Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times
Beginnings in Journalism
During a spell at Leeds and Harrogate schools of art and also working as a retoucher in my father’s photographer’s studio, I became interested in amateur theatricals. Treading the boards became an absorbing hobby.
I had notable success in the part of George in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” opposite Doreen Hepplewhite, wife of Bill Hepplewhite, a professional actor with the White Rose Players. We played a young courting couple who were married in the final scene. Our performance received a rave notice in the Harrogate Advertiser. My parents attended every performance and were suitably thrilled.
I also appeared in a production of Christopher Fry’s “The Lady’s Not For Burning” for which I painted a stylistic backdrop which pleased me if nobody else.
A lady called Mrs Gunner, who owned the Copper Kettle café near the Valley Gardens in Harrogate, took me under her wing, allowing herself to be persuaded into commissioning me and a lovely art student, Shirley Thompson, to paint a mural for her restaurant, for the princely sum of thirty pounds each.
My first earnings as an artist
We painted the mural on plaster board in my father’s Harrogate studio. Shirley and I chose to depict the ancient cobbled street, complete with carriages drawn by stuffed horses, that then graced the Railway Museum in York.
A satisfied customer
Day after day, Shirley and I laboured at the mural, relying heavily on Shirley’s artistic ability, which far exceeded my own.
Mrs Gunner was delighted with the mural and willingly gave us her cheque. Therafter, I regularly lunched at the Copper Kettle at Half a Crown a time.
My plan was to go up to London to visit the Festival of Britain, then delighting millions of visitors to the Festival site on the Thames. It was the first strong sign of Britain’s recovery from the rigours of war.
With Mrs Gunner’s cheque burning a hole in my pocket, I was walking past the Ackrill Building, home of the Harrogate Advertiser and its group of weekly newspapers, when I noticed in their display window an advertisement for trainee journalists.
There and then I decided to apply. I already knew one young reporter on the Advertiser, David Corbett.We were both amateur actors with the Harrogate Dramatic Society.
Hired as an apprentice journalist I went in and was immediately received by the editor, Bob Stockton, who offered me the job at the princely salary of five pounds a week, more than my father was paying me. All I could offer was my knowledge of French and German, not much use to a reporter on a local weekly.
I had to break the news to my mother and father that I had decided not to go into the family photographic business. They were remarkably understanding. I remember that my grandmother was particularly supportive, although the consequences for the family business would be dire. There was nobody to carry on, and the business duly folded and my father became the tenant of a John Smith’s country pub, the William IV at Spofforth.
As part of my apprenticeship with the Tiser, as it was known to us young reporters, I attended lectures on defamation and other relevant topics by the proprietor, Bobby Breare, who was a non-practising qualified barrister. I found them surprisingly useful. I also learned Pitman’s shorthand from an elderly spinster, Miss Rosscamp, who lived near the Harrogate and District General Hospital, a three-mile bike ride from my home. Eventually, I managed to pass a shortand exam at 120 words a minute, a skill that stood me in good stead for the rest of my working life.
My immediate boss at the Advertiser was the news editor, Lal Walker, who was afflicted with polio, and got about in a motorised wheelchair.
I well remember my first reporting assignment, to interview the steward of the Oatlands working man’s club (just a mile from our house in Tewit Well Road), who was retiring. My first published newspaper story started with the words: “Joe has pulled his last pint.”
From that I soon graduated to funeral reporting, which seemed mainly to consist of taking names of mourners as they left Stonefall Cemetery. There were always columns of “also representings”, which were always grist to the Tiser’s mill. Lal Walker maintained that every mourner’s name published was a copy sold, something that cannot have been true, even in those distant days so soon after the war.
I soon graduated to making the police calls and reporting Harrogate Magistrates’ Court, either alone or with fellow trainees David Corbett, Chris Moncrieff, Chris Downs or Robby Bass.
Covering the Council
Another big task was reporting meetings of Harrogate Town Council. These dealt with such matters as maintaining municipal parks and gardens, street markets and road works, overseen by the Municipal Engineer.
A much prized perk was being sent to the Harrogate Opera House to cover theatre productions of the White Rose Players. The plays received frequent rave notices from us budding theatre critics. I also had the opportunity to write reviews of art exhibitions at the Harrogate public library, pontificating kowledgably about the works of famous British artists, like Paul Nash and John Piper.
We all did spells as editors of other Ackrill weeklies, the Ripon Gazette and Observer, The Knaresbough Post, the Thirsk, Bedale and Northallerton Times, and the Pately Bridge and Nidderdale Herald. We trainees in fact comprised the entire reporting staff of these newspapers. We would come into Harrogate once a week to put our particular weekly to bed.
The normal practice was to feature one local item as the front page lead, but to fill up the paper’s columns with material from other Ackrill weeklies.
For some reason of pride, which to this day I cannot readily comprehend, I resolved to fill the entire newspaper with new material when I moved into the editor’s chair of the Pately Bridge and Nidderdale Herald. I succeeded, but at the cost of working all night before going to press.
Darts league drama
The lead story on the sports page of the Pately, as it was known, would often be the Pately Bridge darts league, with headlines like: Joiners Nail Queen Vic. The Joiners’ Arms was one of the most popular local pub, as was the Queen Victoria. We wrote up the darts’ league from beer-drenched results sheets sent in by the landlords of the competing pubs. These were unforgettable and thoroughly enjoyable years. I am glad that journalism became my life’s work.
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Copyright © 2008 Lionel Walsh