The Life and Times of a Very Bri­tish Man by Ka­mal Ahmed, pub­lished by Blooms­bury Pub­lish­ing, priced £16.99

Belfast Telegraph - - REVIEW -

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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