Interview: Libby Purves, journalist, broadcaster, author

by
28 April 2009

I’m a writer, a journalist, mainly for The Times, and a broadcaster, mainly talk programmes, particularly Mid­week. And my 12th novel is about to come out.

It’s called Shadow Child. I lost my son two-and-a-half years ago. Since then I’ve started two other novels, but they fizzled out because this one wanted to be written. I must stress it’s in no way autobiographical, though it is about the aftermath of the death of an adult son — the rebuilding after a disaster. But it was mainly drawn from letters people wrote to me.

If you have a public profile, people do write to you after something like that, and the novel grew out of that shared experience. It’s about the way people who live staid, conventional, country lives are suddenly brought up against their children’s friends who live in trendier bits of Britain, and have to rub up against different kinds of humanity.

I do all right as a writer: I sell enough to cover my advances. I’ve written a certain amount of non-fiction — three books on childcare (including How Not to be a Perfect Mother), and the book about sailing round Britain with two small chil­dren, and the radio book, and Holy Smoke, about growing up at a convent school. My mother received that fairly well.

My mother died last summer, but it is a completely different thing when someone has reached a ripe old age. She was 92, and more than ready to go, by her own reiterated account: she’d been given six months to live, years ago.

I’m not really frightened by live broadcasting. I’ve been doing Midweek for a long time: 25 years. I was on the Today programme before that, and that was far more unpre­dict­able. I like Midweek because the live format gives people more free­dom — they’re not going to be cut or misrepresented — and it does focus people’s minds wonderfully. Some­times the shyest people express themselves absolutely brilliantly.

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I don’t do stage-fright. After going sailing, I think, well, the worst that can happen is that you’ll look an idiot or someone will get annoyed — but no­body is going to get drowned, are they?

The worst people to interview are those who won’t say anything — who are bored, and wish they hadn’t been made to come in. But I’ve only had three or four in the whole time I’ve been doing it. Because it’s a mixture of totally diverse people, and they’re not being asked the same damn questions about their book or play they’ve been asked all their life, they usually enjoy listening to each other — it’s a bit more compan­ionable. Like when I introduced Denis Healey to the principal of the London School of Striptease; or when Frank Zappa met Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains and they became very good friends afterwards.

Sometimes it’s difficult because people have opted to tell a very personal, poignant story, and you know it’s going to be very hard to say aloud. I’m always providing “escape hatches” — I think it’s a failure in a broadcaster if people break down in an interview. Often, they say in the green room beforehand that they don’t want to talk about the first marriage, or the death of a child, or something very personal, but then, when they come on, they do. I only earn my money about one week in four — it’s not huge money either. It is Radio 4 we’re talking about.

I write [in The Times] about faith — often from a perspective of rage. I’m definitely a deist — I can’t join the blessed Dawkins. I think I’m a Christian in a rather Quakerish, John Bunyan sense. Of course, I’m a cradle Catholic, but I’ve been in dispute with the Vatican for so long and become so suspicious of authority structures and the way the Church runs itself. I always stand up for Catholics, and I always will, but 1968 did it for me, being in our little convent school. . .

I find the contraception thing a bit irritating, but not nearly so much as the inhumane pronouncements on homosexuality — the refusal to be open to nature.

Desmond Tutu — what a hero! He says about homosexuality: “Why are you so genitally preoccupied? Why don’t you sort out the real problems of the world and let people love one another in their own way?”

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I don’t belong to any particular church, but I sometimes turn up at my local parish church, which surprises the Vicar. He’s a very holy man. I tend to vote for the candidate, not for the party. I used to be impatient with Anglicans, and do still tease them, but I’m growing fonder of their via media.

What I was taught by the nuns about charity absolutely takes my breath away. I think all religions should operate on the basis of show, don’t tell. I don’t like those who reprove and criticise while being a sour little bas­tard — that’s just horrible. It makes you want to go and throw bricks through stained-glass win­dows.

I can’t really be bothered with twittering, but I adore emails. I have long conversations with friends who wouldn’t be such close friends if we couldn’t email each other. The inter­net just reflects humanity: there are nasty, mean corners, philanthropic corners, geeky people hunched over computers putting in information for other people to use. I think the fact that Wikipedia is moderately accurate is magical: people just want to share knowledge.

I love to go sailing. I have to spend a week or two at sea every summer — though I’ve taken to going to the theatre an awful lot. My husband and I were sailing together long before we were married.

I love tall ships very much. I like the comradeship. You meet at the beginning with all these tall, iPod-wearing, solemn young people, and think: “Oh no — I’m stuck with these people for the trip.” But, by the end of the ten days, you’re all a band of brothers. I support sail-training char­ities like mad, and sail with a disabled sail-training trust.

I’ve stopped broadcasting about education after 15 years: it was driving me insane. I feared I would end up by strangling some cur­riculum authority or junior minister. This desperately over-centralised cur­riculum and the idea that schools can cure every social ill. . . I can’t do it any more.

I hugely oppose Blair’s policy of promoting more and more faith schools, causing the fragmentation of communities . . . and the covert selection they practise. I think it’s absolutely disgraceful. There’s no point in saying it doesn’t happen be­cause it does. A real faith school would take the most appalling children from the most rubbish back­grounds deliberately. I think there are some fantastic faith schools — of course there are. But why can’t the amazing Catholic heads and teachers just be in mainstream schools?

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I watch Coronation Street — I love it. I like reading, and going for walks. I really like bike rides, but my bike tyres are flat. I must get them seen to.. . . And I like late-night comedy shows in damp cellars in Soho.

You have to maintain a sense of humour — after all, one of the best ways to manage children is to make them laugh. And forgiveness: I learned a lot from my daughter, who used to have huge rages from when she was two years old, but never held a grudge. You have to roll with other people’s foibles. I’m not talking about being a doormat wife, putting up with patriarchal abuse — like the wife of Joseph Fritzl. He’s what last made me angry.

I thought I might be an actor. Or a policewoman. (I was very prim.) Or a cabaret singer like Cleo Laine. I went through the inevitable phase in puberty of asking: “Shall I be a nun?” I fell in love with radio very early on.

In a hundred years’ time, I’d like to be remembered as that unbelievably fit old lady who refuses to die and gives hell to the social services bureaucracy. Or, if dead, as someone who was good company and never held a grudge.

If I had to do something completely different, I’d be a merchant navy officer.

The sermon I remember is John Donne’s “No man is an island”.

Favourite book? Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner. And I was a Narnia child. My father, who was very against religion, was posted to Angola, and because he was so concerned with our education, wrote to my mother, saying that he had heard there were some new children’s books written by an Oxford don that we ought to have, not realising he was a heavy-duty, industrial-strength proselytiser. Poor Dad — stuffed, really.

I buy proper Fairtrade bananas from the Caribbean.

I’m happiest with friends, on a summer evening.

I pray about whatever I am panick­ing about at the time.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Richard Dawkins. We could vainly try to convert one another, and end up throwing candlesticks and kicking over the pews.

Libby Purves was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Shadow Child is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £17.99 (CT Bookshop £16.20).

Order Shadow Child from CT Bookshop

Order Shadow Child from CT Bookshop

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