Gavin Weightman

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Gavin Weightman
  • 0 A Pat on the back from Pratchett

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 28-10-2012
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    I was very pleased to receive this cutting from The Independent of a brief interview with the author Terry Pratchett who happened, at the time,to be reading my book about the North American natural ice trade. This pat on the back from the hugely successful Pratchett made my day, and week!

  • 0 God, science and the absurd

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 22-02-2012
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    Reading a review at the weekend of the book The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake reminded me of a very pleasant afternoon I spent with the author a few years ago. My book about early wireless, Signor Marconi's Magic Box, came out at more or less the same time as his Seven Experiments that could change the world. We ended up in the studio of BBC radio London talking together on the day time show hosted by Robert Elms https://www.bbc.co.uk/london/radio/presenters/robert_elms/. It turned out we both had an interest in homing pigeons, not as bird fanciers but from the point of view of science and history. His publisher had ordered a cab to take him back home to Hampstead and I shared it with him. We ended up having a drink in his back garden and later exchanged books. I had always been fascinated by the ability of homing pigeons, all descendants of the wild blue rock dove, to find their way back to a loft, though they might be flying over land that was quite unfamiliar to them. This interest was re-kindled by my research in to early wireless for in wartime there was a serious debate about which was more useful for sending messages, the brand new technology using electro-magnetic waves, or the humble homing pigeon. Rupert Sheldrake was interested in the birds because their ability to find their way back to a loft had never been explained by mainstream science. He told me of an experiment he had organised himself in which homing pigeons had found their way from a ship at sea back to a loft on another ship though the vessels were not visible to each other. The point was that there were no visual clues to guide the birds. In his book Sheldrake had concluded "...after nearly a century of dedicated but frustrating research, no one knows how pigeons home, and all attempts to explain their navigational ability in terms of known senses and physical forces have so far proved unsuccessful." While researching the use of wireless in the First World War I had come across some extraordinary stories about homing pigeons which I was able to add to Sheldrake's store of inexplicable homing achievements. Another of his examples of verifiable behaviour which science cannot explain is the ability of dogs to find their way home or to know when their owner is about to arrive home. Though Sheldrake began life as a very well respected mainstream scientist his questioning of received wisdom has not gone down well with the scientific community. In fact he is a kind of scientific heretic refusing to accept the basic tenets of belief. He is a thinker Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, could do without: a scientist questioning science just at a time when Dawkins has fired his broadside at religious belief. However, I believe Rupert Sheldrake makes a very good point. He cannot accept the view Dawkins takes that science can explain everything. The implication is that occurrences that appear to defy our knowledge of physics or chemistry must be illusory, or, in the case of the homing pigeon, not worth bothering with. An amusing example of one of Sheldrake's experiments can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwEuA4MRM1o&feature=related You cannot prove that God does not exist anymore than you can prove that there is such an entity as the Almighty. I was brought up as an agnostic and I retain that point of view. I am a "Don't Know" for the very good reason that belief is not knowable. The fact that I do not believe there is a God does not mean there is not one. This was the view my father, John Weightman, took and when he was in his eighties he wrote a book with the title Reading the Bible in the run-up to death. He was a French specialist and had been sent a new French translation of the Bible by a publisher. Reading it he decided to have a last go at the Good Book and penned his treatise a couple of years before he died. He found nothing favourable about religion and was frankly horrified by the cruelty of the Old Testament. God was forever saying that people should be stoned to death. He had a chapter entitled That Unpleasant Person God. But he remained agnostic simply because to be an atheist you were claiming that you were certain about something which could not be verified. My father remained until the end an agnostic, and more significantly I think, an absurdist. He took comfort from a quiet acceptance that there was absolutely no discernible purpose in life at all. The natural world in which one species preyed cruelly on another was simply " one big practical joke." The mistake of religious believers was to seek "meaning" in life when quite evidently there was none. Although he did not meet either of them I think he would have been more at home with Rupert Sheldrake than Richard Dawkins.

