Andrew Marr on his stroke, survival and squeezing the juice out of every day
May 20, 2022. Series 6. Episode 43
My guest today, I am thrilled to say, is one of Britain’s best broadcasters – the brilliant Andrew Marr. Perhaps best known for his Sunday morning politics show, which he recently left after more than 20 years, Andrew is a true polymath – a man who can not only present but who writes prolifically, is a talented painter and who has forgotten more than most of us have learnt about Britain’s history.
Andrew is also a survivor – in 2013 he suffered a catastrophic stroke that his wife and children were told would claim his life. He defied his doctors, of course, although has been left with permanent paralysis on his left side. Then four years ago Andrew was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He batted that challenge away with determination and self-deprecation. This is not a man to wallow in his own troubles, I can tell you. But he has analysed and made sense of those crises and talks to me in this podcast about them in a way that is both fascinating and I think valuable. He says, “After the stroke, my life became a long list of can’ts… Can’t run, can’t cycle, can’t swim, can’t ski. I decided instead to concentrate on the cans. And I now try to squeeze the juice out of every day.” Brilliant.
This is a compelling episode with a truly compelling guest. My thanks to him and I hope you enjoy it.
Andrew’s Crisis Cures:
1 – A good malt whisky calms me down. Half and half with water, looking into the middle distance. Brings the blood pressure down and pulls everything into perspective.
2 – Music – I listen to a lot of classical and piano music, more and more as I get older. I like to walk around Regents Park with headphones on almost certainly listening to either Beethoven or my new discovery – Haydn’s piano sonatas, which are heart-stoppingly beautiful
3 –The sky – Get outside in all weathers and be surrounded by nature.
Tonight with Andrew Marr: https://www.globalplayer.com/podcasts/42KuSx/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/marrshow?lang=en
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Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682
Host– Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:47.22 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. Over the last seven years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there are far, far fewer where you can benefit from the experiences of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:01:19.08 Andy Coulson:
So, on this podcast you’ll hear from the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. But you’ll also hear from renowned crisis managers, mental health and performance experts and advisors who were in the room when major crises have hit, all of them offering useful, practical coping techniques and tips. And all with the straightforward aim of guiding you towards a more resilient approach to life and whatever it might throw at you.
00:01:48.04 Andy Coulson:
Crisis What Crisis? Is generously supported by Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing and improving human performance. If you enjoy what you hear today please subscribe and give us a rating and review. You can also follow us on Instagram, our handle is @crisiswhatcrisispodcast.
00:02:11.05 Andy Coulson:
My guest today, I am thrilled to say, is one of Britain’s best broadcasters, the brilliant Andrew Marr. Perhaps best known for his Sunday morning politics show which he recently left after more than twenty years; Andrew is a true polymath. A man who can not only present, but who writes prolifically, he’s a talented painter and who’s forgotten more than most of us have learnt about Britain’s history. Andrew is also a survivor. In 2013 he suffered a catastrophic stroke that his wife and children were told would claim his life. He defied his doctors, of course, although has been left with permanent paralysis on his left side.
00:02:54.01 Andy Coulson:
And four years ago Andrew was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He battled that challenge away with determination and self-deprecation. This is not a man to wallow in his own troubles, I can tell you. But he has analysed and made sense of those crises and talks in this podcast about them in a way that is both fascinating and I think, valuable. After the stroke ‘my life became a long list of can’ts he says – can’t run, can’t cycle, can’t swim, can’t ski, I decided instead to concentrate on the cans and I now try to squeeze the juice out of every day’ – brilliant.
00:03:34.00 Andy Coulson:
This is a compelling episode with a truly compelling guest. My thanks to him and I hope you enjoy it. Andrew Marr, thank you for joining me today, how are you, sir?
00:03:43.07 Andrew Marr:
I’m pretty fair, I think is the best way I can describe it. It’s a slightly cloudy, slightly chilly day but otherwise I’m fine.
00:03:50.08 Andy Coulson:
Very good. You’re a little way now into the new job at LBC, unleashed from the shackles at the BBC.
00:03:56.11 Andrew Marr:
00:03:56.22 Andy Coulson:
I assume you’re enjoying it?
00:03:59.15 Andrew Marr:
I am working twice as hard and having three times as much fun, which means the maths are good.
00:04:06.22 Andy Coulson:
That new freedom from the impartiality problem, if you can put it that way, allows you, I suppose, to take a different approach to crisis. You’ve had a front row seat in so many political crises over so many years.
00:04:25.14 Andrew Marr:
I think I can be sharper in what I say and clearer. We’re talking just after Keir Starmer has been forced to say that he would resign if given a fixed penalty notice after so-called ‘Beer Gate’. On things like that at the BBC, and for reasons I completely respect and understand, I would have to lean over backwards to see all sides of the case and put it as neutrally as possible. But with my new freedom, as you put it, I’m able to say much more clearly where I think he and in particular his office, fouled up in the handling of all of this, how serious it is, how serious I think it is not. And so I can just be clearer and I think a bit straighter with my audience.
00:05:11.03 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. Do you think the word itself, crisis, is overused?
00:05:17.14 Andrew Marr:
Certainly, yes. Everything becomes a crisis. The cost of living crisis, it’s an economic crisis, it’s a new political crisis, it is an endlessly overused word. Anyone who’s gone through a personal crisis knows that what you’re going through feels very different from the normal rough and tumble or cut and thrust of politics or business or office life. And so I think we use it overmuch, far too much, in public speech. We need a series of synonyms for it for which we don’t have.
00:05:51.05 Andy Coulson:
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right, problem doesn’t quite cut it does it? What qualifies as a crisis, do you think? We’ll get onto the personal side of it, but in the political context what qualifies as a crisis in your mind?
00:06:07.09 Andrew Marr:
In the political context it’s what happens when generally something that that been bubbling under for a very, very long time, breaches the surface in such a way that the people involved have to take fast and frankly painful decisions to resolve it, is the best way to describe it. And so if we’re talking about the party gate or beer gate period in British politics, quite clearly, during the lockdown millions of people were wrestling with quite restrictive rules, finding it hard to meet loved ones, hard to socialise and I’m sure all round the country were edging, or indeed breaking those rules but many weren’t.
