Final Thoughts on Rod Pounsett

Blog RodPounsett

I THOUGHT I had written the last words about my late uncle Rod Pounsett, who died following heart failure on 9 December 2015.

But in the 10 weeks since his loss I have been inundated with emails from friends and colleagues who were unaware that this pioneering journalist had passed away, aged 76.

So I have decided to collect some of these emails and memories here as a lasting tribute to my uncle.

Rod started his career as a reporter and photographer on the Worthing and Shoreham Heralds in the early 1960s.

He went on to host a daily show on BBC Radio Brighton in the 1970s – one of the very first phone-in radio shows – and later became senior producer for the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. He was at the helm when they reported the death of John Lennon in 1980 and the great storm of 1987.

He also worked for the Daily Express and started the first western news bureau in Moscow after the end of the Cold War.

He had a troubled personal life. He was married three times, and, like me, had more relationships than you could shake a stick at! He was often a very difficult person to deal with, but he was an amazing journalist, a good uncle and a great friend to many people.

He was also the person who got me into journalism when I was just 17 years-old, by securing me an interview with the editor of my local newspaper.

Anyway, here are the tributes from his former work colleagues:

While we knew that Rod wasn’t always the easiest person to work with, his pioneering spirit, sense of adventure, and passion for all things Russian gave us Brits a real excitement about being in Moscow – that for some of us has lasted to this day – and brought opportunities to all of us, both British and Russian. 

He introduced me (and Andersen Consulting) to Moscow in December 1990 – in fact a number of us were in Moscow only last month celebrating the 25th anniversary of the “Moscow Bread Project” which began when Rod started to bang on Moscow City Council doors in September 1990 and arranged for us to meet the deputy mayor, Sergei Stankevich (who also joined us for the reunion last month).  

This led to a fabulous 3-year project, which was undoubtedly the most exciting project of my 25-year consulting career. How sad and ironic that Rod died on the day we returned from Moscow after a 25th anniversary reunion of the project he began. 

We (a team of five from Andersen Consulting) had an amazing fortnight with Rod in Moscow in December 1990, one that I am 100% sure that my colleagues and I will never forget – as he introduced us to the city and helped us set up our first ever project there. 

He was an incredible character back in those days, full of optimism and real pioneering spirit – and what seemed to be a real love of Russia and everything to do with it.  He was full of stories, plans, ideas, revelations, and theories – some of which turned out, we later discovered, to be complete figments of his imagination, but always entertaining nevertheless. 

The following year, late 1991, we returned to Moscow to conduct the main part of the project – we were now a 10-strong team, and Rod continued to work with us, to provide overall context of goings-on in Russia, and to help us arrange meetings with politicians, press, etc.   

I must confess it became quite tricky to work with him and he was clearly under a lot of stress through goings-on in his personal life which we never really understood.  He was always needing to be loved, and became melancholy and aggressive if he thought that he wasn’t. 

But despite all this, he remained one of the most colourful characters I have ever met and worked with, and I will always be grateful to him for opening the doors of Moscow to me, a place I remain to this day totally entranced by, and I still return several times every year, mainly just to remember those amazing days with Rod and the work we did there at such an amazing turning point in history.  

I stayed in touch with Rod for a few years after that, and then our contact dwindled to a call every couple of years or so. I started to send him emails and messages to see if we could meet. He rarely responded over the past few years, but on the couple of occasions I spoke to him on the phone he said he’d been very unwell and was awaiting various treatments and operations.  I wished him well, and he called me again out of the blue several months ago, and we shared a few wonderful memories of our timed together in Moscow. He sounded frail, but promised that we should meet again if he got through the latest round of treatments.  Sadly it was not to be, and I will always be sorry for that.

RIP Rod Pounsett.

Stephen (Andersen Consulting)

I was trying to find a current phone number for Rod when I sadly came across your notice of his death.  I had wondered why he didn’t answer his email, though we had been in touch infrequently of late.  I’m so sorry to hear of his demise.  I worked with him on the Today programme for many years and had a lot of fun during that time. 

Sue (Today, BBC Radio 4)

My husband, who was Deputy Editor of the Today programme for several years, was a colleague and friend of Rod’s for many years and Rod came to stay with us at our several homes over a long period.

I didn’t have to work with Roddy (as I always called him) which sometimes was not easy for his co-workers, and I was exceedingly fond of him – as were both our sons.  He had an amazing gentle charm about him which was very endearing.  

We went to visit him in Worthing when he was house-hunting but then at the end of 2014 we moved to France and lost touch.  We came home one day to find a message from him on the answering-machine with a phone number, but though we tried it many times he never answered.

