I’ve been writing things, on and off, for most of my life. It’s something I enjoy doing, and without blowing my own trumpet I thinks it’s something I do quite well. This blog is just the latest manifestation of something that, while not really an obsession, is very important to me. In all that time I’ve only had one item published (if you disregard Around the World…., which essentially I’m self-publishing courtesy the Mighty WWW). It was a short story I entered into a competition run by the Surrey Mirror newspaper, way back in the mid-60s for its festive issue. It was called something like “Hitch-hiking Home for Christmas” and was I think 500 words long, and described how I (first person narrative, of course) thumbed various rides home from a logging camp in British Columbia to spend Christmas with my family in Kent….. I was about 11 or 12 I think, and won a postal order for thirty bob (that’s £1-50 in new money) for my trouble. My mum and dad were immensely proud, and told anyone who would listen that one day I would earn my living from my pen.
It gave me a bit of a spur, I suppose, and throughout my school days I fiddled about with my exercise book and mandatory Osmiroid fountain pen. I know I started and never finished dozens of now forgotten stories, but did fill one book, when I was maybe 15, with poetry. One I remember to this day, inspired by Erich von Daniken’s then best seller “Chariots of the Gods?” (postulating that ancient Mayan and Egyptian civilizations were kick-started by visiting aliens) and a book by someone else, I forget who, that suggested that Christianity – and religious belief in general - was a direct result of early hallucinogenic experimentation, went:
Was God an Astronaut? Von Daniken said,
He must be crazy in the head!
Everyone knows the one to whom
He refers is but a Sacred Mushroom.
Ah, adolescence! I thought I had lost the book at school but it turned up 20 years later, after my mum died (she seems to have hoarded it somewhere in her stuff, God bless her) so I took it home, but alas I’ve managed to lose it again somewhere along the way. Ah, well, c’est la vie.
Later on, when I left school, I had less time to write, as I was working for a living or else playing football or cricket, or getting drunk……all the usual teenage stuff. I was also devouring sci-fi by the crate load – Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Andersen – all the Golden Age legends, and newer writers then like Larry Niven and Piers Anthony. So naturally enough, when I hit my twenties and got my second wind so to speak I started writing sci-fi too. It’s all lost now, perhaps fortunately: a lot of it was excruciatingly bad and derivative and eminently forgettable, but I can still remember the odd yarn. There was a fairly short one about the return to Earth of the first starship several thousand years after it had started its journey, during which the crew had only aged about 10 years (relatively speaking….), and finding a world that had gone through an ecological disaster that had seen the seas all but disappear and all life too. They landed in a long dry valley between the Australian Gold Coast and the Great Barrier Reef, I remember plotting, and failing to recognise where it actually was. I think they killed themselves in despair. Then there was another one, very derivative of Isaac Asimov, about a bloke who invented a time machine but something went wrong and he ended up being projected back about 5 minutes every time he tried it out, and just repeating the same thing over and over again (“a tape loop in time”, I described it…..almost poetic, that).
There was also a series of three or four stories about a bloke called Jay Soon – very Larry Niven-ish, they were, and all basically extended puns. In one our hero went hunting for a huge yellow insect (it was called Jay Soon and the Golden Fleas), another where he goes out and collects the Voyager 1 space probe to sell to a tv company to use as an advert, and a third where he goes to some planet or other to toboggan down an eighty mile high mountain but finds someone else has already done it (here the pun was again in a character’s name)…… I still have them somewhere at home. They’re not bad, when I think about how pissed I usually was when I wrote them, and what turmoil my life was in. This was the early to mid-1970’s, a fun decade.
Then I stopped again, because I got married and had kids, and had far too many important things to do than waste my time scribbling in exercise books. I was trying (not altogether successfully) to nurture a career too. I was working in a succession of banks, in pretty much pre-computerized (or at best limited main-frame, punch-card, pre-PC days) offices where a lot of work was manual and involved not quite quill pens and ledgers but not far short. So I was indeed earning my living through my pen (a ball Pentel or Biro this time, fountain pens are such old hat….), just not in the way mum and dad had meant, nor indeed how I wanted to (deep down). But my first priority was paying the mortgage and buying clothes and food, and booking school trips and all those things – things I could only do working, and with no obvious way of making any dosh writing I let it go. To be honest, I lacked inspiration too – I still read copiously, all kinds of stuff (my tastes remain eclectic and wide ranging to this day: I always have at least one book on the go and often more), but I could never get an idea clear enough in my mind to get anywhere. I guess all the influences I was soaking up in my subconscious confused me.
