Well Read: The Gift of a Radio

Helen Brown talks to Justin Webb about his new book “The Gift of a Radio: My Childhood and other Train Wrecks”


“If you regard yourself as superior, you can change any rule at any time,” says Justin Webb. “That is one of the glorious things about being posh.”

Topical stuff. The veteran presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme is talking to me in the week that partygate dominates the news. 24 hours earlier, he’d been grilling Grant Shapps on the rules “seemingly” broken by the posh bloke in Downing Street. The killer moment came when Webb picked up on his interviewee’s audible discomfort at being deployed “to defend something which, in your heart of hearts, you know to be indefensible.” It didn’t stop the Transport Secretary spouting the party line. But the tonal shift sliced through the suffocating absurdity of the situation, allowing listeners to breathe in some human reality.

Reflecting on the encounter via video link from his home office, Webb notes: “I just had to ask: WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” He credits his own poshness for giving him that confidence. “I’ve got a sense of entitlement so deep within me that I can go out into the world thinking: Screw it, I’ll at least ASK x or y. Because why not? That’s not an entirely bad thing. But I’m intensely aware that other people weren’t brought up to feel that way.”

The privilege Webb owns came in a peculiar package. In his terrifically blunt new memoir, The Gift of a Radio, he describes a deeply dysfunctional childhood in a modern end-of-terrace home. He winces that, “there’s something peculiar and narcissistic about writing a memoir when you’re a not particularly distinguished 61-year-old. But the idea is that you’re talking about stuff that’s more important than you.”

He’s right that many of us will relate to that tangle of class, ambition and isolation. Webb’s mother, Gloria Crocombe, was born in 1924 and grew up in a large, rented house in Walton-On-Thames. Her father was “a big noise in magazines” and a friend of Lord Reith. He employed a cook, a maid and a driver who took the family for picnics on the Sussex Downs and would wait in the car while they ate.

“Then the war,” Webb writes, “the loss of servants, and tightness of funds. Schooling at first interrupted and eventually terminated. University still out of the question for most girls, even those gently born. And a diminished, shell-shocked world awaiting them. Yes, there were balls and there was booze. There was a large army into which my Uncle Oliver subsided via Sandhurst. But there was, too, a general reduction in life chances.”

Webb’s 6.7m listeners will recognise his conversational tone in those short, dry sentences. There’s his directness and empathy. Also, the feeling he’s trying to peer around the corners of stated facts, like a driver approaching a junction. Behind the text you know the litany is: So? And? Hmm. I see. OK. But? Why? Oh.

When Gloria’s father left the family he took his money with him and much of Gloria’s early life was spent reinventing herself. But the details are shady. “There had been dissolute behaviour,” Webb writes. “Boys, men, drink. There had been a period in her twenties when she had lived in the Home Counties with her first husband and drank with Petula Clark before she was famous. It was an aspect of her character that she never revealed a word more than necessary, and a developing feature of mine that I never asked.”

Gloria visited a nudist resort and had affairs that her son says “ended poorly”. Her big romance appears to have been with a man who whisked her away to France, vomited blood on their return to London and promptly died. “It was never clear if this was an unexpected end to an otherwise idyllic trip or whether the whole event was a goodbye… I was too fastidious to probe.”

Webb’s lack of childhood curiosity feels astonishing to those of us used to hearing him press radio interviewees. “It’s how I was”, he says. He’s never had therapy and, although he found writing the book “helpful”, he’s not keen on the modern trend for cutting out a “toxic” family member. “Isn’t life too short? I want to understand, not judge.”

This attitude makes sense from an author who had a run-in with a member of the trans community on the Today programme a while back, which he stalled by saying, “You have no idea who I am!” For a long time, Webb didn’t either. He was eight years old when his mother pointed out journalist Peter Woods on the family’s black and white television and said: “‘That’s your father.”

Gloria met Woods during a brief stint working as a newsroom secretary at the Daily Mirror. She told her son the typewriters were screwed to the desks because the reporters (among whom Wood was a star) had been known to hurl them at each other after boozy lunches.

When Gloria got pregnant, she was fired. The paper didn’t want a single mother on the books and neither did the married man with whom she’d been having an affair. “She told me Peter Woods sent her a Valentine’s card shortly after I was born and visited, awkwardly, once,” Webb says. “Did he give her money too? I was never quite sure, and if he did it certainly wasn’t a long-lasting arrangement. He had his own family to take care of. I think, in her heart of hearts, Mum felt he did the right thing sticking by them.”

Gloria married Webb’s stepfather, Charles, while her son was very young. A week after their wedding day he poured all the household’s milk down the sink. “Your husband is stark staring mad,” the GP told her. Webb tells me his youngest daughter is doing A-Level Psychology and Charles’ behaviour probably doesn’t meet the criteria for a modern diagnosis of schizophrenia, but “he was intensely paranoid. He heard voices.

He played Bach very loudly.” In the most poignant passage of the memoir, Webb describes being a small child of six or seven and watching Charles swim out to sea. To “bathe”, he corrects, not “swim”. They were posh. But class had no impact on the child’s heartfelt hope that the man would drown and never come back.

“It wasn’t hatred or anger or petulance,” he writes, “I was too young to think about the consequences.” Was he frightened of Charles? “No, not really,” he says now. “I avoided him. He wasn’t a physical threat. He just wasn’t there. He was in the corner.” He regrets that Charles missed out on a time when “lifestyle changes might have been considered.” Instead, the solution was valium pills. “He took them and we all hoped for the best.”

