© Nick Taylor

James O’Brien: “Everyone else is frightened too”

“I have a third nipple”
January 27, 2021

What is the first news event you can recall?

The sound of my dad dictating his Daily Telegraph copy down the phone was a constant of my childhood but the first time I clocked what a story was about, I was five and a half. My mum’s friend Sheena turned up on our doorstep in tears because someone called Elvis Presley had died. I thought she must have known him very well.

One bit of advice you’d give to your younger self?

Everyone else is frightened too, and if they’re not they’re probably sociopaths.

Which historical figure or figures would you most like to have dinner with?

Sir Thomas More. The question of whether good people should stay close to bad people in the hope of diluting the damage that they do is more pertinent than ever.

What was your most uncomfortable on-air moment?

I have a line that I use when a caller is taking too long to get to the point. “I’ll have to wait for your autobiography to find out more about that.” A couple of years ago a chap replied: “I sent you a copy of my self-published autobiography last year and you never replied.”

If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why?

Books for people who think they don’t like books. I’d get 100,000 people to fill in a questionnaire about themselves and try to match them to one I think they’d like.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I have a third nipple. Not the same size as the other two like Scaramanga’s, but it’s definitely a nipple.

What is your favourite quotation?

The Brothers Karamazov: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases
to love.”

What do you most regret?

I wish I’d taken my dad to Rome before he died. And I wish I’d worked harder to remind him that his value as a human being had nothing to do with his professional status.

What is the biggest problem of all?

Wealth persuading poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power.

Are things getting better or worse?

Better. Brexit has clearly shown the rest of Europe the dangers of fact-free, prejudice-stoking populism. 

What was the last piece of music/play/novel/film that brought you to tears?

My daughters developed an obsession with Hamilton during lockdown. I can’t listen to “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which sees Alexander Hamilton dealing with the death of his son Philip in a duel he fought to defend his father’s honour, without weeping freely.  

“How Not to Be Wrong” by James O’Brien is out now from WH Allen