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?

I didn’t get to meet Roger Bannister…

Sir Roger BannisterBut when I was editing Oxfordshire Life magazine, and the idea was pitched that we included an interview with Sir Roger Bannister to mark his 80th birthday, I jumped at the chance to give readers an insight into his latter years in Oxford.

Meeting your heroes

It’s one of the disadvantages of being the editor, rather than the writer or photographer, that you get stuck in the office pushing paper rather than getting to meet your heroes. Both Justin Bowyer, who pitched the idea, and Paul Wilkinson, the photographer, set up their own successful businesses and keep in touch via social media. Some articles, more than others I’ve commissioned as an editor, have stuck in the mind. This one because I’m a mad-keen sports fan, and because both Justin and Paul were thrilled to have met Sir Roger Bannister, and the announcement of his death on March 3, 2018 made me think of them.

The passing of one of our national sporting greats prompted tributes on all media channels and at the IAAF world indoor athletics championships in Birmingham, plus a celebration of his life. No-one lives forever. You can ask no more than you leave a good mark on the world, and tellingly, Roger Bannister rated the achievements of his professional and academic career at least as highly as his sporting successes. Had he been born in the era of professional athletics, he may have chosen to concentrate on his running for longer, once qualified, pretty much as veterinary student and double worlds medallist Laura Muir plans to do. But athletics was a gentleman’s hobby back in the fifties, and if you had to earn a living it couldn’t be through paid appearances.

3 minutes 59.4 seconds

Iffley Road running track

I smiled when I heard Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram discussing how many thousands of people would say they had been at the Iffley Road track in Oxford on May 6 1954, watching the historic scenes, when the real figure was around 1,200. Many people will be able to say they met him during his 88 years, but not me. But I am glad that Paul and Justin did. Meeting your heroes is one of the privileges of working in our business. Being a hero – well that’s a different story.

© All pictures and text used in this post are subject to copyright by the original authors, photographer and/or the publishing company. Design and layout in Oxfordshire Life by Louise White.

Why not stop being a writer?

I’ve just put the phone down to a charity fundraiser asking me to increase to my monthly direct debit donation. Couched in cautious terms, the invitation to put my hand a little more deeply into my pocket was polite enough and he emphasised that he would also be trying to recruit new donors. Slightly sickened by my reluctant self, I felt I had to say no. I didn’t want to explain further or try to justify my refusal, but it’s not the only charity I make a monthly donation to and I further support this particular cause by buying most of my Christmas presents through a gift scheme, by giving its shops unwanted presents and unused household items and by putting the odd fiver into a rattled (yes, I know they’re not supposed to be) collecting tin. I also have my seasonal favourites – October is Breast Cancer month, for example and a Red Nose Day doesn’t pass without more money leaving my bank account.

If I’m writing about this to salve my conscience, I can also think of a hundred reasons why I should have said yes, rather than no, to the request. I could stop some of my other outgoings, I’m not starving, nor do I live in a garret, but the truth is, since being made redundant last year, I’ve not exactly been rolling in cash either. I feel a curmudgeon for not ticking the metaphorical yes box, but the telephone call came immediately after I’d e-mailed a features editor asking if she had any freelance work going. I still get delicious commissions out of the blue from those who know and like my work, but also get editors offering to “pay my expenses” rather than pay me a fee. If only we could live on air and my children didn’t need shoes I could write for nowt but the love of putting words on screen and seeing them in print. I could give it all up and go out to clean other people’s houses, or get a job in a supermarket, I suppose; I could make a career change and retrain for something more lucrative, like teaching perhaps, but writing is what I do, it’s how I’ve earned a living, in between and around having children, for 25 years; it’s what I love and what I know, it’s just there’s not much money in the job at the moment.

