News, Culture & Society

JOHN HUMPHRYS: The needless death of my baby sister – and how it drove me to resent our ruling class

My resentment against people in positions of authority began on a Friday lunchtime, when I was barely six years old.

Although it was 70 years ago, I remember it all in terrible detail. I’d been sent out to the local fish and chip shop to buy dinner — or what middle-class people called lunch. It was a rare treat — the closest we ever came to eating out. When I got back to our house, Dr Rees, our local GP, was there.

My parents were white and visibly trembling. The tears came later for my mother. I never saw my father cry.

I had just joined the Merthyr Express. And if this picture is any guide I wasn’t too happy about it (pictured left)

The doctor had just told them that Christine, my baby sister and the apple of my mother’s eye, was dead. She had been admitted to hospital the day before, suffering from gastroenteritis.

When people asked about the strange spelling of my surname, I’d say it was pure Welsh, which was complete nonsense.

The truth is that an incompetent registrar misspelled my surname on my birth certificate, so my parents and older siblings were Humphreys — and I was for ever Humphrys. My first name isn’t even John. I was christened Desmond John Humphrys, but was so miserable when I contracted severe whooping cough as a little boy that my mother decreed I should henceforth be known as John.

She was not, she announced, going to have people calling me Dismal Desmond.

That is not a disease that kills people — not even in those more clinically primitive days — and, for as long as he lived, my father believed she had died because we were poor.

How can I make a judgment on that? All I know, because he told me years later, was that my parents had not been allowed to visit their dying child in hospital. Yet, had they been middle class, things would have been different.

Christine had been put in the wrong ward, where no one spotted how ill she was. My mother would have twigged immediately — had she been allowed to visit.

She never recovered from her child’s death. Her magnificent raven hair turned white almost overnight. Eventually, of course, she came to terms with the loss. People do, don’t they? But she was never the same woman.

As for my father, his resentment and anger towards what he saw as the ruling class grew even stronger. Growing up in the immediate post-war years in Splott — an ugly name for a pretty ugly Cardiff neighbourhood — I seldom came into contact with the middle classes. But when I did, I took my lead from my father. I sensed that ‘they’ looked down on us.


More from John Humphrys For The Daily Mail…

People like the hospital consultant I was sent to see at 13, because I’d developed a cyst at the base of my spine. I was lying naked, face-down, on a bed when the great man arrived, surrounded by a posse of young trainee doctors.

He took a quick look at my cyst, ignoring me completely, and told his adoring acolytes: ‘The trouble with this boy is that he doesn’t bathe regularly.’ It would never have occurred to him that families like mine didn’t even have an indoor lavatory.

Mortified, I lay there, cringing with shame and embarrassment and hating the arrogant posh bastard and all those smug and sniggering rich kids who surrounded him.

One way and another, my father made enough money as a self-employed French polisher to keep hearth and home together — with my mother doing the neighbours’ hair in the kitchen, me doing a paper round before school and my older brother making deliveries for the local grocer.

It's 1945. The war has ended and half of Cardiff was queuing up to go somewhere -anywhere! - by train. I'm the blond toddler in my mother's arms

It’s 1945. The war has ended and half of Cardiff was queuing up to go somewhere -anywhere! – by train. I’m the blond toddler in my mother’s arms

Dad, who voted Tory, hated authority in all its manifestations. And he had a special place in hell reserved for the bosses of large companies who hired him to do a job and didn’t pay him for at least a couple of months.

I decided long ago that when I become prime minister, the first law I shall propose will be one that forces all companies to pay their bills within one month — except in the case of one-man firms like my father’s, in which case it will be one week. Why not?

The curious thing was that Dad never admitted we were poor — even when there was no work and we were really on our uppers.

I remember one night — I was probably seven or eight — being woken up by him screaming when he should have been snoring. My brother told me he was having a nervous breakdown.

Much later, I realised Dad was at breaking point because he didn’t know how he was going to put enough food on the table for all of us. He regarded himself as a failure, and that was more than he could handle.

In fact, we kids never really went hungry. We knew when times were hard because there’d be lamb bones boiled with potatoes and onions for dinner and sugar sandwiches for tea (meaning supper).

Nothing was wasted in our house. I mean nothing. Stale bread was soaked in water and used to make bread pudding. And, on the vanishingly rare occasion when one of us left some food on our plate at dinner, it would be served up again for tea.

My father’s breakdown didn’t last long. In the language of the time — he ‘pulled himself together’ and went back to work.

Radio presenter John Humphrys

Radio presenter John Humphrys

Mine was a childhood of smells: the horrible smell of the chemical Mam used for perms, and the even more horrible fumes from the chemicals Dad used when he polished furniture in the kitchen — where my mother cooked and the family ate.

The most noxious was oxalic acid. The crystals were boiled up in a baked-beans tin on the gas stove, and the liquid used as a very powerful bleach when he needed to lighten the colour of a piece of furniture. The fumes got into the back of your throat. God knows what they did to your lungs.

My mother suffered the most and died a relatively early death.

The doctor said her lungs ‘just gave out’. Unsurprising, really.

I’m sometimes told how remarkable it is that I made such a success of my career, in spite of my poor background and having to leave school at 15. But, of course, that’s nonsense. I succeeded not in spite of it but because of it.

And, anyway, I had some huge advantages. My mother was one of them. She left school at 14 without a single qualification and had never, as far as I could tell, read a book in her life. Not that there was much time for reading with five children and no luxuries, such as a vacuum cleaner, washing-machine or fridge.

