Many years ago, when I was working down in London at Radio 4, there was a brief possibility of my being trained up to read the news.  Nowadays I think most continuity announcers double up and do the news on the likes of Today and PM but then it was viewed as a serious step up and you had to wait to be summonsed to the role.  I was young and uber keen, toe-curlingly confident and utterly terrified.  Looking back, it was a bizarre route for me to have taken so early in my BBC career (I’d only been with the Beeb for a year when I got the traineeship in R4 presentation) but I had a voice much older and creamier than my 25 years, so I got the gig.  I didn’t love it.  Everyone else seemed to think I should, so I stuck at it even though I knew it wasn’t for me and quickly I was bored by it.  I wanted to experiment and be creative, neither of which were terribly welcome in R4 continuity. 

Towards the end of my 5 year stint there, it was suggested my voice might suit the move to news.  Looking back now the idea seems daft especially since, if I was after creativity, news was the opposite of the direction I should have been facing, but I was all ego and all up for it. 

It came to my first training session with the wonderful Harriet Cass, an utterly class act when it came to all things presentation who I learned so much from over those years.  As I wobbled and shook my way through the bulletins, she remained stony faced, then I made a fatal, unforgiveable as it turned out, error.  I was so nervous that a giggle formed, one of those twitches that tightens across your lower jaw, try as I might, I couldn’t keep it at bay and in my final story I let out a hint of amusement.  Just a hint, not even a squeak but the merest nod to a smile that was forming at the corner of my mouth.  But it was enough.  Harriet, my friend and mentor who I looked up to hugely, fixed me with an unamused stare and said ‘you’re not ready’.   And she was right, I wasn’t and in fact I was beyond not ready, I was entirely not built for the role.  A couple of week’s later I was weighing up my choices, should I carry on at Radio 4 or move back to Scotland and search out another career path?  I went to see Harriet to ask her if she thought I’d ever read the news on Radio 4 to which she answered a cool and decisive ‘no’.

At the time Harriet’s honesty caused me to curl up in misery.  I was grief stricken (at that age I could do drama like you wouldn’t believe) and the perceived loss of a role I didn’t actually want in the first place was enough for me to tailspin.  That simple little word ‘no’ made me call into question everything but, as it turned out, that ‘no’ was just the catalyst I needed to throw everything quite literally up in the air, sell up and move north.  Harriet’s ‘no’ was a total game changer, Harriet’s honesty changed the course of my life, it’s that simple. 

Honesty, matters.

I bring this up because I’ve been mulling over the value of honesty. Countless times over the past year the response I’ve had to writing about cancer has been one of thanking me for being so honest but, if I’m honest, this puzzles me.  One friend even asked whether I felt worried about being so honest.  Worried about what exactly?   It hadn’t ever occurred to me to be anything other than brutally honest?  Honesty it seems is something of a rare and potentially dangerous commodity, it has to be handled with kidd gloves.  Honesty comes with a cost.

And there is a price.  If there wasn’t we wouldn’t be hesitant in offering up our honesty.  Inspired by Harriet I’d like to think that when I went into management at the BBC I followed her lead and was brave enough to have many frank, open and occasionally painful conversations with colleagues over the years.  In being honest with someone else you have to be prepared for their response, whatever that might be.  In dealing with folk who forge a career in the media that means facing bruised and battered egos, plenty of them.  But for me I’ve always hated the opposite of honesty more than the pain it causes.  I can’t stand dishonesty; it turns me inside out.

I think it’s that business of causing pain which stalls us.  Being honest can cause pain and because it causes pain it can break relationships. How many of us have been bold enough to tell a much-loved friend that they’re marrying a total muppet?  (Haha I now have visions of all my pals looking askance at their partners and thinking ‘does Pen mean me?’!).

At times over the years I’ve probably been almost too prepared to deal with that pain, I’ve been an honest-at-all-costs kind of person but I’m not sure it was always the right thing to be and I’ve little doubt it lost me a few friends and colleagues. It takes a skilled communicator to be utterly honest without leaving someone utterly undone. Honesty is not always the best policy.

When it came to writing the blog, it had to be honest, that’s what its entire purpose was. As I now reflect, I can see the whole process of writing the blog was nothing to do with being honest with an invisible reader and everything to do with the loud whirring of cogs and wheels of being honest with myself.  My writing is an open act of working things out, I’ve just invited you all to join me under the bonnet while I tinker with the engine and puzzle over where the feck I left the dip stick.

And the cost of being honest with yourself? You have to be prepared to dislike what you find. Fear shouldn’t lie in what others think of you, but in what you think of you. But unless you do uncover it, and face up to those times when you’re a bit of a dick (ok a lot of a dick), you can’t resolve it and move on.  If thinking about how you feel and act makes you uncomfortable, burying that pain doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it fester, you’ve got to get the skelf out before the skin can heal.

So far, I haven’t been able to identify one cost from making that self–honesty public, quite the reverse, the rewards from being honest are huge.  My biggest concern about all this openness was that it would come across as self-indulgent, navel gazing, tosh but as it turns out I’ve had nothing but positive comments from those who’ve chosen to read what I write.

What I didn’t realise when I kicked all this off is that honesty is a currency, you give honesty and you get it back. I’ve formed fresher and stronger relationships through writing this blog because people now tell me things they never would have. If you’re open and honest about your own raw and rough bits, people feel safe in showing you theirs, you show vulnerability, and they feel less vulnerable with you. That this blog has encouraged friends and even total strangers to trust me with their stories I find a privilege beyond measure.

Honesty doesn’t ever come free of charge but honestly, the far greater cost is what you lose by not being honest!

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One thought on “Honestly?

  1. Excellent blog and totally agree with your comments Pennie. Honesty should really start with yourself, and that, as you say, is a really tough call. Often a painfully emotional journey (easier with help) it is a hard but worthwhile experience. I feel it is difficult to be honest with others if you can’t be honest to yourself, warts and all. Again, I feel honesty is becoming a rare commodity because individuals don’t want to look too closely at themselves and face those difficult, uncomfortable questions. And life now has plenty of distractions, so avoidance is easier.

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