Nick Robinson’s familiar voice is not yet back to full broadcast strength but it carries well enough across the table in his back garden. Sadly, the news that it delivers is not all good.
The BBC’s 51-year-old political editor reveals that he has twice been readmitted to hospital while recovering from life-saving lung cancer surgery.
He was released on Tuesday after four days in the Royal Free Hospital in London having been taken ill during a dinner date with his wife Pippa.
And while millions of BBC viewers welcomed his live News at Ten report on the eve of the General Election, the broadcaster had actually swapped his pyjamas for pinstripes just 90 minutes earlier and come straight from a hospital bed to which he immediately returned.
In this together: Robinson with his wife Pippa. He was released on Tuesday after four days in the Royal Free Hospital in London having been taken ill when the pair went out for a rare a dinner date
This halting recovery has frustrated Robinson, who had expected to be back at work just three weeks after his first operation in March. He had not reckoned on losing his voice – collateral damage caused by the extent of the surgery – or having chemotherapy.
‘The surgery got rid of the cancer and that’s what really matters,’ he says. ‘The chemotherapy is a precaution against its possible return. You have to be prepared to live with uncertainty – everybody does.’
It is, of course, absolutely necessary. But Robinson describes the chemotherapy with undisguised loathing in his acerbic new memoir, Election Notebook.
In today’s extract he writes: ‘It feels worse than having the disease, the surgery and even losing my voice. I hate it, hate it, hate it.’
He sounds positive as he outlines his plans for a full recovery by the autumn, returning to frontline politics in time to cover the party conference season.
‘I have never thought I would die, genuinely. That’s the legacy of a car accident I had when I was 18. Back then it was quite possible that I would die, that I would go blind because my eyes had been burned, that I would not be able to use my right hand at all. That gives you a bit of perspective.
‘The most scared I have been was being told one per cent of people who have lung surgery die. That’s high. I got myself in a complete lather until my surgeon reminded me I was 51 and healthy, and the one per cent tends to be people who are already old and unwell. My prognosis is incredibly good.’
Back where he belongs: Robinson with David Dimbleby on the BBC’s election night programme. He had to head straight back to his hospital bed immediately after bowing out at 1am
But Robinson admits: ‘You cannot control what happens with cancer. All you can control is how you respond to it. You delude yourself you’re in control because you’re used to it in your everyday life, but cancer makes it clear you aren’t.’
He provides as an example of this his attempt to treat his wife to a champagne dinner. ‘I promised Pippa an evening out. We have had precious few recently. But two hours after we arrived somewhere swish she looked at me and said, “You don’t look good.”
‘I took out the thermometer I now have to carry everywhere and I had a raging temperature so we moved from the place where we’d been dreaming of a nice glass of bubbly and a three-course dinner to having a cup of tea and damp tuna sandwich in the basement of the Royal Free Hospital.’
Working through the pain: Nick at his laptop even while hooked up to a ‘bag of cell poison’ during chemotherapy
His depleted immune system had succumbed to an infection, a risk he will run until he concludes his three-weekly cycles of chemotherapy in July. He has had three, and has three more to go.
The side effects, he says, ‘can affect every working part of you because what poisons the cancer also poisons you,’ adding that an improved cocktail of drugs has eased the ordeal. Robinson plans to use the summer to rest and recuperate.
‘My goal is to get healthy and to be ready, come autumn, to do my job regularly instead of occasionally,’ he says while confirming he will continue to broadcast where he feels he can ‘add value’.
He acknowledges that going on air when his health could have seen him silenced posed a professional risk.
‘Having a croaky voice especially on the radio when you are in people’s bathrooms and kitchens – they don’t want to hear a horrible sound.
‘At least when I was on television people could see that I still looked like me. I was genuinely frightened going on air the first time. I agonised about it; me personally, with my family and the BBC. We are all replaceable, there is always someone else. It was not a given.’
Robinson is already looking ahead to the news agenda that will be created by this parliament and cites Europe, Britain’s place on the world stage and the rebuilding of the Labour Party as his chief areas of interest. Beyond politics he would like to make a television series about leadership, a subject which fascinates him.
But if his brush with cancer has taught him one thing it’s that there’s more to life than work, even his which is thrilling.
