I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now

cards blogTODAY is my last day as a bona fide journalist.

It is a day when I close the pages on a 28 year career in magazine and newspapers with tears in my eyes but real excitement inside.

I have cleared my desk, handed back my company car and door fobs and now sit here in my study overlooking our beautiful market town contemplating the future. A town currently weathering under grey clouds and cold winter rain.

Journalism has been the largest and most consistent part of my life since I stumbled into it by accident way back in the spring of 1985.

At the time, I was in a sort of limbo land between careers, but I was a young man willing to explore possibilities.

I had just bought my first home computer – a BBC Acorn Electron – and began offering reviews and solutions to text adventure games for a couple of glossy computer magazines in Manchester.

As Elvis Costello once wrote: “Accidents will happen”, and soon I had accidentally accepted the offer of a regular column for one of the magazines. Then more reviews and columns came my way, and within two years I was appointed assistant editor of yet another monthly mag.

The rest as they say is history and since those early years I have worked as chief investigative reporter for two Scottish dailies and a North East Sunday tabloid, and edited five weekly newspapers in places as diverse as Argyll, Galloway, Peterhead and Denbighshire.

It has often been hard work – with long unsocial hours as standard – and it has sometimes been gruelling, harrowing and frightening… but it has also been immense fun.

The low points include working on the Dunblane Massacre in 1996, attending some horrific road traffic accidents and fatal accident inquiries, and being ordered to make staff redundant, refusing to do so, and resigning my own job instead.

The high points, however, are almost too many to list, and will save for other blog postings.

I guess it is the stories which have driven me along… especially so when so many of them were breaking exclusives, exposing corruption or unmasking state duplicity.

The other drivers in my career were the awards I acquired as a writer and as an editor and the boost they give to keep on keeping on.

The singular most memorable moment was in 1994 when I was given a special judges award for my year-long investigations into the link between the firing of Depleted Uranium tank shells at a MoD testing range in South West Scotland and local clusters of childhood cancer. It was a link later replicated in the aftermath of the first Gulf War with Iraqi children and Gulf War Syndrome among allied service personnel.

I remember with renewed tears as I walked back to our table at the press awards ceremony in Edinburgh to be greeted by my father and his words; “I am proud of you”.

I think it was the first time in my life I had ever heard him say that.

Since dad’s death in 2008 that memory often revisits me.
Around the same time in the spring of 1994, I was deeply honoured by an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons – signed by 41 MPs – praising my journalism http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/business-papers/commons/early-day-motions/edm-detail1/?session=1993-94&edmnumber=1143&orderby=Party&orderdirection=Asc

The fact that the main sponsor of the motion was Alan Simpson MP and a co-signatories were Dennis Skinner and Ken Livingstone, who were all political heroes of mine, made it very special indeed.

But I guess if I had to condense my time in journalism, it is not about the stories or the headlines or even the awards, it is about the people I was lucky enough to work with and for.

With the exception of my first sociopathic editors – the first would not speak to anyone for days on end and the second would relieve his stress in the gents’ urinals by banging his head against the wall – I have been privileged to work for some amazing people.

I owe a huge debt to Tom Davison, editor at the Galloway Gazette, who, for two whole years, gave me the freedom and guidance to become the investigative journalist I had sought to be. I haven’t seen or spoken with Tom in more than 17 years. I hope one day he may read this and accept my gratitude.

Then there was Jim Seaton at The Scotsman, a true gentleman and newsman to the core, who was savagely treated when the paper was sold to the infamous Barclay Brothers in 1996. Quite simply, Jim, you were the best.

I was also blessed to work for design guru Andrew Jaspan who reinvented how daily and Sunday newspapers should look and feel; the hard-nosed Derek Tucker (who insisted on being simply called The Editor) at the Press and Journal and the mercurial Chris Rushton at the Sunday Sun. You guys were all immense editors.

And finally, Graham Breeze, an editor who lived for his patch and was still turning in breaking stories – often by phone calls at inappropriate hours – after 38 years at this game. Thanks Graham for your support as my boss and as a friend.

