Big Read 2021: ‘Airhead’ reviews by the St George’s community

Decorative logo for the Big Read project at St George's

This year, Emily Maitlis’s book Airhead : the imperfect art of making news was chosen as St George’s University’s Big Read book. The Big Read is a shared reading project to foster a sense of belonging among staff and students. It is not too late to claim your free e-book copy. Visit our website to find out more.

Since the beginning of the academic year we have had a number of engaging events around the Big Read. We have met for book clubs (there’s another one on the 28th April). People from across the institution organised discussions around some of the themes covered by the book such as the environment, grief, meditation and movement. We also had the pleasure of welcoming Emily Maitlis to St George’s and hearing from her directly as she was interviewed by two St George’s students. You can find the recording of that session here.

Airhead is a collection of Emily Maitlis’s accounts of meeting world-famous people, reporting on significant world events and investigating important topics of the day. As such, the book lends itself perfectly to reviews as each of us will have chapters that resonate more than others.

Book cover for Airhead by Emily Maitlis

Below you can read a selection of chapter reviews from members across the St George’s community.

Dan Jeffcote (Information Assistant) – David Attenborough: One hour in a hot-air balloon

The interview took place just after the BBC released “Planet Earth II”.  The programme features incredible camera-work and increasingly there is a sense of urgency about the effects of climate change on the planet in his work.

In the interview he discusses issues such as the ozone layer, plastic, building in wildlife habitats and population growth. He is clearly passionate about using scientific evidence to explain climate change. He is well known for his gift for narration and as an adventurer but its his calmness, thoughtfulness and wisdom that come across in this chapter.

His message appears to be we have at this moment in time a choice to either “destroy” or “cherish” our heritage.  Emily Maitlis describes her one hour with him as an interview that calms her soul.

Alina Apostu (Student Experience Officer) – A few words on Jon Stewart and the creature of the news

I suppose one question is ‘What is it like? What is it like to meet all those people in person?’

She, Emily Maitlis, does a good job at giving you a sense of how that might be … but it’s a different feeling that she makes real for the reader …

While all the names in Airhead are big names, my first chapter to read was the one about Jon Steward. I like Jon Stewart. A lot. I like his work, his humour, his voice (both metaphorically and literally). So I echoed Maitlis’ hopes that ‘I do not want to find out he’s a complete muppet in real life. That his thoughts are all tightly scripted, his jokes pre-prepped. I am desperate, in other words, not to be disappointed.’ (p.60).

In the chapter, Maitlis moves so swiftly from mention of his film, Rosewater, and the story behind it of the incarcerated Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, to the different implications of writing news and writing satire, to his political convictions, to the relationship to his father, to his retirement from the Daily Show, to his view of Islamism, to the effects news have on people’s actual lives, to how he thinks (or doesn’t) about the audience. Eight topics in what feels like a glimpse of a meeting.

As I read, the feeling that became real was of that rush, that rush of the news, of the need to ‘get it’, of the clock-ticking… the book doesn’t lie, it is about the imperfect art of making news, and it felt that whom I met was not so much Jon Stewart but something else … an entity, a creature of the news that takes hold of everything, that brings interviewer and interviewee together in a quick exchange, moving oh so swiftly between philosophical questions, practical implications in real life and personal, intimate histories. Not sure how I feel about that creature …

Sue David (Associate Director of Information Services (Library & Learning Services)) – Rachel Dolezal: the black human activist who turned out to be white

I have enjoyed Emily Maitlis’s book Airhead, with its broad range of issues and personalities and its insight into the frantic life of a journalist – her emotional rollercoaster and personal struggles and juggles.

I found this chapter particularly thought provoking in the context of my own journey towards an understanding of issues associated with racism which have recently been brought to the fore, but which have been part of the British narrative for centuries.

Rachel is a complicated character with a host of interwoven complexities following her abusive upbringing and the negligence and despair she suffered as a child.  That she finds solace in a role as a substitute mother to four adopted black siblings in whose culture she become immersed is a fascinating insight into someone who is looking for a sense of belonging and a need to escape from her own reality.

