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An Improbable Life: The autobiography, by Trevor McDonald

29 November 2019

Trevor McDonald writes of his working world, says Anthony Phillips

“IMPROBABLE” is the right term to describe Trevor McDonald’s journey from a humble upbringing in Trinidad to British “national treasure”, sealed with a knighthood. He warmly describes his impoverished but happy childhood with caring parents, dominated by the importance of cricket. Later, he was to write the biographies of both Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards. Like many West Indians, from his earliest days McDonald dreamed of getting out, although he will “always be part of the land that gave me breath”.

He joined Radio Trinidad, where, for three years, he read the news, played records, and acted as sports commentator, besides doing the “airport beat” and interviewing all distinguished visitors. Then, in 1969, aged 30, he came to London to report for the Overseas Regional Service at Bush House — “an oasis of internationalism”. After three happy years, partly because it was “too comfortable”, he moved to ITN to become the first black reporter on national TV.

In successive chapters, he describes his time as sports, Northern Ireland, and foreign correspondent, before moving to Channel 4. Vividly he recalls exciting moments in his career, people he has met, events attended, and dangers experienced. Then came his appointment as first solo presenter of ITN’s flagship, News at Ten.

There follow chapters on a variety of specific subjects in which McDonald has played a part: South Africa, where he was the first interviewer of Mandela after his return to Soweto; Iraq and interviewing Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf War; visits to death row; views on racism in the United States; interviewing Gaddafi; the Windrush scandal; and immigration.

This is not a conventional autobiography. There is almost nothing about his personal life after he left Trinidad. We never even learn the name of his wife. Occasionally, he comments on his profession, arguing that modern journalism has lost its way.

What it does reveal is a man of considerable charm who worked incredibly hard and achieved huge respect in his chosen profession, but who, despite being known to millions of viewers, chooses to remain a private individual.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

An Improbable Life: The autobiography
Trevor McDonald
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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