Peter Steward's Web Site
Life as a weekly newspaper journalist is made
of a series of scenarios - small happenings that in themselves take up only a
couple of hours, but which, when woven together, blend into a rich pattern of
When one looks back on a career as a reporter
there are many mundane moments filled with run of the mill jobs that flow into
obscurity. Every so often, however, something stands out. It may be just one job
a month but that is what makes journalism so special.
It was slightly unusual, therefore, to have
two memorable incidents within two days, especially when both were strongly
connected with the water.
By this time the summer had completely
disappeared and Autumn was threatening to break into Winter very quickly. I was
not looking forward to this particular Monday, Not because I disliked Mondays as
the start of another week, but because of the job I had lined-up for this
In fact at the office things were going
extremely smoothly. Both Birkett and Willson had turned into fairly agreeable
human beings and I had learned to ignore Shad Greene. By this time I realised
that at times he could be a kindly man and his rantings and ramblings seemed to
be reasonably few and far between.
The only problem was that being the youngest
and least experienced in the office I was still being given the rough jobs that
nobody else wanted and that's how I got lumbered with this particular job.
The previous Friday Tony Willson told me what
I was in for.
"Hey Eric how do you fancy a trip out
with the lifeboat on Monday. Nice easy job. They'll take you along the coast and
then out to sea a little way and then back on land for lunch at their boathouse.
It's a public relations exercise and should be straightforward and make a nice
feature. They do it every year and we always like to send somebody new if
possible. You might think of a different angle. You don't have to worry about
bad weather because if that happens they cancel the trip. Everyone in the office
has been at least once and I think Robin's been three times."
The last statement wasn't quite true. Robin
and Louise were the only two who had been on the trip. Willson and Birkett had
always chickened out on the grounds that they were needed in the office if
something important turned up.
"It's a good trip. I've been three times
and enjoyed it thoroughly. The spread they put on at the end is worth going for
on its own - as much as you can eat and drink," said Robin.
It was still with mixed feelings, however,
that I set out for the lifeboat hut. When I cornered Louise about whether she
had enjoyed her trip she used the stock phrase "no comment."
It was just past mid morning when I made my
way to the boat house at the end of the pier. It was with some trepidation by
this time I must admit. I am the type of person that gets seasick on the local
boating pond. I had never been on the sea, was a non swimmer and quite honestly
scared stiff of water. But at least the sea looked calm, although the wind
seemed to be getting up a little.
I was met at the boat house by the coxswain,
who made me feel very welcome.
"It's nice to have you aboard. As you
know the idea is for us to go up the coast for some annual repairs. The journey
will take about two hours and, because of the tide, we will be unable to return
to our base in the vessel. Anyway we wouldn't want to wait for the repairs to be
carried out. Cars will be waiting at the other end for us and we will return by
road and have a late lunch. Just to make it a little more interesting for you we
will make a small detour and take the vessel out to sea and then as we come in
will carry out a test rescue exercise with the help of the inshore rescue team.
During our time away we will be covered by the next lifeboat up the coast in
case a real emergency occurs. Now we are just waiting for the rest of the crew,
so I suggest you board the old girl and get kitted out in the wet suit and life
jackets we have ready for you. Obviously when we have a real emergency we go
like the clappers, but I'm afraid today will be a rather leisurely affair."
I made my way up to the boat and was helped
aboard just as a car drove up containing the remaining crew members. They parked
it halfway down the slope leading to the promenade and then walked towards the
pier. Suddenly there was a cry from the end of the pier.
"Hey Bill your car."
They turned to see the elderly Vauxhall
careering down the slope! It came to rest wedged between the lip of the
promenade and the edge leading to the beach below. The front offside wheel was
badly buckled and the car was perched dangerously on the edge. Luckily the
weather was too cold for people to be sitting on the beach.
"Bloody hell me car," shouted Bill
as he rushed off, hastily followed by his fellow passengers who had been walking
towards the lifeboat shed. It was a good example of how fast lifeboatmen act
when a real emergency occurs.
The incident led to a delay of 30 minutes
whilst ropes were fetched and the car was hauled back to safety.
Bill looked round the vehicle with complete
"I could have sworn I put the handbrake
on. Oh well it's only fit for scrap anyway. Come on lads we've got a job to
do," so saying he set off for the boat shed, whilst the others stood around
scratching their heads and shrugging their shoulders.
The journey when we finally got going was
sheer hell. I started off full of good intention, talking to members of the crew
and enjoying coffee from flasks brought on board, not to mention the slightly
stronger stuff that was kept in other flasks.
It was after about half-an-hour that the wind
began to pick up and the boat began to rock slowly from side to side. At first I
put on false bravado.
"It's getting a little bit rough isn't
it," I said to the Cox.
