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“After the Moira Stuart furore, I may have a few years left”

When she’s not sitting behind a desk at the BBC in Glasgow reading the news, chances are Jackie Bird will probably be doing one of two things: sitting behind a desk at the Mitchell Library researching the play or book or drama she’s planning on writing, or slicing her way through the freezing cold water of a loch.

And chances are she’ll be doing both with all that big-haired, big-teethed enthusiasm of hers that some people love and some, she admits herself, find just a little bit tiring.

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Bird, 47, took up outdoor swimming recently after seeing an ad for an outdoor swimming club at Strathclyde Loch, going along and discovering she loved it. Sitting in the BBC canteen, as thin as a hyphen and all dolled-up for that night’s Reporting Scotland, she is passionate about her new hobby and says there is “something spiritual” about swimming in open water. “You have a wet suit and you plunge in and you swim,” she says. “I go to Loch Lomond now and swim there with a group. They mark a course out and you race.”

And then Bird says something interesting: the only person she is really racing against, she says, is herself. She is, she admits, prone to getting obsessive about exercise. “If I’ve done a 10-mile run last week, I’ll try to do 11 miles this week,” she says. “I have been obsessive, I think, when I did a little bit of triathlon; it makes you obsessive because you have to train so often.”

There are a few other traces of this committed streak when Bird starts talking about the careful, detailed research she is doing for what she hopes will be the book or play or drama. She is spending some of her free time -- and there’s not a lot of it, she says, because she’s preparing for the General Election coverage -- retracing her early days as an industrial reporter, looking for the spark of an idea.

“I was a journalist in the early 1980s and fell into industrial reporting,” she says. “I was outside Ravenscraig at five in the morning, I was there for the last deep-cast mine closing, I was there for the miners’ strike, the big launch of the sunrise industries and the idea of the new way. I grew up in the shadow of Ravenscraig; my family all worked there and my job found me outside the gates again, so there’s a fascinating story there, I just have to find a way of bringing it alive. I’m trying to do the research at the moment, going to the Mitchell and logging everything I was involved in almost from a first-person point of view.”

What she doesn’t know yet is what form or shape all this research will take. “I like the idea of documenting the 1980s, I just don’t know in what shape or form,” she says. “I haven’t written a play yet. There are thousands of people out there trying to get plays on so I may well join them.”

Bird has had some small success with her writing before: in 2007, Radio Scotland broadcast a sitcom she wrote, which she sent in under an assumed name (because, she says, she didn’t want any special favours). The six-part comedy, Having It All, was all about her, her friends, people she’d met and their children. Bird has two children -- Claudia, 17, and Jacob, 15 -- with her first husband Bob Bird, and is now married to investment fund manager Robin Weir, but she won’t talk about any of them today. When I ask, the flashlight face switches off and she goes a little sulky, shaking her head in silence at my questions.

So, I change the subject -- I don’t have a choice -- and ask her about how someone like her is perceived. I tell her that before I came to meet her, I Googled her name and lots of suggested words came up: married, image, photos, pregnant and, most bizarrely, native American hoop dancer (there’s one with the same name as her). There was another interesting one, too: age. Bird is almost 48 and that, she says, can be an issue for a female presenter. “Up until a couple of years ago, I would have been quietly taken round the back door of Pacific Quay and shot,” she says. “Now, because of the Moira Stuart furore, I might have a few years left.” She admits that for a time, it was an issue that worried her. “It’s a terrible indictment of the industry, but it’s how it was.”

The other problem Bird says she has neatly avoided is being labelled as a particular kind of presenter: she does three days a week at Pacific Quay but spends two days on other projects, including after-dinner speaking. “I am lower division two at that,” she says. “I can do it and not embarrass myself. I am one of only two women in Scotland who do it. It’s terrifying but I think I’ve got the guts to stand up and do it.”

Bird perhaps developed those guts for public appearances from her early days in bands. “I wanted to be either a musician or a journalist,” she says (she was offered a job in a band by Paul Weller before he changed his mind at the last minute). “I had a good singing voice. I haven’t used it properly for years and it’s gone to wrack and ruin.”

When I ask her if she has any regrets about not succeeding in music, she stops and thinks and then says no. “Such a small number of people make it. The chances are that I maybe wouldn’t have made it. I got very near it and getting the backing. The manager of a famous star who I won’t name when I was about 19 was going to pay for me to be launched and cut discs and all that. I was in a hotel room in Glasgow and he obviously wanted a lot more than my singing talents and that was the final straw.”

As she talks about that time, Bird does genuinely seem to be convinced things have turned out for the best in the end. She says she’s a different person from that girl in the hotel room anyway. “I’m a bit more thoughtful,” she says. “Far less woolly.” But, perhaps surprisingly given what she calls her will-someone-shut-her-up enthusiasm, she says she doesn’t register highly on the confidence scale. “I think I’m in

negative numbers,” she says. “I’m not confident at all.”

It must surely have taken some confidence, though, to go out to Afghanistan, which she did earlier this year for a programme following the medical reservists of the 205 Scottish Field Hospital in Helmand. When she was asked to go out, she gave an instant yes, and when she talks about it now, it’s obvious she relished the buzz, the drama and the danger.

“I was fascinated by the fact that this was Nurse Smith who works in the Southern General who tends wee boys with their broken legs; next minute she’s Soldier Smith in a war zone taking orders.

“It was impressive and humbling. It was humbling to see the soldiers.

I felt useless. I’m standing there and I can write things down and I can read out loud and that’s it. I couldn’t even put an injection in or take a temperature. It made me feel useless.”

She’s desperate to go back, despite those feelings of inadequacy; she just needs the right reason, she says. Until then, she’ll carry on reading out loud, sitting behind the desk at the

Mitchell delving into her past and cutting through all that freezing cold water, racing no-one but herself.

  LIFE AND LOVES …

Career high: Making a radio series on the Scottish suffragettes. It was nice to be submerged in a subject for a change and be able to talk with some authority.

 

Career low: Covering major disasters. It’s the nature of the beast that the presenter is only let out of the studio when something awful has happened. You try to remain detached but it can be difficult.

 

Favourite meal: I’m not a cook or a foodie although I love breakfast. Weetabix, sultanas, apricots -- I have a huge mountain of stuff every morning. You wouldn’t know whether to eat it or climb it.

 

Holiday location: The Algarve. I’ve been going there for years. The climate is right and it’s great for running and open-water swimming, if you’re careful.

 

Favourite movie: Local Hero. I never tire of watching it or listening to the soundtrack which I’ve had in my car for decades.

 

Favourite music: I seem to be stuck in an eighties groove. I heard some Rufus Wainwright the other day and was bowled over.

 

Last book read: I waded through Chris Mullin’s A View from the Foothills on holiday at Easter, having just finished the Alistair Campbell Diaries. Next up is Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party. I’m not that much of a politico, but I love getting the inside stories.

 

Best personality trait: Enthusiasm.

 

Worst personality trait: Enthusiasm. It can be quite wearing.

 

Best advice received: “Don’t show all your teeth at once on the telly, you have too many of them,” from a former TV boss.

 

Biggest influence . My parents.

 

Perfect dinner guests: Tamsin Greig, who has a part in The ­Archers, which I’m addicted to. Flora Drummond, a Scottish suffragette whose part in history has been overlooked. Billy Joel: I grew up loving his music. Kelsey Grammer, as his character Frasier.

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