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Gavin Weightman
  • 0 In the Dark

    • Issues
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 14-09-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    I was up late watching the thrilling final of the Men's Singles at the US Open and Djokovic was about to serve for the match in the third set. Would Nadal hold on? Before the World No.1 hit his first serve everything went black. I looked into the road and could see some lights on, but there was a dark area where the street light opposite our house was out. I lit candles and found a phone book with the Electricity Emergency number. They did not know of any faults in my area. I checked the fuse box and that was OK. They would send someone round, should be within four hours. I tried to get our clockwork radio to work in the hope that I might find the result of the match in New York, but the band connecting the generator to the spring had snapped. So I lit candles, read a bit and then went around with a candlestick in my dressing gown like someone from a BBC Victorian drama . Eventually I went to bed. I was woken not long after I dozed off by a phone call. The men from EDF Energy were at the door. They were a cheery pair who checked out my fuse box, noted that the junction box dated from around 1900, and said they could do nothing. As they emerged by torch light from inspecting the equipment in the cellar I thought I would show them the book I had published earlier this year. They trained their lights on the cover of Children of Light: how electricity changed Britain for ever. I thought they might have offered to buy a copy but they simply showed mild surprise that I was the author, the man in a dressing gown carrying a candle. It occurred to me as they left what strange continuities there are in history. The men, as British as you like, were working for the company EDF. This is the acronym for Electricité de France which now owns a big chunk of our power networks. It was similarly a French company, the Société Général d'Eltricitié which had lit the Embankment in London with arc lamps in the 1870s at a time when Britain was a little tardy in introducing the new technology. I went back to bed and was woken again by a call to tell me another team would be out to look at the problem in the next few hours. I was asked if I minded them using heavy machinery in the early hours of the morning. I said I did not mind but my neighbours might, and we left it at that. Around 5 am I woke briefly to see that the lights had come on again. I went around re-setting the freezer and checking everything that might have been affected. I went back to bed and slept in. When I woke I felt pleased with myself for getting the problem solved. My wife, however, looked disgruntled and I wondered what was wrong. It turned out that in my travels around the house in the black out I had dropped wax everywhere, much of it now solidified in the carpet. The art of nightly candle-carrying has been lost, in my household at any rate. No heavy machinery was needed to put the power back on. I have no idea what went wrong, but it was likely a fuse in our local sub-station. Only two or three houses appear to have been affected. Next door, our neighbour, who usually sets off for the City about 5.30 am, was late for work. His alarm was run off the mains. There is nothing like clockwork for reliability: provided the elastic band does not snap.

  • 0 The black rat and the Black Death

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 18-08-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    A new study of the Black Death in London has concluded that the disease which wiped out perhaps half of the capital's population in the mid-14th century was not bubonic plague spread by the immigrant black rat from Asia ( The Black Death in London by Barney Sloane, The History Press Ltd 2011). When the plague struck in 1348 nobody had a clue about the nature of such diseases and it was only much later in history that there was speculation about the cause of the epidemic. I am not sure when the black rat and the flea it carried was first implicated but certainly there was no knowledge of the nature of bubonic plague until the nasty bug, Yersinia pestis, was identified in 1894 during an outbreak of the disease in Hong Kong. It is transmitted to humans by a flea that lives on a variety of rodents, one of which is the black rat.  When there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in India in 1994 I remembered that I had a book on my shelves by a zoologist called Graham Twigg which disputed the received wisdom that the black rat was to blame for the black death ( The Black Death: a biological reappraisal, Batsford 1984 ). On the one hand, said Twigg the small black rat ( rattus rattus ) is rather a timid creature and not the aggressive invader imagined by historians. It is a tree rat by nature and very acrobatic. I can vouch for that as I once arranged to film the only black rat surviving in captivity in England. It was kept by the firm Rentokil and I wanted to get a sequence of it for a wildlife film I was making. When we first went to see it, the rat did not look well, but demonstrated a little of its gymnastic ability. Sadly that was more or less its last performance and it died before we got the camera in.  Twigg argued that the spread of plague did not match the movement of the black rat and that descriptions of the disease did not tally that well with the symptoms of bubonic plague. He speculated that anthrax was a possible cause of the black death. In 1994 when the Indian outbreak brought back the black rat story I got in touch with Twigg and researched an article which was published in the Independent in October. I spoke to Philip Zeigler who had written a book on The Black Death in 1969 in which what might be called the "classic" account of the origin of the 14th century black death was formulated. I summarised it in my article:  " It goes like this: bubonic plague was endemic in parts of central Asia before a series of natural disasters disturbed the ecology of the region and drove the rodents, fleas and bacillus westwards from their natural habitat. Ziegler wrote: 'It was, above all, rattus rattus, the tough, nimble, by nature vagabond, black rat that made the move.' Carrying the fatal flea, it invaded the Middle East and then Europe, reaching the south coast of England in 1348, perhaps on the ships of returning Crusaders."  Twigg had taught this to his students for many years before he began to question it. Why would an essentially tropical disease spread like that in a cold northern climate? And was it likely that the black rat, huddled into the artificial warmth of ships and houses, had enabled a disease to spread so fast. I put Twigg's thesis to a number of historians. Zeigler thought it interesting but most other historians brushed it aside. They were not about to re-open the case on the black rat. The little rodent is history now anyway, perhaps surviving in one or two ports and turning up now and again on ships. Our resident rat is the brown rattus norvegicus which is thought to have arrived around 1728, ushering in the Georgian era: another name for it is the Hanoverian rat. The brown rat is a ground dweller and burrower occupying a different niche from the tree loving black rat.  Bubonic plague has not gone away. There were major epidemics in the twentieth century, one in China which broke out among trappers who were infected by fleas in the pelts of marmots. Whether or not the black rat was responsible for the black death, it is certainly not regarded now as the first culprit when there is an outbreak of plague. It seems quite likely, too, that the black rat had nothing much do with the black death in London or elsewhere. 