On Twitter today a former colleague rued the end of another journalistic career through burnout, another dream that has ended in frustration. Since giving the charity canvasser the brush-off, I’ve spent the last half-hour pondering the fate of the journo. Our profession has never been particularly liked, but my long-standing retort to those complaining about inaccurate stories and made-up quotes has been to suggest they should switch to a more reliable source of news and information if they want to believe what they read. My friends and colleagues in the business would no more make up copy than they would serve their children a deadly nightshade salad. Our newsroom mantra was “Accuracy Above All” and we worked very hard to maintain integrity and fairness besides every day. We were never allowed to express opinion in our reporting, saving comment for our column, if we were lucky enough to have one. On a well-known local daily newspaper with a readership estimated at 250,000 at the time I was a staffer, serving a community your editor had to live in, reporting untruths and half-truths would have been a sure way of being drummed, unicorn-like, out of the city. My job couldn’t be compared with working on a national tabloid, where slap-dash reporters could get away with phone-tapping and careless editors could hide, ignorant, inside huge office buildings, safe in the knowledge their readers would never meet them, much less could afford to sue them.

What has changed recently is the amount of advertising and copy sales revenue newspapers and magazines generate and the number of feature writers looking for work in a shrinking print market. One side of the scales has dipped, while the other has risen. Besides all the old hacks of my acquaintance ready to turn out polished prose, there are hundreds of youngsters fresh from “Media Studies” courses prepared to work as interns – ie, as free labour. Blogs and online publications abound and every third website I visit seems to flash out the question “Why not be a writer?” to which the answer must surely be – because there are too many of us, earning too little, in an already overcrowded market.

When I worked as a magazine editor I used to have a slush pile, added to daily, teetering with uncommissioned feature offerings. Rarely, I would make time to take a look at these submissions. Occasionally I would find a gem – a gardening writer who, Mary Poppins-like, was practically perfect in every way, but more often than not I would wish I’d made time for another cup of coffee instead. I’ll never forget trying to explain, politely, to an apoplectic interiors writer, (who was married, at the time, to a famous novelist and columnist), why I wouldn’t be commissioning him in the future. His copy took three subbing sessions to knock into readable shape and in an office with few staff, where everyone worked long hours, it wasn’t worth the effort, despite his stellar connections. Instead I started using someone less flashy and more reliable –  a policy I never regretted. I had a “possibles” pile – people I could have used, if my sales staff doubled their advertising revenue on a regular basis or if a supplementary magazine was being launched. Only rarely could I try them out or offer them work – sometimes being picked for publication really is down to timing and luck, not just ability and contacts.

It drives my husband to distraction that some of the commissions I accept undervalue my writing skills to an almost derisory level. I get paid the same amount now as I earned 20 years ago. Why am I a writer? I’ve been asking myself that of late as yet another editor tells me they are having to pay their freelancers from a tiny budget that includes their own salary. In other words, the more they write for their publication themselves, the more money they get to keep. Since they’re already acting as features editor, flat plan editor, commissioning and copy editor as well as sub I can’t help wondering if next they’ll be hand-cranking the presses in a bid to save on printing costs.

All that written, however, I’ve recently re-worded my e-mail signature to include the word “journalist” to show that I am a professional, rather than an amateur, wordsmith. It took three years and a series of exams to gain that professionally recognised “senior” status, so I ought to be proud of the title, I’ve decided. At the same time, besides all the experience I have under my belt, I’m attempting to write a novel and so find myself back in the realms of the wannabe. I hope I can earn enough to survive on, between my factual writing, and any fiction that finally gets published. I don’t expect to generate J.K. Rowling-like returns from my penmanship, though I promise, if I did, I too would donate large amounts to charity, rather than the paltry sums I eke out of my present income.

Why did I become a writer? I write because, besides reading and looking after my children and, occasionally, my husband, that is what I do. It’s what I have done since I was a small child, old enough to scribble in my books and deface the frontispiece. Why not stop being a writer? Oh let me count the reasons…

Thoughts on writing, not writing

It’s almost a year since I was made redundant from my job as a magazine editor, but don’t cry for me, my dear reader, the truth is, I never loved it. It took several phone calls and a meeting to convince me to switch from freelance writing to taking up a red pen again and after a couple of months I found myself telling my bosses I was resigning, though I allowed myself to be persuaded to sit back down in my chair and give it another whirl. The 18 months I spent in the job reinforced something I already knew about myself, that I’m much happier dreaming up and creating articles than editing them and that I get a real buzz out of capturing someone’s essence and putting it into words, giving readers a glimpse into another life – oh and that I love seeing my byline on an article I’ve slaved over (and I slave over every one). I find the job of magazine editor akin to wearing a strait jacket while trying to trampoline – not impossible, but a bit tricky and much easier if you don’t have your hands tied behind your back by falling revenue and rising advertisers’ demands.

