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Friday, August 3, 2007

Life’s burning ambitions

By Geoffrey Mather
An investigation is being carried out to establish how a fire started at a factory in east Lancashire. Fire crews from Hyndburn were called to tackle the blaze at the James Dewhurst mill in Altham, Accrington, shortly after noon. – BBC

Once upon a time, when the world was young, I was 16, working for an evening newspaper, and life was always Spring. So there I was, alone in the reporters’ room apart from another junior reporter even younger than me. The seniors had all gone out. We were in total charge.

The phone rang. A large mill was on fire a couple of miles away. I ordered my junior (!) into action. It was our great moment. Telling no-one, we hurried to the scene. Flames were pouring from the roof of the building in spectacular fashion. Were there people inside? The police did not seem to know. I sent my junior to the hospital to inquire about casualties and wait there. I stood my ground.

I was in heaven. Fire crews, tangled hoses, witnesses - it was all mine. This was better than Dante’s Inferno. My inferno. I made the most of it. There was a phone nearby and I poured my material into it.

After an hour a tram was trundling past and it decanted a small person smoking a pipe. He ambled slowly towards the diminishing flames and stood bemused. The opposition had arrived. It was a senior reporter from the rival paper. I had finished. He was just starting. I headed back to the office and grabbed a paper. There I was - my very first Page One lead. And I had not even told the chief reporter!

Such minor achievements are the whole of life at the time. In retrospect, worth no more than a passing smile.

I was to move on, and up. As a district reporter I came across a journalist named Joe Higgin. He rode a bicycle, lived alone, wore a frocked coat, and invariably had a hole in a sock. Someone who knocked on his door one night, when it was dark, sold him a bunch of geraniums culled from Joe’s own garden. He had enormous intelligence, but was wayward in his conclusions. He would not go to a lecture in town by one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare because, he said, Shakespeare was dead. When I covered a cat being hauled from a railway parapet by a fireman - an event that had halted the town traffic - and it got a splendid show in the paper, he did nothing about it because - he said - he had three cats and nobody would care about them except him.

He was often to be seen standing by the town centre urinal, having argued - rightly - that anyone he wanted to see would end up there.

A colleague played Chopin whenever he saw a piano and we were forever looking for him when he was supposed to be covering some event or other. When he travelled to a different town for what we considered a big trial, his report was all written on toilet paper culled from a train lavatory on the way back. Another wore black leggings and lived on peanut butter. Yet another, on a works outing, saw ballet for the first time and within 30 seconds had ruined the show by uncontrollable and loud laughter at the sight of a male dancer in tights leaping about for what he considered to be no good reason.

When I moved on to national newspapers I did not, again, see such eccentricity. But I saw eccentricity of a different kind that would have made Joe Higgin and the ace reporter who took a tram look totally normal.

And so we progress through life, always being amazed by things that apparently sane men believe to be natural.

Here endeth that lesson. And as I advance in age, they are still coming...
More of Geoffrey Mather’s perspective on dukes, archbishops, actors, writers, monks, oddbods, the garish and the gregarious can be found at