If there is one sentence that no Londoner ever wants to hear, stuck on a Tube train at 9.30 on a Monday morning, it is this: “All services are suspended due to emergency engineering works at Euston.” It is particularly unwelcome if you’re on your way, as I was, to a live radio interview. Turning up late is not the best way to make a good impression.
I’m not sure that I would have been as gracious as the BBC Radio London team was to me, had I been on the other side of the studio desk. I still recall with some anger an occasion when I was broadcasting live from Rio de Janeiro a few years back and our main interviewee, a senior former minister in the Brazilian government, arrived an hour late for his live spot on the show. What made it even worse was that he kept assuring our producer as she made calls to check on his whereabouts that he was “just two minutes away”.
I am usually a great fan of the London Underground. Compared to the Metro in Paris or the subway in New York, for instance, the stations are clean, modern and well lit, and the trains are frequent. I have even started taking the Tube to and from Heathrow Airport these days; it takes for ever but at least I don’t spend the whole journey terrified that the M4 will close, and it is a lot cheaper than the extortionate £22 one-way ticket on the Heathrow Express.
One of the great advantages of no longer being chained to a studio desk three nights a week (I presented The World Tonight on Radio 4 for 23 years), is that I can now spend my evenings in front of the television, or visiting the theatre or cinema. Last week, I saw Amadeus at the National Theatre. I still remember the original production in 1979, which starred Paul Scofield and Simon Callow, but this one is every bit as powerful, and I wept buckets when they got to Mozart’s Requiem. Whoever has to organise my funeral (not just yet, I trust), please note: Mozart is a must.
I also saw La La Land, Hollywood’s latest foray into cinematic narcissism. It left me unmoved, even though, with 14 nominations, it may well clean up at the Oscars. Forgettable music, indifferent dancing and a storyline straight from, well, Hollywood. Take a tip: go to see the Jim Jarmusch film Paterson instead. It’s about a poetry-writing bus driver called Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey, and is married to a kooky wife, played by the fabulous Iranian-born Golshifteh Farahani. It has no story to speak of and is a sheer delight.
In my undergraduate days, I was frequently mocked by my friends for my addiction to newsprint. I could no more spend a day without a newspaper than any other addict can go without alcohol or drugs. These days, I have managed to kick the newspaper habit – if I’m on holiday, I can happily go a whole week without one – but instead, I have fallen for Twitter. My name is Robin and I am a Twitterholic.
When I’m abroad, I am constantly on the lookout for a free wifi connection that will enable me to check the latest news on my mobile phone. Coffee shops, petrol stations, hotel lobbies – anywhere will do, just as long as I do not have to survive more than an hour or so without checking the headlines and my emails. I was plainly born with an excess supply of the curiosity hormone. When I was three, my mother complained in a letter to a relative that I was incessantly asking questions: “The other day he saw a photo of a candidate in the general election and wanted a full explanation. When I said that there were things he did not understand yet, he said: ‘But I am a big boy now, and I want to know everything.’”
Cry me a river
One of the first things I did when I stood down from the BBC was to walk the length of the River Thames, from its source in the Cotswolds to the Thames Barrier at the head of the estuary. (I rationed myself to no more than one glance at the screen of my mobile phone every thirty minutes.)
I highly recommend it. The great thing about walking along a river is that there are no hills to climb, and the great thing about the Thames is that to follow its course is to walk through the history of England, from Shifford in Oxfordshire, where King Alfred (perhaps) held the first recorded English parliament, to the meadows at Runnymede where King John signed Magna Carta, past Windsor, Hampton Court, Westminster and the Tower of London.
Jog the memory
So, why did I then sit down to write a memoir? I have more than 20 journalists’ memoirs sitting on my bookshelves; does the world really need another one? Probably, it’s not for me to judge, but as the son of refugees at a time when the word “refugee” risks becoming a synonym for parasite, I thought it might be a tale worth telling. It might even be useful for people to understand a bit better how journalists go about their business. In a post-fact world, I still stubbornly insist on the importance of facts. And as Donald Trump continues to whine about the “lying media”, I cling to the words of the early-20th-century American satirist H L Mencken, who defined the ideal relationship between press and politicians: “Journalist is to politician as dog is to lamp-post.” Never more appropriate than now.
Robin Lustig’s memoir, “Is Anything Happening?”, is newly published by Biteback
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West