What is resilience made of?
I'd never seen anyone get the 'hairdryer treatment' until I worked with John Humphrys.
Picture the scene: me, hunched over an assortment of battleship grey knobs and dials in S1, a large, anonymous BBC studio, deep in the heart of a building shaped like a question mark, opposite Westfield shopping centre in Hammersmith.
Radio 4 had been booted out of Broadcasting House for a bit and it was here, at Television Centre, that I was schooled in the extraordinary production machine that is Today.
On this particular day, Humphrys was furious.
It was 8.24am and Humphrys came barrelling through the door at quite a schlep for a veteran broadcaster who would have been in his late 70s at the time.
He continued barrelling until he was three inches from the producer’s face.
The producer, a lovely man called John with glasses, blonde hair swept up and off his face, and a usually unassuming countenance, had evidently done something heinous.
No one had any idea what it was.
Humphrys was incandescent and shouting. Producer John’s hair lifted slightly and started to waft slightly in the gale. All I remember of Humphrys’ rant was the final flourish, which was something like, ‘AND THAT’S YOUR JOB, MATE.’
They stood for what felt like an age, nose to nose. John to John. Teacups around the room which had begun to rattle on their saucers gradually settled down.
And then, Humphrys was gone. Barrelling back to his side of the studio, leaving us all blinking in the sudden calm as the insulating rockwool buried in the walls absorbed the last of his furious tirade.
We could see Humphrys mouth still going off through the glass as he flung pieces of paper around the desk, still shouting, but we weren’t listening because Yesterday in Parliament was on.
Producer John seemed unperturbed by all of this. Producing Today is tough. It’s likely he had been doing something important to keep the show on the road when he had failed to do whatever it was Humphrys was enraged about.
I was panicking. This was absolutely devastating and it hadn’t even happened to me.
I’ve thought about the insouciant Producer John a good deal, since. It would have ENDED me if Humphrys had yelled at me like that. Maybe he wouldn’t have because he would have got in trouble for yelling at a lady, but I know I wouldn’t have coped.
And yet Producer John seemed genuinely indifferent about the Humphrys meltdown that had happened within spitting distance of his face.
He wiped flecks of rage off his glasses, and laughed, lightly, to himself.
When I started studio directing Today, years later, I worked hard never to end up in this situation.
And as far as I know, this was an isolated incident. I never saw Humphrys turn on the hairdryer again, even when his breakfast bowl went missing.
This week, 15 years after the original incident, I’ve been thinking about why Producer John wasn’t all that bovved.
All I can conclude is that PJ did not derive his self-esteem from John Humphrys, or his work in general. He had other things going on in his life: a partner, friends, family; this was just work.
As a private school kid who grew up in another, bigger, private school (there’s another story for another day), I was raised as a conscientious, not to say ‘people pleasing’ type person. What other people think of me is more important than what I think of me.
I get my status from external things like jobs and relationships more than makes any sense. This is something I am ‘working on’, as people with therapists put it.
The answer, I suspect, lies in two things. Not believing the hype about the talent, and building solid friendships, including friendships with ourselves.
What would Marcus do?
On my daily walking podcast, Walk the Pod, we read extracts from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations in the depths of lockdown. And it strikes me that Marcus would not condone building up famous broadcasters to be more important than anyone else.
Humphrys is just a person, just like all the other people. His opinion is worth no more than Producer John’s. Producer John made a decision, Humphrys didn’t like it. No need for Producer John to feel bad about that.
And regarding friendship, a solid network of friends will protect us from any of the nonsense that happens at work. But we have to make sure we turn to the right ones for support.
Here’s a quote from one of Heather Havrilesky’s recent newsletters.
Havrilesky explains that there are friends who are solid and dependable, and then there are others who are crazy entertaining and not so dependable.
Trying to lean on the crazy entertaining types for support is never going to end well.
She suggests keeping solid dependable friends around, in order to allow for a few crazy entertaining ones, without needing to lean on them for anything beyond gossip and espresso martinis.
“Two things make it possible to afford a few high-maintenance friends: 1) learning to say no whenever you feel like it, without guilt and 2) sustaining friendships with a few slightly more secure, considerate people in addition to your high-maintenance friends.
Right now, I have a solid base of even-keel, reliable friends to balance out my taste for writers and media types and artists and wickedly smart humans dragging around massive piles of emotional baggage.”
- Heather Havrilesky
Many of my friends are writers, media types and wickedly smart humans dragging around massive piles of emotional baggage. And I absolutely love these people.
However, they are not great for emotional support. They listen, briefly, then they go back to talking about themselves. And that’s ok. I just need to remember to choose the solid, even-keel, reliable ones when I need someone to tell me that they’ll be there for me no matter how covered in John Humphry’s spittle I am.
So I’m doing a couple of things this week: thinking about my friends. Which are the solid, reliable, dependable ones to lean on, and which are the ones to gossip and drink espresso martinis with.
Secondly, I’m trying to be the solid, dependable, reliable type of friend myself. No more espresso martinis for me. Or maybe just one.
Thank you for coming along with me on another exploratory ramble, and look out for another newsletter soon. I’m trying to write a couple a month.
If you’d like to follow my daily ramble chats on themes like friendship, mental health and mindfulness, follow my daily walking podcast.
And finally, I would like to ask for your help. Please share this with someone you think might enjoy it because, like most writers and media types, I am trying to build my audience.
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Lots of love,