Dear Zeb ...

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Learn French, get a dishwasher sooner: Radio 4 newsreader Zeb Soanes shares the advice he would give his younger self.

When your parents give you an unusual name they unwittingly set you a challenge - to either make something of it or be cowed by it. My parents chose to name me Zebedee after the father of the Biblical fishermen, James and John. We were an old fishing family, my father is a Methodist minister and my parents had combed the family bible for an interesting name. In later years I joked that I got off lightly as Nebuchadnezzar would have been much more of a mouthful. I had a wonderful childhood, growing up on the coast in Suffolk, so, when Country Life asked me to write a letter to my younger self I started by thinking about which aspects of that ‘chapel’ upbringing had stood me in good stead.

Reading aloud is a skill I learned in the pulpit; other essential broadcasting skills of listening and curiosity were honed in the pews. We were encouraged as children to sit with other people in the congregation. I formed friendships with people in their 80’s; older people weren’t another species to me, they just had a head start. Dorothy, my 88 year-old drama teacher and friend, aside from helping me end my words properly also taught me, at 17, how to drink and insisted beans on toast was a perfectly good meal at any time. Older friends, eventually, meant a steady procession of funerals but I would comfort my younger self to see these as batons being passed-on.

Dear younger self, be curious in life, you can’t ask questions of the dead. Accept every invitation; chance encounters in the quiet corners of parties will send your life in directions you hadn’t imagined. Take risks and stretch yourself. Let life take you places you didn’t envisage (but don’t move to Los Angeles when you consider it in your mid-thirties. You are going to meet a little fox in 2017 that will transform your life.)

Send cards! Telepathy hasn’t been proven and small acts of kindness are chiselled into the memory. When I travelled down to London to interview for the BBC I was mugged. I boarded the train home, shaken, without a ticket or money and an elderly woman bought me a cup of tea and a Kit-Kat. By providence she had been Lord Reith’s librarian in the early days of the BBC and had retired to Caistor-on-Sea. Aside from tea, she gave me a fascinating insight into daily life in the corporation, recalling a memo to all female staff that ‘culottes were to be permitted, ONLY for the duration of the cold snap.’ Years later I was to lose my voice suddenly, without evident cause; my left vocal cord was paralysed, there was no guarantee of recovery and I faced the very real possibility that my on-air broadcasting career was over. The kindness of friends and complete strangers during that surreal time will never be forgotten. Dear younger self, trust the still small voice of calm that held the surgeon at bay, you will recover six months later as mysteriously as you fell ill. It also taught me that you cannot let a career define your life or your personality. Having come to terms with the loss of something I love doing, I returned to it renewed and also armed with the powerful knowledge that life could continue without it. It was a hard way to learn ‘not to sweat the small stuff’.

A family friend had the motto, ‘always accept gifts graciously,’ and I realised this also applies to praise. The very British trait of batting aside compliments is ungrateful, no matter how shy or self-critical you are. Just smile and say thank you.

Keep promises, however casually made. When you told Great Aunt Gladys that you were going to visit her after your first holiday abroad and tell her all about it - DO IT. She was hurt and all these years later you still remember. Time moves more slowly when you’re 90 and it’s the things you didn’t do that you come to regret.

In life there are radiators and drains. Be kind but time is precious, give it to those you love.

You are going to have your heart broken. Some relationships are for life, others for a season.

Embrace eccentricity; the best thing about getting older is caring less with each year what other people think.

Don’t measure success against your peers. Just strive to do your best in all you do. Learn French, get a dishwasher sooner and most important of all, DO NOT OPEN ANY LETTERS FROM YOUR OLDER SELF! In life, there is no guidebook - we’re all stumbling our way through and it’s the trips and falls that are often the making of us.

This article appeared in Gentleman’s Life, Autumn 2018 (Country Life)