  • 0 Faking the Wild

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 13-12-2011
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    The story of David Attenborough and the "mocked up" sequence with polar bear cubs brought back to me many memories of cutting room arguments and near disasters that I can recall from twenty years as a factual film maker. I am still not sure about the acceptability of some sequences in progammes I made, though my intention was never to deliberately deceive the viewer. Well, only a bit. I often re-run in my mind one episode that occurred back in the mid-1980s. I was a producer-director in the current affairs and features department of London Weekend Television. In those days there was no chasing after ratings and LWT factual programmes ( Lord Birt was in charge) and we had a reputation for making few if any concessions to "popular" programming. However I was given the chance to make the first ever wildlife programme for the company, a project I relished as a keen bird watcher and amateur naturalist. Although by then I had made a few programmes it had never occurred to me how those brilliant wildlife cameramen got their amazing sequences. Did they crawl down holes to film moles? How did they get so close to tigers in the jungle? The buzz around the office was that I would not have much trouble as my series was to be six half hours on wildlife in London. Once I had the sparrows in the can, that would be it. Maybe a rat or two as well. In fact, London is very rich in wildlife. The problem was how to film it. We went to a couple of lectures given by BBC wildlife producers and asked around. I was astonished, and not a little put out, to discover many of the most gripping sequences were faked. The tiger stalking the jungle was a zoo animal. The eagle catching a hare was a falconer's bird. Which brings me to some episodes that I re-run in my mind from time to time. A star of my series called City Safari was the kestrel, a little falcon once common in the capital,. We saw them every day from our tower block office on the South Bank, and found a nest to film high up in a tower block vent shaft. But we wanted some pukka shots: the bird in slow motion with the Houses of Parliament in the background. And another of a kestrel catching a sparrow, its favourite food in the city, with another classic London backdrop. There were plenty of wild kestrels to film and we got some great shots of them, mostly from a distance. But for the big close-ups with the birds hovering in the right place at the right time we brought in a falconer. I will never forget the first sequence we shot. We chose what was then a building site on the south side of Vauxhall Bridge, now the MI6 building. At low tide the falconer was able to go down on to the foreshore while the cameraman set his high speed equipment on top of the embankment. The kestrel was on the falconer's arm. He shouted: "Are you ready?" I put my thumb up. In his hand he had a little yellow, dead, day old chick. He showed it to the falcon and then hid it again in his hand. He then threw the bird into the air. It unfolded its wings and looked down for the lure. Momentarily it hovered there giving the cameraman a chance to find it, focus and shoot. The film zipped through the high speed camera taking 500 frames a second. Played back at 25 frames it would be slow and elegant and last twenty times as long as it took to shoot. We had several goes at this until the kestrel got fed up and flew off. The falconer was seen running across Westminster Bridge calling: "Rosie!". Then there was the Tower of London shot. Here we wanted to show a kestrel catching a sparrow. The same falconer and the same obliging kestrel performed brilliantly on the south bank of the Thames opposite the Tower. When the film was in an advanced "rough cut" stage the executive producer came to view it. To our gratification he loved it. And it did look pretty good, certainly as professional as anything the BBC produced. Then he asked how we had got that amazing shot of the kestrel catching the sparrow. I took him to one side and explained it was falconer's bird called Rosie which had been in Life on Earth. The sequence was cut so that it appeared Rosie had caught the sparrow which, in reality, the falconer had brought with him from the countryside. Looking crestfallen, the producer asked me how I felt about the deceit. I said: " Not very good". But how were we to compete? The BBC and other wildlife film makers all had what we came to call "equity" birds and animals for close shot sequences. We could have brought up a caption saying: " Reconstruction" but it would have looked daft, and no other companies did that for wildlife programmes. I resolved the moral dilemma by arguing ( to myself ) that kestrels were common in London, they did catch and eat sparrows, and we knew there was a pair nesting near Tower Bridge. Cheating, we discovered, was endemic in wildlife film making but if you were not misleading your audience about what species could be found where, there was no big issue involved. What you had to be most careful about was what you claimed in the voice over. It would have been quite wrong to pretend we had got an amazing sequence of a wild kestrel catching a wild sparrow. We used the sequence to make the point that kestrels in London fed mainly on sparrows. But we did want the viewer to imagine we had staked out the sparrow just as it was caught in the kestrel's talons. David Attenborough, to his great credit in my view, has always been straight forward about staged sequences and, as far as I am aware, has never tried to deny that they occur. A classic is the inter-cutting of a sequence of the birth of polar bears, filmed in a Belgian zoo, with the bears in the wild as if the birth had been shot in the Arctic. To own up on screen would spoil the magic. I know this for certain because I was banned by my family from watching wildlife films as I would constantly let on that the tiger was clearly from a zoo and looked very much as if it had a piece of string attached to its left back leg.  I have argued before elsewhere that fakery, in the sense of staging sequences, is endemic in documentary film making. Those film makers who like to refute this -- and there is surprising number of them -- should ask themselves if they have ever asked anyone in one of their films to "do something again" because the first take was spoiled in some way. Or asked them do something they would not otherwise have done. That is all fakery, but not necessarily pernicious. I argue that it is mostly "legitimate". There is another kind of fakery which is "illegitimate" in that it seeks to seriously mislead the viewer about a sequence of events shown on the screen. What I find most dispiriting about the discussion of fakery in factual programming is the degree to which senior people in the industry pretend they did not know it was going on when it is in fact stock in trade in television documentaries. The intention, invariably, is to make a programme more watchable than it would otherwise be rather than to mislead the viewer about the essential subject matter of the programme. In the case of the polar bears in Frozen Planet the same pretence that cubs were filmed in the wild when in fact they were born in a zoo has been done before with David Attenborough narrating. It cause a bit of a stir then but in time we forget these things and are prepared, in the words of the poet Coleridge to "suspend our disbelief". If you had been watching Frozen Planet with me I would have ruined its best sequence by pointing out there was no way the birth of those cubs could have been filmed in the wild.