"Good Lord no. This is lovely and calm.
If we never had to put up with anything worse than this we wouldn't grumble.
Perfect lifeboat weather." I noticed the hint of a smile on his face.
A few minutes later I got the first real
feeling of queeziness. My stomach began to heave and I felt the bile building up
in my mouth. Soon I couldn't control the feeling any longer and I leaned over
the side and vomited into the sea. The Cox, who had been watching closely came
over to me.
"What's wrong lad? Not feeling too good.
I suppose it's your first time at sea? You look rather white I must admit. I
reckon you'd better sit down in the wheel house."
This I was happy to do. I tried closing my
eyes but still the boat went up and down alarmingly and my head went round and
round in sympathy. The worst part was knowing that the cure to this feeling was
nearby on dry land, but it would be well over an hour before I could enjoy the
benefit of it. Land-lubber that was me.
So over the next hour or so I lived a
torturous existence, counting the minutes and every so often going to the side
to throw up. Never has a man been so glad to see land again. The crew had been
very good and left me alone, even during the mock rescue which had really been
scheduled for my benefit.
At the landing area the cars met us to take
us back to base. By this time I had recovered considerably but still didn't feel
like eating anything. So I thanked the cox, turned down lunch and staggered back
to the office.
I sat down at my desk, shut my eyes and
rested my head on my hands. It took Tony Willson just a couple of minutes to
cash in on the situation.
"Well how did you get on Eric. Rescue go
okay. Got a decent feature have you?"
"Well... oh...I.... Actually... I"
"Stop stammering lad. I suppose you felt
sick and spent the trip sitting with your head in your hands in the wheelhouse.
I suppose you missed the rescue they set up for you and felt so ill on the way
back that you forgot to ask them any questions."
"Well yes that's all true. But how did
you know," I asked.
"Simple mate. Many years ago I started
my career on a seaside paper in the south. I had exactly the same experience.
Louise also suffered the same a couple of years ago. Birkitt just refuses to go
out on the boat. I guess we'll just have to run another human interest story
about how reporters cannot stand up to the rigors of lifeboat life and what a
hard job the brave men do. You'd better go home and sleep it off. Tomorrow will
do for the story."
My next experience of watery matters came the
following evening, although I must admit that this time I kept my feet well and
truly fixed to the ground. In many ways it was an amusing incident, but in
others a tragic one.
The wind that began to whip up throughout the
night had reached gale force by the early hours of the morning. Added to this
rain lashed across the town. It was one of those nights when you tucked the
blankets around you and felt sorry for the tramps and people who had to live
The results of the night's havoc were there
to be seen. Many of the country roads were flooded, one was blocked by a tree
and the beach huts along the promenade had been tossed about and broken. The
local council later replaced these with sturdy brick ones that were destined to
last for many years. I spent most of the day combining with Robin on a general
weather and conditions story. At 5 p.m just before I was due to go home with the
thought of a dull evening ahead of me watching television, Birkett came over. I
knew he was after something by the surprisingly pleasant tone of his voice.
"Eric old son. Are you doing anything
That question meant one of two things. Either
Birkett was inviting me round to his place for a drink or he wanted me to work.
He was not known for his generosity so I dismissed the former.
"Not really," I replied.
"Good you can come back here at about 7
and stay until about 9. There's a 50-50 chance of flooding down the sea front
and if the sea does come over there might be some evacuations. If it does happen
it will make us a good lead story for this week. The coastguards will phone at 7
to give the latest position. We should know by then whether anything is going to
happen. It should be okay to go home by 9 if nothing has happened."
"Okay no problem," I replied.
So that evening after tea I wandered back to
the office, arriving well on time despite the continued heavy wind and rain.
I had been in the office only a short time
when the telephone rang. It was still a little early for the coastguard, but too
late in the day for a routine call from a member of the public.
"Hello press office," I said with
all the confidence I had amassed over the past few weeks.
"Hello is that the lady from the family
It was a silly question, so I gave a silly
"No it's the Battersea Dogs Home."
"Oh sorry dear, must have got the wrong
So saying the woman rang off. It looked as if
it was going to be one of those nights.
Right on cue the coastguards came through.
"I think it's going to be okay mate. The
tides have reached their peak and apart from soaking the prom, no damage appears
to have been done," said Colin who was one of the most approachable people
I ever had to deal with, always willing to help and quick to assess situations,
however difficult they were.
"Thanks for phoning Col. I shall be
staying here until 9 if anything does happen."
"Okay I'll give you a call if there are
any problems," he replied.
So that appeared to be it. I now had almost
two hours to waste and, after making myself a cup of coffee, I settled down to
read an Agatha Christie - why I haven't a clue.
