A letter I wrote to Woman’s Hour when I was eleven years old. This letter transformed my life. The BBC veteran Sue MacGregor read my note on Radio 4, and it was punchy and short. 

It is not true that all men are rapists. I stated this, and would appreciate it if you could note the fact. 

This was it. It was the end.

Although I had absolutely no idea what a rapist was – and nobody had the heart to tell me – I had wanted to set the record straight. Now I knew.

Gloria, my mother in Bath, Somerset, listened as the broadcast was being transmitted to me. It was like an orchestra had lifted his baton and everything stopped. The life would resume, but this time it would be completely different. It would take shape.

I didn't find out who my biological father was until I was about eight years old. The revelation came about in the most startling way via our black-and-white television, says Justin Webb

My biological father wasn’t revealed to me until eight years of age. Justin Webb explains that it was through black-and-white TV that Justin Webb discovered the truth.

Listeners around the country were hearing my actual words and I was able to hear them. That feeling of excitement would stay with me forever.

I knew at that moment that I wanted to say things to people – not only to correct the record, but perhaps even to create it. 

It was to attract the attention of people far from my home and small world. Nothing has changed in half a century.

Mum made an appointment with her GP a week after she got married. The reason for this was that Charles, her new husband – and my new stepfather – had poured all the milk down the sink, saying he thought it had been ‘tampered with’.

The doctor’s final verdict summarised perfectly 1960s attitudes to mental health. “Mrs Webb,” he said to her later, “I regret to inform, that your husband has been stark staring insane.”

So it started. For her, for him, for me.

Because we were forced to, we managed his illness. Our little family wouldn’t be able recover from the bleak diagnosis.

The TV news came on and a lugubrious-looking chap in a light-coloured suit with a deep, plummy voice said something about the balance of payments. 'That's your father,' my mother said, quite unprompted. The man's name was Peter Woods (above), and he was one of the BBC's best-known broadcasters of his day

A lugubrious looking man in light-coloured suits and with deep, plummy voices spoke about the balance of payment. My mother said to me, unprompted: “That’s my father.” Peter Woods, the man was his name and was one of the most well-known broadcasters at BBC in his time.

Charles was prescribed Valium and Mum tried to keep him comfortable. We carried on regardless, even though it wasn’t.

Mum, who had only just given birth to me in 1963 after her struggles with motherhood, married Charles Charles in 1963 in the hopes that she would find peace. For her, being a single mom to an alone child was dangerous.

Charles was a highly respected accountant. However, I felt that we were better without Charles. Mum and I had always been close, and he was an outsider to our relationship.

“Mummy,” I asked her when she was little, “Where did you get Charles?” I suggested to her that she visit the pub and find another man who is superior. This idea was so funny that she kept repeating it over and over.

But inside, I believe it made her weep. My question was not answered by her. Like so many other things in my childhood, it hung there.

When I was eight years old, I did not find out my biological father. It was through our black-and white television that the shocking revelation occurred. This is how it happened.

Television news was broadcast and an unassuming looking chap wearing a dark-colored suit spoke up about the balance in payments.

My mother said unprompted, “That’s your dad,”

As a young woman, Mum had worked for the Daily Mirror newspaper as the newsroom secretary. (Above, Justin with his mother, Gloria, in 1971)

Mum worked in the Daily Mirror as the newsroom secretary when she was young. (Above, Justin with his mother, Gloria, in 1971)

I’m not sure I spoke. The balance of my payments seemed to me to be an issue. 

The economic outlook in Britain seemed perilous for reasons that I could not understand. 

The man’s name was Peter Woods, and he was one of the BBC’s best-known broadcasters of his day – a former national newspaper journalist, I later found out, and a one-time commissioned officer in the Royal Horse Guards.

My new red teddy bear was named Peter shortly thereafter. We were all very mature about Peter Woods in our family of stiff upper-lips. He was almost never mentioned again.

Charles and Mum gave it to me as a Christmas present when I was around ten. It was the radio that my first words were broadcast. This was no surprise. It was not a surprise. 