So, since May 2009, when my husband graciously offered to support me while I really put my mind to getting a novel published, my efforts have concentrated on shifting my axis, though I haven’t given up the day job of freelance journalism completely and I still love meeting and interviewing people however big or small their story. Entering the world of fiction writing isn’t a matter of sitting at your computer and issuing forth. You’ve got to work out what you want to say, make it coherent and interesting and then, the big ask, get it looked at. As anyone who has ever submitted their beloved manuscript to a series of agents will know, this last is a heart-in-mouth process and the point I am at, currently, after I found myself the subject of a pincer movement between the BBC’s George Alagiah and my husband, who were talking to a literary agent at an Oxford Literary Festival event last month, while I went in search of an orange juice. Before I knew it, on my return, I was being quizzed by the three of them, and though the result was what I’d been hoping for, an invitation to send what I’ve written to the agency, I was most uncomfortable selling myself and became very hot and flustered in the process. I’ve stood and fronted magazine events before an audience of hundreds, I’ve written for readerships of tens of thousands, but there’s nothing quite like being put on the spot about yourself.

So here are some of the things I’ve learned in the last 12 months. It’s no use bleating that the bookshelves are punctuated with celebrity dross not worthy of comparison with your own precious offering if you’re not prepared to back it up. Getting your work into a bookshop is as much about what else you’re selling as how well you can write. Start looking for ways of sticking your toe through the door as a first mission I’d advise, in parallel to finishing your manuscript, because you obviously you can’t say you’re a novelist if you don’t deliver 100,000 words. And don’t forget what getting a book published really means – that you want other people to sell it on your behalf and the reading public to buy and enjoy what you’ve written.

My voyage of discovery in this new sphere continues. I’ve learned that there are days when I’d rather clean out the chicken house than do the thing I’m supposed to love, ie writing; that perspiration is 99 per cent of the job (and I’m not sure genius comes into my inspiration, Mr Edison); that I’m not by any means the world’s next Dickens or A.S Byatt, but I do want people to get a buzz from reading my book, or books if I’m lucky enough to make it as a bona fide novelist; that there are hundreds if not thousands of people just like me, all waving their manuscripts madly; that I have to find a way to the top of the agent’s pile, especially given that he or she is likely to have another 50 brown envelopes that week to trawl through. And lastly, that I have to sell, sell, sell myself and my skills.

To look at it from another point of view, an agent has to make a living from my book too, and I’m asking him or her to stake his or her literary reputation on it to sell it to a publisher, after which, booksellers need to like it, and the reading public have to want to pay hard-earned cash for it. I’m realising the enormity of what I’m trying to do here.

If you’re an aspiring writer, your ego might be bigger than mine: you might think you’re brilliant, your lover might tell you he or she is your number one fan, your adoring mother might pledge to buy a copy – well here’s the bad news, that’s only two sales… From where I’m sitting, no longer in the editor’s chair, I can see that half an agent’s job is to discover the zeitgeist and source what’s in season, not this year, but next and the year after – which is why they’re all at the London Book Fair this week. I was due to be there too, along with another aspiring novelist and friend, who has published many successful business books but wants to switch her focus to fiction. She’s been an inspiration, giving me confidence and telling me to wear any rejection slips as badges of honour. However, she finds herself taking the long route home from Denmark and was last heard of in France, no thanks to all UK airports being closed by volcanic ash. As a result we’ve decided to postpone our 2010 fact-finding mission.

Next week brings me new excitement. I’m going to be observing and writing about novelist and artist Roma Tearne’s residency at Blackwell Bookshops in Oxford, something born out of a recent interview I did with her. It promises to be a rollercoaster of a ride with Roma at the helm, since she really is a one-woman dynamo. I’m not sure what she eats for breakfast, but I think I’ll start on the same regime. My thoughts will be posted on Blackwell’s blog throughout the next fortnight and I’ll be linking my blog to the Blackwell site just as soon as it’s up and running.

In the meantime, wish me luck as I plunge on into the unknown and await the agent’s verdict on my manuscript – my fingernails are down to the quick.

I should add that I contributed to a book that came out this month – not fiction but food. Here’s the link to the publisher punkpublishing

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