Interview: Andrew Marr’s bittersweet homecoming

After cheating death, Andrew Marr is sucking the juice out of life – not to mention the alcohol. Returning to his old stomping ground, he reveals how the referendum has inspired him to dictate his first novel
Andrew Marr. Picture: Neil HannaAndrew Marr. Picture: Neil Hanna
Andrew Marr. Picture: Neil Hanna

The casual pedestrian who strolled past an enclosed alleyway, off Victoria Street in Edinburgh’s Old Town, peered in then quickly passed on by, would no doubt ponder that as Fringe venues get smaller so the performers are getting older. Just how many stars could this rubbery-faced, 53-year-old man hope to accrue with an act that appeared to consist of the Cumbrian tradition of gurning while brandishing a walking stick? One star, perhaps?

Over a television career that has spanned almost 20 years, Andrew Marr has become accustomed to four and five-star reviews that pulse with praise for the big, bold television documentaries such as his A History Of Modern Britain and, most recently, A History Of The World, but just after noon on a sunny Monday, the only camera crew is Scotland on Sunday’s photographer, Neil, and myself and, of course, Andrew’s wife, Jackie Ashley, who has taken on the role of producer.

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“No, Andrew. Don’t pull ANY funny faces,” she says laughing, as he poses against the old stones of the alley wall.

“Yes, quite right. Tony Hall pulled a funny face at a press conference and the papers use it endlessly,” says Marr referring to the BBC director-general.

There was a time before rushing around the corridors of Westminster as the BBC’s political editor and interviewing President Barack Obama in the White House, before doing pieces-to-camera in the Galapagos Islands, before authoring a broad shelf of big books, before super-injunctions and a stroke in January that almost killed him, when Marr could regularly lean against the old stones of an Edinburgh alley wall, in particular the narrow alley of steps that led up from the Jinglin’ Geordie pub to the then offices of The Scotsman. Those walls regularly acted as a welcome support and friendly ear to the mildly, and not so mildly, inebriated.

Marr tells a funny story of travelling in the early 1980s up from London to Edinburgh in a second class sleeper compartment to his job interview in the company of a shorts and semmit-wearing Scot who had conveniently packed a 24-can case of Special Brew and endless cartons of cigarettes. He aggressively questioned whether Marr was the type of “poooooof” who would object to his evening’s entertainment? On the contrary, Marr decided “out of politeness” to partake with gusto.

“I arrived completely sleepless, having drunk 12 cans of lager and smoked 500 cigarettes. I staggered out of Waverley Station dishevelled, red-eyed and stinking like a kipper. I was so very much the worse for wear, I staggered up the stairs and was shown into the Scotsman newsroom and looked around and saw that everyone looked worse than I was, and I thought: ‘I’ve come home’.”

Last week there were two reasons for coming home to Scotland and spending a week in Edinburgh. His first book, The Battle For Scotland, an account of the nation’s quest for Home Rule, first published in 1992 when he was political editor of The Independent, has been republished and warranted him making an appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And his elder daughter has directed an acclaimed version of Look Back In Anger, which was playing at the Greenside on the Fringe. “I’m flying the flag at the back,” says the proud father.

We meet at the Elephant House on George IV Bridge, where he is having a mid-morning coffee and cake with his family, and when he stiffly rises it is apparent that he is still on a rather arduous road to recovery, despite plans to return to our TV screens full-time on The Andrew Marr Show early next month. One arm remains by his side and he moves aided by his walking stick with a heavy limp, the result of a brace on his left ankle to stop his foot flopping about.

In January, after completing five kilometres on a rowing machine at the mini-gym he keeps in the garden shed of the family home in London, Marr had a stroke. He felt unwell, but still managed to cook the evening meal, took two paracetamol and went to bed, however the next morning he discovered that he had fallen out of bed, his left arm and leg wouldn’t work and his head felt, as he later said, “as if hot tea had been poured into my brain”. He was rushed to Charing Cross Hospital with blue lights flashing, a point which, as lay on the stretcher, rather pleased him.

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The next few days were worse for his family, Jackie, son Harry, 23, and daughters, Isabel, 21, and Emily, 18, who were told on a number of occasions to prepare themselves for his death. Yet Marr pulled through and although his body is taking time to recover, aided by three to four gruelling physiotherapy sessions each week, his mind is pin-sharp. I ask him if he was frightened he was going 
to die?

“It was really weird. I very nearly was killed by it, but I wasn’t really conscious of that at the time. I was in and out of sleep and in quite a lot of pain, and then struck dumb, so Jackie and the girls were told a couple of times that I might be a goner. In a sense it was much worse for them than for me. By the time that I realised how bad it was, I was through the worst of it, and although they say that it is the second stroke that kills you, I actually had two strokes while in hospital. By the time I knew how bad it had been, I was already concentrating on getting better. Oddly I wasn’t that frightened.”

Instead of a fear of death, he now has a greater appreciation for life. “What it has done is made me more conscious of what it is to live in the moment. So this is the best spring I have ever had, although the weather wasn’t that great, unlike this summer. I would go to plays and hear music and I sucked the juice out of life, much more than I used to. I used to hurtle through things. On to the next… On to the next… On to the next. I think that change has been a reaction to what has happened.

“And also it is an excursion for me into the land of the old. I walk with a stick. I move around slowly. I’m much more conscious of how other people are disabled, of older people. I think I’m a bit gentler as a result.”

While we talk, Marr is sitting in a rather capacious chair moulded in the shape of an elephant’s foot, a strange visual nudge towards the other tusked mammal in the room. It’s a rather tricky task to raise the point about the super-injunction Marr took out to conceal an affair with a journalist that resulted in a child, which he at first believed to be his own, but later turned out not to be – especially when 12 feet away his wife and daughter are sipping coffee. Then again, Marr did once ask Gordon Brown if he abused prescription painkillers, but I still feel insensitive when I bluntly segue into a loaded question about the huge personal and professional pressures under which he was toiling and whether he feels better now that everything is out in the open?