This was a serious purchase that should not be given lightly. They had discussed it. It was discussed with my stepfather, who is required to participate in financial matters. Which? is a consumer magazine. The consumer magazine Which? was consulted.

At the conclusion of discussions, the ITT Tiny Super emerged as the victor. Portable. It was portable and had a good sound quality in the event that I ever wanted to listen to classical music.

It was Harry Nilsson that I first heard when I turned the dial to Radio 1 on 247 Medium Wave. ‘I can’t live, if living is without you…’

As Mum worked in the oven on Christmas Day, I was apathetic as my tears welled up. It was clear to me that she would one day be gone. There was none else, and that’s what I have said.

Radio is all that’s missing. Radio is like no other medium. It transcends loneliness.

In the finale to the Morecambe And Wise Christmas special of 1977, a group of newsreaders came on in fancy dress, singing There Is Nothing Like A Dame. This was in the days before newsreaders did anything but read the news and go home to mow the lawn in relative obscurity. That Christmas special was the beginning of the end of newsreader reticence. On they all trooped. Wow! They had legs. They smiled. They played the fool. And, right at the end, on came the biggest of them all: Peter Woods (above, centre)

A number of newsreaders, dressed in fancy, performed There Is Nothing Like a Dame at the end of the Morecambe And Wise Christmas special 1977. It was before newsreaders could do anything other than to read the news and then go home to mow their lawn in complete obscurity. The Christmas special marked the end for newsreader reticence. They all fought. Wow! They could move their legs. They laughed. They laughed. They were fooled. Then, at the very end, Peter Woods, (above, center)

It will talk to you if you hold it close to your ear. In the 1970s that meant, in no particular order: Emperor Rosko (William Hardcastle), Tony Blackburn and Jimmy Young. This was truly a great gift. This was an amazing revelation.

The TV watching habits of our family were not very pleasant. Apart from Malcolm Muggeridge (the news anchor), most programmes and presenters were not approved of. Mum liked him because he spoke with a sharp accent.

God, that was dull for me at age ten to have to listen Muggeridge speak on Christianity, sexual norms or Stalin’s legacy. 

However, I felt I needed to. That was TV to me. My life was made much duller by the Radio Rentals guys who came with our hire set.

Except that they brought me Morecambe And Wise. This was our only light entertainment. It is hard to believe Eric and Ernie managed to pass, but I’m glad they did. Mum would be there to watch, and we’d laugh.

We were both transported to a happier and more normal place by the time we heard them sing Bring Me Sunshine.

The Christmas Special of 1977 concluded with a performance by a group newsreaders in fancy dresses, performing There Is Nothing Like Dame. 

It was before newsreaders could do anything other than read news stories and then go home to mow their lawns in complete obscurity.

The Christmas special marked the beginning of end for newsreader reticence. They all fought. Wow! They could move their legs. They laughed. They laughed. Peter Woods was the largest of all the players.

He had an extraordinarily low voice and delivered the last line: ‘There is absolutely nothing like the frame… of a dame’ in a deep basso profondo. Somebody cleared their throats. My mother said, “He had shoes as big as Queen Mary.” After some time, we switched off the TV. We didn’t say anything more.

Justin Webb, centre, at boarding school in 1977, three years before his fateful European coach trip

Justin Webb is centre at the boarding school in 1977 three years before his fatal European coach trip.

Mum was a young lady who worked as the Newsroom Secretary for The Daily Mirror newspaper. Fleet Street had money flowing and was thriving in its golden age. She also told me about Testosterone: The typewriters were screwed to their desks as the reporters would return from lunch drunken and throw them at one another.

Then, one day Mum lost her job. What was the reason for this? It was because she discovered she was expecting me.

The Mirror didn’t want a single mother on its books – and nor did the married star reporter with whom she’d been having an affair: Peter Woods.

Mum used to tell me of her trip home from Fleet Street on the No 11 bus, telling me how she was able to get her bed in her rental apartment after her loss of job.

