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?

Reap the rewards of being a media-savvy business

I’m often asked to write about small businesses but I’m amazed at the contrast between those who are media savvy and ready for a journalist’s call and those who miss out on free coverage because they’re ill-prepared.

The very best are ahead of the game, they’re already using Twitter and Facebook and blogging, letting people know what they do on a regular basis. They’re not chatting inanely or describing their lunch – though this too could prove riveting if they’re a food producer – but even a few lines describing what’s planned for the day can be interesting and build up a loyal following. One of the very best proponents I’ve come across is Sarah Pettegree of Bray’s Cottage pork pies.

The worst, sad to say, don’t answer their telephone or pick up messages or they make it clear they’re uncomfortable talking to the press even when I do get through. I’ve written food articles for a coffee table book, for handbooks, magazines and guides, I’ve written business articles for newspapers and produced online features. I know, it’s the tail end of the holidays and everyone deserves a break from their year-round job, but tailor-made marketing opportunities to targeted audiences don’t land in your lap every day – and a piece of well-written editorial in a well-read publication can represent the equivalent of hundreds of pounds-worth of advertising.

So here are my thoughts about how to claim your free coverage and make sure you don’t miss out when a chance arises.

  • Check your voicemail regularly and call back promptly if you want to be included in a feature. Journalists on daily papers often work to the tightest deadlines and will swiftly move on if you don’t get back to them. If you’re helpful and co-operative you could be top of their list next time they need a quick response.
  • Get a website set up – even if it’s just a front page. Make sure it’s optimised for search engines – it can make the difference between someone finding you and being able to contact you – or not. Don’t let your domain name expire – it’s so frustrating to be directed to a site, only to find nothing there.
  • Commission a good photographer to take pictures of your products and key members of your staff and/or family – including you. Make sure the photographer knows you want permissions to use the results for all your marketing and media purposes. Get a shot of your shopfront or premises as well. If your budget is too tight for professional images get a relative, friend or employee with a good eye to do the honours. A picture provides a focal point for an article – and if your product (or your face) is featured it will be the visual prompt to the reader who wants to buy.
  • Learn how to attach images to an email at maximum resolution (you’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to do this, which always gives me a sinking feeling as I attempt an over-the-phone instant lesson).
  • Consider starting a blog, using Twitter and/or facebook. Keep this going with regular updates.
  • Nominate a family or staff member who’s both knowledgeable and comfortable when talking to the press if you don’t like promoting your own business.
  • Ask a specialist marketing company to do the job for you for an annual fee. The best are worth their cost several times over.
  • Do all of the above and you’ll become known as the first port of call to media circles when they want to talk to someone about your line of business.

Christmas in summer

The summer holidays are almost over, the older children have dates for their return to University, school sites have been checked for the start of term and the last of the sunshine is doing its best to warm the river. Down the track, foresters are clearing the fallen chestnut tree robbing the most adventurous local youngsters of this summer’s playground and makeshift bridge across the water. The buzz and whine of a chainsaw is an interruption to the dreamy quiet in our corner of the world, but it’s a change from the all-night harvesting and baling that’s been going on in the surrounding fields for the last couple of weeks.

Not for the first time, I find myself spending the last summer days writing about Christmas food. Today I’m turning my mind to the groaning table, with particular reference to artisan cheeses and their accompaniments. Last year I learnt the word tracklements when I interviewed a local food producer for a Christmas feature – what lies ahead this year? Tomorrow morning, I’ll start an article about the Great British Breakfast before moving on, in the afternoon, to an interview with a Canadian health professional. My list of things to write includes delving into the consequences of a particular heart condition. I’ve yet to find an association between these commissions but they say variety is the spice of life and freelance writing life is nothing if not varied if you want to make it pay.

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

Taste Britain

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.