About Me – READING
From as far back as I can remember I’ve been hooked on reading. It probably stems from the fact I was an only child and my mother died when I was five. I was packed off to live with an uncle and aunt who owned a newsagents and book store. They were kindly folk and as soon as I was old enough to help behind the scenes in the store, unpacking cartons of books, sweeping up, assembling regular orders for newspapers and magazines, that became my regular after-school job.
The job didn’t run to pay or pocket money, but to my mind, it provided something much more valuable to a growing boy. After all my chores were done, I was allowed to retreat to the back office and read whatever I wanted, providing I kept it clean and returned it to the shop undamaged.
I was in seventh heaven. Starting off with picture comic books, I progressed steadily to printed comics like the Wizard, Hotspur, Adventure and Rover. Older UK readers will remember those. Short stories and serials full of tales of derring do. I devoured them as quickly as they came into the shop.
In time I moved on to the well-stocked shelves of hardbacks – Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, Black Beauty, The Coral Island and many more. Encouraged by my aunt, I tackled their stock of classics – Wilde, Austen, Conan Doyle, Dickens, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, the Brontes and Blackmore. I stopped short of Shakespeare – too difficult and he reminded me too much of school. I can still quote reams of his work today though – it was drummed into me by my English teacher, who was a huge fan. That said, his sonnets and some of his soliloquies are writings of exquisite beauty.
Looking back on that period of my life in later years, I came to realize how remarkably fortunate I’d been. Had my uncle paid me in coin I would have eaten more sweets, drank more pop and watched more movies, but I would unquestionably have missed out on a unique opportunity of acquiring an appreciation of, and love for, the English language I still enjoy today
About Me Part II – WRITING
The writing bug bit me quite unexpectedly one day in the little store behind my uncle’s shop. Browsing the shelves minutes earlier I’d chanced upon a slim paperback titled simply You can be a Writer – a Teach Yourself Guide.
Settling into my usual hideaway corner, sandwiched between a filing cabinet and two large cartons of stationery, I began to read. Within ten minutes I was hooked. There and then I made up my mind. I was going to be a writer! Out the window went my earlier dreams of running away to sea and finding pirate treasure, or joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. This was something I really wanted to do. What’s more, I reckoned I could do it, no trouble. I don’t think I was being boastful – after all, I was only eleven years old!
Please allow me to skip the next eight years of school and college. If you aren’t bored already, that would certainly finish the job. A new neighbour moved in next door to us, and as his wife and family weren’t joining him immediately, my folks invited him to dinner. He told us he was starting a new weekly newspaper covering our locality and wondered if any of my friends would be interested in becoming a trainee reporter.
“Would I do?” I said, figuring it was a lucky day for both of us. “Come and see me in my office Saturday morning,” he said. I did. We had a chat, I answered some questions. “Can you start Monday week?” he asked.
I’m still not sure whether our first meeting was a coincidence, or if he and my uncle had cooked it up in advance. I didn’t care either way; I was launched into journalism, literally on the ground floor. My first job was to clear the floor of the storeroom so that a load of newsprint could be delivered. Things got better. I stayed with that paper for five years, learning a lot, before moving on to a rival newspaper which I edited for a number of years.
The beauty about working for a weekly back in those days was that you got to do a bit of everything. Straight reporting of courts, councils, political meetings, sporting events, fires and local disasters of every kind. There was scope for lots of what was then called feature writing – stories about local and visiting personalities and the like. The hours were long, the work was sometimes difficult and demanding, but it was never dull. It provided the perfect grounding for moving on to bigger, if not always better things.
A spell as sub-editor in a Belfast national daily followed. It was night work – 6pm through until two in the morning. The Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ were at their height. Almost every day there were shootings, bombings and killings. No shortage of hard news in other words.
My desk phone rang at 9-20 one night. “You have ten minutes to get off the premises,” a hard female voice warned. “What?” I said. “Ten minutes before she goes up.” The phone was slammed down.
“That was a bomb warning,” I informed my eight colleagues in the room. I replaced the receiver in its cradle and when I looked up again I was alone and the door was swinging shut. I followed without even collecting my jacket. A crowd of us stood chattering in the yard, among the fleet of waiting delivery vans while bomb-disposal officers searched the building.
Within minutes there was an earth-jarring boooom and I looked up to see slates, rafters and debris turning slow cartwheels in the sky. I turned to say something to a colleague. He wasn’t there. As earlier, I seemed to have the yard to myself. “Get down!” somebody screamed and I belatedly scrambled under the nearest van as the air was filled with whirling missiles which came crashing all around us.
Fortunately, no one was injured. We learned later the bomb had been planted in an alley between our building and the next-door premises. After our place had been thoroughly inspected we were allowed back inside. The paper came out on time as usual – and we didn’t have to look too far for our front-page lead.