  • 0 Don't Kill that Kindle

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 03-11-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    So that I could get to research the Marconi Archive which is now safely housed and expertly catalogued in the Bodleian Library, Oxford I applied for admission . I had to find a sponsor and was lucky that a neighbour who is a publisher and was an Oxford student long ago was on hand to sign the relevant papers. As I left his house he called after me: " You will not be able to kindle any fires." I smiled back wondering what he meant. The admission procedure was very jolly. I was ticked off for not completing one of the forms correctly then told by the lady dealing with library tickets that my misdemeanour would, on this occasion, by over looked. I had my passport for identification and my debit card for payment, a very modest sum for six months access. But before I was finally granted permission to enter the library I had to read an oath. It was printed on a laminated card and I was instructed to read it aloud. "I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library."  This little episode captures, I think, the wonderful theatricality of Oxford University. When I got to the science library where the Marconi Archive is held there was a chap on the door dressed rather like a posh waiter with a red rose in his button hole. While I was marvelling at the quaintness of this attendant I failed to find the correct way to put my new ticket into the very modern entry gate and had to be shown. I learned later that the oath I had taken was originally in Latin and the ban on smoking is relatively recent. And I began to wonder if the Bodleian might soon be storing not just books and papers but Kindles. A new oath might ask me to promise not to set fire to any Kindles. Or some such. 

  • 0 A lesson in crime reporting

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 28-07-2011
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    A guest blog from my old friend and colleague on New Society magazine in the 1970s David White. We had been exchanging stories about crime reporting in the old days..........here is his:    My contact with police on the Daily Mirror in 1969 was slight but memorable. Before transferring to the Mirror Magazine, the Mirror's weekly colour supplement, I was attached to the Daily Mirror newsroom as an early form of intern. It was suggested that I might learn something if I shadowed their senior crime reporter . This man and his boss comprised the grandly named Daily Mirror Crime Bureau. Both were ex-Met officers. One a huge, self-important man with crinkly black hair. The other I remember as also large but less pleased with himself, and quite happy to have a beginner at his elbow.  When a body was discovered on Wimbledon Common one morning, the crime reporter and I were sent off to cover the story. It was quickly established by the huddle of police at the scene that this was a gay killing, nothing out of the ordinary, hardly worth a line, and that the important thing was to get over to the pub before they called time. "The first thing you need to find out on any case is which pub the police are drinking at," was the tip I was given if I wanted to be a crime reporter. In the saloon bar of a Wimbledon watering hole, my mentor and his former police colleagues settled down for a steady mid-day drinking session. The murder was hardly mentioned. Mostly the conversation was about the Met - what so and so was up to and what wotsisname was doing now. The drinking went on well beyond time.  Finally, at about 4.30pm the reporter found his car and wove back to High Holborn. Back in the office, he struggled to push triplicate copy paper into his Bluebird, hit a few keys, missed most. Finally he gave up. "Get us the PA story, will you", he muttered. The result was a couple of paragraphs from the Daily Mirror Crime Bureau, summarising the Press Association's account of the incident. Innocent days.   

