You might know Justin Webb’s speaking voice better than his written one – he’s worked at the BBC since 1984, and has co-presented the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 since 2009 – but Webb has long been a writer too, contributing regularly to the Radio Times and publishing books since 2008’s Have a Nice Day.
And though a few of his books to date have included some amount of personal writing, this week Webb is publishing his first true memoir. The Gift of a Radio: My Childhood and Other Train Wrecks is Webb’s candid account of growing up between “his mother's un-diagnosed psychological problems, and his step-father's untreated ones” during Britain in the 1970s, told with all of the pathos and storytelling wit expected of an experienced broadcaster.
To celebrate the book’s release, we asked Webb our 21 Questions about life and literature; below, he tells us about his love of Raymond Carver, fixing tools for Black + Decker, and his love of “drinking gin at high altitude.”
Raymond Carver. His brevity (I know, I know, a lot was in the editing but even so…) and his humanity. His humour and his humanity capture the essence of struggling Americans.
It was called The Crash Detectives. It was about air crashes. Lord knows why, but I found it endlessly captivating. The normality of the check-in; the sense of suspense as you waited for it all to go wrong; the mopping up and the moving on.
Unquestionably The Tin Men by Michael Frayn. It was the first hilariously funny book I read, and the wittiness and zip of it made me fascinated by the construction of humour in writing.
I was a power tool mender in a Black + Decker factory.
Just do it. I was wondering whether something I had written could be turned into a book and the advice was not to wonder but to do: only then could the question be answered. Writing is a practical thing. If you don’t do it, it won’t happen. I had not fully realised this.
Elephant by Raymond Carver. It’s his finest collection of short stories and contains ‘Intimacy’, which is the best. As you get older and life falls apart in various ways and improves in others, the stories change with you.
All the Russian classics.
I always wanted to be a coach driver, and I did wonder during the shortage of HGV drivers if this might be my moment.
Family happiness, I suppose – or my dog. I also enjoy drinking gin at high altitude.
I am passionately interested in trains. I don’t collect the numbers or make models, but I love the idea of them, and I find timetables engaging in a manner that even my brother-in-law, who literally runs a train company, finds weird.
On a hotel beach. Served cappuccinos. Quick swims for inspiration.
Drinking red wine with Nikola Koljević while his forces shelled the city of Sarajevo. I was one of a number of Western reporters who got to know and, to an extent, to like this Shakespearean scholar who was one of the leaders of the murderous Bosnian Serb nationalists who began and perpetrated the civil war there in the early 1990s.
We would meet him in the stronghold of Pale, in the hills above Sarajevo, and he would try to persuade us that Serb Nationalism was a decent cause. In this he was unsuccessful, but this troubled – and in some ways, sensitive – man was an interesting find in a war zone. When, after the war, he killed himself, I was unsurprised.
It would be Michael Wolff, who has written an uproarious and hugely entertaining set of books about the Trump presidency. His talent is that he doesn’t lecture and moan about Trump; he simply reveals him. We would eat burgers cooked on a grill.
Crashing the pips at the end of the Today programme.
I am utterly stumped by this question. Perhaps I could be very strong, but I’m not quite sure why.
Material Girls by Kathleen Stock.
In theory yes, but the organisation is tricky so no.
I am accused (with some justification) of being posh and privileged, and yet my childhood was eccentric and in some ways grotesque. We fail in the age of Twitter to grasp the multiplicity of stories that make up any one person. How about a revisiting the 1970s – that strange era – through my peculiar early life? An effort to talk about ambivalence and complexity, but also to have a laugh at the oddness of it all and to raise a glass to the ‘stiff upper lip’ which both damaged us and allowed us to survive.
The Gift of a Radio is out now.
Photo at top copyright BBC
Image by Victoria Ibbetson
The actor, model, Beyoncé collaborator and author of new artistic self-expression handbook The How opens up about her childhood love of Roald Dahl, the importance of nature, and the best writing advice she’s ever received.