Baptism of ink and warm beer

Tony Curran

Helping hand. . . In 1985, Tony Curran travelled to Sudan as part of a charity set up by his then-employer, the Gloucester Express, in aid of the local villagers

And it doesn’t sit comfortably. I still feel like the teenager who couldn’t contain his excitement when he landed his first reporting job on a gritty broadsheet in the north of England.

I knew my place. Or if I didn’t, my chief reporter cheerily reminded me, in between throwing cigarettes and screwed-up balls of copy paper in my direction.

But it wasn’t long before I graduated from the hatch, match and despatch department to the “go put your foot in the door and don’t come back without a story” assignment. It was then that I knew he trusted me to deliver.

We played as hard as we worked, and usually combined the two.

“Right, you lot, finish what you’re doing now,” he would say just before midday. “We’re off to the Legion to play snooker. And we’ve only got an hour.”

When he swept his eyes across our desks, he deliberately ignored the only female reporter in the newsroom. Male chauvinism was a seventies staple, especially oop north.

My oppo Paul and I had little spare cash (my first wages were below the recognised poverty line), so we drew up a schedule to chase yarns at the town’s pubs after work.

The publican would always buy us the first drink and, if he didn’t offer us a second, we’d move on to the next. By night’s end, our bellies and our notebooks were always bulging.

Mine was not so much a baptism of fire, as a baptism of ink and warm beer.

One night we attended a council-organised reception for the trophy-winning Widnes Rugby League team, just across the River Mersey from our home patch of Runcorn.

Paul and I hit on a cunning plan. As the alcohol flowed, and the players wandered around clutching vodka bottles, we asked one or two of them if they would mind if we “borrowed” their trophy for a few days, so we could stage a mock charity auction through the paper, before returning it to the club.

They didn’t mind at all, of course. They were rapidly getting as smashed as we were. So we half-inched the cup from its pedestal, and hid it in the toilet for a few minutes. Nobody had noticed its absence, so I called a cab.

Sadly, for us, the driver recognised our glittering booty and, while we hopped back into the building to check the alarm had not been raised at the reception, our man in the taxi called the police.

Our editor, Terry, was less than amused. But his punishment didn’t seem to be quite as tough as I anticipated. He banned me from reporting on council meetings, because the councillors had told him they were upset at my antics. Suddenly, I had an extra night off work each fortnight. On another occasion, Terry called me into his office for a “quiet word”. I was the court reporter, and his teenage son was due before the magistrate.

“Don’t treat him any differently in your report, just because he’s my son,” he said.

Young Phil had brought home some road signs after a night out, a popular sport at the time. Trouble was, he’d been caught.

After I filed my copy, Terry wanted another word: “When I said don’t treat him differently, I didn’t expect you to make such a good story out of it,” he said.

“Now I’ve got to make it a page lead.”

Countless such tales have flowed over 14 newspapers in four disparate corners of the globe.

In that formative, golden era, the most memorable yarns seemed to be sourced in pubs, the great British meeting place, where a few drops of ale were the perfect stimulant to keep the creative juices flowing at the end of a long day pounding the streets and the keys of my Imperial typewriter.

It wasn’t all beer and skittles, though. One such after-work session began with the usual chuckles, but I was soon overwhelmed by a degree of solemnity.

I was deputy editor of the Gloucester Express, the newest masthead in the world’s oldest newspaper group, Berrows of Worcester.

It was July 15, 1985, two days after the Live Aid concert phenomenon had awoken a global generation to the starving millions in Africa.

Shocking images of dying children had been blitzing the media since BBC reporter Michel Buerk single-handedly lifted the lid on the greatest humanitarian story of the century.

Now, it seemed, everyone’s conscience was swept up by an unprecedented wave of compassion. Third-world charities had never had it so good.

My editor Dennis and I wanted to acknowledge this at the local level through a newspaper-driven community fundraiser. That was a no-brainer. A few beers later, the Gloucester Express Aid for Africa campaign was born.

But we didn’t just want to raise money and hand over a cheque. We wanted to stand out from the crowd. We wanted to somehow show our readers how their money was going to be spent. Somehow, we were going to go to Africa ourselves.

Within a few weeks we had raised more than £20,000; a decent effort from a paper that was only six editions old. And, a little while later through a locally-based aid agency worker who was impressed with our fortitude, we had identified a small township in the Sudan which was to become the focus of our efforts.

Three months after Live Aid, I checked into my room at the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum. I was a one-man aid agency, begging for scraps of advice and information from the multinational charity offices.

They, too, were in a state of bewilderment. Their UK bosses, swamped with donations, were shipping ancillary supplies into the country so swiftly, little thought had been applied to their suitability. Almost everything with a plug on it was useless in the field.

Given they assumed I was a well-meaning but ineffectual reporter out of my depth – which was not too far off the mark – I enjoyed access to every major charity office in the Sudanese capital.