  • 0 "Evening All" - Memories of a local reporter

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 21-07-2011
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    In the mid 1960s I worked as a reporter on a newspaper in Richmond, Surrey which is on the fringes of London's built up area. It was town rather than country and had something of the atmosphere of the so-called " swinging sixties" about it. The Rolling Stones, then one of a number of imitators of black American blues music, played there and Richmond had its jazz festivals. The phone hacking scandal, which has put senior policemen in the Parliamentary dock, has brought back memories of that time and had me mulling over the relationship we had then with the local police.  We got a great many stories from the police and my memory is that we were keen to keep in their good books. I do not recall any criticisms of police operations or police behaviour. As reporters we inevitably got to know the local bobbies. We made regular calls to the police station to look through the OB book. This Occurrence Book listed all kinds of incidents that had been reported to the police most of them too trivial to make a story. In fact I cannot remember a single story I got from the OB book: perhaps a fellow reporter from that time could help me out. As well as regular calls to the police station we covered the local Magistrates Courts, both juvenile and adult. These provided us with a great many stories, everything from burglary to minor driving offences. There were, too, in the sixties, heart rending cases of men who had been caught having sex in the public lavatories along by the River Thames which runs through Richmond. Hauled before the public would be, typically, a very respectable chap who was a lawyer or businessman and a rugged labourer.  We were alerted to cases coming up by the police. We did not pay them for this information, it was just part of the jovial banter between young reporters and young coppers. More aloof and less friendly were the CID–the detectives of the Criminal Investigation Department. They wore suits and were clean cut and, so it seemed to me, always looked around warily. Occasionally, if there was a bigger than usual story coming up, they would brief us and rehearse the address they would make to the magistrates which ensured a good headline. This would be along the lines of: "I can only describe the criminal actions of these young men as a rampage."  However, I am not sure the police ever had any information worth paying for even if we had wanted to bribe them. We were not that kind of newspaper. Our diary column was called " Across the walnuts and wine. " Not exactly hard hitting. But then most newspapers did not muck rake. And–this is a glaringly obvious point but one that I think is sometimes missed in debates about the ethics of journalism–if you do not publish muck you do not have any reason to pay for it. Muck was the stock in trade of only a few newspapers, the most notorious–and popular– of which was News of the World.  Local newspaper reporters were very poorly paid . To make extra money you became what was known as a "stringer" for one of the nationals. If you came across a story that might be of national rather than merely local interest you would phone Fleet Street. On the other end of the line–this is how I remember it anyway–would be a species of journalist whose manner was in sharp contrast to your own. He ( or sometimes she) would be curt, wanting to get quickly to the point, clearly dubious about the judgement of a mere stringer. If you said, for example, that there was a tragedy in which a boy had been fatally injured and you could give them the number of the family you might be asked: " Was the mother in tears?" If you said you were not sure there would be a sigh of frustration. You had not yet learned your trade.  From time to time we had a national story locally. I can remember only one or two. There was the incident when a plane went down and it was discovered an air hostess who should have been on it had stayed at home in Richmond because she was ill. Fleet Street descended on us. Most of us were badly dressed and covered in cigarette ash, as we were interrogated by sharply suited reporters with oiled her and tiny notebooks who grabbed phones wherever they could and called up the news desk every few minutes to report if the story was "standing up" or not. As well as the snappily dressed Fleet Street boys there were shady characters who often looked bedraggled and a little tramp like. These were the Agency reporters and the local freelancers anxious to get one move ahead of the pack. They were unscrupulous: one once snatched a picture from my hand that had just been given to me at the front door by the family of someone who had gone missing. He ran off down the road and sold it to a National.  