But above all, it is my colleagues in the newsroom who I will always remember.

Recently I was humbled beyond belief by the friendship of some of these amazing people.

Shortly after my nervous breakdown in June this year, I received 18 individual testimonials and references from reporters, photographers and trainees who have worked for me over the years.

Those statements are more valuable to me than any reference from a former employer and they arrived at a critical moment in my life.

To repeat their words now would invoke such emotion that I would not be able to finish this posting. I have thanked you all personally for your words and now I do it publicly… you all know who you are!

And there are many others who I count now as life-long friends.

One of my photographers has been my closest friend and support for 21 years now.

One of my earliest editors and I fell out big time in 1992, but when the going got tough we realized the truth of our friendship and remain good friends to this day.

In 1998 I witnessed the wedding of an amazing colleague in a very personal service at a ruined Scottish monastery. We were there for each other when both our separate relationships failed two years later. She emigrated to the USA in 2000, but we remain in touch and our friendship endures.

Another fellow journalist became a regular house visitor when she went through a traumatic marriage break-up. The friendship also endures and I was lucky enough to spend a wonderful week in her holiday cottage in North East Scotland – renovated by her and her new husband – two summers ago.

Much more recently two colleagues were the first people to give help when I was the victim of an unprovoked assault in 2007, an assault which almost took my life. Their unconditional assistance remains truly remarkable.

And to close this incredible list of friendships, I must name check more recent additions: Natalie, Hannah, Lia, Sophie, Rachel, Angela and Craig who I also class as very special friends indeed.

Without a career in journalism, none of you would have been part of my life and that would have been a tragedy.

So thank you for the memories and the friendships.

Now it is time to move on…

Poem: Julia

Out of darkness

My fenland tiger

Reading words on palms

You came you saw

Your nimble hands

They bore


You whose name is courage

Out of darkness

My fenland tiger

You never let things pass

A dog and cane

They guided you

In rain


You whose name is courage

Out of darkness

My fenland tiger

Your endless aching journey

From Caithness

To Lands End

No less


You whose name is courage

Out of darkness

My fenland tiger

You fought against them all

For your right

To be a mum

Without sight


You whose name is courage

Out of darkness

My fenland tiger

The cancer came to beat you

You bare the scar

But won again

And from afar


You whose name is courage

Out of darkness

My fenland tiger

When life is bleak

I still think of you

A voice remains

To scorn pity too


You whose name is courage

My Back Pages

I AM about to close the pages on a 28 year career in magazine and newspaper journalism with more than just a tinge of sadness and nostalgia.

During those years I have worked on weekly and daily newspapers, glossy magazines, sports publications, county council journals, in-house buzz feeds and too many supplements to list.

But now it is all change and I view the future with an excitement I have not felt since I was 12 years old.

I am writing a more considered piece on my time in journalism for later publication, but turn my head now to headlines and howlers that accompanied me along the way.

I am proud of creating a few great headlines – along with far too many crap ones – over those years and remember five of them with particular fondness.

The first was during my tenure as editor of the Argyllshire Advertiser way back in 1991. We landed a genuine exclusive that Strathclyde Police detectives were investigating allegations of potential property development fraud within the local council.

The story was massive and it called out for a full page headline FRAUD SQUAD MOVE IN ON COUNCIL.

Two memorable headlines were gifts while I edited the Galloway Gazette in 1998.

The first of these involved some brilliant investigative and painstaking journalism by one of my reporters to identify that seven county councillors were claiming expenses and allowances which would have puts the MPs’ expenses scandal to shame. None of them could properly justify why they had claimed so much from the public purse.

My answer was simple… to line up seven pictures of these councillors across the top of our broadsheet front pages under a banner headline: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

The second of the Gazette pair was a simple piece of amusement. It involved the world famous artist and sculptor Hideo Furuta working with local school children to create circular murals for the town’s church clock – which was away being repaired.


