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Western Walkabout: 15 - 20 years

...I soon graduated from being a cub reporter to district editor and was appointed in charge of the Thirsk office. It was quiet there and the big deal was the rural district council, the magistrates court and the parish council. Some weeks there would be no news at all and we’d have to make something out of nothing...

Richard Harris, continuing his entertaining life story, tells of the life of a weekly newspaper reporter.

My older brother, Fred, was called up to do his two years’ compulsory national service at the age of 18 years and to my Mother’s intense annoyance, he volunteered to do an extra year with the RAF. He had been advised this would improve his chances of gaining a commission.

He went to the officers training college at RAF Cranwell but did not qualify. Instead, he completed his three years as a radar mechanic, eventually reaching the rank of sergeant.

As the senior boy still at home, I had to take over a lot of his duties – mopping out the floors of the pub before I went to bed, washing and polishing the glasses.

You had to be careful with glasses because the use of detergent would prevent the beer from holding its head of foam, giving it a flat appearance. The locals didn’t like that, and would hold the glass of beer up to the light, studying it with the zeal of a graduate chemist before tasting it.

My father would glower at me when they did that.

I took up smoking cigarettes, helping myself from the pub’s stocks. Dad used to wonder why they weren’t a profitable line.

At the grammar school, I was in the academic stream, the A form, and usually held the position of 11th or 12th in a class of 24. I’d do well at English and French and chemistry but would be bottom in Art.

I was delighted to be appointed to the school’s first eleven soccer team, playing right full back. Later I became the captain, played centre half and would select the team in association with the sports master on behalf of the school.

They did very well with me as captain and I raised eyebrows among the staff when I reported one Monday that one of our goal scorers was Nigel Clayton, the goal keeper. He was having a quiet time in the goal, so I asked him to take a penalty kick for us, and he scored.

I had a go at putting the shot for the school, worked out with the school gym team, and once ran the 880 yards for them at an interschool event. I never made the school cricket team as a regular because I didn’t own a set of whites and my father absolutely refused to buy them for me. Every other boy at school owned them and no one could understand this decision.

To this day, I’ve never owned a set of cricket whites. I was not bad as a fast bowler. Whatever, the county grammar school was not having a player turn up on their cricket team not wearing whites.

It was hard to balance my pub duties with homework requirements and when the GCE exams came – the old school leaving certificate equivalent – I would rise at 5 am, cram/study for three hours then ride my bike to school to take the exam. This way I got through most of my subjects but failed mathematics. The headmaster couldn’t believe this and I sat the exam again, two months later. He called me into his office and said, “What is it with you, Harris? You are a natural athlete yet I hear reports of you smoking cigarettes. You fail the maths exam them when you resit it a couple of months later you achieve one of the highest marks in the school?”

I shrugged, didn’t know what to say.

“In view of the way you are performing, you are not likely to attract a county bursary in the sciences,” he said.

“I’ve arranged for you to be appointed as an engineering cadet with the Blackburn Aero Company at Brough. They have just won a major contract for defence fighters and are looking for people to train as design engineers.”

Mr Richardson had been a wing commander in the RAF and this was sacred ground to him. I nodded my thanks and went home and applied for a job as a cadet journalist with the Thirsk, Bedale and Northallerton Times.

I got the job – two pounds a week was the pay – on six months probation, subject to satisfactory progress. I had been reporting local football games for them for a penny per line published.

To the headmaster’s amazement, I turned up at evening classes in my school blazer to learn to touch type.

“What on earth are you doing here?” he said. He had been helping a woman place typewriters on the various desks.

I explained what I had done. “Maybe that’s for the best,” he said, giving in with good grace.

Next time I saw him, I was wearing a suit and was attending the school’s speech day to prepare a report for the local newspaper. All the students knew me and they seemed most impressed.

One mother approached me, invited me to visit her home for tea and asked me to discuss with her how she could get a job as a journalist for her son, who was about five years younger than me.

I guess I was still the black sheep, not quite respectable. The fact that I played an excellent game of darts didn’t help, either.

I threw myself into learning the job, learning to touch type, writing shorthand, and while I never earned much money I wrote some good stories, some of which are still remembered today.

Years later, I walked into a pub at Busby Stoop and the landlord stared at me.

“Aren’t you the bugger who wrote that story about the ghost that haunts this pub?”

I winced with embarrassment. I had dreamt it all up in an attempt to make some extra cash and it had done very well in one of those national mums, bums and budgerigar magazines. I got about ten guineas for it at the time.

“Yes,” I admitted, blushing.

“Well, mate. You have to have a drink on the house. I’ve had several buses of tourists from Leeds visit me to sit in the chair where you saw the ghost sitting. We’ve done very well out of your story.”

I soon graduated from being a cub reporter to district editor and was appointed in charge of the Thirsk office. It was quiet there and the big deal was the rural district council, the magistrates court and the parish council. Some weeks there would be no news at all and we’d have to make something out of nothing. You couldn’t write a straight story for the weekly because both the local morning papers and the two local evening papers had covered it before you could get to press. For this reason, I developed a slightly off-beat style of reporting and it led to a successful career years later.

I was still living with my parents in those days. We had left the Buck Inn at Northallerton and my parents had bought a villa at Thornton le Moor, called Woodlands. It was a delightful house and I spent many a long summer evening playing quoits in the clay pit owned by a dairy farmer across the road.

My father got a job at the Police Training College set up nearby by the joint northern counties. He used to drive the police recruits to functions in their bus and later maintained their swimming pool.

He drew my brother Fred’s attention to the police as a career, and Fred was accepted by the Durham County force, ultimately retiring with the rank of superintendent.


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