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Simon Mayo interview: “Radio is full of shy people”

Radio DJ Simon Mayo on his miserable school days, ‘old Trot’ Mark Kermode – and why Radio 1 is ‘nasty and backstabbing’

At 16 I was into music, the radio and Spurs. As I still am. I always loved radio. My mum was a studio manager in the 1950s and I always knew I wanted to work in radio. I remember when Radio 1 was launched and my dad said, we’ll never have that constant pop music playing in our house. I’ve often thought about that, especially when I started working there. I listened to Radio 1 all the time. I recorded shows like John Peel or the Top 40 on to a cassette, then I would edit out the bits I didn’t like with a razor blade and sticking tape.

I felt pretty miserable at school. My dad was a head teacher and my mum was a teacher and we moved around a lot. We moved house from Croydon, where I’d just passed my 11-plus, to Solihull where I had to take it again, failed, and ended up in a huge terrifying dump of a secondary modern. Then I moved to Worthing Grammar. I kept being the new boy, the fish out of water, always looking for new friends. I just felt I didn’t fit in anywhere.

If I met the teenage Simon now I think I’d find him quite uncomfortable and awkward. Like a lot of people, I spent a lot of time thinking: how can I be in with the in-crowd? And I just wasn’t. I wasn’t bullied, it wasn’t grim, but that was just the way it was. In the books I write for children the lead character Itch is very much a boy who doesn’t fit in. I wrote it for my youngest son when he was 10 and just nuts about science. But when my eldest read it he said, dad, this isn’t about Joe, it’s about you. And I don’t think I’d realised that but he was probably right.

I spent a lot of time thinking: how can I be in with the in-crowd?

I was shy but I think radio is full of shy people. Yes, there are people here at Radio 2 who would be the life and soul of any party. But there are just as many who’d be happier in a corner reading a book. There was a great book recently by Susan Cain called Quiet. It was about how we’re constantly trying to get shy people to integrate more, come out of their shells. But maybe they’re quite happy and creative, thanks very much indeed, staying exactly where they are. In a radio studio, it’s just you. I don’t have a big crew around me. The fact that there are five or six million people listening is neither here nor there. I find communicating on the radio very easy, very natural, because, essentially, you’re on your own.

I wish I’d paid attention to more things when I was younger. I wish I’d persisted with science. I’ve become so interested in scientific thinking, that urge to look for answers, to question everything, to look for evidence. And I wish I’d started writing earlier in my life. I was never very good at English. I failed my first attempt at English literature A level. I didn’t think about creative writing again until I was 50. So that’s quite a gap. Starting anything new when you’re in your 50s is an extraordinary privilege. Standing in front of a class full of kids who’ve all read your book is just… Sometimes I think to myself, hey, this is who you really are. Writing that first book is one of the most visceral experiences I’ve ever had. The story just possessed me. I remember writing it and actually feeling really excited – what was going to happen next?

It would be nice to tell my younger self how happy I’d be at Radio 2. Leaving Radio 1 was very, very painful. Because being a Radio 1 presenter was all I’d ever wanted to do. So moving to 5Live was extremely tricky. My wife wasn’t well and my father had died. It was a ghastly period in my life. My 16-year-old self would have been staggered if he knew he’d be on air doing news and sport and going to the football World Cup and the cricket cup, covering 9/11, things like that. Though he’d be far more impressed that I interviewed Status Quo and Paul Weller, Dustin Hoffmann and Robert Redford. But when I moved to Radio 2, that was wonderful. Like a big Jacuzzi. Everyone at Radio 1 is jostling, everyone wants someone else’s show and it’s all a bit nasty and backstabbing. The presenters in Radio 2, we know who we are and where we fit. Chris, Ken, Bob Harris, Mark Radcliffe – we know what we’re good at. No one wants anyone else’s show. I think this is where I’ve been happiest. I feel as if I belong here.

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I can present and interview better than him but my views on film aren’t worth listening to

If someone comes up to me and says I love the show, what they mean is, I love the 5Live film show. It works because Mark [Kermode] and I are so different. I can present and interview better than him but my views on film aren’t worth listening to. So I’m not desperate to get my opinions across like he is. He keeps hoping and assuming I’ll know things but if he says, ‘You do know this right?’, the answer is always no. Mark doesn’t have much of a handle on the real world because he’s still at heart the old Trot he always was, who knows his world really well and not much else.

If I was given the gift of going back to a previous time, I’d take the kids back to meet Hilary’s dad, George. My mother is still alive, going fantastically strong. My dad died in 2001 and it would be fantastic to be able to show him what his grandchildren have been doing since then. Even more though, my wife Hilary’s father died before we got married so he never knew any of our kids. That would be our biggest collective regret.

I never ever look back at my past. I never think, I wish I could go back, or ‘weren’t those wonderful times’. I try very hard to live in the moment. Maybe it’s my radio training – you’re always watching the clock, thinking, I have 10 minutes left, I have two seconds left. But if I could time travel I’d go back and see Bruce Springsteen at LSO St Luke’s in East London, at a specially recorded radio gig with about 300 people. It was a thing of sheer joy. It was a blessing from The Boss. And I’d go back to my favourite family holiday in Nashville four years ago. It was beautiful and I was full of writing the first book and we all had a great time together. Even though I reversed the hire car into a post box. Yeah, apart from that.

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