  • 0 Hitler's Feathered Friends

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 13-08-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    Just before the looting and burning began in London I was thinking about putting down some thoughts about house sparrows. Those in my back garden seem to have gone on days out somewhere now that their young have fledged and I hear them return in the evening. I have no idea where they go but I like to imagine them off in the countryside or down the River Thames taking a dip in the river. They enjoy a bath in the pottery dishes we leave out for them in the back garden.  At the same time as the scenes reminiscent of the Blitz filled the TV screen I read a review of a book about the wartime campaign that became known as Dig for Victory (The Spade as Mighty as the Sword: The Story of World War Two's 'Dig for Victory' Campaign by Daniel Smith Aurum Press). Before 1939, Britain was absolutely reliant on food shipped in from around the world. At the outbreak of war, the German U-Boats laid siege and the Government appealed to the nation to start producing home grown crops and livestock. The campaign became known as Dig For Victory.  It is often forgotten now the degree to which the British people, fiercely proud of their refusal to accept authority unthinkingly, knuckled down when faced with a real threat to their independence. The Ministry of Information produced propaganda worthy of any dictatorship and even when the war was over the huge posters produced by the Labour Government urging everyone to make a greater effort was one of the inspirations for George Orwell's 1984 ( he finished writing the book in 1948). Daniel Smith's book on Dig for Victory reminds us that the Ministry of Information identified as one of the most notorious enemies of the British people the humble house sparrow. The sparrow is one of those birds ornithologists call " commensal": it has become accustomed to living close to man and to rely on handouts from the domestic table for its food. Related to the African weaver birds, the sparrow appears to have travelled across Europe with the spread of arable farming. It has the beak of a grain eating bird–though, when feeding young, the adult sparrows make a big effort to catch insects. They also have a taste for newly sprouted seedlings. In the countryside they have always been regarded as something of a pest, but in towns they were tolerated as one of those creatures which had adapted to urban life and brought the natural world to the hostile environment of the city.  In London and other cities any piece of available ground was turned into an allotment in the Dig for Victory campaign. This included the many bomb sites which were left behind after the Blitz. Once the land was cleared and dug over the seedlings went in and the crop eagerly awaited. However, many Londoners woke one morning to discover that a flock of sparrows had decimated their little arable crop. The Ministry of Agriculture issued a decree that the house sparrow was " Hitler's Feathered Friend" and should be destroyed ruthlessly. The public were asked to spare the little "hedge sparrow", or dunnock, which was regarded as an ally as it is an insect eater.  I doubt if many people had the heart to kill sparrows and resorted to other means to protect their wartime crops: netting is pretty effective. But the edict to kill sparrows is a reminder of a Britain we have all but forgotten about, but might begin to revive in the current atmosphere of anxiety about our domestic peace.  The torching of parts of London took my attention away from the swifts I had been watching every night, wondering when they would leave for Africa. Last night there was no sign of them and I imagine they are already in to their 14,000 mile journey to their wintering grounds. I just hope they got away from their rooftop nests before the fires burned in Tottenham and Croydon and Enfield. As for my community of house sparrows, I trust they will be back home as autumn sets in and they see out the winter on a diet of the luxury food I put out to attract goldfinches: sunflower kernels.