The final two headline memories are more recent and come from my tenure as editor of The Denbighshire Free Press (2006-2013).

For the first I have to thank my former chief reporter Adele Forrest for her help. In early 2009 she investigated and wrote a truly gobsmacking front page exposing the county council as it struggled to turn round a failing education department. Adele discovered that in their battle to improve matters the council had employed a new education director who lived in Lanzarote and commuted weekly by plane to her job in Ruthin in North Wales, while being put up at tax payers’ expense in a local hotel.

The headline took some work, but we never regretted: PLANE POTTY TO COMMUTE FROM LANZAROTE.

And I close this section with a headline from just a few months ago.

In the wake of the recent horsemeat scandal, my reporter Kirstie Dolphin undertook a blind steak tasting test comparing horse, beef, zebra, and others meats. She voted horse as the tastiest of all the steaks tested, but that didn’t matter because we had a readymade headline: DOLPHIN EATS HORSE SHOCK.

But my headlines were amateurish compared with the real pros.

I worked for a short time in the early 1990s with former national tabloid sub the late Ged Phelan. His penchant for witty and eye-catching headlines was unsurpassed. For one story regarding Sotheby’s valuation of an old Stradivarius violin discovered in the cupboard of a local church vestry, his wording was timeless: MILLION POUND FIDDLE AND NO STRINGS ATTACHED.

Another great colleague and headline writer was The Scotsman’s former deputy features editor Clare Flowers. She excelled in simplicity. On a feature about the release of long lost out-takes by The Beatles, she titled it THE QUALITY OF MERSEY.

And for one of my own pieces about pesticide poisoning of a large area of Kent countryside she scribed the brilliant:  GREEN UNPLEASANT LAND.

But my favourite headline of all time was written by a sports sub at the same paper and related to former Middlesbrough football star Emerson arriving back late from South America. At the time he was linked in transfer talks with Italian club Parma. So the headline had to be: EMERSON LATE AND LINKED WITH PARMA.

Headlines and stories are the bread and butter of newspapers. But real unexpected howlers keep us going.

The most famous I can recall was from a High Court divorce hearing in the mid 1980s, when a wife cited that her husband was often away seeing Bruce Springsteen. In innocent pomposity the judge asked: “And this Mr Springsteen, is he a friend of the family?”

But one howler cost a colleague his job in 1992. At the time I was Editor of the Argyllshire Advertiser and Campbeltown Courier in which this public notice advertisement appeared: “Southend Church, Campbeltown, service times for Sunday: 8.30am Early morning service, 11am Family Service, 2pm Sunday School, 6.30pm Evensong followed by anti-christ barbeque on the beach.”

The final line should have read: “followed by readings in the ante-room”. Unfortunately for the ad man responsible, not only was his error deliberate, but the church in question was regularly attended by the commercial director’s mother.”

My own worst nightmare was reporting from Colwyn Bay magistrates court 24 years ago, when the 19-year-old son of the Chief Constable was up for motoring offences. Throughout my entire court copy for the next day’s paper I put the father’s Christian name instead of the son’s. To make matters worse the son still lived at home with his parents, so the two shared the same address. The copy passed through news desk, subs and editor unnoticed.

Thankfully my career was saved by a sharp-eyed stone sub, just as the plate was being winged away to the press.

And that, as they say, is the news.

All you can do is do what you must

Princess AnneTHE more I think about it, my entire career in journalism has been one of a succession of  moments when… if only the ground would open up.

This tale is a warning to reporters to treat their snapper brethren with professional honour and respect.

Back in the summer of 1991, I was preparing, as editor of a local newspaper in Argyll, to cover the visit of the Princess Royal to our local fishing village of Tarbert.

I had lined up two staff photographers and a freelancer to capture what would hopefully be a picture special for my paper and our sister title, The Oban Times.

I even decided to take an office SLR camera along myself.

Arriving on time I checked in with our local police superintendent, who I knew quite well, and ensured my snappers were not over-stepping protocol for the visit.