I wasn't particularly enjoying the book and
the coffee was long finished and I still had well over an hour to go when the
telephone rang again. Perhaps it was another woman wanting birth control advice.
"Hello press officer."
"Can you help us please. Our boat has
sunk with all our belongings and we're rather desperate."
"Where are you," I enquired.
"Outside the Cross Keys Hotel,"
came the reply.
"Okay stay there. I will be with you in
Here could be a very good story for a young
cub reporter. Well those were my first thoughts. This time I was the only one in
the office who could tackle it - cometh the hour, cometh the man. This time
there was no Willson or Birkett to snatch it away from me. But it was wrong to
be thinking in such mercenary terms. I shouldn't be looking forward to making
the most of other people's misfortune. I should be hoping that it was a hoax
because otherwise there really was some fellow human beings in trouble. Here
could be a family who had been on holiday and lost all their possessions. Little
did I know that it was much worse than that.
I must explain at this point a little bit
about the geography of the area. Although the main town in which I worked was by
the sea, there were also beautiful waterways nearby. It was an area for sun,
sand and holiday cruisers and this sinking had obviously occurred on the river
because the hotel in question was in the next town.
In fact the town to which I was heading was
only about four miles away, but far enough to make it necessary to take the
office car. The office car was loaned out to reporters strictly for work and
only after a mileage book had been signed. So I filled that in and then set off.
Despite the closeness of my destination, it still took 15 minutes thanks to
numerous road junctions, traffic lights, roundabouts and the fact that the car
had seen better days and needed a number of repairs - including new brake
linings. In fact it only just about moved. I dare not drive it over 30 mph.
I eventually made it to the hotel, although
the wind threatened to knock me off the road on several occasions.
I soon saw what must have been the callers.
There were three of them standing by the roadside and looking very bedraggled
The man and woman looked to be in their early
40s and what I presumed to be their daughter could have been anything from 15 to
about 20. It was her weight that made it difficult to judge her age. She looked
about 18 stone. Either it was puppy fat or she was seriously overweight. She
waddled rather than walked. She looked like a refugee from one of those slimming
adverts - the before picture. The mother was also fairly fat and flushed in the
face. The man, however, was completely the opposite - thin as a rake and very
I stopped and opened the passenger door and
asked the obvious question.
"Are you the family that has been
"Well we ainít looking for Battersea
Dogs Home love. We're all damn cold. Our homeís gone and all we have left are
the clothes we are standing up in and they aren't much are they?"
It was no time to start asking questions on
the spot and so I decided to take them back to the warmth of the office and give
them some coffee before extracting the details. They happily accepted the offer.
Some minutes later they were sitting on the
hard office chairs with cups of boiling coffee in their hands and no apparent
wish to talk about their ordeal. I left them to it for a while before starting
"Can you tell me what happened
then," I asked after a time.
"It's a long story really," replied
the man. "I don't really want to bore you with the details but as you have
been so kind to us I will."
For somebody who didn't want to talk about
it, he was soon doing a fine job. That is one of the things I was gradually
learning in the job. People who were at first reluctant to talk or have their
photographs taken were quite often the most willing to talk in the end.
"It wasn't a hired boat you know. Not
one of those holiday cruisers," he began.
"We come from London you see. Living
down there has proved to be a little difficult through one thing and another, so
at the beginning of the summer I got a job here and we sold our house, paid off
a number of debts and decided to buy a houseboat. We got one on the cheap and it
seemed to be in a fair state of repair, although it did creak a bit.
Nevertheless we got through the summer easily enough, although I was beginning
to have my doubts about the idea. More suited to dry land me. I don't mind
telling you we were thinking seriously about trying to find a flat somewhere or
getting lodgings. But then we thought who's going to put up a family of three,
especially with a daughter who has just come out of hospital after a major
I nodded, although at the time I was thinking
more of Violet's home where she seemed willing to take in anybody. But I didn't
"Well last night as you know the weather
turned nasty. Those winds were awful and I can tell you we had a right old night
of it. My daughter was frightened, my wife had one of her headaches and we were
thrown around in our beds as the vessel was tossed around."
"Yes it was frightening at times."
It was the first time the wife had spoken and she had an obvious cockney accent.
"Yeah it certainly was and Christie
here," the man continued pointing at his daughter as he did so. "Well
she has to sleep on her back because of the operation. She was in terrible
Christie opened her mouth to say something
but her father was off again before she had the chance to speak.
"Anyway we got through the night okay
and this morning I left for work as usual. These two stayed aboard until
lunchtime and then went out to do some shopping. When they got home they found
the boat half under water. Of course they tried to find the harbour master, but
they are never around when you want them. By the time they had found him the
boat had gone down and the only trace left was Christie's bra floating on the
water. When I arrived home an hour later there was no sign of the boat anywhere.
