It’s 27 December, it’s 6.30am and I have just arrived at the BBC, this being the morning that I am guest editor of the Radio 4 Today programme. Barely awake, frankly a little hungover, I enter the newsroom to find a team of professionals ready and alert at their screens. John the night editor has been keeping watch over the news through the small hours, waiting for any major world event that might gatecrash our schedule. The health of the hospitalised George Bush, Sr has been causing some concern but, as the day dawns, no news is good news.
Look, there’s Mishal Husain, who was a question in the picture round of our Boxing Day quiz at my dad’s. And James Naughtie, leafing through the day’s papers, inhaling all the salient points; and John the day editor who has now taken over from John the night editor. It’s five to seven and, with the calm that comes from doing this every day, they stroll into the live studio.
The guest editor’s job is to fill the spaces in between the news and sport with story ideas and interesting people to talk to. I’ve been asked how much freedom I had in my choices and the answer is a lot. If there’s a theme, it’s young people and my desire to listen to their concerns and experiences. And like Lenny Henry a few days later, I’ve tried to assemble a cast free of straight, white, male dominance. As for the tone, I want it to be warm, avoiding what sometimes seems like a needlessly antagonistic style, in which two people are brought together simply to have an argument.
So it goes like this: an item about writing and receiving fan letters, traffic, clips from audiobooks I have loved, Damian Barr interviewing three lovely and articulate gay teenagers about coming out in the internet age, sport, Caitlin Moran and Samantha Shannon talking about young adult fiction.
I keep looking at the clock, astonished at how fast the time is going, sure that we won’t fit everything in. Tiny flurries of panic arise for a few moments, then settle just as quickly. The sports report is due at 7.30am – but where is the sports reporter? He’s not here. Mild concern. No, he’s really not here. A phone is picked up; the summons is now urgent. Rory Cellan-Jones is encouraged to keep talking and through the glass of the control room we see the sports reporter running towards us, having gone first to the wrong studio. Seated at his microphone with seconds to spare, he begins the report, sounding breathless with excitement about the racing tips.
It’s 8am and I realise that I need a wee but daren’t leave the room, partly out of not wanting to miss anything but also out of a strange sense of responsibility. It’s like air-traffic control in here and I’ve slipped into a kind of magical thinking – believing that it really is me keeping the plane up in the air.
At 8.30am, we’re into the home straight. A story about young adults leaving care, people trapped in the snow, me singing a Kate Bush song. To finish, I’m interviewed about the experience of being a guest editor and the reasons for my teen theme. The questions are directed at me by James and Mishal, both looking over my head at the clock behind me, aiming like true professionals to finish bang on time. We don’t quite and we crash the pips (lingo), proving that the show is live.
I’m given a sausage sandwich and a glass of champagne and, in the car on the way home, I feel warm and glowy and satisfied, not least because the early-morning champagne has topped my alcohol levels back up to where they’d been for the past three days.
I loved doing that, I think. Lovely, lovely Today programme, lovely, lovely teenagers. I will go home now and talk to my teenagers and listen to them. I open the front door and there they all are in the kitchen, gathered round the wireless. They’ve been listening to me and they stand up as I come in and – don’t be silly. Of course they don’t. They’re all fast asleep. I go to listen to them snoring and then make myself a cup of tea.