A photo of Justin Webb, author of The Gift of a Radio, side-by-side with the interview title, 21 Questions, on a yellow and grayscale background.
A photo of Justin Webb, author of The Gift of a Radio, side-by-side with the interview title, 21 Questions, on a yellow and grayscale background.

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.”

Which writer do you most admire and why?

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.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

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. 

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

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.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I was a power tool mender in a Black + Decker factory.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

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. 

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

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.  

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

All the Russian classics. 

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

I always wanted to be a coach driver, and I did wonder during the shortage of HGV drivers if this might be my moment.

What makes you happiest?

Family happiness, I suppose – or my dog. I also enjoy drinking gin at high altitude. 

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

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.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

On a hotel beach. Served cappuccinos. Quick swims for inspiration.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

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.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

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. 

What’s your biggest fear?

Crashing the pips at the end of the Today programme.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I am utterly stumped by this question. Perhaps I could be very strong, but I’m not quite sure why.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Material Girls by Kathleen Stock.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

In theory yes, but the organisation is tricky so no.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Coffee.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

What inspired you to write your book?

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 Gift of a Radio

  • 'Searingly honest... gripping... fascinating and hugely entertaining.' Sunday Times

    'Justin is a great broadcaster because he sounds like a real human being. This hugely entertaining book helps explain why'. John Humphrys

    'Moving and frank ... A story of a childhood defined by loneliness, the absence of a father and the grim experience of a Quaker boarding school. It is also one of the most perceptive accounts of Britain in the 1970s.' Misha Glenny
    ..................................

    Justin Webb's childhood was far from ordinary.

    Between his mother's un-diagnosed psychological problems, and his step-father's untreated ones, life at home was dysfunctional at best. But with gun-wielding school masters and sub-standard living conditions, Quaker boarding school wasn't much better.

    And the backdrop to this coming of age story? Britain in the 1970s. Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and Free. Strikes, inflation and IRA bombings. A time in which attitudes towards mental illness, parenting and masculinity were worlds apart from the attitudes we have today. A society that believed itself to be close to the edge of breakdown.

    Candid, unsparing and darkly funny, Justin Webb's memoir is a portrait of personal and national dysfunction. So was it the brutal experiences of his upbringing, or an innate ambition and drive that somehow survived them, that shaped the urbane and successful radio presenter we know and love now?

  • Buy the book

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