He glanced at the camera in my hand and whispered: “If you want a cracking good picture, just stand here next to me.”

I smiled back and took up position. Sure enough, within 15 minutes, the Royal Range Rover pulled up within four feet of me and out stepped Princess Anne and Peter and Zara. I immediately raised my camera just as the Princess looked straight at me with a smile (yes a smile!) on her face.

I clicked the camera button and clicked again … but nothing happened. No whirr, no shutter release, nothing. The blasted thing was jammed. As I frantically tried to get the camera operational, I managed to open the back and expose the film to daylight. I muttered something in disgust as the superintendent turned to me and asked: ‘Get a good picture?’

I cursed, ferried in my pocket for a new roll of film, and looked up to see the Royal entourage had moved on some 100 yards away.

It was my first and last attempt at being a newspaper photographer. My adage is now: leave it to the pros and respect what they do.


Poem: Future Comfort

Sweet gentleness

Your name is life

It surrounds my being

Cuts like a knife

Cascades and unfolds

In all that I do

The love that surrounds me

And the friendships too

I watch the rain fall

And the winter does grip

But your warmth it envelops

So nothing will slip

Risk and perspective

Valour and pain

Is marked here forever

Though death does remain

So fear not my love

As we walk up that road

Stronger than ever

Let me carry your load

And we come now full circle

To the top of the hill

And hold hands together

Brave blood to spill

For love is not blinded

And neither is truth

As my tale unfolds gently

Our own fountain of youth.


They’ll pinch themselves and squeal and know that it’s for real… the hour when the ship comes in

craigIT is still November, but 2013 truly has been one hell of a rollercoaster year for myself, my family and my friends.

But today is one of the best days of the year.

My very good friend and work colleague Craig and his partner Crystal are officially no longer illegal immigrants.

The good news came through just a few hours ago after one of the biggest blunders by the UK immigration agency imaginable.

And I am so delighted for them both.

Craig’s Canadian wife Crystal posted this on Facebook just a few minutes ago: “Finally! After a year and a half of holding my passport and marriage certificate for ransom the UKBA/ Home Office has officially withdrawn their decision to deny me leave to remain. This morning I picked up my passport and marriage certificate along with a new visa and permission granted for leave to remain! Mommy I am coming home!”

Rather than confuse anyone reading this blog anymore, I attach an article I published on the front page of my newspaper (The Denbighshire Free Press) early in March this year… it tells the background. The story was immediately picked up by British national newspapers and magazines and within a week was international:

A SERIES of bureaucratic blunders by the Home Office mean Free Press photographer Craig Colville could be forced to leave the UK if he wants to continue to live with his wife.
This is despite the fact he has a Welsh mother and English father, he was born and went to school in St Asaph, raised near Talacre and now lives in Chester.
The 31-year-old met his now wife Crystal, a Canadian citizen, in 2006 when they were both working on a cruise ship.
After a long distance relationship she moved to the UK on a Youth Mobility Visa in October 2010 and the pair were married at a ceremony in Llangollen last July.
Once they became husband and wife, Crystal, 29, applied to the Home Office for “an extension of stay as the husband, wife, civil partner or unmarried/same-sex partner of a permanent resident”.
But Home Secretary Theresa May refused the application, saying Crystal could not stay in the UK because Welsh husband Craig “does not hold settled status, is not a British citizen and is not a person with refugee leave/humanitarian protection”.
“My wife and I are extremely upset by how poorly the Home Office have treated our case,” said Craig, a former Ysgol Glan Clwyd student.
“It should have been very straightforward as I am a British citizen.”
Craig and Crystal were told if they were not happy with the decision the only thing they could do was to lodge an official appeal.
But in yet another blunder by the UK Border Agency (UKBA), a section of the Home Office, they have now been told their application for appeal has been refused because it was not in on time.
The couple were told in their original refusal letter, sent on February 4, they had until February 18 (10 working days) to appeal. But on March 7 they received a letter saying their notice of appeal had been refused.
Someone at the UKBA had confused 10 days with 10 working days and the application should have been received by February 14.
“When we called to query this we were told the only thing we could do was to lodge an official appeal against the decision not to allow us to appeal,” said Craig.
“It’s getting beyond a joke now, I dread to think how much this is going to cost the tax payer to sort out.”
Crystal has been told if her appeal is unsuccessful she “must leave the United Kingdom as soon as possible” when her present visa runs out.
The letter from the UKBA adds: “If you do not leave the United Kingdom voluntarily, you will be removed to Canada.”
Craig added: “I do not have the right to live or work in Canada and my worst fear is that we would be separated again, ruining everything we have worked towards.”
Ironically Craig’s identical twin brother Scott, also born in St Asaph, has not been told by Britain’s border guards that he is not a British citizen.
Equally ironic is that Crystal’s grandparents were a Geordie and a Scot. If she had foreseen the current Home Office blunders, Crystal could have qualified for full British citizenship under an ancestry visa.
Craig, who now lives in Chester with Crystal, has contacted Chester MP Stephen Mosley about the matter.
A spokesman for his office said Mr Mosley was supporting the couple and had contacted the UKBA, but that he could not comment further whilst the issue was ongoing.
At the time of going to press Craig and Crystal received a further letter from the Home Office in which they underlined the fact that the couple would have to continue their life outside the UK.
A UKBA spokesman said: “We are writing to Ms Levy (Crystal) this week regarding her application. It would be inappropriate to comment further until she has received the latest correspondence.”

