Scientists are experimenting with growing replacement vocal cords in the lab, as well as transplanting them from dogs. That was the Sun’s imaginative angle on my somewhat croaky debut as a Today programme presenter (only one of mine is working properly). It led me to ponder which species of donor would be fitting for my new role. Rottweiler? Too aggressive. Terrier, perhaps? Annoying after a while. Maybe a shepherd or a pointer would fit better with the mission to explain? All suggestions gratefully received. Bar one, that is. Husky is out.
If my first programme had not been dominated by events in Paris, I had planned to talk about the world’s greatest city. I speak of Manchester, of course. This was in part to mark the fact that my home city is at the forefront of a democratic revolution that is changing our country. One great English city after another — Newcastle, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield — has signed up to take more control of its affairs and to elect its own version of Boris or Ken. I also planned it, in part, as a tribute to the man who inspired my dream to present Today — the late great Brian Redhead. I’m well aware of the risks of sounding like a professional northerner while living just a little north of Islington. However, this chippy northerner would love to reprise one of Redhead’s greatest hits. After reading a short weather forecast — ‘brighter in the north, duller in the south’ — Brian added, ‘Like the people.’
Two years ago, just a few days after the Commons opposed airstrikes on Syria, I read another memorable phrase to David Cameron. It was what President Putin’s spokesman had been saying about Britain in private — ‘a small island no one pays attention to’. I have had the sense ever since that the Prime Minister has been haunted by the remark. I expect MPs will change that next week when they back RAF attacks on IS targets in Syria. However, so much else in this debate already feels wearily familiar. Backers of airstrikes will call opponents of them ‘appeasers’. They will respond by labelling their opponents ‘warmongers’, while armchair generals will head to the studios to pontificate about the need for a strategy, a plan and an endgame. What few will say is that the murderers in Paris came not from Syria, but Europe, and that defeating IS militarily will not end the threat from within our own societies. That will require a battle of ideas that few seem to have the appetite to wage.
The need to challenge and defeat ideas which are used to justify jihadist violence is brilliantly set out in Jonathan Sacks’s book Not in God’s Name. So, too, in a report, ‘Inside the Jihadi Mind’, which I was given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and which is co-authored by his son Peter Welby for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. It reveals that over half of all Muslims in nine Muslim-majority countries believe they will live to see the apocalypse; in three such countries, more than two thirds of the population back creating a caliphate; in four of them, over three quarters agree there is a ‘need to stand up to America and affirm the dignity of the Islamic people’. These are views held, albeit by far smaller numbers, here at home, too. Unchallenged, they are used to justify what the former chief rabbi calls ‘altruistic evil’ or what, to you and me, is the slaughter of anyone deemed to be an ‘un-human’.
We have, of course, been here before. In the 1930s my grandfather, a German Jewish doctor living in Berlin, got a letter from one of his patients. I still have it. The patient explains he has decided that he will continue to see his doctor, but only if he can use the back door. In other words, he was prepared for a Jew to save his life, but not for anyone to know who did the saving.
I plan to cheer myself at the inaugural dinner of the Survivors Club. This is the idea my esteemed BBC colleague Frank Gardener (shot) has proposed to Andrew Marr (stroke), George Alagiah (cancer) and me (cancer). We have yet to break bread or sup wine but before we do I will propose that rule one of the club should state: ‘Talking about your medical condition is strictly prohibited.’ Any breach will be punishable by picking up the bill. After months off work, I crave an escape from the corrosive self-absorption that illness can produce. Amusing medical anecdotes will be allowed. One I heard recently is of a fellow broadcaster being asked by his doctor whether it was difficult to speak on TV while a producer said something completely different in your ear. The inquiry came in the middle of an uncomfortable and intimate examination. The answer: ‘It’s not nearly as difficult as talking to you when you’ve got your hand up my….’
One last word on my voice. It doesn’t. Not one tiny little bit. Hurt, that is — but thank you for asking.