The Life and Times of a Very British Man by Kamal Ahmed, published by Bloomsbury Publishing, priced £16.99
explaining as for reporting the news as part of the normal news cycle”. In part this is to combat fake news “in a world where lies get round the world in the click of a mouse”.
He cites Reality Check and Long Reads as “giving news context”: “That’s going to be a big part of my new role — explaining the why as well as the what’.”
Also there’s the BBC centenary in 2022. “A big moment,” he says. “And I want to ensure we are prepared for the next 100 years. To an extent, that’s what the editorial director job is about, trying to set a bit of that strategic direction under Fran (Unsworth the director of news and current affairs).”
Wow, he’s focused. Is he the next BBC director general? He laughs.
“No,” he says. Then: “Well… I’m not answering that. I’ve only just got a new job (he starts on November 1).”
Anyway, he continues, this interview is not about the BBC, it’s about the book. It’s his life story interspersed with reminders of how far we’ve come as a country from our difficult relationship with people who are “other”, as he terms it. There are uncomfortable reminders of what were cultural norms: the use of “halfcaste” as a description; the fact that Ahmed was given a golliwog doll as a baby (“it’s probably still up in the loft at my mum’s”).
Heroes are not spared: Marie Stopes, much vaunted as a campaigner for women’s rights, advocated sterilising mixed-race children, he points out, and John Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw too had dubious views on eugenics. As part of his research, he re-met classmates like Andy, whose Afro-Caribbean heritage was “never spoken about”.
“Thirty-five years later (I was) listening to how his childhood and time at school made him feel useless: not fit for much academically. How he hadn’t known much about his history. How his parents held down exhausting jobs and found it difficult to engage with school. I thought, ‘This is a guy I was mates with and this is the first time I’ve heard this’.”
Ahmed was “lucky” — under his mother’s guidance (she taught him to read with flash cards in the bath) he sped through school, read politics at Leeds, did an MA at City and pole-vaulted up the rungs of journalism — media editor at The Guardian, political editor at The Observer, business editor, then economics editor at the BBC.
He is close friends with the bosses — he was at the Paris stag-night dinner of James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio on November 13, 2015, the night of the horrific terror attacks across the city (When I ask if he felt like breaking out of the restaurant to report, he laughs: “As James Harding said, ‘I’m not sure, Kamal, if you got out and started walking around with your name, that that would’ve been the most sensible use of your time, frankly’.”).
Here and there the book is unintentionally revealing. There’s a paragraph on Gemma Curtin, his first wife (“a wonderful woman”) with whom he split when his two kids were small that has echoes of guilt.
“We are very good friends and we’ve been on a long journey, stamped ‘parent’,” he says now. In the acknowledgements he mentions his girlfriend of two years, Polly Glynn, a brilliant lawyer “who has calmly taken my hand and agreed there is much more life to live”.
“She’s a very assured, careful and calming person,” he adds. “There’s a great line by a writer about a person who has ‘the good fortune to have a face that always rested on a smile’. That’s Polly in a nutshell.” Is he in love? “Yes.” But he’s also coy — “She is a very private person,” he hastens.
Absent entirely is Elizabeth Day, the author and journalist whom he married in 2011. “I didn’t feel without her agreement I should write about it,” he explains. “It meant contacting her, getting into things which are still pretty raw.”
Day packed her bags and left in 2015 not long after suffering a miscarriage. She has written about it poignantly, “which I’ve found difficult”, he admits.
“We had an amazing relationship. It blew up over complicated things. I take responsibility for the things that I did, the mistakes I made. And I made a lot. There were things I should have done differently.”
Ahmed says friends got him through “brutal times”, as well as a therapist, “who pushed me to see things from Elizabeth’s point of view”.
So when he was doing that, how did he think Elizabeth felt?
“If you go through an emotional, really wrenching dislocating moment in your life, understanding your role can make you a stronger person.”
His parents’ marriage ended when he was still small, but writing about them gave him an insight into them as the young people they were. For instance, he hadn’t known that his mother was the first white person his father had met when she picked him up from Heathrow.
“As kids we don’t often think of what our parents have achieved. I particularly wanted my mother’s story told. She was one of that first generation of women who actually took a brave step, not just by marrying a first-generation black person from Sudan, but also in her professional life.
“She stood toe-to-toe and eyeto-eye and told those teachers who said, ‘the coloured kids with their chips on their shoulders, they’re just a bit thick’, and she said, ‘Actually you’re the problem, not the kids’.”
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