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An interview with... Mariella Frostrup

Broadcaster and journalist, Mariella Frostrup has been at the heart of popular British culture for the last three decades. Whether presenting arts programmes, judging major literary awards, encouraging budding artists in BBC1’s The Big Painting Challenge, or popping up in hit TV comedies such as Absolutely Fabulous, Mariella pulls off the tricky feat of both having her finger on the cultural pulse and her feet firmly on the ground. Something she learned from years of travelling.

You’re a self-confessed travel addict. Where does that come from?

I was born in Norway and moved to the west coast of Ireland when I was six. Where I stayed until I was 16! I literally didn’t go anywhere. My first proper holiday was to Greece when I was 18. It was the perfect age, I misspent so many wonderful holidays there.  

Greece must have made a huge impression – the white of the buildings, the vivid blue of the sea and skies …

When you’ve been brought up on the west coast of Ireland, you can’t believe that somewhere warm, blue and sun-kissed even exists. It was love at first sight. And my love affair with Greece is enduring and ongoing: there are very few places that make me happy every single time I go.

I started travelling regularly for work in my early 20s: I worked in public relations for a record company and the music industry was awash with cash at the time. I looked after Bananarama, Tears for Fears, Bob Geldof, Dire Straits… I also worked on Band Aid and Live Aid. From 18 to 25 years old I travelled constantly to America, with an expense account and a bunch of young journalists all my age. It really was incredible. The world felt like it belonged to us. It was like travelling with toddlers though: the bands and the journalists were all so unworldly. I quickly took charge and became a very independent traveller, booking hotels and hiring cars; I never thought twice about driving on the other side of the road.

Travelling can sometimes feel like an exam, testing you in every way.

Yes, and when you succeed it makes you feel self-sufficient. I passed my driving test when I was 18 and immediately spent two weeks driving a car across France. I wanted to become a better driver fast, and it paid off.  It was at that age that I really developed the travel bug. Although my Dad had travelled a lot for work as he was foreign editor for The Irish Times. I remember when we were still living in Norway, he came home from Tangiers with a box of tropical fruit. Norway in the 1960s – we’d never even seen tropical fruit – pineapples, mangoes! It was like he’d brought a box of sunshine into the flat.

Are you struck by how different your children’s travel experiences are to your own?

 Oh I’m terrible. I’m forever saying to them: “You have no idea, do you know how lucky you are?” We just went to Sri Lanka and on long drives I let the kids use their phones in the back of the minibus. We were driving through Yala National Park – a really incredible place, with elephants and all sorts of amazing wildlife – and I hear this groan from the backseat. I look around and there’s my daughter Molly looking at her phone. “Oh I can’t believe it” she says,” Thea and Livvy are going to Bath shopping today!” As a parent you’re damned whatever you do.

As a child I would have killed to have been on any one of the trips we’ve taken our children on. My two are so used to travelling though, they are rather blasé about it. I’ve started worrying where they’re going to go on their Gap Year? Every place I think of, I want to go there with them. But then where will they go with their friends? I actually said to my husband recently that maybe we should just go to Greece every summer from now on, and then hopefully by the time Molly or our son are 18 they’ll feel the need to go to Vietnam.

But there’s also something special about going back, returning to a place you know and love, filled with memories.

 Yes, some of the best experiences in life are retreading things you’ve done before, whether it’s rereading a book from childhood or returning to a special place. Also, slightly mitigating it, I believe the best form of education is to go and see the world: to step outside your own environment and see different lives with your own eyes. I’ve taken my kids on charity trips to Africa; I think it’s really important they don’t just go to 5-star hotels. Next year we’re going backpacking in Peru.

Where’s your favourite place?

That’s really difficult. Greece I’ll always go back to: I thought it was perfect when I was a teenager but it’s also perfect with two kids. I love the water, the food, the climate…. That said, I also loved Vietnam, Cambodia, Peru…. We just went to Sri Lanka and I loved it there. Wherever I’ve just been is my favourite place.

And where do you dream of visiting? A place you’ve not yet been? 

Costa Rica. I actually have been before but I’d like to go with Molly. She’s become a really good and absolutely fearless scuba diver and Costa Rica has the best dive sites I’ve ever experienced. The water is so clear and absolutely full of every kind of fish and beautiful coral. It’s an incredible place.

For many years you’ve been involved with fundraising and campaigning for women’s rights in Africa. Why is this particularly important to you?

In 1985 Comic Relief was founded in response to the famine in Ethiopia, and I volunteered to do their publicity for the first six years. So I visited a lot of projects in Africa with Comic Relief but then I kept going back.

One trip, I was with a particularly motivating group of African women – one was Vice President of the World Bank, another ran a huge charity for girls, dealing with billions – and I thought, the only stories you ever hear about Africa are tragic ones. You never hear about the amazing people who come out of these environments and do great things. I felt we weren’t amplifying these stories enough: we need these role models, and to champion the right to dignity and an education.

