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Get it written!

HUNTER Davies was the star speaker at the London Freelance Branch meeting on 9 February. He started working as a journalist the old way - on a local paper in Cumberland, in 1958. He has been freelance since 1980, . Just the day before the meeting he had a column in the Sunday Times opening "Office workers may envy freelancers their freedom, but Hunter Davies is a slave to his returns..." and he told the meeting "I've already written about this evening's event in the New Statesman football column this week".

THERE SEEMS "to be such a jolly atmosphere in the room," Hunter opened: "has the coffee been laced?" He announced that "This is the first time in my life I've been asked to speak about freelancing." Usually "people say 'it was your wife I really wanted to meet' [he is married to novelist and biographer Margaret Forster] or ask about the experience of writing The Glory Game [see below] or working with the Beatles... No-one's asked about journalism, though it's the most important thing."

Hunter Davies; Hazel Dunlop

Hunter Davies

He went to "secondary modern" school because he missed the "eleven-plus" exam for grammar school entrance. "The school sent me to university in Durham - I have no memory of applying." He thought he'd be a teacher and please his mother. "After two years of mucking around playing football and drinking I shared a room with the advertising manager of the student union paper, and he was giving it up. So I took it on and went around selling three-inch one-column ads. One day there was a gap in the paper. I said I'd fill it. I did 'a day in the life of a rowing hearty'." Then I did a day in the life of a science student." One day the heading accidentally came out as "A life in the day" and "twenty years later when I was editor of the Sunday Times colour mag I gave the column that name."

Hunter's girlfriend in Carlisle had got into Oxford "and I didn't want to get a job, so I did a DipEd." At one point the careers service sent him to petrol distributor Benzol: "I had an interview for a management post, and failed." In1958 he ended up on the Evening Chronicle, a tabloid competing with the then-broadsheet Manchester Evening News, on £14 a week - "more than my father had ever earned". Manchester was "the most exciting place" with a large concentration of papers.

He was supposed to learn shorthand. "I went to a class with five 14-year-old girls, who were so brilliant and clever I gave up." The chief reporter took him round to fires and murders. "He would interview the chief fire officer or the inspector, go to a phone box and rattle off a story." Hunter got his chance to write up a disaster: "I carefully wrote out the story, phoned it in - and got a bollocking from the news desk because I'd missed the first edition." Then he discovered that the chief "only had three opening paragraphs". He'd just recite one into the phone and keep going.

Both the Evening Chronicle and the MEN then had five editions all day long - first Crewe, then Warrington and through to the evening final. Each district had two reporters and a photographer doing four local pages every day.

Hunter nearly became a foreign correspondent when he was sent to Cyprus to report for the Sunday Times and all the Kemsley group papers. He expected to be sent to Africa, where they expected a bloodbath with the end of Empire.

But in 1960 he joined the Sunday Times as assistant to Robert Robinson - later to become a TV icon. He spend five years without a byline: "never be in charge of the Atticus column," he concluded. In those days it was all about "who will be the next Master of Balliol, the next Archbishop of Canterbury, the next Man In Washington..."

Hunter's Annus Mirabilis

He had "a chip on my shoulder," not having been to Oxford or Cambridge or to public school. But this was a time of opportunity. "Philip Larkin wrote in Annus Mirabilis that 'sexual intercourse began in 1963' but the 1960s in fact began in 1965, when I took over Atticus. Suddenly all the things I was interested in, like photographers and the North were 'in'..."

And that was a rather wonderful year for the Davieses: "Margaret did Georgy Girl - which got made into a Hollywood film. - I did Here We Go, Round the Mulberry Bush - also a Hollywood film. And I did an authorised Beatles biography: "I'd suggested to Paul that they should have a proper hardback book, to deal with all those questions they got asked so often, such as "what were Strawberry Fields?" He was charming - he is a PR person - and said 'you'll have to speak to Brian'. So I went to see [their manager] Brian Epstein. He had two Lowrys on his wall - I didn't know Lowry did oils."

Brian Epstein suggested "let's put in a clause that I will give no-one else access for two years after publication." The book came out in 1968 and the Beatles split up over the next year - so The Beatles became the only authorised Beatles biography. For it Hunter got an advance of £3000 - the same as his two previous books and about £45,000 at current prices.

After The Beatles was published Hunter went back to the Sunday Times, technically as a freelance though "Harold Evans had become my best friend - but for the next 10 years I did jobs for him." Then he became editor of the women's pages - "we had Jilly Cooper and Molly Parkin. Then there was Ernestine Carter, hated grand dame fashion editor. He launched a series called "Me and my vasectomy" and another "on underpants and what happens when they go yellow. How did they get that in the paper? Ernestine stormed in and announced "we'll lose the Harrods advertising! I'm resigning!". So that's why it got in. Hunter protests that he didn't know it was a plot to get rid of her.

As colour supplement editor Hunter sacked Jeffrey Bernard - who was unwell. He sacked Bruce Chatwyn - who wrote back "Have gone to Patagonia" and went on to achieve success with In Patagonia.

Harold Evans wanted to open up the back of the book - which was an advertising desert. The paper could charge twice as much for an ad appearing opposite editorial copy. So there was plenty of room to experiment with columns. "Home Town" took Eric Morecambe to Morecambe, Ted Heath to Broadstairs - but they couldn't keep up the quality of interviewees. "You couldn't believe the staff we had, the money, the people vanishing across the world for weeks, Hunter recalled: "I took the staff for lunch and pitched 'A life in the day'. I asked the Chief Sub: 'Do you choose what clothes you're going to wear the night before, or in the morning?' He replied: 'I have a diary of everything I've worn for the past month'. We were on for the column... I did Guy the Gorilla - and began making people up too."

