Monday, 27 July 2015

The Rodney Hallworth Preservation Society

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.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Remembering Live Aid

I see a lot of people are commenting on Live Aid today. A lot of people who weren't there. I've read a lot of words from a lot of people who don't like Geldof, who don't like Bono and who don't like the idea of Queen having played Sun City.

I don't like those things either. But I was at Live Aid. Not sat in front of the telly... I was there, in the heat and sweat and thick of it all on the pitch at Wembley Stadium. My opinion of the events of July 13, 1985 is no more valid than any other. But it's at least pretty well-informed.

I was 21 years old. I had bought the Band Aid single the previous Christmas, though not through any particular sense of humanitarian duty. I bought it because I was young and into pop and rock and, back then, I bought a lot of records.

I was a nascent hack, a cub reporter on the Teignmouth News under the irascible genius that was Rodney Hallworth (more about him in some future blog). Wedding reports, bowls results and council minutes filled my working life, but every now and then my devotion to music would worm its way into the seaside weekly paper's pages too. Lo, it came to pass that in December 1984 I found myself interviewing Bob Geldof backstage at a Boomtown Rats gig in Exeter University's Great Hall.

My funny little paper had been encouraging its readers to knit tiny jumpers for starving African children, and I brought a couple of the little sweaters to show the scruffy little bastard. He obliged with encouraging words, we took a photograph of him holding two of the garments like ridiculous hand puppets, and I noted the understated revelation that he had started working towards a live concert in the summer, to reprise the whole Band Aid shenanigans. This was duly reported and ignored by the good people of Teignmouth. I offered the concert tip-off to the NME's newsdesk. They ignored it, too.

A couple months later press ads started appearing for Live Aid. I was curious and interested. David Bowie was confirmed, so that was it. I wanted in. Question: How does one get a ticket?

Answer: One books a coach from Teigmouth to Bristol (the closest available ticket outlet), one queues overnight outside the Virgin store (with hundreds of other people) and then one catches a coach back the next day. That's right folks. On the pavement, in the cold, overnight, just to buy tickets. That's how things used to work.

Then came the day – a blisteringly hot, scorchio one. TV crews buzzed around outside Wembley Stadium, reporting live from the queues at the gates as we (me and my mate, Ray) waited to be allowed in. Expectancy was high – and we were confused. The notion of strict 20-minute sets, even for big boys like Bowie and The Who, was revolutionary. The rotating stage design sounded, well, weird. Would it work?

On our way in, rushing to find a good spec, I flashed by a banner or two: “You are saving lives,” I think one might have said. There were t-shirts: “This t-shirt saves lives.” Programmes: “This programme saves lives”. Posters: “You don't have to be mad to work here...” You get the picture.

Sanctimonious? Here's my point: sorry, you weren't there. The atmosphere on that day was, even for the mid 1980s, simple and gracious and really quite pure. While you lot in TV land were watching Geldof swear next to Ian Astbury in a commentary box, our inadequate stage-side screens were screening ads for Budweiser. Unbearable given the July sunshine. From my right came a tap on my shoulder. “Swig mate?” Amber nectar. From a stranger.

Cups of water were passed around. I saw a chain of bottled beers snake its way into the crowd. Somebody handed me some suncream, too. My nose was blistered and almost bleeding come the end. But it's the thought that counts.

And it's the thought that still counts. I'm not claiming that this was some kind of Woodstock-ish utopia where everybody just got along for the first time. But the vibes, man, were good. Every act – even Nik Kershaw, folks - was entertaining and memorable. And well-received. Bowie's set was emotional and exciting – even my dad, who watched it on telly at home, conceded that he was 'pretty good'.
And then there's that video. The Cars. Harrowing TV viewing, right? I watched it with 70,000+ people, all blubbing. I can't begin to describe how I felt then. It was collective, though. And there was no kitchen to run to, no kettle to put on. We were a very big 'one'. And, oh heck, Status Quo were fab.
Yes, bands did well out of their Live Aid appearances. Reputations were forged and heightened. But is that really important? When I bought my ticket I knew what I was buying into: I wasn't there to save Africans: I was there to see a load of bands.

But still, when I saw those ships heading to Africa with “With Love From Live Aid” painted on their hulls, their steel bellies filled with food and medicine and what have you, I couldn't help but feel like I had played a small role in making that happen. We don't live in a perfect world. But sometimes something comes along to offer a little help.