Never say never and all that, but I can't picture myself ever going back to news journalism. I'm fairly certain those days are over for me.
Still, I look back on the 20 or so years that I gave to the Fourth Estate very fondly. I had great colleagues and quite a lot of fun. There would always be some drama lurking somewhere, poised and primed to punctuate the mundanity of council meetings, court proceedings and no end of sad-faced suburbanite families with potholes to point at. So I was happy in my work, by and large, if not the most voracious careerist.
My only dream as a young hack was to someday scribe a front page splash for The Daily Mirror. This I eventually did: only to conclude mournfully that I had been kidding myself. This had not been a burning personal goal after all, I decided, just a random professional benchmark to work towards. The much younger version of me always imagined having that first front page framed and hanging forever in a hallway or study. Next to the Pullitzer which followed it, maybe. When it came to the crunch, I didn't even keep a copy of the paper.
What I did hold onto, though, is an arsenal of handy life skills which I acquired and sharpened over years on the reporter beat. I still draw from these today (even the shorthand). And, to toot my own trumpet, I got pretty damn good at journalism. If a story was there to be found, I would find it. And I would report it clearly and accurately. I became a very good newshound.
I owe most of this to an irascible old bastard called Rodney Hallworth. I was in my late teens or early twenties when I first encountered this formidable fellow with thick-rimmed glasses and an even thicker Stockport accent. I was finding my journalistic feet on the Teignmouth News, a sleepy weekly paper for a sleepy South Devon seaside town. Rodney was my boss... kind of. His was a nominal kind of role as overseeing eye, by which I mean I already had a news editor and editor to report to in the paper's sister office up the road in Dawlish. Rodney just needed to be kept in the loop. Which I did through daily phone calls, visits to his quaint little cottage in the neighbouring harbour town of Shaldon, and lengthy sessions at his local pub.
Rodney was in his fifties and veering ever closer to retirement by then, having already lived out the most incredible journalistic life. He had earned his stripes decades earlier as crime reporter for the Daily Mail and Daily Express. Over multiple afternoon pints, he would roll out anecdote after anecdote for me – I heard about his reporting of the Great Train Robbery, about his relationship with Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged for murder in Britain (he accompanied her to the gallows), about the Scotland Yard pepper-pot collection which he had a hand in curating, and most notoriously about his key involvement in the Donald Crowhurst round-the-world sailing scandal. But let's come back to that...
Rodney and I warmed to each other very quickly. I was full of youth and enthusiasm for my fresh new career, and Rodney was, I think, delighted to have a keen cub reporter to tell his stories to. He called me his protege quite often, and occasionally he would introduce me to his friends and acquaintances as that. He was full of advice, guidance and tricks of the trade for me. It was Rodney who taught me, time and time again, to write as if 'for the bloke in the pub'. To write news stories as if they were for my mates to hear. Or, even better, for some dumb drunk asshole who needs every stupid detail to be laid out in simple language.
Rodney's speech was always colourful and kindly. He'd talk in terms of 'Christmas-ing up', of being careful to measure out the right level of personality for each story – and of sticking the boot in when it needed to be done. And each and every week, when I would ride my moped (he called it my 'put-put') over the bridge to the pub to deliver that week's freshly-printed paper, he would go through its pages with me, pointing out what was good and, invariably, what was bad too.
He had a temper, and no end of times I would be on the receiving end of it. I remember Rodney screwing our paper into a ball and throwing it to the floor, bellowing his disapproval over the use of some headline or other. Tourists in the lounge bar fled. And once, when I turned up to one of our boozy editorial meetings without a penny to my name, he chose to really let rip.
“You do not – and let me make this absolutely clear, boy – you do not EVER come into a pub without any fucking money! Is that understood?”
Rodney suffered from angina and complained about it regularly. When he died in 1985, aged 56 (I think) it came as no real surprise but it hit me very hard. Rodney had become a huge part of my life.
His funeral, choreographed in advance by the man himself, was memorable. The service concluded with a solo trumpeter, in bowler hat and jazz colours, playing 'Bye Bye Blackbird' at the church door. Back at the pub, we discovered he had secretly put a significant amount of money behind the bar for the purpose of his wake. I got smashed on whiskey and was soon in floods of tears in the corner. The Mayor of Teignmouth, Cllr Peter Winterbottom, put a comforting arm around me, saying: “We'll just say you've got the flu.”
Of course, the many little lessons I learned back then went on to serve me very well at work. And they still do. Many years after he died, I tried to pay tribute to him in my not-very-good speech on leaving the South Wales Echo.
But there's more. There's a reprise. Rodney re-entered my life.
One night in 2006 I was asleep in front of my TV in Kentish Town, London. The words coming out of the box drifted in and out of my dream state, as they often do. But then something incredible happened. I heard Rodney's voice. Clear as day. It was unmistakably him.
It was enough to shock me awake. Good God! And there, indeed, he was – in full colour – talking on my television. It was the documentary 'Deep Water'. Rodney, filmed in 1968, was speaking about his role as Crowhurst's press guru. This was staggering. It was surreal. Rodney in moving image form. Talking. The closest to being alive again that you can get.
A handful of further little coincidences followed. A friend of mine turned out to be a friend of the fellow who made 'Deep Water'. Some months before that, I happened across a copy of Rodney's book about serial killer Dr John Bodkin Adams in a stall on the South Bank. A couple days later, I found a second copy. More recently, I came across the Jonathan Coe novel 'The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim'. Rodney is mentioned in that, rather a lot.
And now a film, a feature film, is being made about the whole Crowhurst affair. Colin Farrell stars in it. Rodney's role has been taken by David Thewlis. I decided I should do something to try to preserve something of Rodney's legacy. So I wrote to Mr Thewlis's agent. I wrote to the producers of the film too. This is part of what I wrote:
“Rodney was an incredible character. Working under him as a junior reporter on a Teignmouth newspaper, right up to his death in 1985, was a life-shaping experience for me. He used to call me his 'protege' (as well as some more colourful names when things weren't going well).
“His role in the Crowhurst saga was incredibly dark, no doubt about that. And he spoke about it a fair bit, even decades after the event. But there was a warmth and simplicity to him as well. If Mr Thewlis has five minutes to spare and thinks it might help to hear a few Rodney anecdotes, I would be delighted to share them. Please let me know if this is do-able. I feel I sort of owe it to Rodney to try to fly his flag in some small way.”
I haven't had a reply. I'm sure whoever read the email consigned me to the 'nutter' bin. I look forward to the film, of course. And I hope something of the Rodney I knew will shine through it. But, as I heard somebody say the other day, the movie is going to need a villain and Rodney – who went on to sell Crowhurst's log books for a small fortune - doubtlessly fills that requirement perfectly.
Like I said in my email to the film people. I feel I owe it to Rodney to fly his flag somehow. Maybe this 'Letter from Claptonia' will just have to do. Whatever happens, I'll never forget good old Rodney.