Since 1980 has been freelance - "and I've been sacked at least three times that I can remember". One day he woke up and the column he was doing for Ian Jack, who'd graduated from being a sub to editing the women's page, simply wasn't in the paper. Ian "wanted to tell you face to face," but it didn't happen that way. The women on the section thought there should be more women columnists.

The strangest sacking was as TV critic of the Mail on Sunday. "When they asked me to do it I told them I only ever watch football on TV: they said 'that's a plus, you can give it a fair go'... They'd send me the tapes and I'd pick the short ones and take the piss.... Jocelyn Target asked me to do previews; I couldn't be bothered. He asked whether I knew anyone who could do them. I recommended someone from the Hampstead & Highgate Express... A bit later Jocelyn called and said 'I've got to see you.' I asked: 'You do know we're at Loweswater in Cumbria?' He got lost in his chauffeur-driven Jaguar. We walked down to the lake and he sacked me - in favour of the person I'd recommended - and he got back into the car. Next week I asked why he'd come all that way. A few months earlier he was sacking someone and it leaked before he told them. He promised the next time he had to sack someone he'd talk to them face to face. He didn't know the next would be 300 miles away..."

So what has Hunter learned?

The most vital thing in journalism, Hunter says, "is to be a space baron". In other words, "unless you're in charge of a little area, they'll eat you up".

The next most important thing is arselicking and keeping in with your controller - the editor of your section. In 15 years Hunter has had five editors, "all plonkers, with no journalism training, no budget..."

None of them ever said when his copy had arrived, they never said when they were holding it over; it was "too much to expect them to say they liked it" Hunter was constantly on the verge of leaving. It's not just him: "I was at dinner with Joan Bakewell and James Cameron, who was sounding off about getting no feedback for his columns. Two months later he died and they cleared several pages to say 'we were so proud to have James Cameron on the paper,' but they never told him while he was alive.

"Now," Hunter adds, "I have the most brilliant editor, the first to be a proper journalists - they were trained on the Daily Mail, which is a terrible paper, but does train people. I have brilliant editor too at Cumbria Life."

You are "so lucky," he says, "if you have a personal relationship with the people you're dealing with. All owners are pigs - but these are the people you work with."

Hunter's daughter is a freelance journalist too and he "does feel sorry for the modern journalist - and not just for the obvious things like the demise of lunch."

In conclusion he offered two "pieces of wisdom," the first "nicked from Beaverbrook or from Arthur Christiansen: 'Don't get it right, get it written.' That doesn't mean 'get it wrong' - it means 'get it done'.". The second: "You can't have too many corkscrews."


Branch Chair Fi O'Cleirigh asked whether Hunter could imagine starting out now. He is "most sorry for the staff people: they don't meet people, they don't have any fun, they have these open-plan offices..." His daughter Caitlin had two books out last year with respectable publishers and the total income from them was £12,000. "When 20 years I was doing such niche books - such as the one on Hadrian's Wall - I was getting £20,000 advances."

A member asked Hunter to say more about The Glory Game. It "was a year in the life of a football team in 1972. Two years before I had done a series of articles about Spurs. I had infiltrated self. I told manager Bill Nicholson that I had agreement of the Chair to do a book, and the Chair that I had the agreement of manager. The players were getting £200 week and they had no agents, no lawyers... I had no contract with them. I wrote to each to say I would share the proceeds of the book - 50 per cent was shared between 19 people. My agent heard this and had hysterics."

Hunter "was 30 and still playing football on Hampstead Heath. I trained with the team - sat in dressing room before and after matches - I was everywhere, except in team meetings." He remembers sitting in the dressing room in a big game against AC Milan. Cups started flying, by accident... "I felt sure dour Bill Nicholson was going to pick on me and throw me out. I thought: 'if I get chucked out now the book never happen, but I won't regret having been inside a First Division dressing room". He had had "the same feeling six years earlier in Abbey Road studios during rows between John and Paul".

Things are different now. When Hunter went in to Harper Collins for meetings about working on Wayne Rooney's autobiography, there was "a manager in suit, a lawyer in a suit, an agent in a suit, a woman brand manager in a suit - and a seven-foot goon." He asked Wayne why he wanted to do a biography: "There's been so much written about me that's all wrong and I want to set the record straight." OK: "you have to give me 2-3 hours undivided attention eight times; and you have to tell me the truth. I promise I'll tell no-one else until you read it, if it'll upset your mum... and do you have any memorabilia?"

Memorabilia are key to biographies. Hunter had asked all the beatles' mums and dads - "do you have any school reports?" Those in particular are "gold dust - they give dates, they're the perfect primary source". Only Ringo's mum could find any. Wayne Rooney's mum delivered two piles; one of school reports and one of letters from football academies, "which was wonderful, because football academies are so secretetive.

Richenda Powers asked Hunter what he had studied at Durham. He did history: "I would recommend going to university of any sort and getting a degree of any sort - because it's three years dossing. At your parent's expense these days - it was was at the state's expense in my day. Then you can do an MA in Journalism at City or wherever."

Arjum Wajid ashed whether there was anything that Hunter would like to have done but hasn't. "And I'd have liked to have interviewed the Queen, though I did meet her recently." (He's got an OBE.) And "for half an hour back there I thought I'd be a foreign correspondent when I was sent to Cyprus. Then I realised my definition of a good story was one that got me home for tea."

Articlemended 23 December 2019

  • We corrected the spelling of Arthur Christiansen
Last modified: 04 Mar 2015 - © 2015 contributors
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