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27 May 2020

Fergus Walsh Q&A: “I’ve had insomnia since coronavirus emerged“

The medical journalist talks Line of Duty, family holidays in Venice and Matthew Walker's Why We Sleep.

By New Statesman

Fergus Walsh was born in Leicester in 1961. The BBC’s medical correspondent since 2004, he has played a major part in the broadcaster’s coverage of the pandemic.

What’s your earliest memory?

Watching my mum making blackberry and apple pie, and holding her hand while watching my siblings walking through the back garden over the fields to school and asking when I’d be allowed to go.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was my best friend, Guy. Once during half-term I had my hair permed so it would look like his. He had soft, wavy hair. I came out looking like Shirley Temple with large, tight curls. I put on a flat cap and went and bought a tub of hair straightener. No one at school noticed. My adult heroes are two women I met while reporting on healthy ageing. Hilda Jaffe was 95 and still working as a tour guide at New York Public Library. Irene Obera was 84 and still breaking world records on track and field. Both are superagers – my great ambition.

What book last changed your thinking?

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. The power of sleep to repair and refresh is extraordinary. I had never realised just how harmful lack of sleep could be. Luckily, I’ve always been a champion sleeper, although I’ve started to have troubled dreams and insomnia since coronavirus emerged.

Which political figure do you look up to?

My dad’s hero was the emperor Augustus, whom he regarded as the greatest person who ever lived. I don’t tend to put people on pedestals, but I’ll go with his choice.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The novels of Anthony Trollope.

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

I wouldn’t want to live in any previous era without the wonders of modern medicine and sedation that can help you get through terrible things like dentistry and surgery.

What TV show could you not live without?

Line of Duty and Spiral. You will know the first, but perhaps not the second. Spiral is a gritty, French detective series.

Who would paint your portrait?

I can’t imagine sitting still long enough. I might ask my son.

What’s your theme tune?

I set my alarm to play “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush – it’s guaranteed to get me up peacefully.

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

Remember you are only as good a journalist as your next story. That’s kept me going for more than 30 years.

What’s currently bugging you?

Trying to find an exit strategy for this pandemic.

What single thing would make your life better?

A vaccine for coronavirus.

When were you happiest?

Having breakfast with my wife and three children overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice. That was a few years ago when family holidays in foreign countries were still a thing.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I can’t imagine doing anything different. One of my sisters is also a journalist and when I was starting out, she whispered to me that it was “better than working”. I know what she means. It’s a privilege to do what I do.

Are we all doomed?

I’m an optimist. Hopefully we can keep going for a few million years. 

This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak