The Gift of a Radio by Justin Webb

Review by Annabel

The TV news came on and a lugubrious looking chap in a light-coloured suit with a deep, plummy voice said something about the balance of payments. ‘That’s your father,’ my mother said, quite unprompted. I don’t think I spoke. I looked at the balance of payments, which seemed to be a concern. The position was worsening for reasons that were even more unclear to me than they were to the wider, collapsing nation.

Justin Webb will be familiar to many as the BBC’s former Washington correspondent and North American editor, or currently as a presenter of Today on Radio 4. I can remember back in 2011 when he revealed that his father was the lanky basso profundo (see the end of this clip) newsreader Peter Woods, a mainstay of the BBC News in the 1960s and 1970s. Before making the transition to TV from print journalism, Woods was at the Daily Mirror where Webb’s mother Gloria worked and had an affair with him, resulting in Justin being born in 1961. Webb would never meet his biological father properly, there was just one “awkward meeting” when he was a baby.

Although Gloria had been married before, that hadn’t lasted. As a single mum with Justin, remarrying would give her respectability, and the man who became her son’s step-father in 1964, whose name he would take, was Charles Webb, whom he loathed, and who turned out to suffer from severe mental health problems. While it’s fair to say that Justin adored his mother, she didn’t fit the conventional mould of a housewife in that era either.

Everything I’ve ever learned about being a man I learned from a woman. This is not ideal. […]

She fucked me up just as Philip Larkin said she would. […]

The 1970s were properly complicated. Perhaps there are lessons for us all in the rear-view mirror.

The quotes above all come from Webb’s introduction, before he takes us through his awkward childhood, through to boarding school and the LSE, before joining the BBC’s graduate trainee scheme in 1984, (where he met his lifelong friend and BBC reporter Jeremy Bowen on his first day).  This volume of memoir goes no further, but Webb has previously written several volumes about American politics and his time there, plus a book about his experiences of the American medical system when his young son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

Webb’s coming of age memoir thus covers two main topics: life with his mother and stepfather, and boarding school in the 1970s. That school was Sidcot, a co-ed Quaker school in the Mendips in Somerset.

Nothing encapsulated the oddness, the dysfunction of the 1970s better than the experience of an education provided in that era by the Religious Society of Friends.

Nowadays the school is thriving and well thought of, still espousing the Quaker way. But in the early 1970s when Webb arrived there…

It was grim. It was lost. A place of despair. A wrecker of already damaged lives.

Up till O-levels, it’s fair to say that Webb didn’t learn much of academic purpose at Sidcot. He did learn all the wrong extra-curricular things, playing the system as they all did. But back in lessons, he got thrown out of all sciences for starters. Useless at woodwork, he did Home Economics – usually a girls’ subject – instead, but never even took the exam. He describes himself as a ‘fatty’ and didn’t excel on the sports field either, under Mr Sisman.

Mr Sisman was a sports master out of central casting. A neat little man with sandy hair and an air of barely suppressed violence, always dressed in a tracksuit except on Sundays,

1970s Sidcot sounds positively Dickensian, and appears to fulfil all the boarding school tropes and stereotypes you can think of with teachers often out of their depth. However, a new headmaster, determined to drag the school up in every way, and an inspirational politics teacher, was to change his attitude towards learning for A-levels, finally enabling him to get to the London School of Economics.

With the larger part of this book telling Webb’s journey through the 1970s, (also the decade of my teenage years), the text is peppered with references to the political and popular cultures of the period. Particularly the music: from Slade to Genesis via Led Zeppelin and Bowie and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, often heard on the radio that he was given for Christmas when he was twelve, which accompanied him to Sidcot to listen to under the covers in the boys’ dormitory. Getting your first radio to tune in to Radio 1 on 247m or Radio Luxembourg on ‘Fab’ 208m was a big thing in those days.  

Webb is a really engaging and entertaining writer. He tells his story with the strong knack of being able to pick the humour out of each and every situation. He doesn’t let the darkness, of which there is plenty especially where his stepfather was concerned, get on top of him. He is self-deprecating, mostly generous to or non-critical of others, inclusive to a fault. He seems to have been determined to have used all these experiences to shape the young man he clearly became. This is such an enjoyable memoir, I highly recommend it.

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Annabel is one of the co-founders and an editor of Shiny.

Justin Webb, The Gift of a Radio (Doubleday, 2022). 978-0857527721, 245pp., hardback.

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Comments

  1. I heard Justin Webb being interviewed about his book on Radio 4 (unsurprisingly) and your review confirms that this book is right up my street!

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