00:06:50.12 Andrew Marr:
And so the fact that that was going on in Number 10 the fact that politicians up and down the country were meeting for a beer and a curry and doing this and doing that, which perhaps strictly speaking by the most rigorous application of the rules they shouldn’t have been, that was something t that was bubbling under for a very, very long time. And then suddenly it becomes apparent that the police are investigating in Number 10, the thing arrives in Prime Minister’s Questions again and again and again. What had been a subterranean issue become a public one and the thing that happens is an irritated student ambling along in the dusk outside a building in Durham, picks up his mobile phone and takes a very quick video of a window because he can see in silhouette a recognisable figure there. Now the consequences of that, we still don’t know but it might change the entire shape of British politics. So it’s when small things suddenly become big things and can’t be avoided any longer.
00:07:48.21 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, who’s impressed you over the years with their crisis handling skills? Who, when you’ve seen them in their, never mind their politics, but just in the practical handling of a very difficult moment, who’s impressed you and why?
00:08:11.09 Andrew Marr:
A lot of this is about the temperament I think, I always think temperament is fate. You can criticise people endlessly for lacking self-awareness but there is a certain kind of rubbery resilience among around some politicians and I’d include Tony Blair, I’d include Boris Johnson, I’d include, for instance, Matt Hancock. The bullets, the dark objects seem to just bounce off them and the smile remains and the air of relaxation remains. And sometimes for an outsider, for a journalist, it’s quite irritating you think you should be in pain here, you should be really struggling here.
00:08:52.02 Andrew Marr:
But, you know, take Boris Johnson under assault from, I always enjoy watching the videos of Boris Johnson being done over by Susanna Reid or Beth, or whoever. It’s the expression on his face which is indescribable. And it’s a mixture of pain, annoyance, embarrassment and a kind of rueful acceptance that this is part of the gig. I just love that. He handles that quite well. Matt Hancock bounced back from something that would have humiliated and destroyed most people like some sort of Duracell bunny thing.
00:09:31.14 Andy Coulson:
Tigger-ish like resilience, yeah.
00:09:34.08 Andrew Marr:
Resilience absolutely unabashed, straight back into it. Perhaps a little bit too fast, some of us might say, but none the less quite well. I think Keir Starmer, who I spoke to yesterday, has an expression of wearied pain across his face. I think he’s finding it very, very difficult, very painful. It may well be that he is not therefore one of those natural politicians with that rubbery resilience that I was talking about.
00:10:02.17 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, he looks a bit baffled as well.
00:10:06.11 Andrew Marr:
He looks baffled, he looks surprised, he looks as if the world has become impertinent around him suddenly and that is not a good look. So don’t get me wrong, I don’t admire, at a human level, the rubbery resilience in a sense we all have to react and be honest about what’s happening around us. But if you’re going to be a successful politician in the endless sweaty, groaning cage fight of British politics, you need that. And so therefore, as a professional observer, in a very strictly professional sense, I acknowledge and admire that.
00:10:44.05 Andy Coulson:
Yes, you’ve worked closely with a number of prime ministers, if you could make a sort of composite PM, with all the best bits, how would it be made up do you think? I mean, Gordon Brown’s temperament, I assume, would not figure, maybe Boris’ brass neck would I suspect. But who that Frankenstein’s monster, as it probably would be, would include which parts?
00:11:10.17 Andrew Marr:
That’s a really interesting thing. So going back over all the prime ministers I’ve covered and interviewed and so forth, I would say that Thatcher’s absolutely clear ideological sense of direction. Knowing who you are, where you’re going, what you’re going to have to do, even if it’s difficult, even if you’re going to offend people, for left or right, wherever it comes from, that sense of ‘I know where I’m going’ is very, very important indeed. I think with John Major a certain humility, the ability to understand that you might be wrong. A certain doggedness perhaps.
00:11:52.08 Andy Coulson:
And the back story as well, perhaps, you’d want that.
00:11:56.12 Andrew Marr:
Quite right, you’d want to come from somewhere outside the bubble and be able to talk about it. And actually, do you know, people don’t remember this because he’s got this reputation for being grey but Major could be quite funny, particularly about himself. He is quite dry and a certain dry wit. With Tony Blair I would say optimism. Tony had, always had, and still has, an essential optimism. Not just about human nature but about the ability of societies like ours to literally advance and progress and become better.
00:12:34.04 Andrew Marr:
So you need to think that things can get better, they may get worse but they can get better. And that by working in politics, pulling the levers that you’ve got, you can make things better, that’s absolutely essential. And weirdly, because they’re such different characters, I think Boris Johnson has a bit of that optimist too. He believes in the end, there’ll be spills and trouble ahead and people will shout and you’ll get into trouble, but in the end it’ll be better. He’s like some sort of vessel which keeps getting capsized and rights itself again and again. So you need that optimism.
00:13:06.22 Andy Coulson:
They both share the same thickness of skin as well, in different ways, don’t they?
00:13:13.00 Andrew Marr:
I think Tony’s skin is a bit thinner actually, than Boris Johnsons’ and that’s perhaps because he’s a little bit more self-knowledge and self-awareness than the current prime minister. And also, unlike Boris Johnson, I think Tony Blair’s world view is very much underpinned by religious faith. I mean, he does believe in god, he does believe in judgement, he does think about these things. I think, I suspect that BJ doesn’t.
00:13:42.24 Andy Coulson:
No, you don’t get that impression.
00:13:45.24 Andrew Marr:
You mentioned Gordon Brown’s temperament and that would not be in the top ten list but his appetite for hard work, his concentration on detail, certainly would. Not what we can say at the moment is going on but I think Gordon’s ability to absorb huge amounts of information, crunch his way through it and come out with the clear lessons or policies or decisions that emerge from that is really impressive. And you know, we are a short attention span, slightly heedless society, maybe these days and I think we should be more admiring of people who just genuinely work very hard. You know get up in the morning, do the job, focus on the details, don’t get distracted, don’t go down the pub too early, all of that. And that would be the bit of Gordon, bit of the story I reckon.
00:14:36.10 Andy Coulson:
I agree. I agree with that. On crisis, thought, just to bring it back to crisis, Gordon was, in one sense, he could see the big picture with the financial crisis but when he was facing individual or what’s a rather personal crisis, pretty unable, really, to see the big picture. Unable to kind of get out of the moment and get perspective and took things very personally when he was in those moments of difficulty. Unable really, to distance himself from it. Is that fair?