I did try though. I started one semi-autobiographical, hopefully funny book about four guys going on a bachelor vacation in Majorca (as I and some mates had done back in the early 70s). I called it One Peseta, Two Peseta…., with the vague idea of a follow up set in Benidorm called Three Peseta, Four…., but abandoned it after about page 10. I’ll never go back to that one, the euro has basically killed the terrible titular pun.
Then I lost my job so I had more time. I even bought a pretty crappy electronic typewriter and bashed out a story, much more adult, that I even finished. It was called The Road to Zennor, and featured a bond trader who takes a long weekend at his holiday home in Cornwall, has a brief (and highly descriptive) fling with a girl hitchhiker he picks up on Bodmin Moor who turns out to be the ghost of a missing heiress. Bit of weird one, but I still have it somewhere at home, and I like it. I showed it to someone who worked then at a women’s magazine, and she thought it was sellable, but I never got around to doing anything about it. And finally, I wrote my book, in a constant six week graft during a very very quiet spell at work when I basically had nothing else to do. It fills two exercise books, runs to maybe 200 pages and is about sex and booze and football (as opposed to sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll) – subjects dear to my heart. That was in about 1985. Since then, I’ve had about four stabs at re-drafting it into a proper manuscript but never finished it – work always seems to get in the way. The latest effort is nestling within the bowels of this ThinkPad’s files, 70% completed. But I forgot to pack the bloody original to finish it while I’m here in Hamilton. I could kick myself!
One day, I will finish it and I will publish it – on my own if I have to.
But all that is preamble.
What my mum and dad envisaged, fifty years ago now, was not my being an author, a writer churning out fiction for the masses, but being a journalist. Whether they were thinking local rag or national broadsheet was never clear, and the problem was neither they nor I had the faintest idea how to go about it. My careers officer at school was, typically, no use whatsoever. This is the man who advised me not to bother trying to get into university because my parents would never be able to affords the fees and in any case council estate children didn’t go to uni. (Both points were probably true then, in the late 60s, but hardly aspirational and frankly a dereliction of his duty……careers office my arse.) So I kind of drifted into consultancy via the London Stock Exchange and investment (sorry, casino) banking over the next forty odd years.
But I often wonder, to this day, whether journalism might not have been a better career choice, and indeed what my life would have been like now had I taken that path. Conjecture of course, no way of knowing. I think I would probably have enjoyed myself – at least I could have spent my time doing something I still enjoy – bashing away at a keyboard or scrawling almost illegibly into a notebook, creating sentences and visions and stories for other people’s enjoyment (I hope….). I’m sure I would have had my fair share of boredom too, sitting around in courtrooms or pubs or wherever, waiting for something interesting to happen that’s worth writing about, or collecting statistics from hospitals of new arrivals and recent departures to fill the Births, Deaths and Marriages column (or as my dad memorably called it the Hatched Matched and Dispatched Page) in some local rag. Would I ever have made an investigative journalist? A features editor or columnist? Better yet, a sports (preferably football) reporter or music journalist? As I say, complete conjecture – but I think I probably would, and a good one too, if only I’d had a shove in the right direction at 16 or 17 when I gave my education up as a bad job and entered the big wide increasingly ugly world of the wage earner.
I’m perhaps using rose tinted spectacles here. Not about the process of creating, being a wordsmith, but being a journalist. Because, from what I’ve read in a couple of news stories over the past couple of days it seems to be an increasingly grubby and dangerous profession these days.
First, there is the long awaited conclusion to the News of the World phone hacking trial. The story has been rumbling along for a few years, and the trial itself nearly nine months but the verdicts finally came out today. Basically, the editors and senior journalists at the paper spent a lot of time and money hacking the mobile phones of literally hundreds of people – celebrities, politicians, and ordinary people including (unforgivably) that of a murdered teenage girl – to get a better (for which read more scurrilous) story for a paper that had once been well respected but had turned into a bit of a kiss-and-tell rag. Complaints were made, police investigations and public enquiries set up and a new press code of conduct and self-governance proposed (but so far not implemented). The paper itself was closed down after nearly 150 years of publishing. Today, the ex-editor was found guilty on a number of charges and faces jail time. Four other accused, who pleaded guilty, are also looking at spending time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Another four were today acquitted of all charges but face uncertain futures after their names and journalistic reputations have been dragged through the mud.
