Simon Garfield maps out another intriguing story

The former Time Out editor discusses his most recent book and why he never suspected foul play at the BBC

Simon Garfield is a happier but greyer bunny than I remember and starving with it. The former Time Out editor and author best known for de-nerding subjects we didn’t know we still cared about, like typefaces, Saturday afternoon wrestling, and Radio 1, has a new hit on his hands. On The Map, Why the World Looks the Way it Does, which celebrates the world’s best-known divorce catalyst short of a trip to Ikea, has found its way to Radio 4’s Book of the Week and just been shortlisted for Waterstone’s Book of the Year award.

We select some chicken goujons, inevitably served with salad verde, and navigate our way up to the mezzanine of the lovely, but slightly ridiculous Melrose and Morgan in Oriel Place, Hampstead, where they show off their cup cakes in half-open drawers.

Garfield is particularly happy that On the Map was short-listed for Waterstone’s Book of the Year and is slightly over-awed by his fellow shortlistees who include Hilary Mantel and Artemis Cooper. He modestly feels he has been nominated for the award under slightly false pretences, something, it has to be said, that he has form in.

Earlier this year, he was on the train to Brighton to see his son Jake graduate when his phone rang. It was Jake. “He said, ‘Dad – you know how you only live once?’ Here we go,” thought Garfield, mentally reaching for his wallet, but Jake had a much better plan in mind. His fellow graduate, Heath, also from Hampstead, was bedridden with ‘flu so Jake suggested his dad pick up his award in his place. “He’d hired the gown and everything,”

Which is how one Simon Garfield, 52, ended up in a mortar board and gown shaking the hand of the vice-chancellor of Brighton University to accept a degree in art. How he wasn’t rumbled in a sea of 20-somethings he will never know. Kate Mosse (the writer not the supermodel) was there to see her daughter graduate and spotted him, but no-one gave him away.

“Sometimes you just have to do these things,” he said, adding that he would have regretted it for years if he had bottled out. After all: “What was the worst that could have happened ? “Someone standing up and saying: ‘Oy, you’re not Heath Lowndes, stop mucking about.’”

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Garfield seems both proud and relieved to have such a joyful relationship with the sons he describes as his “wonderful boys” Ben and Jake, now aged 22 and 24. The family has emerged from divorce if not unscathed but unembittered and he remarried four months ago to Justine Kanter, a chef, with whom he lives with her two teenage sons.

All divorces are devastating for those involved, is all he really wants to say on the matter – his consolation is that he has the best relationship possible with Diane Samuels, the playwright and the mother of his two boys. All four boys get on, as do both wives, so, in the scheme of things, life is better than could be expected and he is looking forward to his sons coming round for dinner tonight (Justine cooks a mean chicken curry) before he takes them to see his beloved Chelsea play.

We move on to talk maps. He tells a good tale does Simon Garfield – not least being the snippet, which sadly I had to pinch from former Ham&High sub turned Guardian interviewer, Stuart Jeffries that “if it weren’t for Hitler Simon Garfield would be called Simon Garfunkel” It’s true, says Simon. His father, was born in Hamburg and changed his name from Garfunkel to Garfield when the family escaped to London in 1934. He still has a blanket, labelled with his father’s childhood name H Garfunkel, at home in Gospel Oak.

For such a map fiend, he is, like fellow Gospel Oaker, Michael Palin, quite a homebody. (Mr Palin may travel the globe in his day job, but he bought the house next door so that he wouldn’t have to move to get a bigger house) Simon was born in Hampstead Garden Suburb, moved up the line a bit when he was first married, and now lives a couple of A-Z pages away off Mansfield Road by the Heath. His two stepsons now go to his alma mater, UCS, in fact one of them recently received a geography prize from a fellow old boy Hugh Dennis. Garfield was beyond chuffed – not least because he wasn’t all that hot on geography himself as a boy, but reassuringly, he has a good story about it.

“When I was there, my geography teacher was off sick for a term and they brought in Mike Brearley – do you know who Mike Brearley is?” he asks in an endearing self-deprecating way – or possibly anxious not to waste a good yarn on someone who hasn’t the faintest idea who captained England against the Aussies in 1981. Anyway, his main memory of Mr Brearley teaching geography was his inability to draw on the blackboard. “He didn’t earn enough at cricket to see him through the winter so he trained as an adult education teacher,” explained Garfield, adding that when he once rang him to double check. “I did have to ask him if it had actually happened and that I hadn’t made this up in a Roy of the Rovers sort of way.”

Anyway, it wasn’t Mike Brearley who turned Garfield on to maps, but his journey from Golders Green to Hampstead on the Northern Line every day, where he wondered, but never quite managed to find out, what it would be like to go to the end of the line and get to High Barnet.

There be dragons, obviously, which is just one of the stories that Garfield gets to the bottom of in On The Map, discovering that writing “There Be Dragons” is not just a mappy myth but was a way of glossing over the bits that no-one had actually explored.

On The Map is less a celebration of maps than a celebration of the sheer talent and courage that created them in the first place. He begins in Alexandria where the first maps were created and kept in the great library, and follows them right up to their near extinction by Satnav, meandering off to discuss maps in The Hobbit, Hogwarts and James Bond along the way. Having covered the basics of the history of map making up until the Renaissance, he said he could have gone in any number of directions but decided, reporter that he is, “to just pick the best stories”.

It’s a method that has served him well on previous books like The Wrestling and The Nation’s Favourite, the definitive inside job on Radio 1 which was written just as the old guard of the last of the 70s DJs were swept away for the then bright young things like Chris Evans and Zoe Ball. As news broke that one of the greatest Radio 1 dinosaurs of all time was having his assets frozen to allow his victims to sue for damages, I asked him what the mood had been, Jimmy Savile-wise, in 1997, when Garfield was given unprecedented access to the DJs and machine that was Radio 1. “He just wasn’t on the radar,” says Simon frankly, adding that Jimmy Savile only gets a couple of mentions in the book, not least because, although he was a big personality, he wasn’t a big presence at the station at the time.

“But look at this,” he says, spotting a copy of The Wrestling, Garfield’s 1996 book about Saturday afternoon wrestling in my bag, flipping it open at the contents page. We are faced with a slightly alarming photograph of Jimmy Savile in ludicrously tight boxer shorts (real ones, not undies) in a menacing boxer pose complete with mad staring eyes.

The caption reads: “Jimmy Savile: I was very very bad.”

“I knew he had been a boxer,” he said, turning to a second equally weird photograph of Savile being floored by a fellow boxer, “There was something masochistic about him,” he said, but anything more untoward was a million miles away when he spoke to him, and he certainly didn’t pick up any clues. “I hadn’t even heard the rumours,” he said, “ I spoke to him on the phone and I was just pleased to be able to interview him for the book.” He finds the subsequent BBC crisis as fascinating as the rest of us and is constantly amazed at how badly the BBC in general and DG George Entwistle in particular are being eaten alive. “They clearly handled it very badly, they had no idea in the early days how big this would be and George Entwistle seems to have no real grasp of how other people see the whole affair,” he said.

Hindsight is a wonderful gift and one that Garfield resists, pointing out that, despite unparalleled access to Radio 1, he didn’t get a whiff of anything dodgier than the odd hint of cocaine. The BBC wasn’t to blame for Jimmy Savile, he said: “It wasn’t about Radio 1, that was just one of the places he worked, it was more about power, and the power of celebrity. “

On the Map, Why the World Looks the Way it Does is published by Profile Books at �16.99.