How We Met: Libby Purves and Paul Heiney

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The Independent Culture
Broadcaster and author Libby Purves, 44, was born in London. In 1978 she became the first woman presenter of the Today programme, and she has presented Radio 4's Midweek for 10 years. She has written 11 books; her latest, How Not To Be A Perfect Family, was published last week.

Paul Heiney, 45, was born in Sheffield. A former presenter of That's Life, he has run a 40- acre organic farm near Aldeburgh since 1990. He writes the Farmers' Diary every Saturday in the Times. He married Libby Purves in February 1980; they have two children, Nicholas, 11, and Rose, nine.

LIBBY PURVES: I arrived at the Today programme at the end of 1977 as a three-days-a-week freelance reporter. I was sent to future planning, a grubby little office run by a man called Ted Gorton, which made tapes for some time in the future - things like Tito's obituary. Year after year you'd make Tito's obituary, and he never died. (Eventually he did die and they didn't use my obituary - I was very bitter.)

On my first day, Ted was forever on the phone to this guy Heiney, who was doing something in the West Country and kept ringing up saying what nice hotels he was staying in. I thought 'Who is this chap who gets all the cushy jobs?'

Then I met him, because he came into the office. I don't remember his appearance at all, but he seemed to be a nice enough lad - we got on. We were both doing the same job for quite a period, forward-planning reporters and also reserve reporters. If the main office suddenly needed someone they'd shout through - one of us would dive for cover and the other would be sent out, or one would rush for it if it was a nice job.

We were very much rub-along working mates and companions. I was going out with somebody quite different at the time. But then it transpired that he was a sailor, and I was a sailor, so we had great common ground to talk about. He was trying at the time to deliver his boat from Burnham-on-Crouch, on the east coast, to a new mooring he'd got in Portsmouth. It was a tiny boat, horrible, a Jaguar 22. Every Friday we'd say 'Good luck Paul,' and every Monday we'd say 'How far did you get?' and he'd say 'Ramsgate' or somewhere, in a sullen sort of way. Once he said Lowestoft, which is north of Burnham.

Eventually he crossed the Thames estuary - a big moment. Then he wanted a crew, so I went and sailed a leg of the journey with him. We got on very well, but at first it wasn't a romantic thing at all.

Friendship developed out of being colleagues, and the relationship developed out of being friends. Then we decided to buy a boat together, the Barnacle Goose. That was our first serious commitment. We married to make the boat legitimate.

By then I was a Today presenter - the prospect of seeing someone I was working with was very difficult, so I was glad when Paul left to work on another programme. Around this time, when we'd just started going out, I went off for three months to sail across the Atlantic. That was a slight hiatus. Paul was very laid back about it. Nobody who likes sailing could refuse anyone the opportunity to do an Atlantic crossing.

Why does anyone decide to get married? When you eventually meet the person you're going to marry, often it's so completely different from anything else before, that it's obvious. Eventually I suppose it seemed obvious to him as well. It was always different. One of the differences was that with earlier boyfriends there was this tedious business of waiting for the phone to ring, thinking: 'If he doesn't ring, what does it mean?' With Paul there was never any such doubt. It meant he was busy or drunk or the car had broken down.

I think marriage focuses your mind. Apart from anything else it means that you are formally taking up ties of kinship with each other's wider family. His mother is as much my responsibility as his, my mother is as much his responsibility as mine; these things count. I think the extended family is a very useful thing, and marriage is the building block of it.

We married on my 30th birthday in deadly secrecy, because Paul was on That's Life and we had a terrible dread of tabloid headlines saying 'Esther's Boy Weds Radio Girl', the sort that cause your toes to curl up.

We didn't have the farm straight away. We moved to Suffolk first. That was Paul's initiative, but I was quite happy. We're both quite good at doing things the other wants, if they want it enough to make a fuss about it. When I said: 'Why don't we both chuck in our jobs and sail round Britain for one summer?' he gave up the Travel Show, and we

did. When he wanted to start a farm run by cart-horses, I said: 'All right, let's see if we can do it.' You only have one chance. We sometimes bite off more than we can jointly chew, but I prefer it that way.

PAUL HEINEY: I was working on the Today programme. It was a fairly small unit, but a lot of nice perks came its way. I heard that this woman was coming from local radio, which was something of a threat, because I'd managed to engineer myself a rather pleasant little lifestyle in which the BBC paid me to go off to nice places like the Isles of Scilly to do features about daffodils and things like that.

I didn't want any competition, quite frankly. So the first time I set eyes on her would have been with some disdain, I suspect. We were all serious and determined then, because we were trying to hang on to jobs and carve out niches for ourselves. I can't say that working with her was a deeply moving experience - it was a very small office and we were terribly under-equipped, so everyone was fighting for razor blades for editing tape. One's personal survival came above everything else.

Our mutual interest in sailing brought us together - if we hadn't had that, I wouldn't have thought we'd have got anywhere, so to speak. People who sail are desperately boring, talking about sailing all the time. I was stuck for crew, but this wasn't unusual as all my early sailing was done single-handedly. I needed a crew for a trip from the east coast round to the south coast, and she was the only other person I knew who sailed.

It was a lousy sort of journey, but we worked well as a crew. Things went slowly on from there. The funny thing is, I can remember more about sailing incidents than romantic ones.

I wouldn't have wanted to stay unmarried. If you can entertain each other, make each other laugh, that will solve any transient problem. If you have the ability to detach yourselves and have a joke, which we always manage to do, then you'll get through almost anything.

As in any marriage, you could hit upon specific complaints. But they'd only be minor ones, like my habit of leaving bathroom windows open - there must be some Arctic blood in me because I like a blast of chilly air, it's good for you. Libby's not of the same mind, especially in the bathroom, so we're not quite perfect.

I haven't read Libby's new book yet: the whole thing could come as a great shock. But I do think we make a good family. I'm a pragmatist in these matters. Whether you like it or not, once you have children you are lumbered with family life and you just have to get on with it. I think the perfect family where everyone puts their socks away and nobody leaves the knife in the marmalade must be the most irritating scenario possible. It sounds like living in a hotel and always being on your best behaviour.

Having a farm is like having another family - with your human family you can tell them to go to hell and shut the door on them, but the farm is always nagging. There's always something wanting attention, it's like having a whingeing child.

I first had the idea of farming in 1987, when I was invited in my capacity as a minor TV celebrity to present the prizes at the Suffolk Punch Spectacular - you know, the big horses. I didn't take a fee, so they invited me to their annual dinner where I met some terribly interesting people. Through 1987 I worked on their farm as a farm- hand, writing a book called Pulling Punches. And it was very infectious - I couldn't give it up. That's how I came to be farming with carthorses. We took on the farm in 1990. We now have three working Suffolk punches, Large Black pigs, Dorset sheep and Red Poll cattle.

When I suggested it, Libby was very, very good - better than any- one else I could have imagined. She is a great believer in getting on and doing things, and neither of us wants to reach 70 and sit around saying: 'I wish I'd done this' or 'I wish I'd done that.'

At the moment I'm working on a book about ham, pigs and pork. Farming, especially with horses, is very good for writing - it's very slow and measured, there is a lot of walking at a steady pace, and you go into a trance which is very good thinking time.

After a couple of weeks on the farm the studio is heaven; they look after you, press your suit, bring you tea, and it's so clean and warm in there. But after a few days of that I want to get back to the land. I spend more time on farming than on broadcasting now.

Libby's not a farmer, but she likes having the farm paraphernalia around. She's more the duchess who's very pleased with her estate; I'm the estate manager. -

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