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 www.northtrek.co.uk
Friday, August 3, 2007
By Geoffrey Mather