  • 0 A lesson in crime reporting

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 28-07-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    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 Morning Glory

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 26-07-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    It is easy to forget now how innocent young people were in the early 1960s. We had perhaps heard about drugs but we had never seen any, not in Richmond, Surrey certainly where I was a reporter on a local newspaper. However, by a strange quirk of fate, I found myself at the centre of a major drug scare which rang alarm bells well beyond the town hall and the local police station.  When I left school at 17 I had a variety of jobs, imagining all the time the terse paragraph that would describe me on the back of my first novel. After working as bus conductor, petrol pump attendant and shop assistant Weightman devoted himself to writing.....Nearly all of my friends went to university and by the time I was twenty I was beginning to feel a social distance from them. While I wore a suit to work they dressed how they pleased and they could experiment with drink and drugs in a way I would not have dared. I married very young and while working on the local newspaper had a wife and two children. We lived in a rented house which had been bought by the council to be demolished for a road widening scheme. ( The house still stands). As I had a place to stay I would be visited from time to time by old school friends. It was on one of these visits that I learned about the alleged hallucinogenic properties of the attractive climbing flower Morning Glory. A friend at university in the north of England had read a scientific paper which said that the seeds of the flowers, whatever the variety, contained lysergic acid, in other words LSD. Intrigued by this we bought some packets of the seeds from Richmond Garden Shop and I ground them up in the baby mouli. I did not eat any myself but my friend had some on bread and jam. He behaved oddly for a while, giggling a lot although I was not at all convinced he was hallucinating. In fact I was pretty sure he was stone cold sober but intent on giving the impression that he was in fact "tripping."  At the time one of my duties on the newspaper was "Kew Calls". This was a lovely day out in the summer, down by the Thames to visit the Port of London Authority station to see if any whales had been sighted and then a stroll over to historic Kew Gardens in search of some plant stories. I had access to the library and thought to look up Morning Glory seeds. Surprisingly I found a reference to a study of their drug content which confirmed the lysergic acid belief of my friend from college.  This was all I needed for my story. I could reveal that Kew Gardens had a "dossier" –this term was popular with hack's at the time–on Morning Glory seeds. I cannot remember quite how the story appeared in my newspaper but it was quickly picked up by a local freelance. He sold it to the People and I can still remember the first paragraph which brought me out in a cold sweat: " Party going teenagers have found a new source of hallucinogen drug LSD: it is being sold openly in Richmond Garden Shop....."  Within days we heard on the radio: " Here is the News. Morning Glory seeds: the Home Office has called for a full report......" My friend, back at University was angry and anxious. I kept my head down. It did not take the Home Office long to discover that about a ton of the seed was required to produce on little dose of lysergic acid. The story faded away.  On the paper it was considered a great scoop and I was encouraged by the other young reporters to put in for a pay rise. I was smartened up and prepared for a showdown with the editor, a white haired, retiring gentleman who spoke with a kind of nasal whine. I knocked on his door and was told to come in. He was writing at his desk, perhaps a little gem for the Across the Walnuts and Wine diary column. "Yes?" He asked. " Mr Grove, " I said:" Do you not think I am worth more than £16 10s a week?" Without any hesitation or discussion he replied: " No Mr Weightman".  I was encouraged by my fellow reporters to teach him a lesson. " Get another job." There was one going on the Brighton Evening Argus and I got it: working in the Bognor Regis office. I had not been there long when I got a call from a woman journalist on the Daily Mail. She worked for the Charles Greville column. Could I tell her about the Morning Glory seed story which had just been officially dismissed as of no consequence. I told her the whole thing without imagining it would make a story. Then it appeared with headline: " How a drug story, took root, flowered, withered and died...." Naively I complained to the Press Council that I had not been told that they were planning to publish anything. I got little sympathy. I was, after all, a fellow journalist.

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

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 21-07-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    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