A murder locally would bring in the Fleet Street sleuths and we might get a hint of a relationship between them and the local CID. The reporters from the Nationals seemed more at ease than us with the detectives. In fact, my memory is that reporters and the plain clothes police looked very alike. They seemed to talk the same way, to be from the same kind of background. This impression was confirmed by the arrival in our news room of a reporter who was clearly on his way to Fleet Street and treated us with disdain. His speciality was crime and we regarded him with a degree of awe. It turned out he had a brother who was a detective constable and I found myself invited to one or two social occasions at which police and journalists mingled. My abiding image is of them doing " the Twist".  I have been reminded by a fellow reporter from those days, who is now a distinguished journalist in North America, that we did indulge in a little bit of corruption in those days. He remembers: " Every Christmas we'd all go around our districts handing out cartons of cigarettes and spirits---I remember jolly faced station Sgts making nice as they accepted the largesse." A sub editor also organised a few drinking sessions with the force. I do not remember that: I did not drink much in those days as I could not afford it. However I do remember how the new "crime reporter" introduced an unfamiliar and rather sinister tone to the newsroom.  We would be bashing away on our old manual typewriters reporting on local darts tournaments and garden parties when the crime man would arrive red faced, his shirt collar pulled open, his tie askew ( we all had to wear ties then. ) . He reeked of beer and spirits. He looked bleak as he took from his pocket a tiny notebook, fed a sheet of paper into the typewriter and began to hit the keys with two shaky fingers. There was no doubt about where he had been: drinking with a police contact. We wondered what he could have unearthed at risk to his health and his journalistic integrity. The first story he tapped out made the front page of the Barnes edition.  It was a time when road traffic was building up rapidly with an increase in car ownership. The world looked to America, and Los Angeles in particular, for a vision of a future dominated by the motor car. We saw pictures of five lane highways jammed for miles. Within the circulation area of our newspaper was a road called Castlenau which was becoming very busy. In rush hour it was often jammed. What our crime man had tracked down was a quote from a senior police officer who was prepared to say ( off the record ) that Castlenau was in danger of becoming " a little Los Angeles". This, though it is hard to credit it now, was regarded as a scoop.  The crime reporter did not stay with us long. He was soon in Fleet Street with his greatest treasure: a contacts book with the names of police who might just be helpful to him with a tip off in return for a "drink. " In fact "drink" became a euphemism for money. He got some notable scoops later on in his career, stories of escaped prisoners and the like. But most of us who pursued a career in journalism had very little to do with the police once we had moved on to work on magazines or national newspapers. We left crime to the specialists.   Among the several eccentrics who worked on the local paper there was one who stood out. I cannot give his real name as I have no idea where he is now and whether or not he might read this. I will call him Horace. He had the most extraordinary voice, a very British accent rather like an Ealing comedy version of upper class military. He spoke very slowly and deliberately. When he answered the phone callers were startled by his greeting of " Heelow". On more than one occasion they hung up and called again to ask if there was someone in the News Room who had had too much to drink.  Horace had his own way of checking out the integrity of informants before he would listen to their story. From time to time people called in the front office on the ground floor and asked to talk to a reporter. On one occasion Horace took responsibility and disappeared for a while. He seemed to be away a long time when we got a sense of some kind of commotion at the front desk. Then I answered the phone to a man in a frothing rage asking who this drunk bastard was he was supposed to be talking to. Others calmed everything down and when it was quiet again I asked Horace what had happened. He said he has asked the man: " Are you married?" I looked puzzled:  "Why?" Horace said: "Becorze I thought he would be more reliable if he was married. "I said: "But you are not married Horace. " He began to laugh and simply said: "No!"  Next: the great Morning Glory seed scandal