BACK in April, Annie Nightingale had one of those significant birthdays. The kind that ends with a nought. In this case it was preceded by the number eight. Cause for celebration, you might think. Maybe a good excuse to open a bottle of champagne and count your blessings.

Nightingale? Well, she opted to spend the day at home putting a playlist together for her next radio show. “People were sending me messages. I didn’t care. I don’t see any significance in the zeros,” she tells me.

“It’s not anything to do with me. I happen to be alive. My dad and my uncle both had long lives, so maybe it’s just genetics. I don’t know.

“I’m not being blasé about it,” she quickly adds. “I’m very fortunate. I love life. I’m a news fanatic. I want to know what’s going on. Why stop?”

In short, Annie Nightingale, DJ, TV presenter, and now octogenarian, is more interested in what’s coming than what’s been.

Which, in the circumstances, is a bit of a problem. Because not only has she not long turned 80 years young, she’s also celebrating 50 years in broadcasting. She became a Desert Island Discs castaway earlier this year, and now has a new memoir out. Her glittering past is very much in focus.

For everyone else but Nightingale, it seems. Today she is in her flat in London, which is a bit too warm, she says, surrounded by posters wrapped in clingfilm and pictures all waiting to be framed and put on the wall. She has other priorities. Mostly her weekly Radio 1 show which airs for two hours at midnight every Tuesday night (technically Wednesday morning, I suppose).

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It’s possible that you don’t listen to Radio1 much these days. I can’t say I do. But Nightingale, who started there in 1970 (and was the only female DJ for more than a decade before Janice Long came along), is still playing new music with enthusiasm. Her show is very much not Sounds of the Seventies (or Eighties, or Nineties or any time but now). “Annie Nightingale with the biggest bass bangers,” the legend on Radio 1’s website proclaims. Don’t be expecting too many “golden oldies” in other words.

“I listen to downloads all the time, every day. I don’t have the time to go back. I don’t have time to indulge myself. It’s not a pastime for me. It’s my job.”

That love of the new helps explain why she is still plying her trade at Radio 1 while her contemporaries have moved on to nostalgia slots on Radio 2, or on regional radio. Some of them are dead or in disgrace, of course (or both).

Nightingale is a survivor, but not one given much to looking back. As a result, her memoir, Hey Hi Hello can be a curious read. It’s a restless book, one that jumps about in time and space. It is full of entertaining anecdotes about hanging out with the Beatles in the 1960s and partying with Primal Scream in the 1990s (her son was their manager for a time), and in its pages Nightingale interviews everyone from Marc Bolan to Billie Eilish and recounts sometimes hair-raising trips to places like Cuba, Iran and LA during the riots. A reminder that before she was a DJ, Nightingale was a journalist.

And yet, in the midst of all this, Nightingale herself is a little elusive. Elements of her own story – marriage, divorce, and children – tend to be mentioned only in passing.

In short, she doesn’t want to tell tales. Maybe she never has. Back in the day she knew John Lennon and Yoko Ono were dating before it was made public and never let on.

It’s the same talking to her. To be fair, she struggles with my accent a little and the phone line isn’t the best, but even so, she often breezes past the more personal questions or just ignores them.

At one point I raise her meeting with David Bowie which she writes about in the book. Annie, I say, was Bowie trying to chat you up? “Well … I don’t want to make a big thing of this. I don’t know. Was he, or wasn’t he?”

The way I read it, yes, he was, I say. She doesn’t answer, but pivots to a wider point. “For girls being involved with pop stars it’s not a good long-term thing. It’s been heartbreaking for a lot of girls.

“It was an honour to meet him. But I don’t want you to sensationalise it.”

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Annie Nightingale. Photograph Anya Campbell

For the most part, Nightingale is chatty and outspoken (within the limits of what her BBC contract allows). In the book she describes a Radio 1 party during which she ended up having a go at Tony Blair about the NHS when he was Prime Minister. Today, she talks about the women MPs who impress her but won’t name them. (I’m guessing Priti Patel isn’t one of them, though I don’t know for sure.)

The interview runs way over our allotted time. But there’s a lot to talk about: the sixties and sexism at the BBC and what it takes to be still working at the age of 80.

She clearly enjoys it, even in the present circumstances. “We’re all working remotely at the BBC and that’s actually working incredibly well. I don’t want to be gushing about the BBC, but I think they enjoy the challenges.

“I recently did Desert Island Discs and that was an operation. We had to do it from my home. An engineer came in with a mask and gloves and full PPE. Lauren Laverne interviewing me was somewhere else and the engineer was outside in a car. And in the middle, he had to come back in and reset it.”

Let’s take that as a cue. Anne Nightingale was a wartime baby, born in Middlesex in April 1940. She was brought up in Twickenham. Her dad Cecil (unhappily) ran the family wallpaper business. She thinks now being a single child did much to shape the woman she would become.

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A young Annie Nightingale with cat. Photograph John Davidson

“I think my dad because I was an only child treated me more as a person, not a girly, girly, girly, girl. And I think that gave me an opportunity. If he’d had a son before me, maybe I would be a different person.

“He was a real car freak, my dad, and he liked mechanical things. He was always wiring up the speaker from the main room into the kitchen so we could listen to the radio in the kitchen. He liked doing all that stuff. He was quite a radio freak. I remember him telling me he had a crystal set he used to tune into something called 2L0 even before the BBC. My education in radio was from him. I owe him a lot for that.”

Still, Nightingale was also a child of her age. She grew up into a world shaped by the Beats, Hollywood, the nouvelle vague and teenage rebellion. There’s a lovely, vivid section in the book about her first visits to Paris chasing a teenage vision of cool – all Gauloises cigarettes, Juliette Greco records and French boyfriends. “The first time I went to Paris I lost 10 pounds in weight in a week and nearly picked up an STD,” she writes winningly.