00:15:12.12 Andrew Marr:
I think that is fair, I think for somebody who increasingly looked more and more and more like a bull elephant, that great sort of leathery face, that heavy… you know he had a thin skin. And I think his anger was often self-directed. He knew he had a great intellect; he knew his values were right and by the way, after leaving Number 10 he has behaved impeccably as a former prime minister than he ever was a prime minister.
00:15:36.01 Andy Coulson:
Totally agree. Admirable, yeah.
00:15:41.20 Andrew Marr:
Done the right thing and all of that. But then when things weren’t happening as he wanted he would blame people around him, for sure and he shouted and threw things and all of that. But I think it was frustration, ‘I’m Gordon Brown, this is my moment, I can change things but things aren’t working for me. The country isn’t understanding me. That must be my fault but I can’t change that.’ You know he didn’t have that easy sort of easiness with himself which would allow him to flop onto a Sunday morning television sofa and explain himself in a frank and engaging way. He couldn’t do that. And I think he was frustrated by that too.
00:16:18.15 Andy Coulson:
Yes. Andrew, you’re known, quite rightly, as a brilliant broadcaster, but you were a newspaper man first and foremost, of course. A stellar career that leads to the editorship of the Independent in the late 90s when you’re in your thirties. But then a pretty painful and public exit, not as painful and public as mine I have to tell you. In fact as I was preparing for this chat today and very much looking forward to it, I reminded myself that I suppose the high point of my editing career was when I was given The Newspaper Of The Year Award and the man who presented me with that was you. And it was downhill from that moment on.
00:17:03.00 Andrew Marr:
00:17:03.12 Andy Coulson:
So you are the journalistic high point for me, just as an aside. But back to you and the Independent, I mean, you’ve been very sort of self-effacing about your editing career. But it must have been a very difficult time, I imagine?
00:17:20.02 Andrew Marr:
Extremely difficult time. I was living in the far west of London, East Sheen, and the Independent was in the relatively far east, it was in Canary Wharf, in that great big tower in the centre of Canary Wharf. Which might seem a strange way to start this explanation but it involved, in the days of heavy traffic, often a two hour car journey to work. So very, very long days when you’d be sitting in the back of the car, feeling queasy, going through all the of the newspapers and spitting blood about the stories that we had missed or had been treated better by, in those days the Guardian under Alan Rusbridger, was in its prime, and they were frankly caning us. And they had a much, much bigger staff, much bigger resources but they were doing really well.
00:18:03.17 Andrew Marr:
And so I’d be sort of sitting there brooding over all the failures of the previous day. Arrive at work feeling nauseous and exhausted already and kind of crumpled and go straight into meetings with the advertising team, the commercial people who were saying ‘we’re not selling enough of this, we could cut our price in the auctions see if that lifts this, we need more advertising pages’, and I’d say ‘No, no you can’t have any more space, editorial needs that.’ We had all those bruising arguments.
00:18:29.20 Andrew Marr:
And then the big problem that we had was that the paper was owned by not one but two people or organisations more or less exactly equal shares, they both had about 48/49% of the newspaper. And of course they had, not just subtly, but very different views of what it should be. So I had Tony O’Reilly, who I must say I always really liked, who was the owner of the Irish Independent Group, big tycoon at that time, his empire has fallen apart. But they are a very big successful tycoon figure. And he wanted a pro-Europe, a strongly pro-European, indeed pro-Euro serious broadsheet newspaper. Which was lots and lots and lots of heavy policy discussion on broadsheet pages, not too many pictures and the only bit of light relief would be. Great deal of coverage of Irish rugby. So that was his view of the paper.
00:19:24.24 Andrew Marr:
And then there was David Montgomery, O’Reilly: south of Ireland, Catholic, gregarious, funny, cultured. David Montgomery: Ulster man, north of Ireland, very fascinated by the numbers. I think it’s fair to say slightly more narrow in his world view. He was absolutely sure, having come from News International, where you were, that he wanted to recreate Today, in effect. And he wanted a tabloid, mid-market newspaper focused on busy wealthy successful people. He kept telling me ‘we want lots more stories about people having their Rolex’s stolen in west London, that’s the kind of thing I want’. And also sceptical about the EU in many ways.
00:20:10.24 Andrew Marr:
So very, very different views of the paper and as editor I was piggy in the middle trying, uselessly to sort of triangulate those positions. And so there would be lots and lots of arguments with the owners and between the owners, while I was editor. The only thing that they could agree on was that it must be possible to produce a national newspaper for even less money than we were. And so there then would be lots and lots of negations with the NUJ, people coming in tears to my office saying ‘I’ve lost my job I don’t understand I thought I was, I thought you admired what I was doing…’
00:20:47.12 Andy Coulson:
Just a miserable existence really.
00:20:52.04 Andrew Marr:
And that’s before you start to edit the newspaper.
00:20:56.01 Andy Coulson:
00:20:56.16 Andrew Marr:
And I enjoyed very much deciding about the front page, I enjoyed very much talking to the various teams, trying to quip up a columnist to go a little bit further to make more of a splash, I loved all of that. But I made one huge, huge strategic mistake or error which compounded my position and ultimately led to me being fired. Which was that I thought that if I redesigned the paper radically it would be such a shock that the owners would be forced, for the first time under my editorship, to give me some advertising, give me some promotion, get it out there and actually back the paper which was what in my view they needed to do.
00:21:38.24 Andrew Marr:
And so I brought in a designer who knew nothing about newspapers at all but had been a very, very successful designer of magazines, of shops, clothes and you name it, everything but newspapers. And I said, ‘If you were starting again and you knew nothing about the newspaper trade, what would you do?’ And he said, ‘Well I can’t understand why you get political stories scattered thought the paper. Bring all the politics together, lots of people are interested in the environment so bring all the environmental stories together. Have areas where there’s crime stories.’ And so we did that and we changed the type face and all of that and we talked about the front page. And I said, ‘So what is a front page?’ In those days it’s a picture and it tells you what you really need to know.
