When I saw my very first article in print, I immediately went in search of a big hole to jump into and disappear. Forever.
It was an article that I had submitted to my local daily newspaper, the Coventry Evening Telegraph. It was a mild nature article concerning the wildlife one could see along the local canals and rivers. It did have a bit of an edge: it gave a gentle reminder to fishermen not to leave their rubbish behind. Some of it, in particular fishing lines, could be dangerous to wildlife if they got entangled in it.
The article was scheduled to appear on Friday 24th March – many, many years ago.
Friday evening: WHAT?
I remember rushing out early that evening to my local newsagent, buying a copy and feverishly scanning through it while standing outside.
I could not find my article.
I searched through the newspaper again, desperately looking for my headline. I think it was “The Wildlife of Coventry Canal” or something similar. Still no joy.
On my third scan I did come across an article about fishermen that someone had written. The headline aggressively screamed “First Blasts in Rod War.” What an aggressive headline, I thought. Who would write such a provocative article?
The subhead was no less antagonistic: “Fishermen? They’re enemies of the countryside says battling student.”
My eyes flicked down to the first sentence.
“The noble art of angling holds no joys for Denzil Walton. He believes that when it comes to keeping the countryside clean, anglers are at the bottom of the league.”
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. And it got worse.
“Denzil is launching a one-man campaign against devotees of the rod and line.”
That’s not what I wrote! I never wrote anything about war, enemies or campaigns!
I read through the whole article. I couldn’t recognize it from what I had submitted – or the me it described. In fact, it wasn’t me at all. I was a peace-loving, conscientious young man who liked walking along the riverbanks looking at birds and simply wanted to give anglers a friendly reminder to pick up their old fishing lines. I had been transformed into some kind of tough, aggressive, Rambo-like canal-side vigilante.
But it was about to get worse.
Monday morning: NO!
It just so happened that at that time I had a temporary job at my father’s workplace, Rolls-Royce Aero Engines near Coventry. I was replacing a clerk in the Planning Department who had suffered a heart attack and was off work for three months. I’d only been there for a week.
I arrived in the office at 8.25 on Monday morning and was just getting a coffee from the machine when the manager of the Planning Department breezed past.
“You. In my office. Now!”
I decided the coffee could wait and followed him to his office.
To my horror he pulled out Friday’s Coventry Evening Telegraph from his briefcase, slammed it on his desk, opened it to my article and stabbed a finger at the headline.
“You wrote this crap?” he shouted.
Please God, if you could just open up the ground underneath my feet, I will be a lifelong disciple of yours.
“Er, well, I did submit an article but the editor …” I began.
I had clearly not been called in for a discussion. He read the sub-head out loud, in what I can only describe as an “extremely aggressive and sneering” tone of voice.
“Fishermen? They’re enemies of the countryside says battling student.”
He lent over the desk.
“This is crap, completely bloody crap. I’ve been an angler for over forty years and I’ve never left a scrap of litter behind. I’m a member of an angling club and we have very – VERY – strict regulations about litter.”
He paused to wipe a bit of his spittle off his chin. I decided it was wise not to follow his lead and so didn’t touch the spittle that had flown onto my cheek.
“We would never – NEVER – leave lines or hooks behind. We always – ALWAYS – clear up after ourselves. This article is a total – TOTAL – disgrace.”
It was at that point that I realized that his office door was open, and there was complete silence throughout the whole department behind me.
“We are PROPER anglers. It’s the bloody GYPSIES you should be after. It’s them who leave their litter behind, whose dogs shit everywhere along the canal bank, who chuck their garbage into the cut. Instead, you point your finger at us, respectable anglers!”
His face was reminding me of the beetroot I had cut up to put in my lunchtime sandwiches.
“And another thing. We are not ‘fishermen’; we are ‘anglers’. There’s a difference. Anglers take angling very seriously, it’s our life, we are not your amateur fisherman who only goes out once a year, we are there every week, in all kinds of weather.”
I was beginning to wonder whether another member of the Planning Department was about to have a heart attack.
“You clearly don’t know anything about angling, and if you think you’re going to make it as a writer, forget it, because you clearly don’t know a thing about writing either.”
He slumped into his leather swivel chair and spun it round to look out the window. I thought he had finished, but he hadn’t. With his back to me, he cast his final line.
“I’d fire you right now if it weren’t for the bloody unions on my back. Get out of my office and get back to work.”
I turned round and left his office to find about 30 office staff transfixed by the Monday morning excitement. The Rolls-Royce Planning Department had probably never seen such drama before.
After that, I had absolutely no contact with the man at all over the next three months. He never greeted me, never acknowledged me, never asked me anything or said anything to me. If he needed me to do anything he would always ask the Head Clerk into his office who would then relay the information to me.
However, after 34 years as a professional writer, he was wrong about one thing.