“I was an absolutely archetypal suburban schoolgirl who had somehow realised that there was a bigger world out there,” Nightingale says now of her teenage self. “We were influenced by Hollywood, things like James Dean. Rebel Without a Cause had a huge effect on me as an early teenager. That whole ‘my parents don’t understand me.’

“Marlon Brando. On the Waterfront. This was our media and pop music. American culture. And then I found on my own doorstep this bohemian culture at Eel Pie Island, literally a mile away from where I lived. I wasn’t allowed to go because it was notorious.

“And also, there was the coffee bar culture where you were encouraged to be a bit intellectual, a bit literary. That is when I started to change from being this very … Not conservative, I never was … suburban schoolgirl not excelling in anything.

“I was saved by the culture and the music.”

Maybe there was a tomboy aspect to her too. She remembers as a kid reading the boys’ comic Eagle. “And then they brought out one called Girl. I quite liked Eagle. I didn’t need to be put in a box for girls. That was the beginning of sexism there.”

It was something, she says, that she didn’t experience much during her time as a journalist working on the Brighton Evening Argus. “It was the best training I ever had in the world. I was so grateful for that. You did everything it might be reviewing films or plays at the end of the pier or council meetings.”

Newspaper offices aren’t really known as being bastions of liberal thought now, never mind in the 1960s, but Nightingale never felt her gender was ever an issue. “They wanted me to do the women’s page. I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not going to do just fashion.’ So, I started writing feminist stuff.”

“I’d been allowed to do court reporting. I remember there was one case of bestiality and the news editor decided not to send me to that. I don’t think that was sexism. I think that was him being considerate. It was a particularly unpleasant case.”

Music was her real love though and she began writing about it in the Argus and teen magazines. She also turned her hand to being a TV presenter (something she’d return to in the late 1970s, fronting The Old Grey Whistle Test).

As a result, she had a front seat view for the 1960s youthquake. “I realised that it was something absolutely fantastic for young people and I just wanted it to be part of it somehow.”

Soon, she was mixing with the Beatles and learning about LSD from a member of The Byrds while the band were staying at her flat in Brighton while on tour.

As well as mixing with rock royalty, though, she was also already married (and soon divorced) and a mum of two. How did she balance those two very different worlds, you wonder?

“I was so young. We had au pairs about the same age as me. I made friends with them and I’d take them to gigs … So, we’d have to get another babysitter.”

As a journalist she had spent years lobbying for women DJs on Radio 1. The powers that be were not keen. She was once told that they saw their DJs as “husband substitutes”.

“Yeah,” she says almost screaming, still staggered by the idea. “That was the general feeling.” Many of the bosses were ex-RAF types, she points out and that shaped the station’s outlook. “I don’t blame them as individuals. They were obviously supportive to me, otherwise I wouldn’t be there now. But it was the culture.”

And not just at Radio 1. “I remember living in this house in my twenties and somebody came to the door and said, ‘Is your mother in?’ He couldn’t believe that I as a young woman was a homeowner.”

When she was eventually asked to join Radio 1 as the station’s first woman DJ, she found that some of her new colleagues were hoping she would fail.

“Not everyone,” she points out. “I think there were certain engineers, certain technical people … Maybe this is my paranoia. I had a lot to prove on the technical side. All the other guys had had plenty of time to learn on the pirate ships. They were creating the DJ culture. At the BBC before that you would have had announcers. So, technically, it was a very different new job and I had no experience of that. I realised that unless I knew how to do that I wouldn’t last.

“But how was I going to learn without being on air? They had to chuck me in the deep end.”

After a few cock-ups – during her very first broadcast she mistakenly cut off the record she was playing and left the country listening to dead air – she learned to swim. She has never stopped swimming since.

It may have helped that she was never particularly interested in turning herself into a radio personality. She just loved music. And even as she has grown older her tastes have never calcified. She is still interested in the newest sounds.

“I’m not totally down with the kids at all. I’m really not. But I feel like my role is if I can help them get a bit of airplay, spread the word a bit. To me that’s the job.”

We end up talking about Billie Eilish, the teenage American singer-songwriter of the moment and the last person she talks to in the book. Isn’t she, I ask, facing the same pressures women in the music industry were facing back in the 1960s? Actually, Nightingale fears, it might even be worse now.

“What the issue is for the young pop stars of now is that they are being sexualised; made to dress in sexualised clothes. Now, that wasn’t really happening to Cilla Black and Sandi Shaw and Dusty Springfield. They weren’t wearing skimpy clothes. Some of the clothes of the sixties were quite demure. They didn’t reveal bosoms, whereas I think the pressure on a lot of women now – until Billie –has been much more sexualised than the sixties.

“Billie has gone ‘I will wear what I wear.’"

That’s quite something given the pressure to conform these days, she says. “With all these social media platforms and everyone saying you’ve got to look amazing. Life has been cruel to young people on social media. To make that statement … I think she’s done an amazing thing for young women. ‘Don’t judge me on what I’m wearing.’

“It’s not the same as what was happening in the sixties because we didn’t have social media and Instagram. The pressure on young women is much, much worse now.”

We’ve been talking for an hour. Her next interviewer is on the other line. I leave her to her downloads and her memories and a sense that she is exactly in the place she wants to be.

“I used to think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Radio 1 could be heard around the world and now it is,” she tells me near the end of our conversation. “To be part of that I am as thrilled as I was on day one.

“Maybe it’s that only child thing, wanting to reach out to people. I was never lonely, but I want contact with other people. I still do. Me being on the radio is me phoning you up and going, ‘Here, I want to play you this. What do you think? Maybe you’ll like it too.’”

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Hey Hi Hello, by Annie Nightingale is published by White Rabbit, priced £20