Short version for print: longer one is here

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".

Hunter Davies; Hazel Dunlop

Hunter Davies

Hunter announced that "this is the first time in my life I've been asked to speak about freelancing." 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. 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. One day there was a gap in the paper: 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."

In 1958 he went to the Evening Chronicle, a tabloid competing with the broadsheet Manchester Evening News, on £14 a week - "more than my father had ever earned". The chief reporter took him round to fires and murders, did an interview, then went to a phone box "and rattled 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 and keep going.

Hunter nearly became a foreign correspondent when he was sent to Cyprus to report for the Sunday Times. But in 1960 he joined the Sunday Times as assistant to Robert Robinson - later to become a TV icon. 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 [writing as Margaret Forster] - 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'." Beatles manager 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.

Back at the Sunday Times, editor 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."

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.

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 Christensen: '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."

Last modified: Last modified: 01 Mar 2015 - © 2015 contributors
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