In 2010 I helped set up GREAT – Gender Rights and Equality Action Trust – a charity supporting women’s rights and gender equality in Africa. We handpicked small projects and funded some great things, such as the Liberia Women Democracy Radio: like Woman’s Hour broadcasting for 12 hours a day, running phone-ins on rape counselling and really practical issues like that. We also looked into what we could do here in the UK that would help in Africa. So we campaigned to have an amendment added to the International Development Bill. It used to be that the government gave development money to whichever country they judged needed it. The decision was often based on a couple of businessmen sitting in a room, never with the criteria that human rights had to be observed, ie that both sexes had to be treated equally. We managed to get gender parity included in the International Development Bill, meaning of the £11 billion the UK government gives, gender quality has to be addressed. This has a big and ongoing impact.

We also started a London-based initiative that, with the support of Comic Relief, has just gone nationwide. GREAT Men sees us going into schools talking to teenage boys about their attitudes to women and attitudes to themselves. The premise for everything we do is that this isn’t a battle of the sexes: men have fundamentally as much to gain as women from equality across the board.

You’ve long been associated with the literary world: presenting BBC Radio 4’s weekly books programme Open Book, judging both the Man Booker Prize and Orange Prize for Fiction, and presenting The Book Show on Sky Arts 1. Are you ever tempted to write a book yourself?

I don’t think I can – I can read great fiction but I don’t think I can write it. And I don’t want to write something mediocre. People assume everyone can do everything, but so many books written by people like me are ghost written, I’m constantly shocked.

Presenting a weekly book programme and judging literary prizes – that sounds like an awful lots of reading?

 It definitely dominates my life but I’m so used to it now I don’t know any different. I always have to be reading to get ahead. It’s so rare that I don’t have to read. Sometimes there’ll be a week in August between finishing programmes and coming back a month later when I don’t read. It’s such a relief, just to sit and look at Grazia. The thing about reading is that if you’re reading a great book you don’t begrudge it for a second. If you’re reading an average book, you feel slightly resentful. If you’re reading a bad book, I don’t think there’s any greater torture. And as you get older you get a bit more selfish about your time.

Is there a book you’re saving for when you hang your professional reading glasses up?

 No, though we did something on Open Book recently with a real George Eliot enthusiast trying to persuade me why I should read Middlemarch. And actually he did a really good job, so possibly when I retire I might read a George Eliot. The other one is Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet, which I’ve started about a hundred times. I keep taking it on holiday but it’s quite a heavy tome and too dense to be a holiday read, so I still haven’t got through it. That’s on my list too.

Print or e-book?

It depends. If I’ve got to carry a lot of things around with me or if it’s something I just need to skim to be aware of, then I’ll put it on my iPad. I was thinking about getting a Kindle, as my great fear is to be on holiday and wind up without a book to read. I can’t have them on my iPad as everything else is on there and that’s such a distraction. If I had a Kindle I could have lots of books just for me that I could slip in between work reads.

What should we be reading now?

I thought Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie was a great read: about two Muslim families in the UK, and very much of the moment. I liked George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo too, it’s mad in a fun way – very clever and well imagined. I never read Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train – which I know the rest of the world read and loved – but I did read her new one Into the Water and loved it, a good story and a really good holiday read.

Another book I loved was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Books – like travel – act as a portal, not only to other worlds but other people’s experience of those worlds: they’re one of the only ways to understand cultures that are alien to your own. Home Fire is an interesting exploration of what would make a young boy growing up in the UK do something as dramatic and culturally alien as go off and join ISIS. At times like these it’s really important to be reading books like these, stepping into other people’s shoes. And fiction does that better than any other medium. You could watch a million news reports but you need to empathise – a great storyteller can make you do that.

You write a well-respected advice column in The Observer. So, Agony Aunt, Culture Tsar, Campaigner… how do you see yourself?

As a rather harassed mother of two? I don’t know really. When I was 25 I had to make a choice between working in the music business – which might not sound like a stable career, but it was a proper job with a monthly salary and a car – and going freelance as a journalist and presenter. It was really terrifying as I was desperate not to let go of this security I’d found. But the compulsion to have each day different, to learn disparate things every working day, to never know one month to the next where I was going to be and what I was going to be doing… I just couldn’t resist. And I’m happy now doing lots of different things, so I find it frustrating when people try and box me in – Advice Mariella, Book Mariella, before that I was Film Mariella, Journalist Mariella. And I co-present The Big Painting Challenge with Reverend Richard Coles on BBC1, so suddenly I’m Art Mariella! I’m not any one of these things. I’m someone with a healthy interest in the world around me.  And if you could make your interest in the world your job, I don’t know anyone who would say no.