Emily Maitlis treats Rachel with empathy and compassion.  She does not try to sensationalise her story and has split loyalties, understanding what others will be expecting from the interview – and they are disappointed.  The vitriolic responses to Rachel and the interview are deeply upsetting and have a personal impact on Maitlis who feels an inner need to protect the person behind the story.

This is an example of a hugely complex story which cannot be tackled from a single perspective.  Here the issues “had overtaken the person at the centre”, but the focus of the interview was Rachel and Emily Maitlis treats her subject with sensitivity despite the expectations of her audience.

James Calvert (Liaison Support Librarian (Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education))

Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News examines the nature of broadcast news journalism, capturing a vivid snapshot of what happens in front of the camera as well as behind the scenes. As an anecdotal tale of her journalistic adventures, and seemingly fuelled on a diet of chocolate, alcohol and very little sleep, Emily Maitlis takes us swiftly from one famous encounter to the next, her book presented as a collection of compelling vignettes. The short, episodical chapters that make up this easy-reading, but not always comfortable-reading book offers an insider’s perspective on the news-making process. For myself, this never felt more real than with the chapter, ‘Meeting a Prince’, an account of the build-up of the weeks and days to that now infamous Newsnight interview, an important event that may still have the power to help Epstein’s victims later down the line.

Anne Binsfeld (Liaison Support Librarian (IMBE)) – Russell Brand: How Addiction Starts with a Penguin Bar

While I don’t necessarily like Russell Brand, his way of branding himself or even most of his opinions, I really enjoyed the chapter on Maitlis’s interview with Brand around addiction and his book Recovery. Emily Maitlis’s honesty is disarming and I am intrigued by her claim that his book is ‘a sort of AA programme without the pomposity’ considering Russell Brand comes across as pompous and over the top quite often. In this interview however, or rather in Emily’s account of this interview, he comes across as insightful and honest – perhaps because I can see the importance of acknowledging addiction as incredibly common, be it to online shopping sprees (in Maitlis’s case) or drinks, drugs and Penguin bars (in Brand’s case). I would imagine after a year of Covid-19 and three lockdowns down the line, most of us have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms to, as Brand says, supplement ‘our experience of being’. Addiction is a distraction from worries and fears that just feel too large for us to face head on. Despite Brand’s charm, Maitlis doesn’t let him off the hook easily and I have also enjoyed reading about that. Although she might not get any ‘tears of repentance’, she does know how to ask those questions that touch on something true and important in Brand’s experience. In return, Brand comes across as an engaged and engaging interviewee. The final scene highlights poignantly that the art of making news is a game of give and take, like a dance in which interviewer and interviewee are in communication with each other. Great interviews are not one-directional and as Emily Maitlis is happy to admit, put the interviewer on the spot time and time again.

Library ♥ Wellbeing

June Wellbeing image just title

Tying in with 10 Days of Wellbeing programme (SGUL login required) run by St George’s Staff Development team, we are running a book swap in the library foyer from  Monday 20 June to Friday 1 July, to promote reading for relaxation and pleasure, as well introducing a new collection of books.

Book Swap in the library foyer from 20 June – 1st July

From 20 June – 1 July, we’ll be putting out a trolley of fiction books in library for you to enjoy.  St George’s staff and student are free to pick a book to read (initial collection kindly donated by Library staff)  and to drop off a book on the trolley for sharing with others.

Mood-boosting books – available from 20 June

We have also added a brand new collection of mood-boosting books for our users. This collection includes poetry, novels, essays and more, picked  from a list suggested by the Reading Agency. Keep an eye out for the display in the Library, the mood-boosting books collection will be available for borrowing from 20 June 2016.

moodboosting books horizontal
Some of the items in our new mood-boosting books collection

What books do you read for rest and relaxation? If you’re on Twitter, use #sgulwellbeing to let us know on Twitter . If you enjoyed a book from the book trolley we’d love to hear your comments.