00:22:23.14 Andrew Marr:
So we got rid of the idea of a splash story. Every day I would write a sort of three or four hundred word piece which said these are the essential things you need to know today and then I would get some very beautiful or memorable picture to splash right across this big broadsheet front page. And I thought it looked beautiful, I thought it was a really interesting new take on newspapers. But one, it was too radical; it was too much of a shock. The way the thing was organised and the way it looked was too much of a shock. And two, my naive belief that the owners would put money behind it was entirely wrong. They both folded their arms and sat back. And it plunged and it was a disaster and it was my disaster. And so I wasn’t at all surprised and I was even quite relieved by the time I was sacked. The weird thing that happened. I was de-fenestrated which when you’re twenty-six floors up in Canary Wharf is painful, it’s a long way down.
00:23:19.08 Andy Coulson:
Literally and metaphorically.
00:23:22.14 Andrew Marr:
Exactly, exactly and then I went on a holiday and I had a kind of not mental breakdown but physical breakdown. I got very, very ill on holiday. I had terrible high blood pressure and the sweats and all the rest of it. And in the middle of that, lying on a Caribbean beach not feeling at all happy to be there, I got a call from the O’Reilly side of the operation which said, ‘We’ve decided to buy out the other lot, you were right, we have to have a clear direction, would you come back?’ Rosie Boycott had been put in as editor, they then got rid of her, they brought me back, I should never have said yes. And in the end, I think by the time I came back, although I was editor, Tony O’Reilly didn’t have complete faith in me.
00:24:09.05 Andrew Marr:
I had fantastic, interesting conversations with him and the then Bradley, the iconic Washington Post editor who was part of the board and others, but they’d probably realised something which was true, which was that we have in our, in our trade, in journalism, a horrible habit of taking people who are good at writing or are good reporters, good at getting stories and making them editors. And actually, a big organisation, it’s a management job. You need to understand management, you need to understand money flow, you need to understand the psychology of dealing with the big stuff, all those things they do teach you at business school that people like me weren’t taught.
00:24:47.15 Andy Coulson:
Exactly right, yeah.
00:24:48.24 Andrew Marr:
And I think one of the problems in British journalism, and actually British society more generally including politics, is that people who are good at one thing are immediately promoted to do something that they have never been trained to do. And so I was defenestrated, I was re-fenestrated and then I was de-defenestrated. So it happened to me twice and I think that that unique in the history of Fleet Street.
00:25:11.02 Andy Coulson:
Did it feel like a crisis to you at the time? I mean, did you think to your… in your head are you saying well what on earth am I going to do now?
00:25:21.07 Andrew Marr:
It was sort of out of body experience. I don’t know if you ever felt the same thing but when I got the… What they did was when I got the letter saying that I was dismissed and my secretary brought it into my office, she looked very upset and embarrassed and said, ‘You’ve got to go and there are some guys here who will deal with everything else’. And I said, ‘What do you mean deal with everything else?’ Well all your computer, your books, your photographs, they were all put into black plastic bags, they were taken down in the lift with me and then dumped on the pavement where there was a car to take me home. And I was told that I could go back home but I must not approach anybody from the organisation, any of my… all my friends were members of the staff, they were all my friends, but I couldn’t call them, I couldn’t speak to them. And I couldn’t I think, go within two miles of the newspaper office under pain of losing any severance deal at all. So it was a really strange experience and…
00:26:25.04 Andy Coulson:
It’s actually it’s where politics and journalism do collide really, in a way. Because an exit as a minister is very similar to an exit as an editor, isn’t it? It’s the full black bin bag treatment. And I’ve never really understood why. You know, it’s a good example of where extra drama is inserted into a situation where it’s not really required. Because if they’d come down and said, ‘Andrew, it’s all over, would you mind leaving?’ You would have said, ‘of course’.
00:26:59.14 Andrew Marr:
It was done in this very, very heavy handed way and I can remember talking I think it was to Malcolm Rifkind after he left government, they lost office and he left. And I said ‘What’s the most what’s the strangest thing for you?’ And he said, ‘Well cars keep passing me in the street and I expect them stop and the back doors to open for me.’ And it’s a bit like that because a newspaper, like a junior politician, not that he was, tends to live in a sort of… you’re looked after, there is a bubble, you are expensive, the way you move round the place.
00:27:37.13 Andrew Marr:
I can remember Charlie Wilson, who was working with me at the time, his driver used to send his shirts out for dry cleaning and you know if he had to have a haircut that was all sorted for him. Holidays were all… everything is arranged and it’s this weird, utterly unreal bubble and I think it’s the same for politicians who are successful. And then it’s taken away and you stagger out into the wastelands and you look around you and you remember there’s things called money and bills and the rest of life that everybody else had to do.
00:28:04.10 Andy Coulson:
Stamps, yes… Exactly, you’re right. I’ve talked about this a bit in the past and described it as editor-itis, that kind of bubble that you’ve just described but it’s right, it’s minister-itis as well. They suffer from exactly the same problem.
00:28:19.14 Andrew Marr:
And you pick up the phone to ask your secretary to do something and then you realise you don’t have a secretary and so…
00:28:27.10 Andy Coulson:
You, of course, reinvented yourself pretty rapidly and very effectively, to put it mildly, joining the BBC as a political broadcaster. Amazing career thereafter on-screen. Can we fast forward to 2013 and you’re at the top of your game at this point, absolutely working at full-tilt and you suffer an appalling stroke. The result, in part, of having pushed yourself so hard at work. If you don’t mind, Andrew, would you just tell me about that morning, if you don’t mind?
00:29:13.02 Andrew Marr:
Okay, absolutely. Well everything you say there is true. The way I would put it is that I was like somebody who had just been given a Lamborghini and had put their foot down on the floor and was going as fast as I could. At some point it was clearly going to end in a terrible crash but you’re enjoying the speed so much you can’t take your foot off the accelerator pedal.
00:29:35.05 Andy Coulson:
Give me a flavour of that, the average day.
00:29:38.19 Andrew Marr:
At that period I was political editor of the BBC, it was going well. No I wasn’t, I’m telling a lie, I ceased to be political editor, I was doing my Sunday Morning show of course, but that was going well. But I was also, because the BBC wanted it, doing lots of documentary series. So I’d done the History of Modern Britain. I was about to do the Making of Modern Britain. I was doing a three-parter on the Queen, I’d just finished that and I was doing History of the World because I’m not ambitious. And both the History of the World and the Queen came with big heavy books. So I was doing a lot of writing.
