Clemency Burton-Hill visited Bristol in April to give an inspirational talk on her own life’s path and the challenges, achievements and experiences she has gained along the way.
Clemency is a pleasure to speak to, as we touch upon subjects from her pure love for Downtown Abbey to her growing knowledge of Artificial Intelligence. It’s clear that conversation can never be tiresome when speaking with someone who has crammed more into her 34 years on planet earth, than most would hope to achieve in an entire lifetime.
“I’m very proud of my time on Celebrity Mastermind, 100%. That was definitely a high point in my intellectual career. It was an excuse for me to binge watch Downton Abbey.” Clemency says.
With an impressive portfolio behind her, including regular stints on TV series The Culture Show, editorial work with Vogue, The Observer and more recently, a presenting role in the guise of both the BBC Proms and BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast Show, and two published novels – it would be fair to assume that she is a very busy lady.
Two year old Tomas keeps Clemency on her toes, as any mother knows, yet she seems to take it all in her stride and has learned to deal with life’s challenges along the way. As a broadcast journalist, Clemency has interviewed everyone from Gemma Arterton to Google brain Demis Hassabis.
Growing up, Clemency discovered a love for music and developed this fascination when deciding to take up violin. Trained classically by her mentor Helen, it soon became apparent that Clemency was a natural. This has taken her to all corners of the world alongside Daniel Barenboim and the West Eastern Divan Orchestra.
“Helen has definitely been the guiding spirit in my life throughout – partly because her approach to music making is that everyone can do it, it’s a universal language. I’m a great lover of music across genres, not confined to the classical realm. Three of the most influential people in my life have all been related to music.” Clemency explains.
“I’m fascinated by people, and I love telling stories. That’s the thing that unifies everything I have done.”
A brief time living and working in New York ultimately paved the way for Clemency’s second novel, ‘All The Things You Are’, the follow up to her debut in 2008 titled ‘The Other Side of the Stars’. Originally, she was commissioned to write about an entirely different subject matter and setting – but found that living in New York gave her a completely new perspective and opened her imagination up even further. The resultant work, ‘All The Things You Are’ is an Arab Jewish romance set in both New York and the Middle East. Inspired by personal experience including her own Jewish heritage (Clemency’s grandfather escaped Lodz in Poland to marry a Welsh girl) and various trips to the Gaza. Always, Clemency is fascinated by the curiosities and complexities of human nature:
“My time in New York absolutely informed it. I tried to write the book a month after moving to New York and it just wasn’t happening. I’m a great, staunched believer in the power of the imagination – I don’t think you need to have lived through something in order to write about it. Yet, I was surprised by how much I wasn’t in the right place to be writing that particular book. I think it was more a compulsion to reflect what I was picking up around me in New York.” Clemency reflects on the inspirations behind her second novel.She is humble – and hungry for life. Curious, yet never disrespecting. She admits that she has always had a desire for telling stories in life, and has always sought to search out these hidden gems.
“I feel so lucky to have had lots of things that I am really passionate about, and set out to pursue the things that I loved and cared about. They are very connected, so that has got me to where I am today.” Clemency explains.
Having first discovered the musical genius of violinist Yehudi Menuhin as a teenager, when Clemency was asked to play to him, this would prove to be a catalyst that would guide her own classical music prowess – and ultimately, result in Clemency’s self-directed documentary of the composer, to be aired in April 2016 to mark the centenary of Menuhin.
“I had a couple of lessons with him when I was 15, he heard me play and invited me to play to him, a couple of years before he died. His philosophy was one of absolute curiosity in human kind and you’ve got to listen to people and have empathy – music making is a really supreme way of doing that. You can’t be a great musician unless you can listen and have something to say – you have to feel, to empathise, to care.” Clemency says.
“I feel hugely privileged to be in a position where I can elicit their story and get that out to a broader audience.”
It turns out, that Clemency has the balance – with a natural affinity for listening as well as having a lot of valuable contributions to share herself. It would be tough to box her in or pin her down, though if pushed to choose?
“I’m fascinated by people, and I love telling stories. That’s the thing that unifies everything I have done – ultimately, I am really passionate about broadcasting and writing. That takes up 95% of my professional time. It’s a great synthesis of all those things.” Clemency says.
Her presenting career has seen her interview classical countertenor Lestyn Davies, in the informal surroundings of the local chippy; quizzing the world’s most intelligent brain behind Demis Hassabis – the mastermind behind Google’s latest project to create software more powerful than the human brain and numerous interviews with Hollywood actors, world famous composers and everything in between.
“My twenties were definitely about dabbling. I love making connections between things – I am definitely a generalist.” Clemency explains.
Although Clemency has achieved an enviable list of accolades through her hard work and persistence, she admits that she does struggle with self doubt and this, she has had to overcome and use to propel her onwards:
“I’m very good at beating myself up with the things I haven’t achieved rather than looking at what I have achieved. Have I had moments? I have it hourly, like any human being. You feel as though you are constantly paddling to keep at the same level. I’m really self critical and have a horrible tendency to ignore the things I am doing and fixate on the things I haven’t done. I need to combat that.” She reflects.
The underlying motivation behind Clemency’s work ethic would be a curiosity in the human condition – be they fictional characters within her novels, or real interviewees.
“My brain is sparking in all sorts of directions. I think it’s more a way of being curious about what people are doing. I felt ridiculously illiterate when interviewing the world’s most intelligent man, Demis Hassabis. I gave up science at GCSE, but I am driven by needing to find out who this man is. What drives him, what his passions are, where the moral and ethical conundrums are. I’m often daunted by the brilliance of my interviewees but not by the interview itself.” Clemency explains.
“For any girl who has got the opportunity to go to a good university, absolutely do it.”
Clemency will be sharing her stories with a live audience, at Redmaids’ School this April, when she looks back on her career so far with inspirational lessons learned along the way:
“Acting when I was younger was a brutal life in terms of how you stay positive but it did hopefully give me ways to cultivate a sense of who I am. What do I care about? Who am I? What do I need to say? How do I find my purpose and do what I love? How do I overcome knock backs? I’ve definitely got some grizzly tales of those years.” Clemency says.
A firm believer in fateful meetings, chance encounters and the potential for these moments to transform your life, Clemency never loses sight of the people along the way who have guided and supported her. From her violin teacher to her most revered novelist, Martha Gellhorn, she is captivated by the perseverance of the human spirit and knows that she too, must apply these details to her own approach to life.
“The older I get, the more I realise how interconnected things are. Everything is connected, every experience. Go out and live a rich and varied life. Keep your eyes open, jump at opportunities even if they seem a bit random. This will all add up to a creative life. I am a big fan of serendipity. You just never know how things are going to end up.”
Clemency’s final words of wisdom, before hanging up the phone:
“I love Martha Gellhorn’s work. I often think of her words ‘be brave, learn quick, laugh and remember the human race’. They are definitely words I try to live by. You have to have a bit of dream and stardust in your soul.”
And what do you get at the end of all of this? The Art of Life. That’s what you get.
For more information on Clemency Burton-Hill: www.clemencyburtonhill.com
Main image: Henry Iddon and the BBC.