“Yes – absolutely. I’m happier now than I was before the stroke, it sounds bizarre but I am. The personal stress was there, but I was also working insanely hard. I was making A History Of The World and I was worried about aspects of it. We had huge arguments all the way through the production. I’ve since spoken to other people who have had strokes and they say: ‘Ah yes, this is what I did the year before.’ Doctors are quite sceptical about whether stress causes strokes, but I think it does have a lot to do with stress.

“A History Of The World was a ferociously big subject, and I was filming it and writing a book at the same time, and that was a recipe for disaster. Quite a lot of friends who saw me around the end of December last year, afterwards, said: ‘I thought of saying something and I wish I had because you looked awful, grey, stressed and unwell’.”

When pressed on the super-injunction, Marr says rather quietly: “I do regret it, I said that at the time.”

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Yet when I ask if he has cut down on his drinking, I’m surprised by the answer. “Actually I’m drinking more,” he says with a laugh. “Three or four years before the stroke, like all journalists, certainly like all Scots journalists, I was risking being an alcoholic and, joking aside, I’ve lost one good friend to alcoholism, and so for the past four years I have been cutting it out. No alcohol three or four days a week, no alcohol at lunch and taking most of January off, so I’d halved my alcohol intake. But after the stroke there are so many things I can’t do. I can’t go running. I can’t go cycling, so I’m back on the booze and probably drinking a little bit more than I did.”

What he can still do, and has done for the past six months, while other people would have been forgiven for lapsing into self-pity, is to work. In between gentle sessions with kettle bells to aid his recovery, Marr has been writing up a storm, or, to be more precise, dictating a daily blizzard of words.

Once a touch-typist who said he thought through his fingertips, Marr now dictates, like Winston Churchill, but instead of being like the prime minister and assisted by an endlessly rotating round of secretaries, he is helped by a new computer program called Dragon Dictate. “Most of the time it’s brilliant, but some of the time it just goes mental.”

The new 5,000 word introduction to The Battle For Scotland was among the first pieces he dictated, along with an introduction to a new book about Isaiah Berlin. And now he is embarking on his first novel. “I can’t say much but it’s a political romp about a referendum campaign that leads to a prime minister’s resignation.”

Whether he does, in fact, believe that next year’s referendum will result in the break-up of the Union and the Prime Minister’s resignation, he prefers not to say. I rather doubt it. “I can’t go further than to say I think the general view that Scots will vote in huge numbers against independence is wrong and that I think it is 
going to be much closer than that,” he says.

“I try to give reasons for that in the introduction to the book, but it is hard to predict, and I think people have to start thinking hard about the shape of the UK post-independence and no-one seems to be giving that a second thought. I was speaking to somebody in the Ministry of Defence about Trident and I said: ‘So what are the plans?’ He looked at me and said: ‘We don’t have any plans.’ I said: ‘But what if Scotland does become independent?’ ‘Well, we’ll just negotiate with the SNP’.

“I said: ‘They have made it perfectly clear that Trident is going.’ He said: ‘Oh we’ll just have a lease back.’ I said: ‘Are you going to move them down to England?’ He said: ‘We haven’t got the bases and it would be too expensive.’ There is no grand plan.”

Marr adds: “I feel very strongly that this is an important slice of British history, not just Scottish history, and that is completely unknown to most people. I get pretty annoyed down south when people express puzzlement about where this referendum has come from, so I think this book answers those questions.”

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As a resident of London for the past 30 years, Marr will have no vote in the future of Scotland, which he regrets but understands: “I much prefer a form of nationalism that says if you live in Scotland, you are a Scot and you get a vote. It’s not about DNA, you could be a McHaggis of McHaggis, but if you live in London you don’t get a vote.”

In the result of a successful referendum for the SNP, he could also choose which passport to carry: “It is a really agonising choice. My daughters are English, my wife is English, but yes, in the end, it would be Scotland, if it is who do you cheer at football, then Scotland.”

The next 13 months will be fascinating for a political anorak such as Marr, who rates Alex Salmond highly. “I would put him alongside Boris Johnson as one of the mould breakers who don’t fit into the classic pattern. I have known him, I keep saying, since he was thin, that is how long I’ve known Alex Salmond, from when he was deputy chief economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland.”

When he kept a bust of Lenin in his office, I add.

“He denies it, but it is true. He is the most subtle and one of the most ruthless politicians I have ever come across and I don’t think ruthless is bad, by the way, for a politician. He has run rings around so many people, he is a very, very formidable operator. But I do think Alistair Darling is a very impressive politician too.”

Our time is almost up and Marr and his wife have a lunch engagement with his sister, but he is keen to make one last point, to praise the NHS which saved his life, and to point out that not enough rehabilitation is available for those stroke victims unable to pay for private physiotherapy. It is a point on which he and his wife, who is a columnist for the Guardian, now plan to campaign.

“Jackie is about to lead a big campaign about better recuperative care and physio care in the NHS. It is really important. I’ve been in hospital rooms with people and, unlike me, they can’t afford to pay for private sessions. They leave hospital in a wheelchair and six months later they are still in a wheelchair, they never get back to work. Fifty thousand people aged 50 and below have strokes each year and most of them never get back to work. It is terrible, because if there was a bit more help, they could get back to work.”

He says this with such passion that it is clear the horror with which Marr views being incapacitated, being unable to work, to write, to communicate, to put that big brain against a problem and bore straight on through.

• The Battle For Scotland by Andrew Marr is published by Penguin Books, priced £8.99