Now everything is as it should have been in the first place.

Craig and Crystal can live and work as a normal married couple and at last Crystal can pop home to Canada to visit her mum and brother without fear of not being allowed back into the UK and her loving husband.

A very good day indeed.

Pardon Monsieur… Am I hearing You Right #5

Kirstie alleyMY Pardon Monsieur moment with American Emmy award-winning actress Kirstie Alley was random in the extreme.

It was 1991, and Kirstie was at the height of her TV fame playing Rebecca in the US sitcom Cheers. It was also a weird time for music and movie celebs buying pieces of Scottish real estate.

Paul and Linda McCartney had long been established at their farm on the Kintyre peninsula, while former Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson had bought a Scottish fish farm and comedy star Billy Connolly was eying up a Highland castle.

So when the small island of Gigha (pronounced Geeya) was put up for sale in the summer of 1991 it did not come as much surprise to hear that both Mick Jagger and Kirstie Alley had expressed interest.

At the time I was in my first editor’s chair at the small weekly newspaper The Argyllshire Advertiser while also covering the adjoining Campbeltown Courier.

I decided to try and harden up the rumours of the celeb interest in our wee west coast island of Gigha – population 140 – and telephone both Mick Jagger and Kirstie Alley.

I was given short-shrift by Jaggers’ agent, but surprisingly had much more luck from Miss Alley’s who promised me an interview.

I was gobsmacked some few hours later to receive a personal call from the sitcom star. And as it was about 2pm our time, she must have been ringing very early morning from the States.

In either case, her Kansas drawl totally flummoxed an English editor still coming to terms with the Argyll lilt of the Scottish West Highlands.

“Hi, am I talking to Nic?”… I could just make out, as I answered my phone.

I could barely translate the next line, but am sure she said: “I gather you want to talk about Giga.”

Or she may have said she was ‘buying a cider’!

I was already confused.

She then went on to tell me how she loved the Scots, how ‘wonderful’ she thought Scotland was and how it was her spiritual home.

Or she could have said: “I love a Scotch, I think Scottish bands are wonderful and I am thinking of becoming a spiritualist.”

To be frank she could have told me anything. And to be fair to Kirstie I am sure it was just a communication breakdown between two diverse accents that meant that after a 10 minute interview I had nothing written down in my notebook.

Nothing at all!

And I still do not know, some 22 years later, whether she wanted to buy Gigha.


The words I was saying

I HAVE just explored the Stats section of WordPress properly and it tells me the most popular topics I have written about during the past few weeks.

