HE and Me: highlights from 150 interviews with HE’s stars

As THE’s HE and Me interview section passes a special landmark, John Elmes looks back over three years’ worth of laughs, tears, and a whole lot of column inches

September 8, 2016

Times Higher Education is celebrating its 150th. No, we’re not that old, but the statement is true. Leighton Andrews’ interview in the 8 September 2016 edition is the 150th HE and Me Q and A.

It is with a modicum of pride that I announce this fact. Some 150 interviewees, more than 3,000 questions answered, and some interesting revelations along the way. It’s been quite a journey.

I’ve had some well-known and some more obscure participants; from world-renowned actor Sir Patrick Stewart and president of the Association for Science Education Alice Roberts, to City, University of London’s oldest graduate Tony Spurgin and migration expert Parvati Raghuram. None is more important than the other but, as with most journalists and their articles, there are a few that have stood out along the way.

To celebrate the section’s sesquicentenary, here are a few that have stuck with me over the three years.

The first

I can’t leave out the initial HE and Me outing. The one where it all began. Martin Bean, former vice-chancellor of the Open University, told me that he admired his dad for “kind yet persistent way of approaching the world” and that a “family of badgers…trying to relandscape my garden” were keeping him up at night.

The most difficult

It’s quite hard to put into words exactly how my interview with Hanif Kureishi, then newly appointed professor at Kingston University, went. It’s probably best that you read an excerpt from our discussion and judge for yourself:

Is there anyone from history you’d like to meet?
I don’t know; I’ve not really thought about it. You mean [someone] like Leonardo da Vinci?

…someone who you might have wanted to have met, or had a conversation with…
I can’t believe you can’t think of better questions than this dude, I really can’t.

Well, I think I’ve got everything I need, thank you.
OK, all right, bye.

I still wake up in a cold sweat sometimes.

The most revelatory celebrity gossip

It isn’t so much the content of the response given by Jonathan Powell, former prime minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff, to my request for him to “tell us something we don’t know about Tony Blair”. It was more that he actually agreed to answer rather than shirking it:

“One thing people never understood about Blair was his obsession with detail. There was a myth that he skated over the surface of subjects, but this was untrue. As a former barrister, he vacuumed up detail and spent three or four hours at a time on meetings on healthcare or education reform. If you are a PM rather than a president, this obsession with detail is essential.”

The real significance of this response only really became clear in the wake of the Chilcot report. I expect some people would have a lot to say to it.

Best anecdote

This is tough. As well as his Tony Blair answer, Jonathan Powell provided a startling account of a meeting with Martin McGuinness during the Irish Peace Process negotiations. Meanwhile, you could hear Margaret Hodge’s outrage when she listed her “shocking” revelations as chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

But I think that Ruby Wax has the honour by telling me that her most memorable moment at university was “hitch-hiking to Mexico in the middle of the night, just on a whim…then staying there for a few months with my parents calling up to find out where I was. My friend kept saying I was in the shower for a month.”

She also told me that she used to “sleep in cars”.

Best answer

There have been some humdingers over the years, but John Akomfrah’s no-nonsense response to the difficulties of being a film director, packed a punch:

"The best bit is I leave everything I do knowing that, in a way, we’ve created another universe. The worst is the uncertainty. You’re always looking for someone to back it, finance it, support it. Most people who make anything with images spend most of their time waiting for some dickhead to say 'yes' or 'no'."

Special mention goes to Philip Moriarty for revealing what someone once said about his public engagement work: “An email I received about Sixty Symbols ended with: 'you’re a professor at university, for fuck’s sake. Stop wasting your time on YouTube and do research'.”

Most poignant response

I was particularly struck by this answer from Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell University’s first female leader in its history, who passed away earlier this year:

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be open to new possibilities that you cannot now imagine; develop skills and qualities that allow you to be resilient in the face of change and uncertainty. Do not dismiss unanticipated opportunities or adhere too closely to a predetermined path. When you are presented with options, choose the path where you can make the most difference, and that will bring you the most happiness and fulfilment…”

Elsewhere, Baroness Lawrence and Michael Rosen gave candid insights into the pain of losing children. However, it was the former’s answer to one of my (supposedly) playful stock questions that gave me the most pause for thought:

What keeps you awake at night?

There are many more examples I could draw out and I apologise to all the interviewees who haven’t appeared here.

I would also like to thank them for participating so readily, it’s been a pleasure. So here’s to another 150 HE and Me interviews.

Let me leave you with an HE poem, penned exclusively for the section by Michael Rosen:

Just before finals
you had a dream.
In the dream, you said that your tutors
threw you off the top of the university library.
I nipped out to check.
They hadn’t.
I should have told you. 

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