00:30:17.10 Andrew Marr:
So I’d be getting up in the morning, researching and writing two or three thousand words on the book, writing scripts for the documentary series. Shooting off to China or South American maybe on Monday, do Start The Week which is the radio which requires a lot of work, finish Start The Week on Monday late morning. Rush to Heathrow, fly somewhere, film pieces to camera, while writing bits of the book, while being driven around wherever I am, so working flat out. Get back to London by Friday for time to be heavily and intensively briefed on Sunday’s programme and start to prepare the interviews. Do the interviews, do the Sunday programme, collapse, get up, do the Monday morning radio show and then do the whole thing over again.
00:31:15.05 Andrew Marr:
It was insane, it was a completely ridiculous way of working. But I was enjoying it, you know, I was enjoying and who wouldn’t be enjoying being taken around the pyramids when there’s nobody else there? Or going to the Great Wall of China or going down to the Antarctic, all the places I went to, I found them interesting and at the same time interviewing the most interesting people. So Putin, in that period, or shortly after that period. Obama, you know I was talking to all the interesting people, a great life.
00:31:42.08 Andrew Marr:
But I was hurtling forward far too fast and I’d had not one, but… I always say this, I’m sorry, but it’s important public information. TIAs – which are like mini strokes. Lots of people have them and don’t notice them, don’t quite know what they are. And if they did know and they went to hospital they could stop themselves from having the really big stroke that I then had.
00:32:03.06 Andy Coulson:
Right so there were some warning signs?
00:32:06.00 Andrew Marr:
In one case I was in northern Greece in the mouth of a cave at the place where, this is astonishing, Aristotle had his school where he taught Alexander the Great. Now, A, it’s amazing that Aristotle taught Alexander but B, the fact that they actually know where the school was is mind-blowing. And it’s to do with great archaeology and a certain amount of post holes and this kind of… anyway it was the right place. And all I had to do that morning was to stand up and describe this in front of a camera which I was quite good at doing. And I stood up in the cave and the words wouldn’t come. I just couldn’t get the worlds out and I felt utterly exhausted. And my cameraman took me back in his car and I slept in the back of his car for two or three hours in this Greek village and then kind of revived and eventually did the piece. And that was a ministroke. And that should have been a huge warning sign, I should have gone straight to the hospital.
00:33:04.06 Andrew Marr:
And then a few weeks after that I was driving home after seeing one of my daughters at Oxford and I passed out in the car. And hit the barrier of the motorway. The car went way up in the air, crashed down. And I got it back to the garage with the whole side of the car stove in, in fact I only realised how bad the damage was because I tried to open the door to get out in the garage and the door wouldn’t open because it was all buckled. So I was incredibly lucky. I didn’t kill anybody else; I didn’t kill myself but that was another. I thought I was just exhausted. Because I was often exhausted but it wasn’t it was almost certainly the doctors tell me, another mini stroke.
00:33:41.03 Andrew Marr:
So the warning signs had been there and I had ignored them, I was going far too fast I was under huge stress. Now, one of the things that had happened to me was that I used to be a runner. And my knees and Achilles tendons had given up so I couldn’t run anymore. And that had been a way of relieving stress as exercise often is and so my wife very kindly got me a rowing machine to get the exercise going. And we had a little shed and I’d been on the rowing machine. And like a lot of men of a certain age I’d been a bit stupid about my target. So I was trying to do, I can’t remember, but it was something like to row five miles in forty minutes or whatever it might be at a certain gearing. It was something that one of my physios later said, that’s what a very fit, professional athlete in their twenties should be heading for, you were mad…
00:34:40.23 Andrew Marr:
Anyway, so I was doing that and I hit, I can remember very vividly hitting my target and being pleased with myself and immediately feeling very sick and dizzy and seeing sort of flashing lights in front of my eyes, a little bit like that dazzle camouflage you get on ships or multi-coloured flashes and rhythmic light and just feeling awful. And I was cooking the family meal that day so I went into the kitchen and started to cook the meal and all the rest of it. Just felt worse and worse and worse. And I thought it was a migraine. So when my wife, Jackie, came back, the kids came back, I said, ‘I’m sorry I’m not going to join you for supper, I’m just feeling rotten, I think it’s a migraine.’ So I went and sat and watched TV, I went to bed and I was sleeping in the back room of the house at that time because I was snoring a lot, and went there and woke up the next morning lying on the floor. And I can just remember feeling incredibly irritated, angry, why am I…? It’s a really crap way to start a day. You know you wake up you’re on the floor and I couldn’t get off the floor.
00:35:47.02 Andy Coulson:
No pain as such? Just an inaptly to move?
00:35:51.09 Andrew Marr:
Absolute confusion about what was going on. And it took me, I guess, about forty minutes to get up. And I couldn’t work out why it was so difficult to get up. The reason was that I was paralysed down the left side. But in the strange way I didn’t really notice that. And I got myself to the bathroom to get a shower and I can remember going to the shower and being unable to lift my foot into the shower. And thinking that’s even weirder. And then I turned round and looked in the mirror and I had that sort of mouth that came right down at the side. So I realised, okay so this is clearly a stroke.
00:36:27.08 Andrew Marr:
So I went in, woke up Jackie and said I think I’ve had a stroke. And she screamed and looked at me. And then after that, you know, the ambulance arrived about an hour later but the stroke had happened overnight. So it was really too late and I was taken to hospital. And what follows was pretty grim but they saved my life so you know…
00:36:47.24 Andy Coulson:
We’ll be right back after this.
00:36:53.16 Andy Coulson:
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00:37:36.12 Andy Coulson:
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00:38:02.09 Andy Coulson:
And now back to Andrew.
00:38:04.18 Andy Coulson:
You’re taken to intensive care. I mean, you perhaps don’t remember the conversations at the time, one imagines, but what was the prognosis? I imagine in those early stages there was extreme concern about whether or not you would survive?