She had just announced to her bosses she was pregnant and they fired her immediately. 

Although she did not give any more details, the descriptions had left me feeling angry and sad at the injustice.

Mum lived with her mother in New Forest, and she moved in. He sent her a Valentine Card shortly after she was born. I visited him once. Is he also giving her money? He didn’t give her any money and I wasn’t sure if it was a lasting arrangement. His wife was his primary concern, as well as the family. Mum believed he was doing the right thing by sticking with them, I believe.

I was already a news hound. Is it nurture or nature that attracted me to journalism. Perhaps a bit of both.

My mother believed in me beyond my limits. My mother believed I was brilliantly talented from my earliest years. When it was clear that I wasn’t, she didn’t think it mattered. My self-belief was high.

Nature? Leonard Crocombe, Mum’s dad, was a respected journalist who Lord Reith selected to become the first editor for the Radio Times.

On the other hand, my father was undoubtedly among the best reporters his highly talented generation. Peter Woods, like my grandfather was self-made. Like him, Peter Woods was a self-made man. He could turn sentences and grab attention.

Although Peter Woods wasn’t a novelist, I recognize the art of his journalism when I see him online in archive footage while the Berlin Wall was being built.

I didn’t know why my father did not know me, nor seek to, but something about his hard-bitten, cynical world appealed to me – maybe as a way of making sense of everything, of making it all seem OK.

There are many paths I could have taken. It was obvious, however, that my early dream of being a coach driver was no longer going to be a success.

So it was that, ten year after my life-changing words were first broadcast to Radio 4, I received a note from BBC informing me I’d been accepted into its graduate journalism training program.

I purchased a shirt and chinos in blue with a collar a few months later.

That day, I was in a room at BBC Headquarters and met Jeremy Bowen. He would become a friend for life and six other seekers of the semi-fortune and fame the Corporation provided.

That was another age. It was a different age. We all were white and all had been educated at Oxbridge, London’s larger colleges. Each of us was given a desk and a typewriter. On trips across the nation, we were shown how to increase our spending and learn old-fashioned tricks.

The Army of Germany was visited by us. Shorthand was learned. We listened in admiration to the stories of our superiors – amiable newsroom characters who had now been put out to grass. 

We were told by one of the men that he was at the foreign desk on the night Turkey invaded Cyprus. He stated that it was a very long night.

Peter Woods was a potential role model for ambitious broadcasters during the 1980s. 

His earlier years included a parachute landing at Suez. He also interviewed Martin Luther King, Alabama.

I didn't know why my father did not know me, nor seek to, but something about his hard-bitten, cynical world appealed to me ¿ maybe as a way of making sense of everything, of making it all seem OK

I didn’t know why my father did not know me, nor seek to, but something about his hard-bitten, cynical world appealed to me – maybe as a way of making sense of everything, of making it all seem OK

In a world with three television channels, his name was a household name. He would be oddly recognized by anyone.

However, I didn’t think about him. It was not suppression. This was a conscious and deliberate decision. Repression was the word. I was forced to become aware of my father so deeply it never reached the surface.

It had disappeared so deeply. You could not even consider it.

Peter Woods, who had quit the BBC in 1981, would eventually die in 1995 at the tender age of 64. Our paths had crossed in London during my time at University.

Three years had passed since he retired when I first saw him in a newsroom on TV, back in 1984. None of that information was available to me, and it never occurred to my to be interested in them. London was big. Our lives were ours to live.

In those days people weren’t as excited or driven by their own identity as they are now. In our relationships with each other, in our families, we made the best of bad lots without feeling… well, that there was anything we could do to change things. To use an annoyingly American expression, our attitude was “it is what is”.

Peter Woods never got to know me. An eccentric childhood like mine can be a blessing in that you are free from traditional regret.

He had children he loved. They loved him. My mother was someone I loved. She loved me.

Is there anything else?

A big trip was planned to mark the close of my childhood. Athens was my choice and I travelled alone – it would not have occurred to me to do it any other way.