I’ve always been a sports fanatic, so I didn’t have to think for too long when a BBC producer friend asked casually if I fancied trying out as a sports broadcaster. I almost bit his hand off! “What sports could you cover?” he wanted to know. “Anything you like,” I answered cockily, “but I’m not all that keen on horse racing.”
He invited me to lunch the following week, told me to write a two-minute piece on either a real or fictitious cricket match and they would give me a voice test in the studio. It went well and he assigned me to a Senior League cricket match the following Saturday. I made my preparations and was all set to go.
Just as I was setting out from home the BBC phoned. “Did you say you know about golf?” a slightly fraught voice enquired. “Yes,” I said. “Thank God for that,” came the relieved reply, “our golf correspondent has come down with a bug and the Irish Amateur Championship is being held at Royal County Down in Newcastle. We need a one-minute scene-setter for the lunchtime news. Then can you get to the studio and give us a piece for our main sports programme?”
“No problem,” I told him, with a great deal more confidence than I felt. The lunchtime piece went well, I followed as much of the play as I could that afternoon, and before leaving for the Belfast studio, arranged to phone a senior official to get an update. I’d made a shorthand note of my opening and closing paragraphs, intending to fill the middle section with a summary of the leading scores.
Talk about the best laid plans. “The golf is lead story,” the producer told me. “As this is your first broadcast I’d like to give you a dry run-through just before we go live. I need you to boil it down to two minutes. Whatever you do, don’t overshoot.”
I had some trouble connecting with my man on the course and the clock was ticking when he relayed the news that a young golfer named Mark Gannon had established a new record by posting birdie twos on each of the four short holes, A tremendous feat and clearly a great peg for my report.
The producer quite literally dragged me away from the phone and into the studio. “No time for a trial. Just do your best. Start immediately your light comes on.”
The announcer, Ira Milligan, had just enough time to flash me a smile before going into his introduction. The light in front of me flashed on and I was away. Abandoning my prepared opening, I immediately launched into an enthusiastically extemporaneous account of young Gannon’s record achievement. I rejigged what I had prepared, slotted in the leading scores and risked a quick glance at the studio clock. Fourteen seconds to go. I started my concluding sentences and stopped precisely on the two-minute mark.
I was chatting with a delighted producer at the end of the show when a pretty continuity girl came up and asked for my notes. “I doubt they’ll be much use to you, unless you read Pitman’s shorthand,” I told her apologetically. The producer stretched out a hand and took the three pages of indecipherable scribbling’s from me.
An expression of abject horror contorted his face. “You went live on air with these,” he exclaimed. “Thank Christ I didn’t see them beforehand!”
About Me Part III – ME
Having tried newspaper journalism at local and provincial level, and news and sports radio work – with the odd bit of television thrown in – I suppose it was logical that public relations should be my next venture. What might be called conventional PR – and by that I mean promoting a brand or a product – held little appeal. I was content enough to toddle along as I was doing without thinking too much about the future.
We had recently moved house from Newcastle to Lisburn, essentially to be closer to Belfast, where most of my work was based. As had been the pattern so far throughout my working life, someone else initiated the move. We were all working away, displaying varying degrees of industry, when one of my colleagues threw an opened copy of that evening’s Belfast Telegraph across my desk. “Here Brad, this looks the very job for you.”
I glanced at the advertisement and saw that the Government was looking for an information officer with experience of living and working in Northern Ireland and with a good knowledge of the local media scene. It pointed out that the post was in a mobile grade and the successful candidate would be expected to make himself available for possible service in any corner of the world that might be of interest to Great Britain and Her Majesty’s Government. The top end of the salary scale was interesting, the bottom end certainly wasn’t.
After studying the ad for a couple of minutes I passed the paper back to him and said effectively “Thanks but no thanks.” Shortly before we donned our coats to head for home, he thrust an addressed envelope into my hand. “I’ve filled it in and addressed the envelope for you,” he grinned. “If you want to post it you can affix a bloody stamp yourself.”
I started a mild protest but he was already on his way out. With a shrug, I pushed the envelope into the side pocket of my raincoat and followed him out, quickly forgetting all about the incident. The following Saturday morning I called with my local newsagents to collect a paper and settle my weekly bill. For some reason I shoved my hand into my raincoat pocket and produced the envelope, crumpled and decidedly grubby.
I was about to ask the assistant to stick it in her wastebasket when I thought “What the heck. Why not?” I bought a first class stamp, fixed it on the letter, shoved it in the mail slot on my way home and promptly forgot about it again. Picture my surprise when, about ten days later, an official looking letter arrived notifying me I had been selected on a short-list for interview. The letter had been forward from my old address in Newcastle.
