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  • 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 

  • 0 Compliments to myself-the Chef!

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 09-07-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    I have just returned from Provence where one of the great pleasures for me is the range and quality of locally produced fish, meat, fruit and vegetables.I bought bundles of the large male courgette flowers from one of the ladies who has a morning stall in the main square in Vence and, with the help of others, stuffed them with farce from the local butchers and roasted them in olive oil in the oven. I fried slices of noix de veau with mushrooms and served them with fresh green beans and the litte rattes potatoes. I filleted 30 little Mediterranean sardines by hand, butterflied them, tossed them in seasoned flour and fried them. Another of our party poached wild scottish salmon one day and roasted on another day some loup de mer (not sea bass in this case but a filet of an Atlantic monster called the wolffish). We had stewed apricots, bowls of peaches, wonderful pates. I might have roasted a chicken: the butchers all have the pricey but very tasty poulet fermier.But nothing can quite compare with one of these wonderful birds cooked on a rotisserie. Vence has a small, specialist chicken roasting shop from which I bought the largest available top quality bird at the eye watering price of €25. The chicken came with a jug of sauce from the rotisserie and no chicken ,however cooked, by whichever world renowned chef, could have tasted any better. I bought a good helping of diced potatoes roasted with girolles mushrooms to go with the chicken bringing the bill for five people to €40+. Not cheap but unbeatable. To balance the budget, 30 little sardines cost just €6. One evening the conversation turned to the subject of cookery programmes. Surely, I was told, I must love them as I have such an interest in food. There was surprise when I said I hardly ever looked at them. In fact I found them very boring. Two of our party who cook very little themselves said how much they loved them and rattled off a long list of chefs and titles that they followed, chiefly on TV in North America. The fact that they never cooked any of the meals they saw being prepared did not strike them as odd. They were not out for instruction, they were simply watching a performance. I thought about this and it occurred to me that there is something quite surreal about a cookery programme. The appearance of food on a plate can be attractive. But to know if a dish is to your liking or not you have to be able to smell it and taste it. But you cannot taste or smell a meal prepared on your TV screen. The very essence of the experience is denied you.  Back in London I noticed the former restaurant chef Simon Hopkinson had a new programme in which he demonstrates recipes that you can easily cook at home. My interest stimulated by our debate about cookery programmes I tuned in. He made a baked pasta dish with porcini mushrooms and pancetta. As he cooked Simon said what wonderful smells there were in his kitchen and how every ingredient, one or two of which he popped into his mouth, was delicious. But if you have never before cooked with porcini ( they have a very strong, almost meaty flavour ) you would have no idea what he was on about. So too with pancetta which looks like bacon but is much, much strong and saltier in flavour. Hopkinson also made a white butter sauce to go with scallops. It is basically melted butter flavoured with a reduction of white wine and white wine vinegar mixed with shallots. The scallops were simply singed on either side. I suppose you could guess what that would taste like if you have eaten scallops before. Another dish was the French traditional classic coq au vin. Hopkinson made it with chicken legs bought from a supermarket. He used a whole bottle of red wine, but did not say which. The method was more or less the same as for boeuf bourgingnon: a rich sauce made with the wine and vegetables, pieces of meat floured and fried before adding to the sauce and mushrooms and little onions added later when the whole lot is cooked. I used to make coq au vin when you could by boiling fowl which were old egg-laying birds that were too tough and stringy to roast. I am sure Hopkinson's dish tasted fine but I would never cook chicken like this, without the carcass bones for flavour. There are so many better ways to bring out the flavours of a good chicken.  It occurred to me that the real oddity of cookery programmes like this is that the chef continually compliments himself on his own creations. He pronounces everything he cooks as "deliciious" and we have to take his word for it. What other art form allows the creator to make such unverifiable judgements on their own work? It really is ridiculous. Imagine a pianist, say, at the end of a concert saying to the audience: " That was brilliant!". A musical programme equivalent to the tasteless, odourless cookery programme would be silent. On the screen you would have the pianist grinning and hitting the keys mutely with perhaps the score running along the bottom of frame. At the finish the performer could grin and give a big thumbs up. 

