“I was born very far from where I was meant to be, so I am on my way home” (Bob Dylan)
YEARS which end with number Four seem to have unwittingly become major watersheds in my life as I too quickly approach my 60th year on this planet.
Forty years ago in 1974, I left the sanctuary of my parents’ home in the rolling downland of Sussex to begin studying for a history and geography degree in the cold, grey Yorkshire mill town of Huddersfield.
I was just 18 and the move was at the same time both terrifying and exciting, a time of discovery, rebellion, revelry, reality and education.
The locals spoke with an odd accent I had only heard on a few BBC2 dramas or Emmerdale Farm. Nowt, owt, rintin, snap, spice and eh lad, quickly entered my everyday vocabulary.
At first the people seemed abrupt and cold, but also welcoming and warm. They were different to those I had grown up with but I quickly learned to love them.
I also quickly learned the wonders of Tetley’s and Sam and John Smith’s beer, a pie floater on mushy peas, fish wibbits, Wednesday nights at the seedy Coach House nightclub and cheap second-hand LPs in a record shop secreted on the top floor of a decaying Victorian arcade.
Huddersfield Polytechnic (now University) was truly far from home – 260 miles to be precise – and at times may well have been Mars or Jupiter, such were the rudimentary means of communication with friends and family back home.
Those were indeed different times.
In 1974 the UK was fresh from the miners’ strike and the three day week. It took two general elections that year to re-establish a Labour Government, initially under Huddersfield born Harold Wilson and later (from 1976) under Jim Callaghan. It was a time of increasing industrial unrest and the beginning of the shift to high inflation and unemployment. Strikes were commonplace and the whole country appeared to be in political flux – none of us foresaw Thatcher or the 1980s! It was also the time of rising unrest in Northern Ireland and ever increasing acts of terrorism.
Oh, and finally the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe was still at large – one of his victims Helen Rytka was picked up near Johnnies’ Nightclub – a favourite haunt of Poly students.
At the Poly, life mirrored the world around us. Most of us had the luxury of full maintenance grants and thereby disposable cash which was often spent at the Student Union bar or Trinity Hall bar, nights out at the aforementioned Coach House nightclub or Johnnies’ and at loads of diverse and fabulous music gigs.
During that time we had rent strikes, a sit-in/lock-in in the Admin block, put up Workers Rights marchers in the Union building and two students were arrested and held in police cells for two nights under Terrorism charges – they were later released!
Revolution was in the air, smoke was in the lungs and beer on the carpet.
Twice I was almost sent down, once for failing two first year exams and a second time for being a reckless drunk playing tag on the flat roof of a four storey student hall of residence.
Oh and I also stood for election as president of the student union, but as Leeds United manager Don Revie famously said: “You get nowt for coming second”.
Somehow, between all this, I graduated in 1977 with a good honours degree in my two favourite subjects: geography and medieval history.
I was now 21 years old and for the first time I learned the difference between a vocational degree and a non-vocational degree. I had studied for the latter! What career options were open for a young graduate in two academic humanities subjects? The answer was simple: teach or lecture the self-same subjects. To lecture I needed a second degree and was luckily accepted onto an MSc course at Edinburgh University. I had a new focus, but three weeks before the academic year was due to begin the funding body wrote to me to say they had run out of cash and I would have to wait another year.
I flirted with psychiatric nursing during that ‘year out’ and settled for a second best option and enrolled on a post graduate teaching training course at Bretton Hall College – ironically just 12 miles from Huddersfield.
I qualified in 1979 and proved to be a good teacher. I enjoyed five full years teaching in two high schools in Barnsley and later in a small town on the Welsh Marches.
But Four was about to strike…
George Orwell foretold 1984 as a year of doom for mankind; for me it is a year that will be forever Orwellian. As a 27-year-old ‘highly gifted’ teacher I made a monumental blunder that was to end my teaching career and change my life forever.
I won’t bore with the full story as it can be read in detail in a piece titled Regret on my blog.
Thankfully, or rather selfishly, I had started dabbling with early personal computers and had even run a lunchtime computer club at my last school. I had bought myself an Acorn Electron home computer – at just 32k memory it was the little brother of the BBC B computers which were finding their way into most British schools at the time.
My new nerdy hobby soon became a passion and I began writing letters and games solutions to two monthly computer magazines: BBC User and Electron User. In what seemed like no time I was given new software to review and a few months later a regular monthly column in one of the mags, for which I was paid a handsome £120 a month.
Two years of freelance writing, private tutoring and teaching English to YTS trainees followed. Then in the summer of 1988 I was offered a staff job as assistant editor of a new magazine Atari ST User. Somehow this directionless history and geography graduate had become a journalist.
My rise through magazine and later (1990) newspaper journalism was meteoric and reached its zenith when the next Four came around: 1994.
In a nutshell it was an amazing year: a succession of major exclusives unravelling a link between the test firing of depleted uranium tank shells (the same ones used in both Gulf Wars) and childhood cancer drew international attention. I scooped two major press awards for my work and to cap it all I was informed that 41 MPs had signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons praising my investigation. Some of my political heroes signed that EDM including Alan Simpson, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner. But the sixth signature on that motion was Tony Benn. His name next to mine was like a personal shield of honour.
Later that year I was head-hunted by Scotland’s premier daily broadsheet The Scotsman and elevated to the position of Chief Investigative Reporter.
The next 10 years passed too quickly. The long awaited Millennium was here and gone in the blink of an eye and my hair was turning grey as I made my way into middle age.
In 2004 I had moved away from newspapers and plied my trade in PR and publishing. They were treading water years, but in hindsight I learned and honed new skills of writing precise and detailed copy for demanding clients, including county council and national sporting bodies. I also became a publisher, writing, designing, editing and printing brochures, annual reports and newspapers.
In 2006, due to an unforeseen change in domestic circumstances, I returned to my passion of newspaper journalism and became editor of a thriving county weekly tabloid in North Wales. But life is always a rollercoaster and my demons caught up with me – catalogued in detail in my blog – exactly a year ago. On 12 June 2013, I suffered a nervous breakdown and as I recovered knew I had to change my direction home. Last November I signed off for the last time almost 28 years in employed journalism.
A rocky road to freedom followed. Supported by my gorgeous wife and son I began writing for real. I found escape, refuge, solace, excitement and therapy in my blog, my poetry and my most recent teen novel: Poison (The Adventures of Nathan Sunnybank and Joe Greenfield). I was writing for myself and learning more about who I really am than I had glimpsed during the previous 56 years.
Autumn leaves fell, winter came and went and the spring of 2014 heralded a new tomorrow.
This week I am launching my company writeahead, from its base here in North Shropshire. For my US and Australian friends, Shropshire is a long county bordering Wales in what is known as the English West Midlands.
My company promises a new way forward in marketing and publishing for small and medium sized businesses and for individual clients. Drawing on my years in journalism, I aim to provide a one-stop tailor-made service to research, write, design, print and publish, everything from simple business cards to brochures, magazines and books.
I will also offer a unique service to interview, research, write and publish memorial and celebratory publications for individual clients. Whether it is a one-off eulogy in the local press for a departed loved one, a fuller memorial for a funeral service, a This is Your Life type magazine for a 40th, 65th or 80th birthday or a full bound biography, there lies my new tomorrow.
I am home.
Or as John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
NOTE: You can check out my new company at: http://www.writeahead.co.uk