The day of the interviewed dawned bright and sunny and I decided to walk to the appointed venue. Never expecting to be offered the job, and not caring too much one way or the other, I was totally relaxed and at ease. I was told the interview would last about half an hour. In fact it lasted the better part of an hour. After ten minutes I realised I really wanted this job. It was interesting and exciting and presented a whole new challenge.
After another fifteen minutes, I reckoned, that barring accidents, the job was as good as mine. The five-man panel asked precisely the sort of questions I thought they would, and when they had finished, the chairman asked if I had any questions of my own.
“Only one,” I said. “Without wishing to be presumptuous, I would have to say that, much as I desire this job, I could not consider accepting if I had to begin at the lower end of the salary scale.”
Without even glancing at his colleagues, the chairman smiled and said “Mr Fleming, with your experience and qualifications, there would be no question of that.”
A nod is as good as a wink, they say. A letter arrived within a few days confirming my appointment, subject to the usual vetting procedures. It added that my starting salary would be at the top of the existing pay scale. What is it they say about if you don’t ask you don’t get?
I worked closely with the chairman in the years that followed and we became firm friends. A fair while later he confided that there had been 94 applicants for the post, whittled down to a shortlist of six. “Wow! So I was lucky?”
“Not at all,” he told me. “You were a unanimous choice. All five members of the board voted for you.”
That was how I got started in public relations. Next time, if you can stand it, I’ll tell you a little about some of my adventures.
About Me Part IV – ME AGAIN
If I’m largely a home body these days it’s probably because I did so much traveling with my job and on leave outside work. Although London-based, in the twenty odd years I worked in public relations I’ve done my fair share of traveling.
They saw traveling broadens the mind – and the behind. I can’t vouch for the former, but the latter is probably a lot closer to the mark. I didn’t travel a lot outside the United Kingdom in my first three years in the job. The ‘Troubles’ were at their worst back then and most of my time was spent in my home country of Northern Ireland. It was a sad time, watching the country I loved tearing itself apart – and for what? Politician John Hume hit the mark when he declared “The doctrine of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”
Much of the background for my first book Role of Dishonour was gleaned during those years. Largely it is based on my own patent solution to solving a problem which had benighted Ireland for over 300 years. Happily, things are better now.
A three-year spell in the then West Germany followed. The transformation in Berlin then and now is breath-taking. It’s probably my favourite city in all the world – and not entirely because it boasts six Irish pubs! The kids were small then and Herford, where we lived, was a great jumping off centre for trips to Holland, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Denmark and Austria. What a delight to be able to chuck our gear in the car and simply take off. No flight delays, no tickets, no queuing at airports. Just the open road – and all the time in the world.
I was surprised to find that languages were rarely a problem. Providing I initiated a conversation in my limited German, Dutch or French, folk were usually delighted to show off their English, which, for the most part, was excellent. I’m delighted though that English is most Europeans’ second language.
In those Cold War years the perceived threat came from the other side of the Iron Curtain and Britain and America maintained considerable force levels on the Continent. Major joint military exercises were held regularly, with the Danes always eager to join in. I enjoyed working with them and the US servicemen.
On one exercise a British light tank got bogged down in a dense forest of young trees. How it got there nobody was quite sure, but if a recovery vehicle went in to extricate it there would have been considerable damage to the young saplings. When the report came in I happened to be with a group of officers. “No problem,” drawled a tall American Colonel, “We’ll soon hoick it out of there.” He winked at me “Wanna come along for the ride? Bring your camera.”
Inside ten minutes he’d called up just about the biggest helicopter I’d ever seen and we were airborne. Within fifteen minutes we’d found the stranded tank, hooked up a line and lifted the six-and-a-half ton Scimitar like it was a baby’s pram. “Let’s have some fun,” the Colonel beamed. He had his radio operator summon a small Scout chopper with a photographer on board and for the next hour-and-a-half we toured up and down the marvellously scenic River Rhine, making a point of hovering over several splendid castles while the photographer clicked merrily away. I still have one of those pictures in my study. I shudder to think of the amount of fuel we must have burned.
In many ways I was sorry to leave Germany, but in later years was delighted to re-visit about ten times a year to lecture Army units on PR. One visit coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and all of Germany celebrated and rejoiced.
I was offered a three-year tour in Hong Kong, but the family were keen to return to Northern Ireland, so I was out-voted. There were compensations, and before taking early retirement, I enjoyed further tours and visits to Africa, The United States, Ascension Island, the Falkland Islands (twice) and Cyprus. Nowadays I’m more than happy to holiday in the British Isles – or here in Ireland for preference.