The Radio Man: in conversation with Justin Webb

Justin Webb, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, grew up in Bath in the 1970s. Emma Clegg talks to him about his new book, which tells the story of a childhood dominated by a difficult decade and challenging personalities.

It’s the story of one boy and one strange family. It’s not a work of therapy, and it’s certainly not a work of history because I’m not an historian. But it is an effort to try and talk humorously about how odd I was, but also how we are all a bit odd. We’re all so much more complicated than we seem and we should avoid blaming each other in the things we do and just be more aware of each other’s humanity.”

The familiar voice of Justin Webb from Radio 4’s Today programme is telling me about his new book, The Gift of a Radio, which publishes this month. It’s a memoir of his childhood in the 1970s, growing up in Bath. I discovered reading the book that I live just down the road from the house where Justin and his family lived, in Wells Road. I went to have a look at their house, one of three set down a steep tarmacked drive, which brought to life a passage in the book about Justin’s step-father Charles who one Christmas decided in the middle of the night to drive off somewhere. It was snowing and the car stuck on the steep driveway, its wheels rotating on the ice and gravel. Charles was convinced that people were “getting in and altering things” in the garage and spent some nights sleeping there in his dressing gown to protect its contents.

“I came past the road on the train to Cardiff yesterday, which went through Bath and I looked up to try and see the house, which you can see briefly from the railway, but I couldn’t see much in the darkness,” says Justin. He remembers a very differrent Bath to the one we know today: “The city was bleak and black. It was before the buildings were cleaned – you have to be a certain age to remember this but the stonework of the Royal Crescent or any of the fine Georgian buildings in the centre were really stained by decades of petrol. It was a grimmer, grittier place than it is now.”

Justin’s relationship to Bath is complex, but he feels a close connection to his home city. “My own circumstances were grim and that colours your memories of a place, but actually I have a huge affection for the city which I will have until my dying day. There are a lot of ghosts that I see when I walk around Bath and not all of them are happy ones. But you feel a sense of belonging to a place where you spent all of your young life. It’s a love hate thing, and an enormous pull which possibly I wouldn’t have if my early experiences were less intense.”

Above: Justin Webb presenting the Today programme

Justin lived with his mother and his step-father (he never knew his own father Peter Woods, one of the BBC’s best-known broadcasters of his day), who had what would now be called a personality disorder, but in the unenlightened 1970s he was diagnosed by the doctor as “stark staring mad.” It was an eccentric childhood. “Mum was partly a Maoist, partly a Quaker, partly a believer in human rights, partly someone who absolutely loathed her fellow man and woman because she thought they were beneath her. I think we’re all a bit mixed up when it comes to that – although perhaps not quite so mixed up as my mum.”

Justin describes the family house as a deeply strange place to grow up. “It was just the weirdness and the snobbery and the rules we had about words that could or couldn’t be used. And the way it separated us off from people. I do think snobbery is such an interesting subject, not just because it’s so peculiar, but because it’s really difficult to get rid of. I can still feel my mother’s attitudes. I still can’t bring myself to say the word ‘toilet’ on Radio 4. I just can’t do it – it’s a real struggle.”

“My mother’s view of the social classes was typical of the time, but she was at a pretty extreme end of the scale – the odd thing about her social class awareness was how it allowed her to defend herself against all the things in her life that had gone wrong.

“It’s so insidious because it affects so many parts of your life – it makes you so much less able to enjoy yourself. I think it takes generations to dissipate. We think the sixties came and we gave up on snobbism, but it was very much there, through the seventies and beyond, and to an extent it still is.”

You feel a sense of belonging to a place where you spent all of your young life. It’s a love hate thing, and an enormous pull…

The house was defined by silence – apart from when Charles got up in the middle of the night to play Bach at full volume, mainly to annoy the neighbours – and few friends visited, put off by Charles’ strange behaviour. There was a television, but tucked away so that watching it (principally Malcolm Muggeridge) involved moving other furniture and readjusting its position in order to plug it in. Listening to music needed to take place with absolute concentration and Justin once listened, seated with his mother, to all three movements of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, an LP purchased from Bath’s music shop Duck, Son & Pinker. “Play it to a child growing up in strange circumstances and you will allow him to see, to hear, the depths of his despair,” the book recounts.

