Column: Charles Graham on 30 years working at the Wigan Post
What do you know about Wigan?” asked Lancashire Evening Post editor Steve Kendall, peering at the skinny young Yorkshireman across his desk.
“Well, er, it’s got one of the best rugby league teams in the world, there’s a pier even though it’s not at the seaside and George Formby comes from there.”
“More than most people know,” Kendall said, although not entirely convincingly. “We’ve decided to give the job you applied for in Preston to a senior, but a vacancy has arisen at our Wigan office. Do you fancy it?”
“Yes please,” said the scrawny besuited candidate without hesitation, delighted for any kind of offer after more than 30 job rejections.
And so it was that on January 28 1990 I made Wigan my home and started work for the Evening Post the following day. I was meant to have a couple of weeks at the Preston office undergoing some kind of induction but, after getting lost trying to find Fulwood HQ two days running, I was told I may as well go straight to Makinson Arcade in the future.
Affable master wordsmith Peter Richardson was my first news editor - you may remember his weekly Post column until a few years ago - and I took the desk of Danny Calderbank who had just defected to Red Rose Radio.
Also in that garret overlooking Woodcock Square and the soon-to-be-completed Galleries shopping centre was chief reporter Peter O’Keeffe, reporters Tracy Bruce and Gillian Brindle,
Wigan Leader editor Val Belshaw, rugby writer Peter Aspinall, photographers John Leatherbarrow and Brian McAuley while football writer Harold Ashurst would pop in occasionally from Preston HQ.
To say I was daunted is an understatement. I had all the qualifications required but little in the way of confidence or work experience. For one I was terrified of the telephone, neither did I know anyone and had never visited Wigan before I landed there 30 years ago this week.
Thankfully the editorial crew - and other staff working on reception, for competitions and in advertising - were very welcoming, sympathetic and showed me the ropes.
I was lucky to have arrived only months after they had ditched typewriters for new-fangled word processors which sent stories to Preston on the telephone using a modem. Laughably low tech by today’s standards, they at least spared me the tortures inflicted on predecessors who had to scribble on, or screw up and start again, paper versions of articles.
I remember the buzz, after several days, when I got my first front page “splash” - a dramatic house fire rescue which I had picked up from morning calls to the fire brigade. Soon after I was dispatched on one of those assignments that all rooky reporters must dread: what is rather brutally known in the industry as a “death knock.” It concerned a young man who was killed when a freak gust of wind caused a lorry to swerve and hit him as he walked to work.
I secured an interview with his family and it proved to be the first of many such articles. Sure, I got firm “nos” and the occasional torrent of abuse which you can but take on the chin; but I have never ceased to be amazed how so many people in the extremes of grief were willing, sometimes anxious, to share their stories of loved ones with a local newspaper.
Meanwhile I had been gradually introduced to the characters and political apparatus of Wigan. Makerfield MP Ian McCartney was a regular visitor to the office and it was my job to input his weekly column for the Wigan Evening Post over the phone; no mean feat given his Glaswegian brogue and habit of accelerating way beyond my typing abilities when the passion of the subject on which he was expounding really gripped him.
Another great personality - and also a fund of stories - who tested shorthand to the limits was the Platt Bridge councillor John Tiernan: a Scouser so full of energy and ideas that it was an even bigger tragedy when cancer took him when still only in his mid-30s.
Then there was Mary Appleton, a former pit brew lass from Millers Lane, who waged one-woman battles against the council and health authority on a range of community and medical issues.
The first time I met this good egg and future founder of the borough’s Well Women Centre, she had brought with her a sheet of cardboard the size of a pool table with local newspaper clippings about the issue at hand glued to every square inch of it. What a campaigner!
I was sent to cover council meetings at the old town hall on Rodney Street and was taught how to bother local sporting luminaries such as Frano Botica, Shaun Edwards and a young footballer called Roberto Martinez for quotes simply to give news stories with little or no links to sport some extra “legs”.
With time confidence improved, including in my phone manner thankfully. But I was still wet behind the ears and on occasions too cocky: a dangerous combination if ever there was one. I remember Peter Richardson slapping me down for writing there was going to be “stiff opposition” to an extra incinerator at one of the local crematoria, for instance. Lesson learnt.
In those early years, technology remained rudimentary. With no mobiles, you had to contact base and phone over stories from a telephone box. A lengthy process which could sometimes be infuriating members of the public waiting in the drizzle for their turn. But you had to press on because of the all-important deadline.
On one occasion I found myself besieged for a while outside a Bryn pub as a Rottweiler plonked itself down between the kiosk door and my car. But the great thing about working in a newsy area like Wigan is that no two days are alike, even after three decades.
One moment you can be sent off to cover a very serious court case, the next you are taking details of a Women’s Institute coffee morning or you’ve been sent out to see if there’s any truth in claims that a large black cat has been killing livestock in Abram. We so wanted to call it the “Platt Bridge puma” for alliterative reasons, but sadly it was just over the boundary. I never did track down that beast.
Another story that stays long in the memory concerned an elderly gentleman who came into the Makinson Arcade office to complain that his late sister’s husband had died and taken up the last spot in the family burial plot at Ince Cemetery.
The gentleman was most put out that this non-blood relative was depriving him of his rightful resting place when the moment came, and he was demanding an exhumation. I still have the front page cutting bearing the headline (not of my doing) which read “Dig Him Up!”
Legitimacy to meet and chat to famous folk that most of the public only ever see on telly or a sport field has been another perk of the job.
High flying politicians there have been plenty - including Blair and Hague on several occasions each - but also all kinds of entertainers, sporting celebrities and other public figures from
Pele and Eric Cantona to Simon Weston and Colin Parry, from composer Malcolm Arnold and film director Tony Palmer to Frank Carson, Noel Edmonds and Mr Blobby. More recently, chained to a news desk, I’ve had to cede such sleb privileges to reporters and it still irks me that I keep missing Sir Ian McKellen. But the memories are still good ones.
Talking of privileges though: it has been a huge one to have played a part in recording the good and bad fortunes of a town and borough I have grown to love over so long.
I’ve lost count of the number of colleagues I have seen come and go, some of whom like TV producer Cerys Griffiths, Times columnist Carol Midgley and best-selling authors Dave Barnett and Paul Finch have made great names for themselves.
But after all these years I’ve learnt two things above all others: one, that you need a good team around you and two, no matter how hoary an old hack you’ve become, you’ve never seen everything.
Thanks to those two constants, the last 30 years have been a blast. And I’m hoping I’m not done just yet either.