Alumni Profile: Nigel Farndale – I was supposed to be a farmer
We asked Nigel Farndale to write a piece about his time at Richmond Sixth Form College and his journey to becoming an award-winning journalist and author. Nigel is a senior editor at The Times, a paper for which he also writes columns and features. He has won a British Press Award for his interviews with, among others, Donald Trump, Paul McCartney, Hillary Clinton, Stephen Hawking and Elton John. His books include ‘The Blasphemer’, a bestseller which was nominated for the Costa Novel Award. ‘The Dictator’s Muse’, Nigel’s new book, will be published by Doubleday on 24th June 2021.
Please read on to discover more about Nigel’s fascinating career, his time at Richmond Sixth Form College and how he was supposed to be a farmer! You can find out more about Nigel and his work at nigelfarndale.com
I was supposed to be a farmer. My father farmed in Wensleydale, as my grandfather had done before him, and the plan was that I would do the same. The problem was that my favourite subject at school was English. Obviously I didn’t need an A level in ‘Eng Lit’ to get into the agriculture college I was being lined up for, but in 1981 I persuaded Austin Lynch, the cool, CND-badge-wearing skinhead who was the head of the sixth form at Richmond, that it would be a neat idea if I did one anyway.
I was lucky because my English teacher, Andrew Thompson, was one of those inspirational, bearded mavericks who would jump on the desk to recite poetry. He got us reading off the curriculum, introducing us to African-American literature, for example. It probably helped that one of my A level English classmates became my first girlfriend. Her name was Fiona and she lived in one of those elegant Georgian houses in Frenchgate. When we were reading Wuthering Heights or Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the stories seemed especially poignant.
At the end of the sixth form she and I, along with a handful of other Richmond pupils, signed up to a ‘cultural exchange’ to the Soviet Union, having seen a flier about it pinned up on the notice board. Given that this was the summer of 1983, a peak of Cold War tension, it was an unforgettable experience. My horizons were broadened. Apart from anything else, it was the first time I had been on a plane.
After that, I wrote to Mr Thompson admitting that I didn’t really want to be a farmer. I wanted to be a novelist. He wrote back saying: ‘Why not? But it will be a long road.’ It certainly was.
Before you can write well you have to be well read, so I devoured books, sometimes while doing tractor work. After a year of farming I left to do a degree in English at Oxford Polytechnic which was combined with an exchange to Rhode Island University in America. Around this time I figured that journalism counted as writing too and that it might be a good way to learn my prospective trade. I started a student magazine and managed to land an interview with Harold Wilson, the former Prime Minister. My rule was that there was no harm in asking famous people to do interviews. They will probably say no, but they might say yes.
After graduating I came back to farm for another year, but was still not feeling ‘hoofed’ as they say in Yorkshire, so I did a master’s degree in philosophy at Durham University and, after sending the acerbic Telegraph journalist Auberon Waugh a disobliging critique of Literary Review, the magazine he edited, I started writing book reviews for him. Luckily he had been amused by my hatchet job. I then did a short sub editing course at City University in London and some work experience at The Spectator, a magazine I still write for occasionally.
My first proper job in journalism was as a freelance sub editor on Punch. From there I went to work as a staff writer on Country Life and then, for twenty years, I was the chief interviewer on the Sunday Telegraph, winning a British Press Award along the way. These days I’m a senior editor on The Times, though I still do the occasional interview and column.
Being an interviewer is fun. As scoops go, it was not quite up there with Watergate, but in 2008 I became the first journalist to uncover the secret of Donald Trump’s brushed-forward, combed-over hairstyle, the one that looks like a sunken apricot soufflé. He wets it, he told me, and then applies copious amounts of hairspray. When he announced he was running for president, that article went viral around the world.
Another occasion when an interview of mine went viral was when I met Art Garfunkel in 2015. The singer nearly walked out at the start but then ordered some pea soup (it was 10am) and settled down. Although he was reluctant to talk about Paul Simon, I got the feeling this was because he was nervous that his true feelings would rise to the surface. I kept steering him back to the subject, until, eventually, Garfunkel admitted that he thought Simon a ‘jerk’ and an ‘idiot’. The line of his that generated the most headlines was ‘I created a monster’.
I never knew where my next assignment would take me. One week I might be interviewing Stephen Spielberg in sunny California, the next Prince Charles in rainy Cumbria, the one after that, Mick Jagger in Toronto. I spent a week in Bucharest with Ilie Nastase when the tennis star was making a bid to become mayor of that city; another in Cairo with Fifi Abdou, Egypt’s most famous belly dancer when she was in hiding from Muslim fundamentalists who had threatened to ‘slice her into a thousand pieces’; and a further week criss-crossing Venezuela with the mayor of Caracas, the former Miss Universe Irene Saez, when she was running for president against the Marxist Hugo Chavez. One of my strangest assignments was spending a week in Siberia with Prince Michael of Kent.
Meanwhile, after the usual trial by rejection slip, I had reached the end of that long road that Mr Thompson had talked about and The Blasphemer, a parallel narrative novel set in the First World War and the present day, became a bestseller in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. My seventh book, The Dictator’s Muse, set in the London and Berlin of the 1930s, is published in June.
I haven’t yet gone back to being a farmer in Wensleydale, but never say never.