Culture

James Naughtie: "People's capacity to survive is the most thrilling thing"

Broadcaster James Naughtie describes his 'terribly happy' childhood, laments the decline of the printed page - and reveals his secret shame

As a 16-year-old, I was embarrassingly normal. People talk about the 1960s as being this ferment. And I think it was and I absorbed a lot of it. But, as someone once said, if it was a party, I wasn’t invited. I was just slightly too young.

I grew up terribly happily in a small village by the River Deveron in Banffshire. Everybody was a friend, we played by the river in the evening. There was a freedom and innocence that was terribly precious. I grew up in a wonderful patch of countryside with sounds and smells and vistas that still mean a lot to me, and I had wonderful parents. I was remarkably untroubled, in that respect.

I was the classic ’60s child. When The Beatles released Please Please Me, I was 12. It could not have been better timed. The Beatles were supposed to perform at a dance on New Year’s Eve 1962, in Keith, which is where I went to school. The advert in the local paper said, ‘It’s the Love Me Do boys’. They were flying in from Hamburg but the snow meant they couldn’t land. Three days later they performed in the Two Red Shoes ballroom in Elgin but my parents wouldn’t let me go because it was regarded as a den of iniquity. In subsequent years, I discovered this was entirely true.

My parents were classic products of their generation in that they were the first people in their families to go to university. They were headteachers, my aunts and uncles were teachers or ministers – it was very Scottish. I have a great deal of gratitude for the way that, throughout my childhood, education was seen as important. Not in a pompous way, as a means to make a lot of money, but the idea you had a duty to do what you can, exploit your talents.

I remember hearing the presses roll on my first day… It was like watching the Flying Scotsman pull into a station.

I stood in the school election in successive years – first as a Conservative candidate, second as a Peace candidate under the slogan Make Love Not War. I remember my history teacher telling me that he couldn’t think of anyone more likely to start a war than me! That was in 1968. I hate to admit it but I did sort of enjoy the sound of my own voice.

At the obligatory careers’ service interview they said I should be a hospital administrator. But anyone who knew me would know I couldn’t administrate the proverbial piss-up in a brewery. I said I wanted to be a journalist and they laughed. “Everyone wants to do that but it will never happen.”

I would love to tell my younger self he will smell the distinctive aroma of hot metal and ink in the print room of a newspaper. It sounds corny but I remember watching the hot metal plates being put together and hearing the presses roll on my first day at the Aberdeen Press and Journal. It was like watching the Flying Scotsman pull into a station. I tell my children and it sounds like a story from the bronze age. Don’t get me started on the state of newspapers today. I find the decline of the printed page really sad.

I found politics mesmerisingly interesting. I loved the events, I loved the characters. You couldn’t grow up in the ’60s without being moved by the sense you were living in tumultuous times. There was the Vietnam War, this extraordinary year in 1968 when the US was gripped by assassinations and riots, and Europe appeared to be in flames. I remember the feeling of wonder about what was going on. The minute I started to write about this stuff, I could not imagine anything I would enjoy more.

I would say to my younger self that you should never be afraid to get carried away. And I would leave it at that, in terms of romantic advice. Follow your emotions and allow yourself to get carried away. My wife Ellie and I will have been married 30 years this December. In these days, that is not bad going. As a child of the ’60s, I regard it as rather a doddle.

Our children are in their mid-20s, and it is hard to explain how different it was for my generation. It is not just that we didn’t have the whole online world but there wasn’t anything like the rush or panic. I remember long nights fishing on the riverbank with my dad. It is a cliché to say we have seen the death of innocence but I am glad I had a simpler, calmer childhood.

James Naughtie on his last day hosting the Today programme on Radio 4.

I can see why young people are disillusioned with the political process. When I went to university, the idea I might leave and not have a job for a long time was inconceivable. There is a feeling that whatever this modern world is, it is not working for many people. For kids that age now, looking at the amazing things you can do in the world, why can’t somebody come up with an economic system that seems to deliver more equitably? But the mistake is to say that, because things haven’t worked out the way we would want, there has been malign neglect or corruption.

It is easier than you think to remain neutral on air. At Today [Radio 4’s news and current affairs programme, pictured above on Naughtie’s last day last December], the difficult thing was not leaving your politics outside the studio door, it was facing somebody across the desk in a state of meltdown. You have to do the professional job of asking the question you both know might release the trapdoor that sends them down into the pit. If you feel human sympathy for the person because they weren’t responsible for the position they were in – or the punishment, political oblivion, was going to be disproportionate to the offence – it is hard to conceal.

The endless capacity of people to cope with adversity is the most thrilling thing you can come across. I have been in places where there is death and destruction. What you are constantly amazed by is the capacity people have to survive.

My fundamental advice to my younger self is to make sure that you have friends in a generation older than your own and make sure you listen to them. Don’t regard them as bores who don’t understand. Listening to the stories of people who have gone through it is what lets you work out life.

The other thing that I would tell my 16-year-old self is don’t forget to learn to swim. I never really learned properly. That is my secret shame…

Paris Spring by James Naughtie is out now (Head of Zeus)

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