‘I can hear the hollow laughter of family and friends in the distance but I hope that I will learn that it is probably quite sensible not to give your entire life to your job.
‘Having lain in the garden and read a novel I realise I need more time to lie in the garden and enjoy books.’
It’s not pain making my hot tears flow, but the sound of my voice…it’s who I am
PART 2 OF THE MUST-READ BOOK OF THE YEAR
By NICK ROBINSON, BBC Political Editor
Last week, the BBC’s Nick Robinson told how he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and of the disastrous loss of his voice. In the second part of his brilliant new diary, he recounts his unstinting efforts to return to work in time for the Election…
SUNDAY, MARCH 15
HOME, SITTING IN BED
We journalists like nothing more than seeing politicians wriggle. This morning sees both Ed Balls and George Osborne squirming on Andrew Marr’s sofa.
There is a row going on in Labour about what they should and shouldn’t say about the SNP, whereas no senior Tory anywhere thinks it makes sense to flirt with Ukip.
None of this, though, seems to matter very much to a media obsessing about the future of Jeremy Clarkson. He has been suspended after a ‘fracas’ in which he allegedly punched a producer who had failed to provide a hot meal.
Still, I know how demanding I am when I’m on the road. My producer Jess provides regular supplies of hot drinks, snacks and, above all, packets of Percy Pigs. Maybe she is afraid that if she doesn’t, I might do a Clarkson.
MONDAY, MARCH 16
A ROOM ABOVE KING’S CROSS
‘Eee… Ooo… Uh-oh.’ What on earth does the guy in the hired room next door think of the sounds I am making? Or, rather, struggling to make.
Julia Selby, my speech therapist, and I practise the exercises meant to stimulate some noise, any bloody noise at all, from my vocal cords.
Last week when we met here, there seemed to be some hope. There was something there. Now there’s nothing.
So it’s down to my surgeon to see what he can do. I know I’m being ungrateful. I know I’m being self-pitying. I know it is pathetic, but I feel bloody miserable.
TUESDAY, MARCH 17
My spirits are raised every morning by the lovely cards, letters and messages I receive.
Today’s post includes a very kind note from Gordon Brown – as unexpected as it is appreciated. I know only too well that during his time as Prime Minister my reporting often made him feel pretty sick.
ROYAL FREE HOSPITAL
Medicine is a team game these days. I am having my first meeting with Martyn Caplin, the guy who’s taking over as team captain, and an expert in my type of rare tumour.
He’s a tad more downbeat than I’d hoped. My tumour, he tells me, is at the more aggressive end of the least aggressive kind you can get.
Kind words: Gordon Brown sent an ‘unexpected’ note, especially as, according to Robinson, ‘during his time as Prime Minister my reporting often made him feel pretty sick’
Although all the cancer that can be seen even under a microscope has been removed at the Royal Brompton Hospital, it still could come back. He recommends, just as a belt-and-braces option, a course of the dreaded chemotherapy.
Is deliberately poisoning my body a price worth paying? The answer is instant. Yes. The crushing disappointment is just as immediate.
I turn on the radio. The news is full of Budget speculation. How odd. Normally I would be desperately trying to find a leak or get a steer or make a clever guess about what’s in that red box.
I would be pumping with adrenaline if I succeeded. Yet tonight I see no reason why it can’t wait until tomorrow. Is this how other people feel about the news?
THURSDAY, MARCH 19
HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM
Ping! It’s a family WhatsApp message – a photo of an envelope marked Special Delivery, Private and Confidential, and Buckingham Palace. Open it, I tell the kids, and send me a photo of what’s inside.
It turns out to be a letter from Prince Charles, whom I met once and only briefly, but he told me he was a regular viewer of BBC News At 10. It is warm, generous and personal. It is, above all, very kind.
A curious by-product of an illness like this is the chance it gives you to read your own obituaries – but with all the nasty bits left out, since people know you’re still around to read them.
In recovery: Robinson is having to undergo chemotherapy at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, of which he says, ‘I hate, hate it, hate it’
Julia explains that the op went as well as it could have done but, but, but – it was not a total success.
Despite the surgeon’s best efforts, there is still a gap at the back of the vocal cords. Any gap allows air to get through and makes the voice breathy rather than sharp and clear.
He has other tools in his box. I might, for example, have an injection to plump up the cord that isn’t working. Otherwise it’s therapy. Lots and lots of it.