I am sorry therefore to hear of his death via some BBC colleagues, and though indeed he had a troubled personal life as you put it – he was much liked by many people; I for one shall not forget his charm, his kindness, his lovely gentle and reassuring voice, and his constant stream of exciting fun ideas and things to do.

Sherry (Today, BBC Radio 4)

This is very sad… Rod was sometimes difficult to deal with, but I do have a lot of fond memories of the time we spent together.

One thing is for sure – he was never dull. RIP.

Sergei (Moscow)

Rod will not be forgotten.  He brought a unique spirit to our time in Moscow.  It was an unforgettable times for so many reasons and he was certainly one of them.

Katherine (Moscow)

It is always sad to lose one of life’s great adventurers and, in my experience of him, Rod was certainly one of those!

Ken (Moscow)

Rod was my first foreign employer, eccentric, superbly verbal, kind and hospitable, full of different unheard of stories, omnipresent and mobile, a great, but messy (you should see the kitchen after his creative job) chef. I remember him waiting for the doctor and saying: ‘What can I expect from the doctor and my health: I drink, smoke, eat a lot.” RIP, Rod

Larissa (Moscow)

Really sad… Rod loved life so much and seemed to enjoy every moment of it! It was never boring working for him.

Lena (Moscow)

There you go Uncle Rod, people did love you!

Rest in peace.

More about Rod can be found here:

https://seagullnic.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/the-death-of-rod-langham-pounsett/

https://seagullnic.wordpress.com/2015/12/10/john-lennon-my-working-class-hero/

http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2015/news/former-regional-reporter-and-post-cold-war-pioneer-dies-at-76/

 

Note: If anyone wants to add their memories of Rod to this piece, please email me at: nicoutterside@writeahead.co.uk

 

Darkness at the break of noon

WEDNESDAY, 13 March 1996 will stay etched in my memory for every day of my life.

But it started like any other day.

It was a typically dreich spring morning in Edinburgh as I settled down to a diary of interviews and enquiries in my job as an investigative reporter at The Scotsman – at the time Scotland’s most pre-eminent broadsheet newspaper.

Back home in Perth – some 33 miles north of my office – my partner was planning a shoe shopping expedition for our two young daughters. Over a rushed slice of toast a few hours earlier she said she planned to browse a couple of shops in our fair city and maybe venture out to Dunblane or Stirling later in the day.

Here in The Scotsman’s Victorian offices I looked out over the grey North Bridge towards Princes Street, checked my diary and clocked a quick coffee before waiting for a telephone interview with Scottish born actor Tom Conti.

Tom was a champion of the London based organisation Justice, which campaigned on behalf of those imprisoned as a result of miscarriages of justice by the Scottish and English courts.

At the time I was running a campaign on behalf of a young man named Craig MacKenzie who had – in my opinion and according to the facts I had obtained – been wrongly convicted of murder of a fellow Edinburgh teenager David Edwards. My campaign had been running over three months with little movement from the Scottish legal system to intervene. I saw the interview with Tom Conti as a key move to add weight to our demand for an appeal.

The newsroom was quiet and I sipped my coffee. The phone rang at the arranged time and the unmistakable burr of Mr Conti’s voice greeted me at the other end.

The star of Shirley Valentine and The Norman Conquests was relaxed as we shared notes on the weather in Edinburgh and London and the state of British politics. It was like meeting an old friend for a coffee in town as we progressed to discuss our work and recent challenges.

Eventually, after what seemed 20 minutes we began to discuss the Craig MacKenzie case. Tom was up to speed with the case and agreed with me that MacKenzie’s conviction was probably unsafe and we should press hard for an appeal.

We began to discuss the details in earnest when suddenly the Press Association (PA) updates on my monitor began to flicker an instantly disturbing piece of news: “Six children believed shot in Dunblane”.

I reported the news immediately to Tom, just as a clamour of noise erupted around me in the newsroom. And with it came a further update from the PA wires: “Ten children shot”. I quickly relayed the information again as a voice from the newsdesk was shouting in my direction.

Tom and I politely suggested to each other that we leave the interview for another day. He rushed to his TV, I glanced once more at my monitor to see the horror of Dunblane unfolding before my eyes. We put down the phone.

The news editor ordered my friend Stephen and fellow colleagues, Jenny and Lynn, to get to Dunblane as quickly as they could. “And be safe,” he added, as they scurried out of the newsroom, notebooks in hand. He turned and asked me to stay at my desk and collate information as it came in and try to make some sense of it all.

