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An overnight email pops up on my phone as I arrive for work at the BBC just before 6am. It is from the man I married fleetingly when we were in our early twenties: “Hi, just letting you know that I finally got to play Tarzan. We recorded it here in LA for Radio 4. We are working for the same folk! J.”
We all carry one other’s memories and this poignant joke refers to a day 40 years ago. Fresh out of drama school, Julian was asked to audition for the part of Tarzan — an unknown in a Hollywood film. The morning was charged with life-changing expectation. A famous casting director, a sleek film car waiting outside our Kilburn flat, his meaningful glance back at me before sliding into the pale leather seat. That evening he returned, cast down, travelling on the number 31 bus. Our lives reverted, for the time being, to normal.
It is a pleasing notion that Radio 4 is a sanctuary of second chances. The physical resemblance to Tarzan, with the best will in the world, is harder to achieve when you hit 60. But the voice lasts longer. As the great champion of radio, Tom Stoppard once put it: “You can go where you want. You’re very free with the classical unities of time and space and, last but not least, you can get actors more easily as you only need them for a day or two.”
At the awards for the Voice of the Listener & Viewer association the other day Jan Ravens collected her trophy for Dead Ringers, impersonating the voice of the prime minister. She said afterwards that Theresa May had been a dormant character at the Home Office because she said so little. It was only after she made her speech outside number 10, having seen off her more conspicuous political rivals, that her character leapt into life. You can keep your head down, but it is your voice that gives you away. It is why some politicians have a superstitious fear of appearing on the Today programme.
The virtuous circle of my former husband’s career reminded me of another who played Tarzan, Michael Heseltine. He too started with big dreams. According to his friend Julian Critchley, Heseltine sketched out his life while still an undergraduate: by 25 a millionaire, by 35 an MP, by 55 prime minister. Only the last, Macbethian ambition did not work out, but his life took on another purpose with an allegiance to an idea — Europe. And his legacy turns out to be his 50-acre arboretum rather than ultimate political promotion. Not bad.
While we are on connections, another thwarted Tory leader, William Hague, has also become a devoted tree planter — as well as a pianist and a writer. He told me that letting go of a craving for office — especially AN office, is where peace of mind began for him.
There must be those — apart from the royal family — who have methodically lived lives they mapped, but I do not know them. Preconceived careers assume a self-awareness and a celestial coherence, whereas, so far as I can see, human beings are confused and life is capricious. As for the workplace, it is disappearing beneath our feet.
When I set out in journalism, newspapers were golden geese, there was no internet, people retired in their sixties, and you were either in the office or you were in the pub. Now, people work into their nineties, offices are community spaces with WiFi, and we must constantly re-evaluate and adapt. Our old selves can no longer be an extension of our young selves. How many of our jobs are future proofed?
I am rather proud to be an honorary fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, set up for women who wish to return to education beyond the age of 21. Why would your personal development precisely conform to an educational grid? People change. We accept this in relationships, but not in professions or hobbies. At 18, I cared about punk rock and films. Now I want botany, birds and archaeology. I am becoming the ornithologist version of Jeremy Hunt, having bought a portfolio of luxury owl boxes, a hidden asset that so far sits untenanted.
If we are going to live longer, we had better think of multiple careers. A features staple on newspapers is the former “high-flying” lawyer or banker who has given it all up to find meaning as a gardener or cook. It would actually be more interesting if it were the other way round, but the point is clear that satisfaction depends on more than financial reward.
The colleague who was most clear about what he really wanted to do was the Daily Telegraph’s late Bill Deedes, who went from being a cabinet minister and an editor to being a reporter, in his eighties. You end where you began, at the point of maximum hope. Me Tarzan.
Sarah Sands is editor of the ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4
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