Julia does her best to make me feel positive and to remind me that I promised her I was a stubborn bugger and that we’d crack this together. I wish I could believe her.
HOME, THE KITCHEN
I arrive home, facing three days of enforced silence, feeling morose. I cheer myself up by getting my iPad to convert anything I type into a Stephen Hawking voice.
Over dinner with the family I’m reduced to pleading with them to stop me from giggling as it might dislodge a newly installed [vocal] prop to shift my vocal cords closer together.
What got me going was typing ‘Ho, ho, ho’ so that my iPad Hawking laughs for me, and then getting him to read ‘Romeo, Romeo,’ followed by a few chants from the terraces at Old Trafford.
Putting a smile on his face: Robinson cheered himself up by ‘getting my iPad to convert anything I type into a Stephen Hawking voice’
THURSDAY, MARCH 26
A RESTAURANT NEAR BROADCASTING HOUSE
Lunch with James Harding, head of BBC News, and Sue Inglish, head of BBC Westminster.
Having originally told them, along with everyone else, that I had the nicest, kindest, gentlest, never-comes-back sort of cancer and that, once it had been whipped out, I’d be back at work in three weeks, I now reveal that one small part of it turned out to be a tad more like its host – loud, aggressive, the type you fear you’ll never hear the end of.
Added to which I am missing a voice, a rather fundamental problem for a man employed in broadcasting. But they have a plan: a slow, phased return to work.
MONDAY, MARCH 30
ROYAL FREE HOSPITAL
I feel curiously relaxed as a nurse hangs up a bag of cell poison and turns on a tap to pump it through my wrist into my bloodstream.
No one knows for sure if chemo will do me any good, in other words, kill off any cell that dares even to think of becoming cancerous. Equally, no one can know whether it will knock me for six, inducing nausea, fatigue, diarrhoea, constipation (quite how it can do both at the same time I have yet to discover) and a plague of locusts.
Working through the pain: Nick at his laptop even while hooked up to a ‘bag of cell poison’ during chemotherapy
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 1
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. What poisons the cancer will poison the rest of you, they said. You may feel nauseous, tired and have a metallic taste in your mouth. Yeah, right. Nothing prepared me for this.
I feel as if every normal function of my body has been disrupted: tasting, smelling, digesting, breathing are all unspeakably unpleasant. I could fight pain. I could focus on the enemy and defy it.
Not this. My body is being taken over and I have no means of restoring control. It feels worse than having the disease, the surgery and even losing my voice.
I hate it, hate it, hate it.
THURSDAY, APRIL 9
IN MY BATH
I can’t quite believe what’s coming out of my radio. The Defence Secretary is seriously inviting listeners to ponder on what he says is the most important question facing the nation: if Ed Miliband was prepared to stab his brother in the back to become leader, surely he’d be prepared to stab the country in the back to get his hands on power?
This, Michael Fallon tells us, would involve Miliband abandoning Britain’s defences – in particular our nuclear deterrent – as part of a ‘grubby deal’ with the SNP to get him to Downing Street.
I reach for the soap and scrub a little harder.
SUNDAY, APRIL 12
Roll up! Roll up! See a man with only half a voice broadcasting to the nation! I’m bored watching the Election from home, but still don’t have enough of a voice to risk going out on the road.
So Katy, my news editor, and I have hatched a plan to allow me to do some Election reporting. I record one video as a test and another to tweet tomorrow morning.
MONDAY, APRIL 13
LABOUR MANIFESTO LAUNCH
Can Miliband pass the blink test? Can he change people’s views of him so that when voters shut their eyes for a moment and are told he’s their next Prime Minister they don’t guffaw or weep but think, maybe – why not?
‘Pumped up’: David Cameron giving a rousing speech to activists in London on April 27. Robinson drily noted at the time, ‘This can, of course, have nothing to do with polls indicating that only a quarter of voters think he’s the leader who wants to win the most’
STUDIO C, BROADCASTING HOUSE
It is, I say in my first recorded broadcast since my surgery, one of the most powerful speeches I’ve seen Miliband make but voters must now decide whether they think he is ready and whether Labour is the party of responsibility.
If so, he’ll be standing on the steps of No 10 in four weeks’ time. Behind the News At 6 camera stands Julia, my conductor.
