riding a bike – you remember how it works but there’s normally a wobble. This time, the wobble came early.

One minute into the three-hour show, my first task was to read the 6am news. As a comedian, this is tricky territory. No sarcastic inflections. Be careful with pronunciations. On this occasion though, the problem wasn’t my voice but someone else’s. When I announced a news story about Syria, my phone – on silent, but not on airplane mode – misheard ‘Syria’ for ‘Siri’.

So, right next to the microphone, my not-very-smartphone woke up (early for a Sunday). Siri is a ‘virtual intelligent assistant’ but isn’t emotionally intelligent. Her automated voice interrupted the news, asking if I needed any help. I awkwardly read the next story, and it chimed in again: ‘I’m waiting.’ It wouldn’t let go. ‘Let me know if you need any help.’ I threw the phone across the studio, partly because it was BBC Surrey, and I thought if I said the station name, I might wake the beast again.

The show continued fine, then I was off to church to read those prayers that I’d written, which zoomed in on areas of the week’s news. We prayed for aid agencies after recent military action, for Brexit and whatever state it was in that week, for those suffering after a natural disaster, for world leaders and migrants without home or hope.

When we hear the latest news, I guess we can respond like that phone, asking into the void: ‘How can I help? What do you want from me?’ We have an emotional response, but we often feel helpless. As a Christian, I respond in prayer, whether in my own time or in church – though often I’m guilty of handing over the problem, thinking that by telling God about it, that gets me off the hook of doing anything else or speaking up. Sometimes, God prompts us back.

Later that day, during a much-needed coffee, I realised I’d not mentioned Syria in my prayers. In fact, I hadn’t for a while. Syria was definitely in the news that day – I’d read the headlines that very morning. Its mention had woken up my phone, but not me.

We know that almost every news story – global, local, political or personal – needs help, protection, or simple empathy. If it’s made the news, it’s probably life at the extremes. Yet, this summer at the United Nations, the global response to Syria was called a ‘collective shrug’. When certain news stories reappear, we get used to them. Wrongly, we switch off.

May I wake up to the world’s problems as quickly as my phone did. Because whatever word we cry out to an invisible force – whether ‘God’ or ‘Siri’ – we can’t switch ourselves to silent, even if sometimes, our phones need to be.

Paul Kerensa is a comic writer, performer and broadcaster

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This article was published in the October 2019 edition of Reform

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