00:38:21.16 Andrew Marr:
Well I can remember the following things: I can remember going in and a very nice doctor explaining that I had what they called a dissection or a tear in my carotid artery, is what had caused it. And that to unblock the artery they now had a thing like a tiny little submarine which would go into the arterial system. And they literally they it goes into your groin and they push it up all the way through the arterial system, the heart and everything, until they get to the carotid artery and then it unblocks the artery.
00:38:51.24 Andrew Marr:
And he said ‘The great thing about it, it’ll take a long time and it won’t be very pleasant because we can’t give you full pain killers and stuff, we have to know what’s going on, you can’t be knocked out.’ And it did take by the way about two to three hours I think, and he said ‘The great thing about this is that we then don’t have to use the unblocking drugs because they can have catastrophic side effects.’ And so he went through this thing, it went on and on and on and on, I can remember a sensation like having hot tea poured into the brain… anyway it went on for hours and hours, it was very uncomfortable and I was sitting in this metal tube while it was being done.
00:39:27.11 Andrew Marr:
And then at the end of it all the doctor said, ‘Err, Mr Marr, good news and bad news. This bit hasn’t really worked I’m afraid, we haven’t been able to do what we wanted to do but don’t worry because we’ve got drugs that will work for you.’ And I can remember saying to him, ‘Are these the same drugs you told me could have catastrophic side effects?’ And there being a silence. Anyway I was then out cold and all I know is that I came round, not feeling great, probably a day later, and in that period my wife and kids had been taken into a room by the doctor, first of all, and been told that I wasn’t going to make it and to prepare themselves that I wasn’t going to make it and I was going to die.
00:40:07.13 Andy Coulson:
They were told that?
00:40:08.13 Andrew Marr:
They were told that. And then some time afterwards, maybe the next day, they were told ‘Well we think he might well make it but if he does he will be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life and we don’t know how much cognition he’ll have.’ Basically I could have been a vegetable in a wheelchair was effectively what they were saying, so prepare yourselves for that. And so when I woke up and I was myself they were pretty relieved. I wasn’t talking very well and I was completely paralysed down one side but it could have been an awful lot worse.
00:40:36.08 Andy Coulson:
So the doctors were presumably staggered by your…
00:40:40.17 Andrew Marr:
They were, they were certainly pleased, they were certainly pleased.
00:40:46.03 Andy Coulson:
And terrible trauma for Jackie and the kids in that interim period?
00:40:49.11 Andrew Marr:
Well it was much worse for them than it was for me. I was just an object in a bed and then I eventually got better and I started to read and draw and do all the things I do and it was fine. But for them, it was absolutely horrible.
00:41:03.24 Andy Coulson:
What do you remember about your though processes? What’s going on, what’s the sort of internal monologue at that stage for you when you’re facing gall this, do you remember?
00:41:13.16 Andrew Marr:
Do you know what, it’s remarkably hum-drum, I’m afraid. Because you don’t know you’re about to die, you don’t feel you’re about to die, you wake up and you haven’t died. And the next thing you think is I need to go to the loo, I’m bored, I’m a little bit hungry and all those absolutely quotidian mundane things kick in. So you’re wondering about whether you can manage yet another vegetarian hospital curry or do you have to find a new way of getting food into you. You wondering about can I make it to the loo and back without the nurse being in.
00:41:47.16 Andrew Marr:
And by holding onto all these things you’re wondering about… there’s a lot of physio straight away so you’re exhausted by the physio and you’re thinking about the rhythm of the physio and then you’re just thinking about entertaining yourself. So I was reading books and I was watching lots and lots of DVDs and I was constantly asking for more DVDs and more books. And the thing that I do to, not de-stress, because it’s more important to me than that, the thing that I do all the time is draw and paint. And so I had some drawing material and I was drawing the ends of the bed and the foot and all the stuff around me. So yeah, I was thinking about what am I going to do in the next five minutes, not what is my human situation now?
00:42:26.06 Andy Coulson:
So in those early days of recovery what was the sort of long-term prognosis. Because you’ve been left with paralysis on your left side. But at first your speech was quite badly affected, obviously a huge issue for you professionally. But what was the view of the doctors of what a long term prognosis would be?
00:42:48.08 Andrew Marr:
Well they didn’t tell me too much which was probably a good thing. They said ‘We think we can get you walking again but you’re going to have to work hard at it.’ And so I spent a lot of the earlier period with a stick or a Zimmer frame thing staggering around trying to learn to walk, going down to the gym. Trying to move my left arm, which still, by the way, doesn’t move very well. And one thing they did which was brilliant, I had a speech therapist, but in the gym they rigged up an autocue. So they got a TV and they typed in various news headlines and I practiced reading them out, which I thought was fantastic, brilliant of them. And the speech did come back, luckily for me, not perfectly, not perfectly ever but pretty well.
00:43:35.23 Andy Coulson:
But that’s wonderful, I mean, rigging up the autocue is obviously a very practical help for you but also how emotionally intelligent of them to have done that. Because that would absolutely have been, I assume, playing straight into one of your core fears. You know what’s going to come next?
00:43:52.20 Andrew Marr:
The ICU nurses and the physios were just amazing, they were wonderful. I mean, friendly, frank, nice people to be around. And of course this was before Covid, so the NHS I’m sure is stressed but at that stage there was proper staffing. I was very lucky I was in an ICU bed so you were surrounded by all the right kit. But they were so friendly. And you know within a few weeks I was going up and down stairs. Not safely and in a wobbly fashion but I was moving around, going into the gym and meeting all the other patients which is of course very amusing because you get their stories too. I was in hospital for quite a long time.
00:44:37.00 Andy Coulson:
How long were you in hospital for?
00:44:39.03 Andrew Marr:
I think twelve weeks, something like that, ten or twelve weeks. People will tell you, if you’ve been in hospital, you don’t have to be in hospital for very long to get institutionalised. And by the time I left going out into the road outside the Charing Cross Hospital was quite, not scary, but sort of weird. You thought, oh yes the rest of the world still exists, cars move quite fast, don’t they? It was all very strange. After months and months and months of physio…
00:45:07.14 Andy Coulson:
We had Martha Lane Fox, who I’m sure you know, on the podcast and I’m sure you know her story, terrible car accident that left her with permanent injuries. She told us that one of her coping mechanisms, and she is, as I say, a remarkable woman who will walk on stage with her cane and deliver a sort of brilliant, no-notes, speech, it’s something to see. She told us that denial has been a very useful technique for her. It’s not a very fashionable approach in this world these days, but one that absolutely works for her. I wonder if you’ve ever done the same? Have you just sort of pushed it to one side, on occasions, to be able to move forward?
