More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism – Part Four

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

I guess that was why I felt so excited as I tuned into that first broadcast from Radio Caroline, the forerunner of a miniature fleet of radio ships which would anchor off the British coast over the period 1964-67.

Short-lived in terms of time, nevertheless the pirate radio phenomenon would completely revolutionise broadcasting in Britain, directly leading to the creation of Radio One in 1967 and spawning the creation of BBC local radio, and then commercial radio.

Today, when a licence to broadcast on the airwaves is relatively easy to acquire, and the internet is available to all, it is difficult to recall the assumed all-encompassing rights of government to control all broadcasting.

And it was not just a matter of the pirate stations changing broadcasting for ever. Up until 1964, in the UK, culture and experience was dominated by middle-class, middle-of-the-road traditional values. These values were reflected nowhere so forcefully as at the BBC. The BBC endorsed, formalised and disseminated an ethos of subscription to such values in everything it broadcast, from news to music. Subscription to alternative values was denied by the BBC’s monopoly.

The pirates would change that for ever, far beyond changing radio broadcasting. For millions of teenagers and other young people, all of a sudden there was another way. The definition of popular culture and access to freedom of expression was no longer the right of a privileged few. Pirate radio may have posed more questions than answers but it successfully challenged a whole series of assumed rights: rights to the airwaves, rights to hear the programmes of one’s choice, rights to self-expression, and the right to question things which had never been up for discussion before.

I didn’t realise at that moment in time how much pirate radio would influence my own life, as it did those of millions of youngster in the Sixties. In the wake of offshore pirate radio, came a veritable revolution in music, dress, design, speech, human rights and attitudes. Of course, pirate radio cannot be scientifically linked to all this, and there were other influences at play. However, I do believe it was the catalyst in a much wider series of events.

Like tens of thousands of youngsters (the Free Radio Association, with which I was associated, had more than 100,000 members in 1967), I was passionate about the pirates, their product and about the issues they had raised. In the 1960s, for the first time, young people were emerging into a new world where they might express themselves, dress themselves and become players in their own right.

My first book, When Pirates Ruled the Waves, was written in longhand in my school holidays in the summers of 1966 and 1967. The London book publishing industry, reflecting, as it did, strong traditional values and attitudes, was incredibly snooty about the book. I approached no less than 32 publishers over a period of some six months. All turned the book down. The most common observation was there was ‘no market’ for such a book. Implicit in this was the feeling that young people would not buy books and that, for older people, this was a subject of absolutely no interest whatsoever.

With all the optimism and certainty of youth, I was convinced that these views were mistaken and that the publishers were all fools. But I was unsure about how to proceed until the last publisher I approached, Clive Bingley, wrote me a note inviting me to meet him at his office in London’s Notting Hill Gate.

Clive, now retired, was probably one of the shrewdest and most down-to-earth publishers in the UK during the 60s and 70s. In the early 70s, together with fellow publisher, Lionel Leventhal, who was also enormously encouraging to me, he would start a book fair in London for small and specialist publishers (SPEX) which would, in time, grow into the massive and successful London Book Fair (which they would later sell for a vast sum of money to Reed Exhibitions).

Clive, direct as ever, sat behind his desk in his, to me, impressive book-lined office and told me, “I’m not going to publish your book . . .

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