Celebrated and celebrity

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

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?

Dan Snow – hot property

Dan Snow

I was asked to interview Dan Snow and finally caught up with him between flights (his, not mine) for a lightning chat. Here’s how it turned out…

Though Dan Snow’s rise to television presenter celebrity status seems to have been meteoric, his pedigree for the job couldn’t be finer. Here he reveals he might well have pursued a Royal Navy career. Interview by Sandra Fraser (Kessell).

Dan Snow is rushing between airport terminals. He’s flown overnight from Canada, it’s Monday morning and he is in the process of catching another plane to Malta. In true jet-setting style he’s conducting this interview in-between. Behind his familiar voice is the noise of tannoy announcements and baggage trolleys and he sounds a little tired as he negotiates other travellers but he’s a seasoned campaigner and used to pushing himself beyond his limits.

The son of journalists Peter Snow and Ann MacMillan, he’s often announced as The Historian Dan Snow, along with the biographical detail that he’s a 6ft 6in Oxford Blue rower. He admits his interest in rowing and sailing could have seen him end up in a number of other careers, had life taken a different turn. Dan grew up in London, the perfect base for his parents’ careers, and living by the River Thames made it natural that water pleasures should beckon. He learned both to row and to sail while still a schoolboy.

“I got into sailing because I had a family who sailed – Mum and Dad sailed,” he says, walking between terminals, as bleeps and announcements go off in the background. Like so many keen sailors, he started with Optimists and Wayfarers, honing his skills as he went along.

“Sailing teaches you patience. It teaches you to think in a certain way – how to use the elements efficiently – you can’t will the boat to go faster – all good life lessons. It teaches you self-reliance,” he says. “And sailing with a crew teaches you great teamwork.”

Dan went to school at St Paul’s, which offered rowing on its curriculum.  He was encouraged by teachers to use his long arms and legs – efficient levers – to good effect, though he jokes it was because he wasn’t much use at other sports. He joined the Sea Cadets around the age of 12 as an extra-curricular activity.

Young Dan would hop on his bike and cycle to meetings, or parades, as they are more formally known.

“I loved the discipline and learning things about the water – well all sorts of things really – hostage situations, first aid – on a Friday night in Putney. I like to think I learned a huge amount. You have your limits stretched by the Sea Cadets,” he says.

“I could have ended up in the Navy, it’s funny how life goes,” he says.

From St Paul’s, Dan went on to Oxford University, where he studied Modern History and became a member of the Oxford rowing squad, earning a Blue for rowing in the Cambridge-Oxford boat race three years running. He also became the boat club President, though his crew lost in a year he has described as both his best and his worst. His break into television came when the BBC asked if he and his father, best remembered for his Newsnight presentations on election nights, but also a serious journalist of long-standing and distinction, would make a programme together. Though Snow Senior was initially reluctant, the programme was made and Snow Junior’s career path was set.

Combining Dan’s twin interests of history and water pursuits is his idea of double pleasure and he has plenty of ideas up his sleeve if programme-makers have budgets to pursue them. He has already made many programmes about seafaring and ships, including the sinking of the Ark Royal in 1941, the history of the Spanish Armada and a soon-to-be-screened series about the D-Day landings. There have been times during his programme-making career, he reveals, when his Sea Cadet training has come in handy.

“You join the Sea Cadets and you push your own limits. You discover things about yourself. It opens up options and whether you go on to command an air craft carrier or anything else you can use those lessons,” says Dan, recalling trip to St Kilda in stormy weather.

“We were on a little rig heading to St Kilda, going towards the Hebrides, when a big Atlantic storm blew up,” he says. “I remember thinking, this is just like being in the Sea Cadets!”

He loves his job and enjoys being busy, taking all the tiring travelling in his stride.

“No two days are the same,” he says, “I’m off to Malta today and the next day I might be in a library.”

It’s a description that could have matched his seafaring career, had he pursued one.

“I could definitely have gone into the Royal Navy proper or the Marines,” says Dan. “I often look back and wonder what life would have been like.”

He recently joined the crew of the TS Royalist and put his skills to the test once more, posting Tweets on the social networking site, Twitter. In fact, his followers will see many of his posts revolve around his water adventures, and he mentions Trafalgar, HMS Caroline and rowing a boat down the Thames, retracing Nelson’s young footsteps.

Dan Snow’s passport may have him down as an historian, but while young men may grow out the Sea Cadets, you can’t take the Sea Cadets out of the grown man.

Dan appears regularly on The BBC programme, The One Show and has a Twitter page. http://twitter.com/thehistoryGuy

His latest book DEATH OR VICTORY: The Battle of Quebec and the Birth of Empire is published by HarperPress, price £25.

Dan’s BBC2 programme Empire of the Seas is being screened in November.

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