Living in a small world within an intense maternal relationship must have made Justin’s childhood suffocatingly serious, and I ask what sort of impact it had on the man he became. “I do think that the sort of relationship we had can lead to a reduction of life chances for both parties. The mum who is looking too much to the next generation and the child who has to perform. Your life becomes a performance. I had to pretend for as long as I remember that everything was always OK, although it obviously wasn’t. And I don’t think that’s a healthy thing.“It makes you more limited as a person and your ability to form honest, open connections with people is harder. I’ve managed, but maybe my wife and others I’ve been close to have done the managing. I think the emotional ups and downs of life become much less easy when you haven’t been able to have them when you are young and I do think I’ve been damaged by that. But I’m not condemning, because in so many other ways she gave me everything.”

Justin was sent to boarding school by his mother to take him away from the disturbing reality of living with his step-father. Sidcot School in Winscombe was a Quaker school, and is today a well-respected independent school. Giving this credit in the book, he goes on to explain that the school in those days provided no lightening of pressure and anxiety: “It wasn’t like that when I was there. It was grim. It was lost. A place of despair. A wrecker of already damaged lives.”

Above: Justin Webb talked to President Obama for the BBC in 2009

Justin’s experience of the 1970s, particularly at school, uncovers standards that are astonishing today – pupils going potholing at the weekends without the school knowing, children being sent to play in seriously rough adult rugby games where beer was drunk from a bucket at half time. “In some ways the seventies were a better time – there was this sense of a collective us that I don’t think exists any more – but in other ways, my goodness, we did things that seem unimaginable now.”

What rescued Justin through these turbulent times was the gift of a radio from his mother. “The moment that I received it was more transformative than any other single thing in my life. It was a much discussed purchase because it was expensive and it felt like a big step to have a radio in a silent household, although I wasn’t allowed to play it anywhere other than my room. To have the intimacy of a transistor radio, someone talking directly to you, was a complete change in a life that was mostly unconnected, and made a big difference to people’s lives in the late 1960s when portable radios became more common. I went from being stuck in this peculiar little prison to having the rest of the world available to me.”

“There isn’t a modern equivalent because people are so connected now,” Justin continues. “It’s difficult for my children’s generation to fully understand how unconnected we were to the outside world. Even if you had a telephone it was expensive to use, but the transistor radio was relatively affordable and you could hold it close to you.” The irony of what this radio represented to the child who became the adult whose voice now emanates from it is almost overwhelming.

“It provided not only a connection with the outside world, but a really tantalising glimpse of what might be possible. The political changes and the fights with the miners and the various governments coming and going, it took me on the path of a wider world, and if you have that feeling it rescues you from the tiny world that you are in.”

Humour is another thing that sustained him: “Having a weird, miserable upbringing does not denude you of a sense of humour. It doesn’t take it away – if anything it accentuates it, because you’re looking for things that might lighten the mood a bit.”

What is perhaps most astonishing about Justin’s book is that it is written with no iota of bitterness, frustration or anger. “The last thing I wanted it to be was a kind of woe-is-me misery memoir or a condemnatory, angry attack. Although emotionally and physically my life was strange, it was not as if we were desperately poor – it’s not a memoir about that, it’s just a set of reflections, really, about what it’s like to be a human being.”

Thankfully Justin’s mother, who died in 2008, lived long enough to see his successful career as a journalist and as the BBC’s chief Washington correspondent, although Justin is keen to add, “I do want to apologise to any person who visited my mother in her flat in Widcombe towards the end of her life, because even if they had just gone to mend a pipe they would have to have seen endless photos of me and hear about the latest things that I was doing in my career.”

Featured image: Justin Webb, centre, at boarding school in 1977