Celebrated and celebrity

Sir James Weatherall and Dan Snow – both celebrated former Sea Cadets

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Historian and BBC presenter Dan Snow on the front cover of Seafarer magazine

“Have you ever interviewed anyone famous?”

That’s a question I’m frequently asked when I say that I’m a journalist and editor, and when I reply yes, the follow-up is invariably, “Who?”

Olympians, actors, MPs

At that point I usually list a handful of personalities who make regular headlines – MPs, Olympians, actors… then I blank. You’ll find a few of them listed in my character interview pages on this blogsite.

The truth is, I’ve interviewed so many people in the course of 30 years in the business that I’ve forgotten more of my interviewees than I can remember.

That’s not what my offspring would call a humble-brag. Genuinely, I can’t name names when put on the spot and in the early days of my career (when I interviewed the likes of composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, Monkees lead singer Davy Jones and Dr Who actor Jon Pertwee) it never occurred to me to keep a record. I can’t for the life of me remember the author I interviewed when I was in my first few weeks as a professional journalist. I do recall that it was at a barn conversion near Diss and I was especially impressed by his floor-to-rafters bookshelves.

On Saturday then, flipping through the Register section of my paper copy of The Times, it wasn’t the name that caught my eye, but an image. Sandwiched between the obituaries of The Earl of Plymouth and actor Bill Maynard was a third, that of a man standing on the deck of a ship wearing naval uniform and looking both proud and pleased – and I knew I’d seen the photograph before.

He went on to receive not one, but two knighthoods

Vice-Admiral Sir James Weatherall considered his time as Captain of HMS Ark Royal as a boyhood dream come true, he told me. But despite the fact he went on to receive not one, but two knighthoods, the first after a distinguished 37-year-long career in the Royal Navy, the second after serving in the Diplomatic Corps, our interview didn’t even make the front page of the magazine that had commissioned me for members of the Marine Society & Sea Cadets (MSSC).

Not even the Sir James Weatherall’s status as a former chairman of the Sea Cadets and a series of interests and distinguished appointments that made me wonder when he had time to sleep gave him the cover slot of Seafarer.

The Winter 2009 issue that featured him also carried an interview I’d done with poster-boy television broadcaster and now much-respected historian Dan Snow. So perhaps understandably, it was Dan who made the cover, his steadfast gaze and crumpled shirt a contrast to the super-smart uniform of a Naval officer standing on the deck of one of the most famous ships of the modern age.

Celebrated, not famous

Of course I also remember the interview I conducted with Dan. It was done over the phone as he shuttled between terminals at Heathrow, competing with so much background noise from baggage trolleys and tannoy announcements that I was fearful that I would not have enough material to create the feature I’d been commissioned to write.

On Saturday, I couldn’t help reflecting on a life well-served but not in the spotlight. To the wider public, Sir James Weatherall wasn’t a celebrity, and if I told anyone I’d interviewed him, I’m not sure they would have a clue who he was or be impressed.

You can read the obituary in The Times, March 31, 2018 (paywall) and a pdf of my original article in Seafarer is available to view here.

My career in journalism has led to brief connections with the hugely respected and celebrated, as well as the feted and famous, and for that privilege I’m grateful.

But it’s a funny old concept, celebrity – isn’t it?

Remembering Rupert Hamer

Just as there are trustworthy news sources, there’s a certain kind of journalist, whose quest for truth and justice puts them, literally, in the firing line. I’ve worked with a few who have gone on to such careers and I know enough about myself to know I’m not one of them.

Last night, when the name of Rupert Hamer came up on the BBC television news I wasn’t quite in the room.

“Rupert Hamer? That’s the lad who used to suck his thumb in the office!” I exclaimed, walking in and looking to see why he’d been mentioned.

“He’s dead. Killed in an explosion in Afghanistan,” said my husband, gloomily, instantly making me feel an insensitive old hack. I watched the rest of the bulletin in silence. Rupert wasn’t the young man I had known. He was 39 years old, with three small children. He was working as defence correspondent for the Sunday Mirror. We all move on and his career, ambition and drive had taken him to places I would have run away from – fast, without looking back or asking a single question.

Being small and shy, Rupert appeared very young for his age when I worked with him at the Eastern Daily Press, then the country’s biggest regional morning paper. Fresh out of the company’s training school and learning his trade at a district office, he could be very unsure of himself, hence the occasional thumb-sucking when he thought no-one was watching. Rupert could be also be irritating in the way that only a work colleague who reminds you of your much younger brother can be.

