Norman Jay Q&A: “David Attenborough gives me a reason to continue living”

The DJ talks Blue Planet, Martin Luther King, and the glory years of Tottenham Hotspur FC.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Norman Jay MBE was born in Notting Hill in 1957. He started DJ’ing at warehouse parties in the 1980s and later worked for the BBC. With Gilles Peterson, he is the co-founder of the record label Talkin’ Loud.

What’s your earliest memory?

My first day at infant school. I didn’t cry, when all the other kids around me were crying their guts out. I remember welling up and thinking, “No, I’m gonna be a big boy, I’m not gonna cry.” And I didn’t.

Who are your heroes?

Sidney Poitier was the first black actor I remember seeing in a significant role. He was a brilliantly passionate actor. I thought I’d love to be like him when I grew up.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Martin Luther King. The first time I saw my mum cry was when he was assassinated.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The glory years of Tottenham Hotspur FC. This is my 51st season following them. Quite a lot of tumbleweed has accumulated in our trophy cabinet in the past few years.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to go back to Victorian London to experience the first rumblings of the industrial revolution, to see them building the railway stations and the cast-iron bridges, to see the rapid pace of change.

What TV show could you not live without?

I don’t really watch that much TV, but if it’s anything, I couldn’t be without David Attenborough’s documentaries. He’s the only real sensible thing on television and his documentaries give me a reason to continue living. Blue Planet is my favourite.

Who would paint your portrait?

Picasso. I’ve just got a general layman’s appreciation of art. I like the fact that he’d paint me in the abstract. I wouldn’t recognise it as me, but it would be me.

What’s your theme tune?

“Windy City” by the Windy City Orchestra. It’s a proto-house or dance record from Seventies Chicago. I began using it during my pirate radio broadcasting career and took it with me when I moved to the BBC.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

There are so many good nuggets. One is: “Don’t let it show on your face.” Another one: “Tomorrow is promised to no one.” Or: “However long it takes, you’ll get there in the end.” It’s advice I inherited and advice that’s free to give to anybody.

What’s currently bugging you?

The rise of the far right; the Brexit debate; the isolationism of America and this country, trying to disconnect from a world when the world is rapidly connecting; that the ugly face of racism has found a new platform on social media.

What single thing would make your life better?

Continued good health.

When were you happiest?

When my mother gave birth to me! No prejudices, no worries, no nothing.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A tailor or gentleman’s outfitter. I’ve always liked style, rather than fashion. I’d like to be involved in clothes manufacturing. I admire people who are well-dressed.

Are we all doomed?

We are. The only ones who are not are the ones who are following either Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. There is hope, because eventually they’ll die, and one hopes that their legacy doesn’t continue. 

“Mister Good Times” by Norman Jay is published by Dialogue Books

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question