What advice would you give to a first time columnist?
That was the title of a ‘thread’ on a social media network for self-styled ‘professionals’ the other day.
I lost interest after about the 50th response by mostly American journalists whose enthusiasm verged on evangelical.
My advice, for what it’s worth, is this: if you wouldn’t want to read it, don’t write it.
My first column was Fylde Focus – written for The Gazette from the St Annes office when I was barely out of indentures and wearing NHS Catwoman-style glasses.
It’s been a long if not necessarily hard slog with a fair bit of woodland lost to newsprint along the way to get me to Look at it this way today.
But when you’ve got a deadline to hit and very little time and less inspiration a column can become a Space to Fill rather than a story to tell or a comment to make.
And there are some days when other commitments mean I really can’t see the words, let alone the woods, for all the trees lost to newsprint.
That’s when I take off on a flight of whimsy so far out news editors need oxygen masks to follow me – or get altitude sickness editing the copy.
To be a columnist on any paper is a privilege for any journalist. It is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. It shouldn’t be squandered on inconsequential rubbish about watching Vesta noodles crisp and writhe in a pan, however engaging that process was back in the 60s.
Where would we be without Robin Duke’s comments on the importance of being earnest in keeping live entertainment just that – live? Or Steve Canavan’s gritty social commentary on homelessness? Or Roy Edmonds’ musings on roads less travelled, novels inspired by fellow travellers? Or the acerbic sports Soapbox of Steve Simpson? Or the distillation to its very essence of the day’s major story by the Gazette’s leader writers? Et al – and all those other column inches produced by specialist writers, commentators and columnists.
So here’s the kicker. If there’s one privilege greater than writing in the here and now imagine how those writers would feel to learn their words endure – long after they have gone?
I was reminded of that last week when unable to attend the funeral of Peter Rodney Myerscough, former award winning motoring correspondent of this parish. It was Rodders who, with Jackie Heap and Susan Greenhalgh, both long gone, inspired me at a time when encouragement mattered most – my youth. Their words are still on the cards of newspaper cuttings in The Gazette’s archives – and in files of newspapers through the ages in the safe keeping of local history librarian Tony Sharkey.
To read them is to make them live again. For me there is no greater pleasure in this paper than reading – often for the first time given the span of his own career – a journalist who I instinctively knew to be a great writer simply on the strength of scribbled memos signed HRG.
Sir Harold Riley Grime was one of the best and brightest of us in Blackpool – and beyond. He still takes a bow every Friday in this paper. If you want to read a truly great columnist go straight to his words on Page 42 in The Lost Archives. And keep them...
Talking of great journalists, earlier this month I was passed a copy of a newspaper article written by former colleague Barry McLoughlin.
Barry was writing about the Government’s White Paper on community care and had spoken to a local lady called Pauline Jowett who was caring for husband Les, 53, who had led an active life until left paralysed down one side, blind in one eye, and depressed, by a series of strokes.
Pauline was urging Blackpool South Conservative MP Sir Peter Blaker to campaign for long term rehabilitation and day care facilities to give carers and cared-for a break and a better deal.
That was 25 years ago. Fast forward to this week, and Tuesday’s Gazette headline: “Agony of carers as respite ward remains closed”.
Pauline’s now 73 and still the principal carer for husband Les, 78, who can’t walk, talk or understand why his wife can’t physically, emotionally and practically be on call for him 24 hours a day, each and every day.
To be frank she has done just that for much of the last quarter of a century. Pauline had a part time job when Barry first met her. Caring for Les is a full time commitment. And there’s little to no respite. Pauline used to get a break up to five times a year when Les went into the Windsor Unit at Clifton Hospital, a hospital ward that provides the only state respite care on the Fylde coast. It closed to carers/cared for in January and will remain shut until at least the end of this month as trusts across the country have extended winter capacity plans due to “unprecedented activities in A&E departments.” Carers may not work in A&E but they’re on the frontline.
And many break their own health and welfare there. Back in 2011 it was calculated that carers saved the state £119bn a year in social care costs – equivalent to £13.6m per hour.
As Pauline says: “Without me, and all the other carers, the help our loved ones need would cost a fortune.”
It needs to be factored into the equation.