Given this male vacuum in the household, it’s amazing Webb didn’t wonder more about his biological father. “It’s funny how deeply repressed things can be,” he tells me, “I genuinely wasn’t interested in him. Not in a hostile way. He was just so far removed from anything we could talk about that I stopped thinking about it.

The subject was completely shut down. She pointed him out and that was pretty much the end of the conversation for the rest of her life.”

Nonetheless, I wonder if that moment of seeing his father on TV had lasting impact? Webb says he’s a media snob and television is not an important medium to him. “I never watch the telly, apart from the rugby. It’s funny working with Mishal Husain because I’m always saying disparaging things about the television and then remembering that she also reads the TV news with great aplomb. She just giggles and thinks I’m an idiot.”

Webb believes his mum eventually sent him to boarding school in the same spirit that women in war zones throw their children into the back of army trucks. She was trying to spare him the trauma of their home life

In the absence of male role models, Webb’s childhood was dominated by his mother. He writes powerfully about the intense dynamic between a boy and his essentially single mother. They were so close that as a child he once told her his dream holiday would have been spent together in bed.

“Single parents are constantly ‘on’,” he says. “I felt the pressure that she felt: that it was only her and she was all that mattered. That’s lonely, isn’t it? It might have been different if I’d had siblings. Or a dog. But it was essentially just the two of us.”

As her son grew, Webb’s mother bought him a small radio set which kept him tuned to the mainstream while she embraced aspects of the counterculture. “She didn’t want me to go to school. She thought I should learn to smoke. She bought me a T-shirt that read “Legalise Cannabis”.

She was a snob who believed people should know their place. But she was interested in Maoism and thought everyone should wear the same uniform. Such a tangle of contradictions.”

Webb believes his mum eventually sent him to boarding school in the same spirit that women in war zones throw their children into the back of army trucks. She was trying to spare him the trauma of their home life. But she’d merely tipped him from the frying pan into the fire.

His Quaker boarding school turned out to be “a hellhole” in which the kids ran feral. Academic expectations were low and bullying was rife: “It was like Lord of the Flies. My kids ask me why I put up with it and I laugh and remind them that kids deciding ‘not to put up with things’ is a very recent phenomenon. In the 1970s kids didn’t have ‘rights’ and we just got on with it.”

Webb is uneasy about the recent romanticisation of Seventies culture. “People remember those pop songs about sexual freedom, all kinds of freedom. But behind the scenes some of those people were making a ton of cash to support lifestyles that were very free for them but not for the people they were – in modern terms – abusing.

The behaviour of people in those big bands was very icky. I felt there was a fakery about the revolution they claimed was occurring. It certainly wasn’t a revolution for everyone.”

But he also recalls the “comforts to be found in the candlelit gloom of the Seventies. Mass membership. Even the class system to which my mum was so attached. In some respects it was an easier way to be.

Today we’re told we can make it as far as your abilities will take you. It puts all the pressure on you. It’s your fault if you don’t achieve your dreams because we’re told that all the things that held you back have been miraculously taken away. They haven’t, have they?”

Despite the ropey education – he says his biochemist wife is appalled by his lack of basic scientific knowledge – Webb knew from an early age that he wanted to be a reporter.

“The family history in journalism wasn’t a factor,” he says. “I now realise my career at the BBC almost overlapped with my father’s, but I wasn’t following in his footsteps. I was motivated by the idea of performance. My early life was a performance to keep my mother happy. Not in the way most children want to please their parents. There was a deep-seated need to keep her OK. I wouldn’t have been able to put that into words [at the time], but I knew viscerally that was the case.

As I got older I knew performance was MY thing. I wanted to be an actor, a barrister… someone who stood up in front of people. Ludicrous, really, when you think of the great range of careers people have. We talk to extraordinary scientists on the programme.

I’ve got friends who are hospital consultants who spend their days changing people’s lives. It makes me ashamed that all I wanted was to be on the stage – whatever that stage was – rather than saving the world or curing people.” He shrugs and smiles. “It’s what I wanted. I suppose I can give myself brownie points for honesty about that.”

Webb spent a decade as the BBC’s North America correspondent before moving to Today. His colleagues praise his unflappability, but he tells me: “I was so stressed I couldn’t sleep when I first started. I also couldn’t do it very well. I found it really difficult to be who I was. I’d been abroad so long I was out of the loop.” 

It was a medical crisis that taught Webb to relax. “Ten years ago, I almost had a heart attack,” he says.  “I was sitting at this desk and had sudden chest pains. When I told a cardiologist friend he said: ‘You’re about to die, I need to operate on you this evening.’ I had a blockage that would probably have killed me if I hadn’t been in a hospital. That experience made me think: if you’re not reaching the end of your life, then you’re reaching the later chapters. You should probably be more confident about who you are. I stopped trying to emulate John Humphrys or whoever. I thought, sod it! I’ll just be myself.”

Webb is aware that “the intimacy of radio” means many listeners rely on him as a steadying voice. “So the book might come as a shock. They might think: My god, I had no idea he was so screwed up!” But he hopes The Gift of a Radio contributes to the conversation around “our lost ability to tell complex stories about ourselves (or about each other) that are not politicised or taken up in weird culture war battles. I hope it appeals to readers who want to unearth the psychological wellsprings of all our behaviour.”

He smiles and shrugs. “This is just a chance for me to say, very honestly, who I am.”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

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