What makes it worse is that Andy Coulson, the editor found guilty today, after leaving the paper was appointed top spin doctor to the Conservative Party – personally interviewed and hired by current Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne. They swear they asked him in the interviews if the phone hacking allegations were true and appear to have accepted the “What me, guv? Nah, wouldn’t do a fing like that, guv” answer as gospel without further checking, and hired the bloke to a position giving him access to God know’s how much sensitive material. Cameron has done the relatively decent thing of apologizing unreservedly for his “honest mistake” in making a decision he “now knows to be wrong” – but is that enough? Osborne has been curiously silent about his part in the affair, which surprises me not at all – the man’s a weasel. Typically the Opposition have started pillorying Cameron for a lack of judgement (not for the first time) and demanding his resignation (also not for the first time, nor probably the last).
This follows a couple of days after a story from Poland wherein the offices of a news magazine were raided after publication of a story that involves a further case of phone hacking, this time those of various Polish ministers, one of whom was taped having a conversation with the head of the (supposedly impartial and independent) central bank about what would be the best policies to follow to help the government win the forthcoming general elections. The situation is boiling away there and could lead to snap elections that could quite possibly end up with the ruling PO being punished at the ballot box and kicked out of office.
The interesting part of this little story, splashed across the Guardian but seemingly ignored elsewhere, is a series of conversations between the Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski (an Oxford colleague of messrs Cameron and Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson) in which he roundly and obscenely accuses Cameron in particular and the UK government in general of being complete idiots in regard to EU relationships and “fucking up” big time and being completely out of tune with what the rest of the EU wants and so on and so on. Nothing new there, perhaps, but a revealing glimpse of what other nations think of Call Me Dave and his merry band of political lightweights currently running Britain to rack and ruin.
These stories seem to me to shine a clear light on the way today’s press use all kinds of dirty tricks to get the juiciest, most unpleasant information to then splash across the front pages. It does not seem to matter who the story is about – the more dirt the better. The more a reputation is tarnished the better (and who cares whether the accusations are true and attacks deserved). Dirt sell papers. I seriously cannot remember the last time I read a genuine feel-good story in praise of something or somebody – there is always, but always, a sting in even the nicest piece. I’m not suggesting for one minute that politicians and paedophile tv stars and serial killers and dishonest thieving bank executives should not be pursued and brought to justice, of course not. And I accept too that the press have a huge and often honourable part to play in doing so. But surely there are limits to public decency and, if you like, fair play that should never be exceeded, and it seems to me the press these days – and not only in the UK but in the US and Germany and Poland and elsewhere – are too keen to exceed those limits.
And then you have the other side of the coin – the plight of journalists imprisoned across the world for doing their job in an honest and honourable way, reporting the facts and exposing what needs to be exposed – telling it like it is, as our transatlantic cousins might put it. Putin’s Russia and China, in particular, have large numbers of journalists locked up for simply not toeing the party line, for saying things that the government would rather remain unsaid.
Yesterday, at a court hearing in Cairo, harsh prison terms were confirmed on a trio of Al Jazeera journalists for, amongst other charges, allegedly supporting a terrorist organization (the Muslim Brotherhood). When they were arrested in December last year the Brotherhood was actually ruling the country (but shortly to be overthrown in a military coup). The journalists and Al Jazeera have consistently insisted that the men, who include an award winning Australian and ex-BBC journalist Peter Greste, have no links with any terrorist organization and were merely reporting what was happening on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and elsewhere, but the judicial system has ignored that and locked them up for seven years. They intend to appeal, of course, but that process in itself could take months – maybe a couple of years – to be completed, given the state of the Egyptian legal system and chaotic state of the country itself.
Now I watch Al Jazeera News quite lot, the English version for which Greste worked, and it’s a good station. It seems to me less slanted than similar networks (for instance CNN International has a huge American bias both in the range of its presenters and in what it considers to be newsworthy, DW-TV has a heavy German slant, France-24 English very French and so on), and covers stories and features that are ignored elsewhere. I watched their coverage of the situation in Egypt at the end of last year, right up to the day Greste and his colleagues were arrested, as well as the CNN and BBC World coverage, and Al Jazeera were as impartial as anyone else – nothing was said that, in my view, could be considered pro-terrorist or pro-Muslim Brotherhood in any way.
And yet these men now face years in a jail far worse than any that Coulson and his colleagues are ever likely to face in Britain. And for what? For doing their job in an honest and honourable way. As opposed to a grubby, underhanded and illegal way.
Which is the true face of journalism?