The only time I remember her sitting down was when there was darning to be done. Mostly socks.

She seldom expressed opinions, certainly never political ones. But she was utterly, single-mindedly determined that her children should have the education that was denied to her and my father.

That meant that, unlike the other kids in our street, we were forced to do homework. It also meant that when the Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman came knocking, Mam made my father buy a set.

The cost was a shilling a week and the salesman called every Saturday morning to collect the payment. It was the only thing that my parents ever bought on the never-never.

One evening, Mam told us the woman who lived opposite had paid for a holiday on the never-never. My mother could not have been more shocked if the neighbour had sold her children to the gipsies.

So precious were the encyclopaedias that my father made a bookcase especially to protect them. It had glass doors so the neighbours could admire them when they popped in. Sadly, the doors had a lock and he kept the key, so when he was out — which was most of the time — we kids couldn’t use them.

They were only brought out when we did our homework. But even if we’d never opened them, they sent out a fundamental message: knowledge was important.

Both Mam and Dad had the unswerving certainty that if we went to a grammar school, we’d have a very different future from the grinding poverty of their own lives. And we did pass — all of us.

My younger brother, Rob, and I went to Cardiff High, regarded as the best school in Cardiff, if not in Wales. I hated it from the day I joined until the day I left.

The head was a snob, and I was clearly not the sort of boy he wanted at Cardiff High — far too working-class for his refined tastes.

I remember being beaten by him because I was late one morning. I tried explaining to him that it was because I had a morning newspaper round and the papers hadn’t been delivered to the shop as early as usual because it was snowing heavily, which also made it difficult to get round on my bike. But he was not impressed.

The pain from the beating did not last, but the anger never faded.

Some years later, when I’d started appearing on television, I had a letter from the school. Would I accept the great honour of making a speech at the annual prize- giving? Yes, of course, I wrote, and then I added a few lines about what I proposed saying. The invitation was swiftly withdrawn.

By then, the various chips on my shoulder had been firmly welded into place.

During my years as a BBC foreign correspondent, living overseas, I found another reason to rail against the Establishment. On one of my weekly calls home, my father told me he was desperately worried because he’d been summoned to an interview with the tax man. It was a serious matter: he’d been accused of fiddling his taxes.

I knew this to be total nonsense. My parents were as honest as it’s possible for two people to be. And anyway, my father earned so little he scarcely paid any taxes. That, it turned out, was the problem.

My mother was summoned with him because she kept his accounts, such as they were. She told me later what happened.

The tax inspector sat behind his desk while they perched on two hard chairs, and he handed Mam a copy of her accounts. Then he told Dad to swear they were accurate, and warned he’d be in very big trouble if they weren’t.

Next, the inspector said something along these lines: ‘The accounts show you’ve earned very little money indeed. If that is so, would you explain how it is that you and your wife were able to take very long holidays not only to the United States of America but also to South Africa?

‘And don’t try to deny it. We’ve checked out the information handed to us and it is accurate in every detail.’

Presumably some jealous neighbour had snitched.

Dad told me what happened after that. ‘Your mother leapt to her feet and she looked that man straight in the eyes and said: ‘My son lived in America and he lives in South Africa now, and he sent us the tickets and paid for both holidays. My son is the correspondent for the BBC.

‘And if you don’t believe me, you can watch him on television!’

In her closing years, Mam told me that had been one of the proudest moments of her life.

You can add tax inspector to my blacklist of authority figures. It is a long one — and, I fear, still growing. 

  • ADAPTED by Corinna Honan from A Day Like Today by John Humphrys to be published by HarperCollins on October 3, 2019, at £20. © John Humphrys 2019. To buy a copy for £16 (20 per cent discount, p&p free), go to or call 01603 648155. Offer valid to October 4, 2019

 I was the Clark Kent of the Penarth Times

At seven, I knew I wanted to be a reporter. I’d like to claim I was inspired by grandiose visions of speaking truth to power — but the reality was a lot more embarrassing.

In post-war Britain, families like mine didn’t squander cash on buying books, and there was no television. So much of my spare time was spent reading second-hand comics — mostly Superman.

They arrived in this country in vast bundles used as ballast in cargo ships. After that, they’d end up being sold for a penny or two in local newsagents, and then get swapped between one scruffy kid and another.

Superman, as all aficionados will know, took as his human alter ego a chap called Clark Kent — and Clark Kent was a reporter. Ergo: reporters were akin to Superman.

So the idea was to break free from my grim existence in the back streets of Cardiff, and save the world into the bargain by becoming Superman. And Lois Lane — adored by everyone who read the comics — would be my girlfriend.

You could say that for a very small boy, that logic was perfectly understandable. Not so much for a teenager, maybe.

At 15, when I left school, my one ambition was to get a job on a local paper.

I got mine by lying. I’d been told that the editor of the Penarth Times — a weekly paper in a small seaside town a few miles outside Cardiff — was more impressed by athletes than brain-boxes.

So I allowed him to believe that I’d often been first across the finishing line when Cardiff High School staged its cross-country races. It was technically true — but only because I was so hopeless at running that I chose instead to cycle alongside the real athletes, shouting encouragement (or abuse).

My deception worked. ‘Just what reporters need,’ huffed the editor, ‘plenty of stamina and determination!’

I still feel a twinge of guilt — but only a very small one.