But my mind was in panic.

Which children had been killed and exactly where in Dunblane? And, selfishly, where was my partner and my two gorgeous daughters?

This was 1996 and very few people had the luxury of mobile phones, least of all newspaper journalists and their families.

I tried our home phone vainly for an answer.

Had she gone to Dunblane already?

My heart was racing.

Then PA reported the shooting was confined to the town’s primary school, but there was no word as to whether the gunman had gone on a rampage elsewhere.

Within an hour the death toll had risen again before my partner telephoned me to ask if I had heard the news about Dunblane.

I think my reply was something akin to: “Of course I feckin’ have, where the hell have you been?”

She calmly told me she had heard the news on a radio in a shoe shop in Perth!

Back in the fray by mid-afternoon it was clear the gunman was also dead.

The day had become a blur of adrenalin

By early evening, a couple of my colleagues had returned from Dunblane and I had pieced together information about the shootings from many different sources:

After gaining entry to Dunblane Primary School, 43-year-old former shopkeeper Thomas Hamilton made his way to the gymnasium and opened fire on a Primary One class of five and six-year-olds, killing or wounding all but one.Fifteen children died together with their class teacher, Gwen Mayor, who was killed trying to protect them.

Hamilton then left the gym through the emergency exit. In the playground outside, he began shooting into a mobile classroom. A teacher in a mobile classroom realised that something was seriously wrong and told the children to hide under the tables. Most of the bullets became embedded in books and equipment.He also fired at a group of children walking in a corridor, injuring one teacher.

It later transpired that Hamilton had returned to the gym and with one of his two revolvers fired one shot pointing upwards into his mouth, killing himself instantly.

A further eleven children and three adults were rushed to hospital as soon as the emergency services arrived. One further child was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Along with my colleagues, I worked until 9pm that evening and turned in a 12 hour shift the following day, trying to keep a clear head and report calmly the events which had transpired on that fateful Wednesday.

Sleep on the Wednesday and Thursday nights was impossible as my mind ran overtime. It was like being on speed in something akin to the movie Jacob’s Ladder.

Friday morning dawned and I grabbed my toast, kissed my sleeping daughters goodbye and again drove the 33 miles to Edinburgh.

Ensconced at my desk, I managed to look and at marvel at the Thursday and Friday editions of our paper side-by-side. Those papers still fill me with pride at what my editor, news editor, page designers and reporting colleagues had achieved.

The front page sub-deck written by our columnist Ian Bell still rings true: “Call it madness or evil, sickness or sin: those are just the words we use to give a name to our incomprehension. Thomas Hamilton was one of us, part of the species. There is horror in the suffering he inflicted but a deeper horror, a terror, in the fact that we cannot explain how one of us became what Thomas Hamilton became.”

So while the families and friends of the bereaved were going through their own personal hell, the Friday at work was all about investigating what had gone on at Dunblane, how Hamilton had acquired such an arsenal of guns and, I suppose, who else was to blame.

We needed some clear lines of enquiry for our Saturday edition.

I had to keep my clear head fully engaged.

It worked and when the news editor said we could all go home at 5.30pm I felt I had at last finished the longest shift of my life shift.

I recall getting into my car and driving through the rush hour haze towards the Forth Road Bridge and the journey home.

The car radio was tuned to BBC Radio 4 and I was half listening to live feed from the House of Commons.

Suddenly the voice on air was instantly recognisable as the Ulster Unionist MP Ian Paisley. Politically, I detested the man, but his words at that moment rang clear and true: “And I say, suffer little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

Just as I drove my car up to the toll booth at the southern end of the bridge I broke down. Tears flowed uncontrollably as I choked for breath and fumbled my change into the hand of the booth attendant.

To this day I still don’t remember the rest of the drive home, just a blur of trying to focus on the road until I pulled up outside our house.

That evening I sat with my young children and partner and drank too much red wine while talking incoherently about the events of those three days.

Early the next morning, we agreed to make the short drive to Dunblane and lay flowers at what was becoming an international shrine to those killed in the carnage.

The scene that greeted us is also still with me now as I write these words… flowers and cards lining the road up to the school for more than 200 yards, with red-eyed police officers standing sentry duty barely able to meet the eyes of the scores of mourners and parents surrounding them. Tears and choking grief like I had never felt or witnessed before or since. Incomprehension.

We held our children close that day and forever afterwards.

Note: I never did finish the interview with Tom Conti. Craig MacKenzie was eventually released from prison in 2005 after winning a partial appeal. He was sadly found murdered in his Edinburgh flat earlier this year aged just 40.