So in order to boost my readership still further I am going to:

Give poppies to the ghost of Charlie Livesey, who was poetry in motion when he used to play for Brighton and Hove Albion. Sadly he never appeared in the 1984 FA Cup Final against Manchester United.

The poppies are in memory of the dead of World War 1, but not of the many poems written about that tragedy. Poems which would have graced the writing and lyrics of Bob Dylan, who has probably never had a pee at Toddington Services.

Well, let’s see if that works! 😉

There ain’t no going back when your foot of pride comes down

ashdownI HAVE always been a political animal and am proud to be labelled a socialist and a pacifist.

But as a journalist I have tried to maintain a political neutrality and treat politicians from all parties just the same.

I was close personal friends with the late Tory politician Bill Hodgson and the SNP’s Margaret and Fergus Ewing. I also class as friends former Labour Defence Secretary Des Browne, SNP Leader Alex Salmond and the Lib Dem MP Charles Kennedy.

Among politicians, as in life, there are good and bad, and in my opinion these were some of the good guys.

But “proud and smug” are just two words I would use to describe the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown.

It is probably wrong to feel so strongly about one man after just two short intercessions, but Ashdown pressed the wrong button for me, and now when I see his face on TV or hear his voice on the radio… I turn off!

I will take you back to early 1992.

I was in my first editor’s chair overseeing The Argyllshire Advertiser, a wonderful small weekly paper in the west of Scotland.

Our paper happened to sit in the middle of the marginal Westminster constituency of Argyll and Bute.

It was a General Election year. The seat was held by likeable Lib Dem MP Ray Michie, but under threat from the Tories and the Scottish National Party (SNP). Indeed after the Tories committed electoral suicide by deselecting their own candidate, the SNP’s Neil MacCormick was coming up fast on the ropes as an unlikely favourite to take the seat.

Meanwhile, nationally it appeared that John Major’s Tory Government could be defeated by the narrow swing in just a handful of seats.

Argyll and Bute was one of them.

So in March 1992 I decided to commission a public opinion poll on the streets of our principal towns to gauge which way the votes might fall. We polled 450 people (about half that of a typical Mori or Gallup opinion poll) and were amazed to find that Prof MacCormick was ahead of the sitting Mrs Michie by about 3%.

The ramifications of this poll were bigger than anything I imagined at the time.

Within 24 hours of my paper publishing the poll results, both BBC and ITV were reporting on it. They wheeled out each of the party leaders for comment and each in turn gave their own turn or spin on the result.

Except for a clearly rattled Paddy Ashdown who in an obvious fury branded our poll as: “A Mickey Mouse poll taken by a Mickey Mouse newspaper”. Quite amusing in hindsight as my paper had been known locally for almost 100 years as “The Squeak”!

I was angered by Mr Ashdown’s outburst and sought to get a response for the following week’s edition of my paper. Each party obliged by giving us good reactive comments. But Mr Ashdown refused to even speak to me and the Scottish Lib Dems moved into dirty tricks territory to discredit our poll and our paper.

As it turned out the Mrs Michie held the seat at the General Election that year with a 2,600 majority.

She later privately told me that she often found Mr Ashdown: ‘quite pompous’ and she apologised for the way he had treated us.

But it wasn’t quite the end of my affair with Mr Ashdown.

Some years later while I was a reporter with Scotland’s national broadsheet The Scotsman I had to attend a question and answer event with the Lib Dem leader.

I sat at the front of the audience of about 200 people with my carefully prepared questions.

When it came to my turn to ask a question, I gave my name and publication. Ashdown looked down at me from his podium and as if he did not hear me, moved on to the next questioner!

This was Paddy’s cold shoulder.


Poem: Named and Shamed

Right from the start you were

Aiming to rip innocence from

Young kids in your care

Molesting for your pleasure

Our weakness laid bare

Never once did you stop

Doing what you wanted

Dragging boys down for your lust

Owning flesh with our guilt

Our lives decayed like rust

Leaving minds scarred and scared

And now my long dead demon I have

Named you