Gavin Esler: Newsflash.. it's a good time to be me

He's done it all since learning his ABCs in the city, but broadcaster is relishing the stories still to come.

THE shock of the explosion had been bad enough – Gavin Esler, a young newshound, on one of his first days in his first job, couldn't have begun to imagine what would come next.

He was a junior reporter on a Belfast paper, finding his feet in the world of newspapers. Suddenly Duddingston Primary School, his first teacher Miss Darling, and the ageing ABC book so dated that "G" stood for gas globes – much to the bafflement of the young students of 1958 – seemed a very long way away.

Today, of course, he's an experienced, steady hand in the world of dramatic news, witness to life-changing events and a fair amount of political backstabbing – a familiar face known for grilling world leaders on the small screen.

He's an award-winning broadcaster, Newsnight presenter and author of a string of gritty novels, the latest one just out.

But back in 1976, aged 23, he was just a frightened young man from Edinburgh, confronted by bloody terrorism and hatred in its harshest form.

"I got there before the police and the ambulance crews," he remembers, thinking back to the Belfast North Street arcade bomb, an IRA device which killed four shoppers, the youngest aged just 19. "It was truly horrible."

A baptism of fire indeed for the young Esler, who had arrived in Northern Ireland only days before, armed with a university degree in English literature, a post- graduate journalism course under his belt and a few weeks training in the comparatively calm environment of Cardiff.

"It became quite overwhelming really," Esler says. "I got to the office to hear that the IRA had stopped a van in South Armagh, got all the Protestants out and shot dead ten people – simply because they were Protestants.

"Everyone from the Belfast Telegraph had gone there, which left me in this huge Victorian office with the editors – who were also frightening – and no-one else."

But soon he was tasting death himself, at first hand. The bomb, an IRA device which exploded prematurely, catapulted the former George Heriot's public schoolboy into the real world faster than he might have expected. He arrived at the shopping arcade to find a scene so disturbing that he can remember it vividly three decades on.

"There was a woman who had been hit by a plate glass window and was covered in blood; there was a leg lying in the car park, blown off," he shudders.

"Nothing on my journalism training course gave me any idea of what to do next. So I stood there like a muppet, completely shocked, and wondered if I really was cut out for the job."

As it turned out, Esler was more than capable of accepting the role of hard-nosed reporter. Soon he learned to take the Troubles in his stride.

He might have been raised in the relative calm of a middle-class enclave between Currie and Balerno; swotted for his Highers in the prestigious surroundings of George Heriot's; whiled away his summers camping in the Lammermuir Hills then sailed through university in peaceful Kent, but the Eslers, it seems, are made of stern stuff.

He had his first brush with the fragile line that divides life and death when he was only a few weeks old. Born in Glasgow where his parents were living at the time, the baby boy soon showed signs of dehydration.

Doctors quickly found a stomach problem, operated and saved Esler's life – an act that inspired the youngster to dream of the day he too would become a doctor.

His parents arrived in Edinburgh three years later where his father, Bill, worked as manager of a building company overseeing major construction projects, while mother Georgina looked after Gavin and sister Ann. It was, Esler recalls, "a wonderful childhood".

"I had all the advantages of the country and all the advantages of the town," he says. "I lived in the country but could be in town within 20 minutes by bus.

"My first day at Duddingston Primary is probably my first memory. I remember arriving on my first day. Miss Darling – who was lovely, just lovely – was the teacher and it was her last year as she was about to retire.

"The school books, though, must have been about 50 years old. The ABC book started with A for apple then got to the letter 'G' for gas globe, and I remember wondering what on earth a gas globe was. They hadn't been around for decades."

He won a scholarship to George Heriot's when he was just seven and remained until he was 17 – staying on in Edinburgh with friends' parents even when his family opted to risk rising concerns over horrific sectarian violence and decamp to Northern Ireland.

The young Esler was planning to pursue that childhood dream and head for medical school at Edinburgh University until, suddenly, he realised he'd rather write.

"I was torn because I always wrote a lot for the school magazine or I'd make up my own little magazines. Then I had this crisis and thought I wouldn't do medicine after all, that I was going to be a journalist and a writer," he recalls.

"It was a complete panic because I'd spent my teenage years thinking I was going one way, and then I decided to go another." Today, of course, Esler is among the most familiar newsroom faces on the BBC – despite his original applications to join the corporation being rejected.

He juggles a gruelling workload that includes three shifts in the Newsnight hotseat every week – an exhausting stint that runs from 9.30am until midnight in which he is every bit as persistent in his search for answers from unwilling guests as his co-presenters Kirsty Wark and, of course, the infamous Jeremy Paxman.

In fact it was Esler's tackling of MP George Galloway in 2005 over the London bombings that prompted hundreds of complaints to the BBC over his apparently overly rude and aggressive manner.

"We're never encouraged by the producers to ask questions in any way," he insists. "The most important thing to be is authentic and to be yourself. If I feel someone has answered a question then I'll move on. If I feel it's important enough, I will pursue the question.

"Viewers don't like rudeness, but they like us to be persistent. If I'm given the brush-off, that means a million people at home watching are getting the brush-off too, and they don't want to hear someone avoiding the question."

Alongside Newsnight, he also tackles various Radio Four programmes, spells on the BBC News channel and network current affairs programme Dateline London. All of which means it's a wonder the 55-year-old has time for much else.

Yet clearly he does. In between all that he's written four novels, as well as a factual account of American discontent, drawing on his role as the BBC's Washington correspondent in the mid-80s, which saw him eventually run the corporation's stateside coverage during the dramas of the George Bush and Bill Clinton eras.

Today Esler admits that the Clinton-Lewinsky saga partly influenced his latest work of fiction, A Scandalous Man.

The intriguing tale of sex scandal, enmeshed with political power and a fractured father-son relationship, will bring the newsman home to Edinburgh in August for an appearance at the International Book Festival.

He insists he's not a workaholic and family demands in recent years have clearly put life's priorities into perspective.

He wrote movingly three years ago about his late mother falling victim to Alzheimer's disease, describing her gradual loss as like watching the sun set in summer in the Highlands.

"You know it is getting darker and darker until finally the sky is totally black," he said, "but you are hard-pressed to say exactly when all light was extinguished."

More recently, he has witnessed perhaps the biggest challenge of all: his 16-year-old daughter Charlotte's fight against Hodgkin's lymphoma which, two years ago, she turned into a report on the TV news show for which her father is best known. "It was a difficult time but she's doing very well now," says Esler with a note of relief in his voice.

But there's really no escaping his role in the most watched news programme on television – and right now Esler can't imagine a more stimulating environment.

"This is a great time to be presenting a current affairs and news programme," he says. "There is the most interesting American election in my lifetime; a hugely interesting political situation in Britain with Gordon Brown and how he will do over the next two years; and the Westminster relationship with the Scottish Parliament and Alex Salmond. It's actually really good fun."

&#149 A Scandalous Man by Gavin Esler is published by Harper Collins in hardback, 17.99. The Edinburgh International Book Festival runs from August 9-25.