The 2nd of August 1980 was the day I said goodbye to Mum. At the tender age of 11, I had left my home to attend a Quaker Quaker school. This felt, however, more definitive. Then it almost was.

We reached Paris at midnight on the so-called “Magic Bus”, which was my first stage. It wasn’t the Paris that I imagined.

It was cold and I felt extremely alone. This sensation has recurred many times. It was this same feeling that I experienced decades later when I was a foreign correspondent in an Egyptian troop heading to Kuwait, the night of the beginning of the Gulf War. This is me! Was this me?

Amazingly, none of the coaches made it to their destination. They were middle-aged, uncooperative, and spoke only Greek. 

Three people were on the bus with us, but they didn’t seem to be sleeping or eating. The three of them were worse off than our passengers when we reached the Yugoslavian border. That was quite an achievement.

Peter Woods and I never met. But one of the blessings of an eccentric upbringing like mine is that it frees you from conventional regret. (Above, Webb in Washington DC)

Peter Woods never got to know me. One of the benefits of having an unusual upbringing is its ability to free you from traditional regret. Webb, Washington DC.

Yugoslavia had one main road. It was described as a motorway by some, but was actually more like a dirt road with large queues of cars waiting to cross an unpaved, puddled wasteland, before joining the main highway.

Anyone who has been involved in a serious road accident will know the sense of sickly certainty you feel in the millisecond before impact: a certainty that all is going to change – and that any opportunity to stop it changing is now gone.

Although the driver pulled in to pass, he may have misjudged either the engine or gear or gradient or had something not worked as it should. Unfortunately, the coach couldn’t generate enough power to overcome a nearby bus.

It was probably 40-50 mph. A lorry was also hurtling at us at the same speed.

Slow motion was how I witnessed it. I saw the wheel trying to steer us along a narrow path. You can see the embankment. Slow turning in mid-air.

My seat was located on the left side of the driver. We went round and finally we reached the landing zone. Two things happened to the force of landing. It first shattered my window. It then hurled me from my chair, propelling I through the opening where the glass was.

The field was my home, and I stood on my feet. I was surrounded by several passengers who were either lying down or sitting dazed.

There was silence, smoke, and wheels turning. Nobody screamed, or spoke.

There was then much moaning inside. The people were still there, and the fuel from their ruptured tanks was still dripping onto them. They were pulled out by us. I also noticed my rucksack and pulled it out. The man behind me was also dead.

Finally, the British consul came to visit.

Drivers were frightened.

That day was full of many learnings. One lesson was the fact that combination of academic knowledge and street wisdom can be an unstoppable force. The plan was to stay in hotels nearby while the replacement bus from Greece arrived. The process would take several days but was still the best. What a hell!

Unbeknownst to me was an older man, elegantly dressed and luxuriously in black, Greek, while speaking flawless English. “I’m going,” he replied. He said, “Come with us if necessary.”

That is exactly what happened. For a young boy fresh out of his cloistered school, it was an eye-opening moment upon moment. The train tracks led us to the station, where we found a southbound train.

Yugoslavia was gone. At dawn came Greece. Athens was eventually built.

A second lesson that I took away from this momentous experience was to be resourceful, and optimistic. Be optimistic and believe things could turn out well.

Many years later, and a lifetime after, in the first Gulf War I was alone in the desert despairing about meeting with my colleagues, who had a satellite dish installed in their Jeep.

The thunderous sound of an American air raid could be heard in the distance. There were dunes all around and a white-painted asbestos structure next to us that could be used as shelter during sandstorms.

A bottle of tomato sauce was in my car, as we had been instructed by the Army that essentials should be carried. I put it in the hut to write a message to my coworkers telling them where I was going.

They came back a day later to see it and found us that night.

I was a young schoolboy when I left to go to Greece. I was a man when I got back.

© Justin Webb, 2022

Abridged extract from The Gift Of A Radio, by Justin Webb, published by Doubleday on February 10 at £16.99. To pre-order a copy for £15.29, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before February 7. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.