00:45:49.02 Andrew Marr:
I think that’s very interesting, that’s very interesting, let me think about that. I think when I was coming out of the first bit of physiotherapy, if I had sat down and looked analytically at what I would not be able to do, I might not have been able to cope. Running was important, I can’t run. Can’t cycle, although I have learned to cycle but I can’t stop because I can’t get my foot down to brace against the road, so I just fall over so I can’t cycle. Can’t cycle, can’t run, can’t really swim with one side of the body paralysed, can’t ski. There are lots and lots of can’ts coming up all around me.
00:46:31.02 Andrew Marr:
And I don’t think I could have coped with the thought that I couldn’t work either, that I had no use in that respect. And so I always assumed I’d get back to work. There was no real reason of why I should have been able to. I was on the edge of not being able to. And I had specific problems, apart from mobility, my speech was pretty bad then and weirdly one of my lungs wasn’t working very well. So if there was a long sentence I couldn’t get the air to the end of it. So I had to start recording the tops of the show because I would run out of puff otherwise. Lots of things like that.
00:47:10.21 Andrew Marr:
I have to say in a world where we’re told not to respect politicians and they’re all ghastly and all the rest of it, David Cameron did me a huge favour. He agreed to be interviewed by me right of the beginning of my ability to be back on television. And I came into Number 10 and I interviewed him and he was gracious enough to give me news lines and it was all very successful. And from then on the BBC, I think, thought, okay he’s going to be alright. They didn’t think that all the way through but they decided it was probably going to be okay for me to go back on screen. And I went back to work quite quickly.
00:47:44.17 Andy Coulson:
When you look back on that period then, because that you are clearly a fundamental optimist and the work ethic, like the Jedi, is very strong in you Andrew, clearly. But what there must have been those moments, and I’m sure there were several, where you thought, you know I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to do this. Tell me a little bit about those moments and what you did, what technique did you use or what were you saying to yourself to pull yourself out of that place?
00:48:24.05 Andrew Marr:
Well I was very dogged, I mean I am a dogged, relatively hard working person. I just made sure I was even better briefed than before. Gave myself a bit more time before and after the interviews to be preparing for them. And I don’t know really, that was it. I think the work ethic is very strong in me. And I think that the negative way of putting it is that I’m not very good at being by myself and doing nothing. I kind of go to pieces quite quickly if there’s not structures around me, if there isn’t a purpose to the day, if there aren’t a series of tasks to be accomplished. I’m a slightly old-fashioned mechanical machine in that regard, I just have to get crunching through it.
00:49:10.22 Andrew Marr:
And the other thing that I haven’t really talked about much, but is incredibly important to me in this story, is art. Because I might easily have become an artist if I hadn’t become a journalist or a writer. I often ask myself if that wasn’t really the better way forward. And so one of the big difficulties for me was that I couldn’t paint. I used to do landscapes and stuff outside, I’d get my easel and I’d go to the side of a field or into a wood and I’d paint. After the stroke I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t carry the gear; I couldn’t set it up and if the wind came along and blew the canvass over I couldn’t pick it up again. And I thought oh is painting going to go as well?
00:49:53.12 Andrew Marr:
And then I realised that of course I could paint inside in a studio. I thought I can get myself a place to paint. I’m not really interested in painting flowers or nudes or whatever you can paint in the studio and so I went back to something I’ve always been interested in which is abstract painting and abstract drawing. Certainly drawing every day now. And that was a very, very important ladder back to realise that yes, there’s all these can’ts, there’s all these big signs saying don’t go here, don’t swim, don’t do this, don’t do that, but actually there are other gates that you can open and walk through and do something that you weren’t doing before the stroke and actually do it better.
00:50:30.12 Andy Coulson:
Wonderful. Your dad, Donald, I think, was also a painter.
00:50:36.01 Andrew Marr:
Yes he was… he would be surprised to hear that. He did a bit of painting but I was certainly brought up surrounded by the idea that painting was normal. He had friends who were painters. Dundee where I come from is actually a very artistic place or it had a series of very, very fine painters, some of whom we knew. But you’d see them around town painting outside and you’d go to the exhibitions. I always went to the annual exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy every year and other exhibitions. So I was brought up with the idea of painting being a thing.
00:51:12.06 Andy Coulson:
Your father very sadly died during lockdown. He was clearly a big figure in your life. Always there at times of crisis, I’m sure, in your life. Was his voice pretty loud in your head during those days of difficulty that we’ve been discussing?
00:51:31.03 Andrew Marr:
All the time. He suffered from diabetes, which he got relatively early in his life, in his thirties, and that comes with hypos and dangers of all kinds. So we grew up with the idea of having to overcome physical problems. He was just an inordinately kind, gentle and wise man. And his sayings still float around my head if I’m negotiating a salary or something he would always say, ‘You’ve only got one stomach’. You know in other words; you don’t need that much and he was quite presbyterian in that regard. And in my career generally I always remember something he, he was quoting another person, the strongest Scottish accent that he would say, ‘There’s a cure to all things except but a swelled head’. And it’s absolutely true.
00:52:26.12 Andy Coulson:
It is true.
00:52:28.17 Andrew Marr:
Dad’s sayings and his silly poems and so on were legendary and he was always a sort of warm presence five hundred miles north from where I was going through all this stuff and I talked to him a lot.
00:52:39.19 Andy Coulson:
Well I’m very sorry for what happened during lockdown, it must have been very difficult for you.
00:52:45.24 Andrew Marr:
It was tough, like so many people we did follow the rules and he was buried in the village we come from, outside the church where he’d served as an elder for fifty-six years but the church was locked and bolted. We could have none of his friends from the village, none of his friends from work, none of the wider family. There were six of us and the minister standing around the gravestone, the grave. We had a piper as well. And it was fine, we read some poems, but it was not the send-off that he deserved. And when I discovered, or realised, later that that was the same week of one of the big Downing Street parties the iron entered my soul a bit and I got very angry.
