Illustration: Nick Taylor

Brief Encounter, James Naughtie: "I c*nt recall my most embarrassing on-air moment, but apparently Jeremy Hunt can"

He's changed his mind about Wagner's operas—in a positive way
May 5, 2020

What is the first news event you can recall?

As a very young boy in 1956, I remember my mother collecting pots and pans for Hungarian refugees after the Soviet invasion, and wondering what it was all about. But I’m afraid I must have blinked during the Suez crisis.

What is your most embarrassing on-air moment?

I c*nt recall, but apparently Jeremy Hunt can.

If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, what would that be?

Forget revolutions and all that jazz. No. It’s Dallas, 22nd November 1963. I’d stand on the grassy knoll and spend the next 50 years exploding conspiracy theories.

What is your favourite quotation?

They come and go, obviously, but how about this for right now? Alistair Cooke on America in 1972: “In this land of the most persistent idealism and the blandest cynicism, the race is on between its decadence and its vitality.”

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

I’d give it to Social Bite in Edinburgh, the most imaginative homeless charity I know. It understands that food and housing are the beginning of everything. Josh Littlejohn, who saw the need and started it with a sandwich shop, is a hero.

What do you most regret?

Not taking French, German and Italian more seriously as a teenager. Catching up is a long business, but it continues.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

Perhaps that although I grew up near a river, where I splashed about on summer nights, I can ski better than I can swim. The latter lapse is a lifetime embarrassment.

Who is your role model?

If I were a poet it would be Norman MacCaig for human honesty, in broadcasting it’s Charles Wheeler for integrity. If I were in politics—which was never going to happen—it would be Abraham Lincoln, for generosity.

What have you changed your mind about?

Wagner’s operas. In a positive way.

Will Scotland be an independent country in 50 years?

Its constitutional position will certainly have changed. But what does “independence” look like, or mean, in the 21st century? That’s a question that people are only beginning to wrestle with seriously.

How are you staying sane during the lockdown?

Gardening, and planning radio programmes all the while. Reading history and pulp fiction, and devising a thriller plot. Realising that it’s probably the longest period in which my wife Ellie and I haven’t spent a day apart for 34 years, and being happy that we both seem to like it.