  • 0 Let's hear it for the Wren

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 30-05-2011
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    While I was sitting with friends in the garden of their north London home at the weekend a wren began to sing. I could not see it but the song is so loud and so distinctive there was no doubt what it was. For me, that is. When I stopped the conversation to say: " Listen!" there was a kind of blank silence. " Do you know what that is?" I asked. Nobody did. Why is it that so many people in a nation that prides itself on loving wildlife simply do not hear birdsong. Where i live in north London blackbirds sing beautifully all summer. The robins can be heard all day and sometimes all night. The little wren has the most piercing call and is more often heard than seen. wren The song of the wren is so penetrating that you would think it would make people stop and listen. But somehow most people seem to be deaf to it. Is it because they do not expect to encounter wild birds in London? Would they take more notice if they heard the song in the countryside?  It is the same with the swifts which now whizz round the rooftops in the evening screaming excitedly swifts (see my earlier blog). All the recordings are taken from the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/birdsong.shtml

  • 0 "The wise man does not tilt at windmills - or pylons"

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 27-05-2011
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    I doubt if anyone in the 1930s who protested about the pylons going up across the countryside to form the first National Grid imagined that the same battles would be fought more than 80 years later. Opposition to the first pylons was, in fact, quite muted. Electricity was then still a novelty for a large part of the population and it was the grid which would make it both cheaper and more widely dispersed. If you wanted electricity in your neck of the woods than you had to put up with pylons. They were a novelty then, too, symbolising what the poet Stephen Spender called "the quick perspective of the future." Some saw in them a kind of grandeur. When, in 1929, there was huge controversy about the prospect of electricity pylons scarring the Sussex landscape the artist Eric Gill sent a letter to the Times: "I write not only as an artist but as a Sussex man–born and bred­–to whom love of the South Downs is as natural as it is enthusiastic. Anyone who has see the aqueducts striding, almost galloping, across the Roman Campagna must have been struck by the inexorable majesty of them, and the need of Rome for water is analogous to the modern world's need for power. In France I have seen these great electric standards striding across the country–delayed by nothing. In England, in Buckinghamshire, on a small scale the same thing may be seen. Are we to suppose that beauty is only to be found in certain recognised 'styles' of architecture? Is the Forth Bridge ugly because it is not built of stone? Is the Tower Bridge beautiful because the citizens of London, remembering the proximity of the Tower, saw fit to clothe its iron work in machine-made Gothic? Such an attachment to 'Nature' which goes with a refusal to see beauty in engineering, while making use of engineering and making money by it, is fundamentally sentimental and romantic and hypocritical. Let the modern world abandon such attachment, or let it abandon its use of electric power." The distinguished architect, Sir Reginald Blomfield, irritated by the constantly repeated view that he was the designer of the pylons that were causing so much controversy, also sent a letter to the Times in 1929: "The masts were not designed by any architect, 'eminent' or otherwise and the plain facts are these:–The masts were designed by the very competent engineers of the Central Electricity Board, and when the designs were completed the Board consulted me as to their general form and colour. For colour I advised green; in regard to form I suggested an alteration in outline which was impracticable on account of the costs, but another modification proposed by me was adopted by the Board.......... All who know Sussex and are interested in it, as I am myself, would sincerely regret any injury to the scenery of that beautiful country, unless there are compelling practical reasons, but I would suggest in the first place that such reasons may exist, and that this is a point which can only be decided by expert opinion and secondly that the overhead method of transmission has been generally adopted all over the Continent, and anyone who has seen these strange great masts and lines striding across the country, ignoring all obstacles in their strenuous march, can realise without a great effort of imagination that these masts have an element of romance of their own. The wise man does not tilt at windmills – one may not like it, but the world moves on."

  • 0 Dutch praise for an English painter

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 26-05-2011
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    Congratulations to Jim Harris, my nephew who is an artist living and working in Amsterdam on the commendation he has received from a major Dutch newspaper. In a review of an Art Fair the influential newspaper de Telegraaf had this to say about one of his paintings of the interior of an old church which he has visited and painted many times: "..if one had to choose which work would then remain the most memorable, that would have to be 'de oude kerk', a painting of the interior of Amsterdam's oldest church by Jim Harris ( exhibited at Roger Katwijk). Harris has surpassed himself. A beautifully harmonious use of lines and sense of light, in nine panels....hopefully this painting will be preserved for the city".

  • 0 A visit to the Oprah Winfrey show

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 25-05-2011
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    As a farewell to the astonishingly successful Oprah Winfrey show I offer a piece by my friend Brian Stewart of the Canadian Broadcasting Company written for CBC's website. It can be found here.