At a time when consolidation of in-country knowledge and resources was desperately needed by those they presumed to be assisting, most of the corporate do-gooders weren’t even talking to each other.

There was so much unrealised potential. The reporters in the thick of it, particularly those who had been embedded before news of the crisis hit the West, were frustrated as hell.

In those seminal months post-Live Aid, which brought a torrent of aid to Sudan and Ethiopia, it was the poorly-funded and less fashionable independent aid workers who best knew what was really needed, and how to work with the authorities.

By the time I arrived, politics was already getting in the way, at a domestic and international level. Six months earlier, Sudan had fallen to a coup, but somehow threw together an interim constitution during the days I was wandering the streets.

Stories of incompetence and corruption would eventually filter into the mainstream media. But I wasn’t going to bite the hand of those who were feeding me with the priceless help I needed to succeed in my assignment.

After two weeks of putting my foot in the door, I was promised a seat with the first Band Aid lorry convoy to set off from Khartoum into the unforgiving state of North Darfur. The pantechnicons had landed.

But I was gutted – I couldn’t accept the offer. Their journey was to take ten days, and that was beyond the timeframe I had been allowed. A day later, though, a commercial air freight business came to my rescue.

“Be at the airstrip at 6am tomorrow,” I was told. “We’ll probably be able to get you out west.”

Missing this one last opportunity was not an option, so I stayed up all night; writing, as usual.

As the sun rubbed its eyes over the eastern edge of the Sahara, I found myself sitting in the front seat of a Cessna. We were heading for the town of El Fasher, but we flew a circumspect route via the south, because another aid worker also was hitching a ride.

On our last leg, after eight hours in the air, the pilot put the plane into cruise mode and tuned the radio on to the BBC World Service.

As the boogie-woogie swing of the Glenn Miller big band wafted through the cabin, I glimpsed down through the grainy haze.

Tens of thousands of lost souls, a few thousand feet below, were staring back at us from their refugee camp. We may as well have been a world away.

I had by now decided how our readers’ money would be spent. We couldn’t offer food, because we couldn’t sustain the supply. But we could provide educational material, and the men from the ministry were there to meet me when we landed.

The next day, after an eight-hour drive across the desert of northern Darfur, sharing the back of a flatbed ute with a bleating goat, I
arrived at my destination – our chosen village of Umm Keddada.

I was immediately led on tours of the schools, and began compiling my shopping list.

I soon found their needs extended beyond books and stationery to desks and chairs; some of the school rooms were nothing more than clay huts with a sand floor – and no roof.

I added a few beds to the shopping list too, because some pupils came from many miles away – and they couldn’t be expected to walk that distance more than twice a term.

I also had to turn down one request from a hopeful, but hopelessly out of touch school teacher, who asked me to add a video player to my list.

He had heard it might be a great teaching tool. But I had to explain to him, gently, that it wouldn’t work very well in a town that had no electricity.

After copious servings of goat stew for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I farewelled the kids who had followed Mister Tony around town, and returned to El Fasher to organise my journey home.

It was Mohamed’s birthday, and thousands turned out carrying fire torches, flags and drums. I was the only white man among them, and I couldn’t believe I was there because of a newspaper campaign dreamed up in a village pub in Gloucestershire.

When I returned to the Acropole, I discovered the Band Aid convoy was still stuck somewhere beyond the back of El Bourke.

On my return to the UK, I got on with the business of writing stories, pushing our campaign and organising charity events.

A few months later, Dennis followed my trail, accompanying a lorry load of books, beds and soft toys from Gloucester to Umm Keddada.

It must have been quite a sight, trekking across the mountains of a dry Arab country in a truck donated by a Gloucester brewery.

But we had succeeded in equipping three high schools for another generation and, uniquely, tempered new links between two communities which, up until then, didn’t know the other existed.

My most enduring memory of those remarkable few weeks was when I was serenaded by a class of six-year-olds.

They had been summoned to school – on what was, for them, a public holiday – simply because I was the mysterious white benefactor who had parachuted into town with a promise of help.

We didn’t let them down. And they gave me something priceless in return.

Those young children had been taught to sing a certain song to me in Arabic, as a farewell gesture.

I didn’t recognise the words. But their version of Auld Lang Syne brought tears to my eyes. And I’ve dreamed of going back ever since.

When I tell people why it is a privilege to work for a newspaper, I recall the hunger of those cub reporters, for whom sometimes the price of a pint was beyond their reach.

Then I recall the hunger of those dying of starvation in Africa, and how a couple of journos on a fledgling free weekly made a real difference to a struggling village in a far-off land.

I have newspapers to thank for these memories, and for so much more.

For Auld Lang Syne, my friends.

Tony Curran is regional editor for North Queensland Newspapers

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