The weather certainly did a good job on our home. We didn't know what to do. We
wandered around for some time trying to think things over, but that didn't do
Christie's stomach any good."
That was the signal for the woman to tell me
in detail all about Christie's operation. I was spared nothing and all the gory
details came out. In the end the man took over again.
"Do you know my stomach hasn't been too
I managed at this point to get them back onto
the correct track and established that they had nowhere to spend the night. I
decided to phone Violet at the Conservative Club to see if she had any ideas
about where they could be housed temporarily.
After a considerable delay I was put through
"Hello dear. Sorry about the delay but I
was on a winning street on the one-arm bandits."
"Oh how much have you won/"
"Oh I haven't won anything dear, just
lost less than usual, Now what can I do for you? How are you phoning from home.
I thought they cut the phone off this morning."
I explained that I was at the office, but it
took a little while to sink in as Violet had obviously been at the drink again.
"Listen Violet, I have got a family here
whose houseboat has sunk. Do you know anyone that can put them up for the night
until they can get council help tomorrow?"
"How many of them are there dear?"
"Oh I expect Madge down the road will
put them up. Her lodger's on holiday. You say it's just for the one night?"
"Yeah that's right."
"Give me your phone number and I'll find
out and call you back."
It seemed an eternity before she rang back,
but at least it was with some good news.
"It's okay, Madge will put them up. She
lives on our road at number 47. It's a rather dark house but you can't miss
The trio of unhappy people were glad to be
going somewhere warm if only for the night. The door of number 47 was opened by
a tiny wisp of a woman.
"You must be the poor unfortunate family
and you must be Eric, " she smiled sweetly at me as she spoke.
"Violet has told me so much about you.
She looks upon Robin and you as sons."
Once again I blushed a little and tried to
hide it by ushering the family into the hall. By this time Madge was beginning
to act like a broody hen and I thought it was about time to leave. So taking my
farewells I left and returned to the office as the family continued to thank me.
I was full of optimism that this would make an excellent lead story.
I wanted to get the copy typed up that night
whilst it was fresh in my mind. There is nothing worse than writing a story when
it is stale. It took me well over an hour and by the time I got home it was
getting late and I was feeling absolutely exhausted. I went straight to bed and
fell asleep immediately.
The following morning came like so many
others - too soon. I dislike getting up in the mornings almost as much as I hate
going to bed at night.
Still at last I had the satisfaction of
having a good story under my belt. The only problem was how would Shad Greene
take it? I had left it on his desk so that he would see it as soon as he came
in. I still had an inbuilt fear that he would inform me that it wasn't really a
weekly paper story. At times I wondered exactly what his idea of a good weekly
If I kept worrying about that kind of thing I
would soon be getting an inferiority complex, thinking that nothing I could do
would please him.
When I arrived I was surprised to find that
Tony Willson was already there. He grinned brightly at me as I entered.
"Morning Scoop. How does it feel to be a
real Journalist at last? In his hand he held my story.
"You seemed pretty anxious that the old
man should see this as soon as he came in. Why didn't you put it in the basket
with the rest of the copy," he inquired.
I didn't know how to answer this rather
"It's okay Eric I'm only being jealous.
It's right that he does see this as soon as he comes in if he can see through
his usual alcoholic haze. It's a damn good story and it will certainly make a
good lead for this week."
I began to glow with pleasure. Perhaps even
Shad Greene would like it. It was something very unusual for Tony Willson to
admit to somebody that they had a strong story and it wasnít one of his own.
Lead stories were prized possessions. Tony liked to get hold of them and if
somebody else had a good one his usual comment was "It's good but I'll get
a better one." Now here he was almost admitting defeat.
It wasn't long before I received Shad
Greene's comments. He seemed more sober this morning and he allowed himself only
a quick glance at the Times before beckoning me into his office. His face seemed
several shades lighter than on the day he called me in to pull my dustman story
"Is this all your own work?" he
said pointing at my copy.
I explained how I got the story and how I
dealt with it.
"You say here that the family were found
a home for the night. Who found it for them?"
"Well I suppose I did," I replied.
"Well let's put that the family were
found a home for the night by this paper, Never does any harm to blow our own
trumpet. Okay lad you've done a good story here, well done. You seem to be
learning the trade well." He said this with the trace of a smile on his
I walked out is his office on Cloud Nine. I
felt I had finally arrived. I was really ready for the big time. Ready that is
until Tony brought me back to earth.
"Eric, Louise isn't feeling too well
today so you'll have to cover court."
That Friday's paper came out with my
"homeless story" as the front page lead. Just below the headline of
"Storms make family homeless" were the words by staff reporter Tony
I almost choked when I read that, but I
managed to keep my anger in check. I really was beginning to learn.