Jonathan Dimbleby takes the Grown-up Test

Joy Persaud / 17 May 2018

The presenter of Radio 4’s Any Questions is also a trustee of Dimbleby Cancer Care. Its fundraising 50km London walk takes place this month. He’s 73, but, wonders Joy Persaud, how old is he in his head?

Did you have a nickname at school and do you still have it?

I did, but mercifully I don’t now. I was quite good at sport, but I was small and in that charming way little children have, I was called Stumpy. I can’t pretend that I liked to be called Stumpy. It would’ve been better to be called ‘Small but Perfectly Formed’.

Is there an object that you have kept from childhood?

Robert – a very moth-eaten rabbit given to me for my birthday. He is 68 years old, five years younger than me. But I dare say he looks a bit older. He’s got a button missing from his right eye.

What did your parents teach you?

My mother taught me to try to empathise and be tolerant. Both of them taught me – particularly my father [legendary broadcaster Richard Dimbleby] – that it doesn’t matter what you do, but do it to the best of your ability. He was very easy-going: do what you wish to do, so long as you do it wholeheartedly. But he wasn’t inviting me to become a bank robber, you know…

Who’s your longest friendship with?

It has to be with my brother, David, doesn’t it? I daren’t say any more than that; we never talk about each other.

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Which decade are you most nostalgic for?

I look back on a blessed childhood in the Sussex countryside. But for me, nostalgia brings sadness, so I ward it off or it can intrude so much that I bring myself down instead of getting on and writing my next book.

Town or country?

I am a country bumpkin. I live in the city now for practical reasons and I am very happy, but my soul is in the countryside, particularly South Devon. I am not sentimental about it, though. I’ve seen – when I was farming – animals die; I’ve brought lambs into the world that were dead. But I feel nourished and nurtured by the country.  

Twitter – yes or no?

Yes – but… There are so many people who seem to have boils they need to burst on the platform rather than using it as a means of sharing ideas and voicing criticisms and support. I have a Twitter account, but I don’t use it a great deal.  

What did turning 60 mean for you?

Well, it didn’t mean very much. I got on with life. I was writing and I didn’t yet have a second family, but I was in a situation where it became quite likely I would have one. It was enchanting and daunting.

What single thing would make getting older easier?

The prospect of not getting older. Anyone who is ageing and not aware of mortality is either very foolish, very ignorant or wonderfully fortunate.

What’s your most prized possession?

I have a late 19th-century painting in my study – it has seven cows in it and a romanticised water meadow with some trees behind them, and it could be Devon. I look at that and it gives me balm. It’s a wonderfully peaceful painting. It’s not really worth a great deal, but it’s one of the treasures of my life.

Would you rather have your youth back or keep what you have now?

What I have now. If you really just want to have your youth back, you’re sort of suggesting that all the rest was less valuable and I couldn’t bear to contemplate that.

How do you relax?

I would like to have more time for very basic things – to read more, listen to more music and walk more.

What are the two main lessons life has taught you?

Perseverance and the importance of love. If you don’t persevere, you fall by the wayside. If you don’t love, your life is bleak.

Verdict: Jonathan certainly has the wisdom of age, but his desire to live in the now makes him sound like an open-minded 55-year-old.


Why Jonathan’s Walking for Cancer

When Jonathan’s father, the renowned broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, died of cancer just before Christmas in 1965, he was just 52 years old.

‘Because of his fame, there was a huge response, with memorial services in Westminster Abbey, shown on the BBC and ITV,’ says Jonathan. ‘There was an outpouring of grief from people with modest incomes and that raised something in the order of £400,000, which, in today’s money is £6m.’

‘We had sackfuls of post - which actually kept us going after his death -  partly because people loved him, but also because he’d made it public that he had cancer. It was virtually, if not absolutely, unprecedented, then for a public figure to acknowledge they had the great unmentionable. “The big C”.

‘It was often thought that to have cancer was some kind of punishment from the Almighty – sins of the fathers visited on sons – all of that kind of nonsense. We knew what cancer he had – testicular cancer – and that he had been too embarrassed by the symptoms to report them to his GP early enough to prevent the spread. Today, testicular cancer has a cure rate of something around 95 to 100 per cent.’

The family set up the Dimbleby Cancer Care (DCC) charity in Richard’s memory to support those affected by cancer, as well as establishing a professorship of cancer research.

‘Something my father said when he was very ill in hospital – he was extraordinarily resilient until the end – was, “Oh, these hospital pillows…” The one thing he wanted was a soft pillow. Now, that has become our symbol, which is to provide comfort and support – practical support for those people who are living with cancer.

‘A very high proportion of us are going to get one type of cancer or another in our lifetimes. The statistics suggest something like four out of five people.

‘You might think that, as cancer afflicts so many people, we would be living much shorter lives, but we are living longer and longer with cancers that are being treated effectively and stopped. However, what happens when you have a cancer is that you need support.’

The charity provides psychological, therapeutic and practical assistance for people with cancer at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, delivered by the NHS. Additionally, DCC helps people access government funds to help pay their rent or other essentials.

DCC’s latest venture is a cancer care map, where users can input their postcode and pick from an itemised list to find the support they need. All of the services offered are organised by distance away from the person so they know how far they would have to travel and all are endorsed by the NHS.

‘One of the great problems that I discovered is finding out what kind of care you can get,’ observes Jonathan. ‘You’re fine in the hospital, your GP will do his or her best but then you tend to be rather on your own. That’s where the charitable sector comes in and supports people.’

‘Our immediate goal is to raise money to sustain the map because we do depend entirely on donations … and if we can get the support then we can sustain a high-quality cancer care map over the long term for the entire United Kingdom with everything that is available that is of good quality.

‘I can’t tell you the response to all that we are doing – from patients, their families. It’s overwhelming, with people saying Dimbleby Cancer Care has made a huge difference to [their] lives. It is very touching and, of course, rewarding when you are fundraising to know that you are having an impact.’

DCC will be raising money to expand the cancer care map through a sponsored walk on June 15. The walk, the charity’s fourth, caters for those able to cover 12km, 25km or the whole 50km central London-based route.

‘It’s rather beautiful, because it is in June, it’s dusk at about 10pm and then it’s dark for a very short time and then you get the early dawn,’ says Jonathan. ‘It’s all very well organised – we have a professional team who have worked out the pit stops for refreshments and so on. We go off in quite small groups and there’s always a guide for each group to make sure people don’t get lost. It’s open to people of all ages – we’ve had people in their 80s and two people in their teens.’

Join Jonathan for Dimbleby Cancer Care’s Walk50 event, starting at London’s St Thomas’ Hospital by Westminster Bridge, on 15 June to support people living with cancer. Register at


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