00:53:26.17 Andy Coulson:
Yes. I’ve listened to some of your interviews and you saying that you found that line between making that very clear, because that’s really what this story is all about isn’t it, as well as remaining professional with it. I mean a hell of a task given the upset that you suffered. Can we go back a couple of years, let’s go back from there to 2018 when you faced another health crisis, this time a cancer diagnosis. Tell us about that day, Andrew.
00:54:00.17 Andrew Marr:
That was in a way less dramatic. It was resolved quite quickly. I have always, for weird reasons, thought that stomach cancer or colon cancer would be what I’d got. I don’t know why but I’ve always thought that’s particularly unpleasant ones so that’s probably what I’ll eventually get. And so I was having a scan of the thorax or whatever it’s called. And they said ‘No, no sign, nothing in the lungs, nothing in the bowel, that’s absolutely fine. There’s something strange in one of your kidneys.’ And it was a little bean sized thing in the kidney.
00:54:33.01 Andrew Marr:
And it was cancerous and it’s never good to hear that you’ve got a cancer diagnosis but I am a relative optimist. I’m a glass half full person and they said ‘We can deal with this quickly’ and they did with an extraordinary thing called, I can’t quite remember, a cryoablation of the kidney. But basically they stick two tiny tubes in through the skin to the kidney. One to look at what’s going on and the other one to blast the cancer with freezing agent. So they freeze it down to some minus, something extraordinary low temperature. And it dies and it then breaks up and falls off. And it’s just reabsorbed by the body and disappears. And that worked. It’s an amazing piece of new technology. I think it was developed first in the Netherlands.
00:55:22.02 Andy Coulson:
Was there a concern with the diagnosis, though, that because of your stroke that your ability to recover from whatever treatment you’d have to have to deal with the cancer, would be impaired in some way, or not?
00:55:36.09 Andrew Marr:
Nobody ever said that and I’ve been lucky enough not to have to go through chemo or anything like that or radiotherapy. But no, I think to be honest with you, I’ve talked a bit about that in the past because lots of people get cancer diagnoses. Lots of them have an absolutely horrible time, I’ve lost friends to cancer as I’m sure you have because we all have. And I’ve got friends who’ve got awful cancer problems right now but this was just, as it were, a message to the rest of the world that you can get cancer and it can be fine and dealt with quite quickly.
00:56:10.11 Andy Coulson:
Having already gone through so much though, with that diagnosis, I mean, one assumes there must have been two thoughts in your head. One is, really, after everything? This, now? And the other I suppose is did it again cause you to look at the big picture in life? Or about life? You know you’ve talked a little bit in the past about wanting to squeeze the juice out of every day which I think is a wonderful expression. How did you find the balance between those two things? How did you keep yourself out of the former and focused on the latter?
00:56:47.11 Andrew Marr:
I think the shorter answer is I learned nothing. I carried on and I’m still carrying on. When I had my stroke a friend who had had a very bad stroke and written a book about it, came into see me in hospital. And he said, ‘Andrew, you must be crying the whole time with rage, with rage. You must look at all those people down there and think, you sods, I’ve had a stroke and you haven’t, how dare you? How dare you? How dare you?’ And I said, ‘To be absolutely honest, Robert, it’s never even occurred to me, I’ve never thought that way. What happens to me, happens to me. What happens to you, happens to you and that’s just life.’
00:57:26.15 Andrew Marr:
And he looked visibly disappointed in my answer. And he said ‘Well you must just have cried, sobs of self-pity, you must think oh dear, poor me, poor me.’ And again I said, I mean, glibly, I said ‘I come from Dundee, we don’t do that. That’s never occurred to me.’ And he looked even more depressed and the visit went on and then he left the room. And then a few seconds later he knocked on the door and he came back in again, and he came over and he said, ‘Never forget the old stroke survivor’s adage Andrew.’ And I said, ‘What’s that Robert?’ He said, ’It’s the second stroke that kills you.’
00:57:57.03 Andrew Marr:
So you know I’ve always thought, as I said at the beginning, temperament is fate and I have been blessed frankly with a relatively upbeat temperament and a short attention span which keeps me working. Now one day I’ll work too much, one day I’ll go too far, but for now it’s been pretty good.
00:58:14.18 Andy Coulson:
Andrew, amazing, look thank you so much for joining us today. I think that’s a wonderful place to bring the conversation, almost, to a close because I want to use a little bit more time just to ask you for your crisis cures. So these are three things, can’t be another person, is the only rule, that you lean on. We’ve talked about the painting, so I’m not going to let you have that, I’m afraid. But try and give me three things that you keep in mind or that you do. Maybe it’s something specific like book or a particular piece of music or something that you lean on.
00:58:46.10 Andrew Marr:
Well if I can’t have people, I would have mentioned my wife Jackie and my agent Mary as the people, if I can’t have them and I can’t have painting, then the low one, but it’s real, is a good, fairly socking malt whisky. The thing that absolutely calms me down, a really good, peaty malt with half and half with water, looking into the middle distance is a failsafe, brings the blood pressure down, brings everything into perspective.
00:59:18.21 Andrew Marr:
And if I can’t have painting or drawing I would say music certainly. I listen to a lot of classical music. I go to the Royal Albert Hall a lot and I listen to piano music. As I get older I get fonder of classical music and piano music and I would be walking around Regent’s Park with headphones on listening almost certainly to something, either Beethoven piano sonatas or my new discovery is actually Hayden’s piano sonata which are just heart-stoppingly beautiful.
00:59:50.04 Andrew Marr:
Third thing, if I’m allowed it, is the sky. Get outside in all weather, be surrounded by the smells of nature. I live right by Regent’s Park so that’s the nearest I can get there. But walking, being outside, music and when necessary a malt whisky.
01:00:07.10 Andy Coulson:
Wonderful. Andrew, thanks so much again for joining us today and for sharing your crisis stories. I think it’s all been inspirational, frankly and I’ve no doubt it will be of use to anyone who’s listening to this and facing their own difficulties. So sincere thanks to you.
01:00:23.17 Andrew Marr:
I really hope so Andy, thank you very much indeed for that conversation, much appreciated.
01:00:50.24 End of transcription