She points upwards to warn me not to drop my voice so that it becomes hoarser, holds up her hands to remind me to take a breath before the next sentence and spreads them out to indicate that I should slow down.
What I used to do without a moment’s thought now involves training, concentration, stress and lots of time.
Nice texts roll in but I turn to Twitter for a more candid verdict.
Lots of lovely ‘welcome backs’ there, too. My new hushed tones remind some of snooker’s legendary commentator, Ted Lowe; others recall ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Only one viewer suggests that my new voice is ‘very 0898 & am sure a couple of million people are ready for some late night erotic action’.
Then a cybernat writes: ‘I genuinely hope Nick Robinson gets better. Then immediately gets run over by a bin lorry.’ Nice.
On the move: Robinson at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham last year. He hopes to be back in action for the upcoming party conference season
MONDAY, APRIL 27
He’s ‘pumped up’. He’s ‘bloody lively’. He’s desperate to win. Meet the new, turbocharged, non-chillaxing, three-Shredded-Wheat-a-day David Cameron.
This can, of course, have nothing to do with polls indicating that only a quarter of voters think he’s the leader who wants to win the most, or the focus groups unnerved that he began this campaign in a kitchen telling James Landale about his retirement plans.
‘Welcome back, sir,’ says the policewoman on security. The guy with the machine gun gives me a smile and a thumbs-up. I’m back on the street that has become almost as familiar as the one where I live.
I’ve come to give my voice another road test, to see if it can cope beyond the peace and quiet of a studio.
Hell, yes, it can! My God, I might actually be able to report on this Election. I’ll try to film a piece tomorrow, my first in more than two months.
TUESDAY, APRIL 28
THE BAILEY ROOM, BBC MILLBANK
‘Uh-oh… Jzzz… Eee…’ Julia is putting me through my paces to get the voice working before I record my commentary. ‘One, two, three…’
What is that sound? No roughness. No raspiness. No breathiness. That’s my voice. My old voice, the one I had before all this happened.
Hot tears start to flow. Cancer didn’t make me cry. Nor has surgery or chemo. Losing my voice and struggling to get it back has proved to be much more traumatic. It’s not about illness. It’s not about pain. It’s about who I am.
FRIDAY, MAY 1
Damn, damn, damn. A day of worry, of BBC confusion, of anger as I finally face up to reality. There’s no real choice. There’s no way I can broadcast throughout Election Night and all the next day, too.
I’ll start the programme, then bow out and return at breakfast time. I will have to sit in bed and watch the results come in like everybody else.
THURSDAY, MAY 7
ELECTION NIGHT STUDIO, 10PM
I am looking down the lens of Camera 5 when Big Ben strikes. Bong, bong, bong… ‘Ten o’clock and we’re saying the Conservatives are the largest party,’ begins David Dimbleby. He finishes reading out the figures and turns to me.
‘Sensational, David. An extraordinary night – if that exit poll is right…’
A strange mix: ‘There is something rather comic about a man full of antibiotics and chemo poison with half a voice being replaced by someone still recovering from a stroke on a programme anchored by a 76-year-old’, said Robinson of the BBC’s election night programme
FRIDAY, MAY 8 JUST BEFORE 1AM
I am about to hand over to Andrew Marr.
There is something rather comic about a man full of antibiotics and chemo poison with half a voice being replaced by someone still recovering from a stroke on a programme anchored by a 76-year-old. You can see why some of our bosses were so bloody nervous.
As I walk off the set, my final, rather needy, tweet reads: ‘Hope voice didn’t distract too much and thanks for all tips & recipes.’
The replies are extraordinarily generous. To my surprise and pleasure they’re led by Gary Lineker, who replies: ‘Well played @bbcnickrobinson. Don’t worry about the voice. It’s what you say not the volume that counts and you’re on top of your game.’
Thank you, Gary. Instead of leaving niggled by regret and frustration, I’ve a sense that I’ve climbed my personal Mount Everest. It feels bloody marvellous.
- Election Notebook: The Inside Story Of The Battle Over Britain’s Future And My Personal Battle To Report It, by Nick Robinson, is published by Bantam Press, £20. To get your copy for £16 (20 per cent discount) until June 21, order at www.mailbookshop.co.uk – p&p is free on orders over £12.
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