“Whilst writing Brexit Without the Bullshit, I thought it was hilarious being described by old Etonians as a member of the elite – given my background,”
Coming to the Gibraltar Literary Festival to talk about his latest book, Brexit Without the Bullshit, Gavin Esler is an award winning television and radio broadcaster, journalist and also the author of five novels and two non-fiction books. His familiar face will be known to many who tuned into BBC 2’s Newsnight programme between 2003 and 2014.
What was it in his early life that shaped the man who went on to interview heads of state and government? “I was born on the outskirts of Glasgow in Clydebank, which was a big ship building community, and the first few years of my life were spent in a council house with my grandmother, parents and two aunties,” Gavin tells me. In search of a better job once it was clear that the ship building industry was in economic difficulty, his father moved the family to Edinburgh. “He was a typical aspiring working class man who eventually became a manager and did much better for himself and for us, but he was one of those who benefited from the post-war boom by getting on his bike and actually going to do something else.”
Gaining a scholarship to George Heriot’s School at the age of seven, Gavin went on to become the first member of his family to go to University, and credits one of his grandmothers in giving him the determination to do well in his academic career. “Stick to your books,” he recalls her saying.
“Whilst writing Brexit Without the Bullshit, I thought it was hilarious being described by old Etonians as a member of the elite – given my background,” he laughs.
A career in journalism wasn’t always on the cards though. When he was just three weeks old Gavin nearly died. A life-saving operation on their first born meant that he grew up in a household where his parents regarded doctors and medicine as the highest possible profession. “I thought that too and had made up my mind to go to Edinburgh Medical School”, Gavin explains, going on to say that at 17 he suddenly changed his mind and told his family that instead of pursuing that childhood dream of medicine, he realised he’d rather write.
“I did modern English and American literature at Kent University and then did a post-grad in Irish Literature, “he says. When he was offered a job on The Scotsman in Edinburgh, Gavin turned it down as likely to be a bit dull, preferring instead The Belfast Telegraph. “In the room with people from Thomson Newspapers, who owned The Times as well as The Scotsman, there was a bit of an intake of breath that some idiot actually wanted to go to Belfast, but I love Belfast and it’s like a second home to me.”
After working in the press, I asked Gavin how easy was it to move to broadcast journalism. “It was a quick transition,” he explains, “because I left the Belfast Telegraph after about eighteen months when the BBC in Northern Ireland were looking for a reporter to replace Jeremy Paxman and I managed to somehow get the job without knowing anything whatsoever about television.” Gavin continues by saying that he thinks the BBC gave him a chance because he said that he thought he could tell stories. “Fortunately it turned out to be alright and it was very good fun, and in fact the guy who became my boss is better known to people as Bernard Cornwell, the author of the Sharpe series of books, and we remain good friends.”
The subject of telling stories brings us nicely to his book Lessons from the Top, described as a mixture of anecdotes and ‘how to’ advice on story-telling based on leaders that Gavin has met over the years including Angela Merkel, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton and cultural leaders such as Dolly Parton, who when asked by Gavin if the dumb blonde jokes ever got her down, said ‘Nope. Because I’m not really dumb and I’m not really blonde.’”
Gavin gives the example of Mrs. Thatcher who brilliantly described herself as ‘just a grocer’s daughter from Grantham’. “Whether you liked her or not, every bit of those five words strikes a chord with us – she was many other things as well, but that was basically the story that she told and she did it relentlessly.”
“One of the problems that leaders have is that if they can’t communicate who they are then people don’t really believe the next bit, which is who are we as a group, a political party or a country, and if you don’t actually buy in to those first two things then you’re not going to listen to ‘where is my leadership going to take us’ which is the third part of leader’s stories.”
After four weeks campaigning in the European elections as an anti-Brexit candidate for Change UK in London (he didn’t win), Gavin began writing Brexit Without the Bullshit, outlining what Brexit will actually mean for our daily lives. “What really motivated me was not Brexit itself but the fact that lying – public lies – has become normalised on both sides of the Atlantic,” he explains.
Having left the BBC in 2018, Gavin is now a freelance journalist and tours the UK and abroad giving talks and lecturing. When he’s not writing what does he do to relax? “The simplest thing that I do is take the dog for a walk along the beach here on the Kent coast – I divide my time between Kent and London because I am Chancellor of the University of Kent – and a walk along the beach usually makes me feel a lot better. I play tennis and I also swim in the sea – usually from April until the end of October, if it’s not too cold!”
Never having been to Gibraltar before, Gavin say that he is still a reporter at heart and is looking forward to hearing local points of view regarding Brexit. He will be appearing on Thursday, 14th November at 2.00 pm at The Convent.
Gibraltar Insight Magazine is proud to be a sponsor of the Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival 2019.
The speakers mentioned above are just a small selection from a full programme. More information about all the speakers and booking online for The Gibunco Gibraltar Literary Festival can be found on www.gibraltarliteraryfestival.com