Peter Steward's Web Site
Chapter 5 - Marriage and More Work
From the cosiness of Beccles I moved into the aggressive world of Press Agency journalism in the Midlands - something I was neither prepared for nor suited to. It took me a long time afterwards to realise that hard-faced journalism was not for me and indeed there are many times that I have questioned whether it was the right career at all.
I suppose I entered it because I wanted to write but after a mixture of small town life and large city life I soon became disillusioned.
Living in Derbyshire and working in Nottinghamshire made me homesick for Norfolk and Suffolk and I don't think it took me too long to realise that I had made a bad mistake.
We eventually sold our bungalow in Kirby Cane and bought a house by the canal in Long Eaton. I tried desperately to enjoy living there and might have made a success of it if it had been at a different time in my life and a different job. You never do realise just what you have until it is gone.
It was quite some time before Anne joined me and we tried to settle down in the Midlands. I have to admit looking back that if there is a particular part of England I am just not suited to, the Midlands would come high on the list. I often wonder what would have happened if I had moved abroad on the scholarship being offered by Beccles Rotary Club. Sadly that is something I will never know the answer to. Instead of sitting writing this back in Norfolk I could have been living in say South Africa or Australia or America. My sons would have dual nationality and my life would have been very different.
But it is no good pondering on what might have been as that in itself may have been less satisfactory than the course my life actually took.
Raymonds News Agency had its headquarters in Derby and branches at Nottingham, Stoke, Norwich and Ipswich. I could have been forgiven at times for wondering what would have happened if I had been employed at the Norwich or Ipswich branches. But there were no vacancies. The main reporter at the Norwich branch was Julian Smith who went on to become news editor of Radio Broadland in Norwich and tragically died at an early age from motor neurone disease.
My work at Nottingham was a strange mixture of news and sport that I never became comfortable with. It was all very hit and miss and an aggressive world where stories were the financial bread and butter. At times it mattered not where I found them as long as they were saleable.
The operation was run from Derby. Once I had picked up a story, and it was often a matter of lifting it from the Nottingham paper, I would phone it over to the news desk in Derby and that would be the last I would see of it. From there it would be sold to national newspapers, radio, television etc. I found it very unsatisfactory and very very stressful.
There was no personal contact with the organisation other than through stories related to the newsdesk. I worked with a photographer by the name of Bob Mason who was good enough to give me a home whilst I looked for a house in the area. Bob used to do yoga, but I enjoyed my stay with him and his wife Liz. I know that after I left the agency I asked him why he stayed in such a "dead end" job. The result was shortly afterwards he got a job on a newspaper in Hull. I guess he agreed with my point of view.
The news editor at the Derby office was somebody I got on with very well. His name was Terry Lloyd and a few months after I left the company, he got himself a job with ITV and worked his way up to become one of their top national and international reporters. Tragically Terry was killed reporting in Iraq during the war there.
Apart from the news side of the agency, my main function was to report football matches. I mainly covered Chesterfield, although I also remember reporting on Nottingham Forest. This side of the business I found more to my liking. Covering lower league football in those far off days was difficult.
For a start I often had to climb over turnstiles with heavy radio equipment to get into the ground before it was open to do pre-match pieces for the radio stations. The reporters' area was a few roped off seats without any facilities and at the end of the game you had to stand outside the dressing rooms to try to catch managers and players for interviews before they left. I often compared this to the ease of later reporting on top class soccer with Norwich City where a specially set aside press room was available and where top managers came for after match press conferences.
At Chesterfield I was often left sending over copy long after the crowds (all 3,000 of them on a good day) had gone. It meant having an angry groundsman waiting to close up before you had finished. Nevertheless this aspect of my work was the most enjoyable. There would be a band of us reporters, including Andy Knowles who had previously worked for Eastern Counties Newspapers and subsequently joined Radio Derby, working at Chesterfield week after week. We looked out for each other, described goals to each other, agreed on man of the match and a whole host of there matters.
Another old mate from my ECN days was also working for Radio Derby. John Andrews had shared lodgings with me in Lowestoft. Myself and Anne often went out into the Derbyshire countryside where John and Andy had a flat. We also had some enjoyable evenings in Derby itself - including seeing Chris Rea, who became a musical superstar, as support act to Lindisfarne at Derby.
John had a very good evening rock programme on Radio Derby which I believe was called Solid Air. Those were in the days when DJs had say over what they played and play lists were left to amateur drama groups!
After a relatively short period of time which seemed to me like a very long period of time, I realised that staying with the Press Agency would seriously damage my health. I was tired of the diet of foot in the door journalism and having to beat other Media outlets to stories. Being a generous person I was also tired of having to charge other reporters if they wanted even the smallest piece of information from me - such as the name of a barrister at Nottingham Crown Court.