“Can you stop sighing?” he once asked. “Every so often you breathe a heavy sigh and you’re putting me off.”

Unaware that I was doing such a thing, taken aback even, I don’t think I retorted with a darkly sarcastic remark, and though I can’t remember what I said, I do remember feeling conscious of the effect I was having on my colleagues. I was pregnant, working irregular hours and frankly, felt knackered and useless most of the time. Looking back, Rupert would have been about 19 or 20, the age the baby I was expecting then is approaching now. And I had the utmost respect for Rupert’s tenacious approach to life. He, like me, had tried, unsuccessfully, to get on to the company’s training scheme (my excuse – it was the year the company re-trained former printworkers to be journalists, leaving no room on its course for outsiders). Unlike me, he hadn’t gone on to one of the NCTJ’s very few training courses elsewhere in the country, but had become the news desk runner, essentially, the tea-boy, messenger and lackey, to show his willingness to learn more about the job and give himself a better chance of acceptance when he applied the following year. His doggedness was the key to his success.

You learn very early on as a news journalist that we all have a tenuous grip on life. My first week of work, far from being a slow introduction to the job in a rural market town sub-office, included three stories that were splashed across the nationals. An older farmer took a shotgun to his young wife before turning it on himself, she having put herself in the firing line to save their baby; a jet plane crashed in a field narrowly avoiding a school – fighter pilots always narrowly avoid something to make the headline writers’ jobs easier – and two local teachers on a cycling holiday in France completely and mysteriously disappeared – their mutilated bodies turned up months later. You go to inquests and quickly discover that a car crash can destroy life in an instant, wrecking the lives of survivors as well those who die; that fires kill the occupants of thatched cottages no thanks to rodents chewing through electricity wires; that it’s not the water in the Broads that’s deadly, but the mud, which will suck you in and keep you under; that you can die by swallowing an aspirin the wrong way (it burns a hole in your windpipe); that one careless decision or freak moment can end it all, instantly. You see the dark criminal underbelly of a pleasant English market town as you report court cases; discover ordinary nice-looking people can be paedophiles; that lawyers and successful businessmen beat their wives; that there are wives who beat their husbands. You may become cynical. You may become more reckless. In my case, I became more determined to live whatever life I was being metered out to the full – safely.

Journalists get a bad press, justifiably so, in some cases. They’re not known for being sensitive caring types and there’s an image of them as baying paparazzi. In reality, there are hundreds, thousands of working journalists who really care about getting to the bottom of a story and writing it in as truthful a way as they can. If they get their facts wrong or skew their impartiality, they’re likely to bump into their readership in the pub or the street within the next week and to be told of the error of their ways. Without newspapers there would still be news – it would be delivered in half-truths and gossip over garden fences and in shop doorways. Personally, I like being able to believe what I read in certain dependable newspapers and on certain websites.

And just as there are trustworthy news sources, there’s a certain kind of journalist, whose quest for truth and justice puts them, literally, in the firing line. I’ve worked with a few who have gone on to such careers and I know enough about myself to know I’m not one of them. If you ever meet them what you’ll find most striking is they’re not adrenalin junkies, or lacking a self-preservation gene, they’re just more dedicated than the rest of us and believe, wholeheartedly, that certain stories should be told first-hand, regardless of personal safety. They don’t do it for their reputation or glory but to ensure such stories are told in a way that allows you to make your own considered judgment on the matter. Without such reporters and correspondents we’d know nothing of Watergate, Tiananmen Square and the Afghan conflict.

I never really returned to news reporting after starting a family. Oddly enough, the initial few hours of my first labour were spent watching the 24-hour news reports of the opening few strikes of the first Gulf War and being dimly aware that another former colleague was firing questions at a US Defence representative at an international press conference while I wondered what I was doing, bringing a child into such a world. My focus switched to the far friendlier hours and more saccharine stories being run by the features department and from there to the new magazines that Archant was setting up countrywide.

The last I’d heard, Rupert was working for a national newspaper and I’d vaguely taken my hat off to him for “making it” as he’d always hoped to. Last night and today, reading the reports of the journalist he had become and his path from boy to man, I said a silent thank you for his work and thought of his wife and his family. Some journalists make a difference to the world and deserve our respect for their commitment. Though I didn’t know it until last night, Rupert Hamer was one of them.