Nottingham Crown Court was certainly somewhere that life got completely out of perspective. It was normal to see numerous people sentenced to life imprisonment in a single morning after pleading guilty of battering old ladies to death etc. It seemed to have no more gravity than a morning of motoring offences back in dear old Beccles.
I think it was whilst in the Midlands that I realised that if I had any skill in the world of journalism it was as a small town reporter on a weekly newspaper in a rural area - and that's somewhere I ventured next, but again without any great success.
I remember whilst working for the press agency being asked by the company's owner to visit the parent of a teenager who had died as the result of drugs.
I seem to remember getting a very rude response from him and being threatened with a shotgun. On reporting this back to the newsdesk I was told to visit some of the neighbours in order to get a story. This I declined to do because of the dangers, but the obvious inference was - no story no money! Press Agencies rely on what they can sell. No product and they receive no pay. So stories get distorted to justify themselves.
And that was something I certainly didn't want professionally to be any part of. Luckily (or it seemed luckily at the time) I saw an advert in the UK Press Gazette magazine for an editor of a small weekly paper in Belper, Derbyshire which I felt would be right up my street.
I applied, had an interview which was more like a chat and was offered the job. It certainly turned out to be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. As I began to learn more and more about the Belper News I began to realise just what a strange set-up it was. Today some of the history of the newspaper is available through an Internet search. Needless to say my name doesn't feature in that history, although the name of the paper's owner in those days does.
It soon became obvious to me that things at the Belper News were far from right. Originally a weekly paper owned by the Derby Telegraph group, it had been sold off to a Belper businessman who had little or no experience of journalism or what a weekly newspaper should be.
The editorial set-up before I joined was one rather ancient sub-editor (Tim Healey) and a reporter by the name of John who was a bachelor and had no formal journalism experience or qualifications. Somehow this motley crew got a newspaper out each week. Sadly it was totally biased towards the Tory party. Now to my mind a good weekly newspaper should have no political leanings, but be an amalgam of all political and social views. This was certainly not the case with the Belper News which was totally steeped in the political colour blue.
I suppose in those days I would have slightly social leanings, but at least I can claim no political bias by stating that over the years I have voted Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats and even Liberal. Basically I go where the fancy takes me at election time.
Tim Healey wrote a weekly comment column under a pen name which I believe was Sandy Shaw (or maybe I'm just getting that mixed up with the Puppet on a String lady). This column was politically biased to such an outrageous extent that at times it bordered on the libelous.
There were other strange things about the newspaper. It sold out every week and people were unable to get copies from the local newsagents. I thought the answer to this was simple - order more copies from the printers. That got me into trouble as I was told forcibly "it does people good not to be able to find copies - makes things good for us." I never followed that logic at all.
Then there was the fact that the public weren't encouraged to come into the front office - never did understand that one. And the fact that there was no relationship with the local police. The latter I tried to do something about and had an excellent working relationship with the local Sergeant - Adrian Evans. This again was far from encouraged.
I later found out that Adrian had risen to the rank of Chief Superintendent with Derbyshire Police - a well deserved series of promotions.
I don't remember the reason but eventually the sub resigned or went off sick, leaving me with the entire paper to look after. Sadly at that time I didn't have any sub editing skills - those I would learn later. It meant that I struggled and the final straw came when I tried to put a story about the labour MP (the political colour of Belper had changed at an election from blue to red) on the front page after a visit from an MP from India. It was far and away the best story we had that particular week, but the owner didn't see it that way.
To cut a long story short my contract wasn't renewed after the initial three month trial period (it seemed much longer than that) and I was left without a job. My mate John Andrews had been watching what was happening at the paper very closely and asked me to do an interview for Radio Derby. This I agreed to do providing he ran what I said through his lawyers before broadcasting it. As far as I know there was never any comeback from that interview.
Belper was a lovely town at the entrance to the Derbyshire Peak District. I had plans to move there from Long Eaton and was really looking forward to the challenge of building up the weekly and making it a respectable reflection of the area. But it wasn't to be. I believe our freelance photographer of the time tried to buy the paper. Had he have succeeded my life once again may have taken a different turn.
All I was left with was a feeling of emptiness and, for the first and only time in my life, no job. Luckily there were no financial worries as Anne was working in Derby as a careers' officer. I became depressed, however, and soon realised that I didn't want to stay in the Midlands. So, after talking it over at length, I wrote to Eastern Counties Newspapers to see if they had any work going, expecting to return to reporting with them if a vacancy existed.
I was surprised and very pleased to be offered a post as a sub editor with the Norwich Mercury Series of weekly papers and travelled back to Norfolk for an informal interview with the extremely pleasant deputy editor Barry Hartley. I was offered the post and so a return to Norfolk was ready and waiting.
Postscript - Barry died in 2011. I met him a number of times in his last few years as our paths crossed through my work for a Media and Crisis Management company and his involvement with a radio station on the Norfolk/Suffolk coastal border. He was always keen to have a chat and a top man