Learning a reporter’s trade amid multiple shipping disasters
by Jeremy Miles
Exactly 43-years ago today I walked into my first newspaper office to start a long and eventful career in journalism. The bi-weekly Folkestone Herald and Gazette was a great place to learn the reporters trade. The paper had the advantage of being based in one of the most characterful towns on the south east coast. It had been on the front-line during the war. Hell-Fire Corner they called it when the bombs rained down. I grew up there during the 1950s and had an unquestioning understanding of the place. It was strange but I knew nothing else.
Back in those early post-war days Folkestone exuded an air of ruined elegance – a throwback to more genteel days. My childhood memories are of a town full of wonderful eccentrics, an environment scarred by bomb-sites, strewn with rubble and inhabited by what seemed like a disproportionate number of war veterans who were minus a leg or an arm. You’d pass them in the street medals clanking, crutches creaking.
My parents were a little bohemian, heavily into theatre, art and occasional forays into the world of European cinema. Our house was a home from home for people from the local rep’ theatre. There were a lot of creative things going on. It was a good place to grow-up. When I was about six-years-old rock ’n’ roll arrived in Folkestone with gusto. A regular past-time over the next few years was to wander up the road and look with wonder at the Teddy Boys who frequented the local milk-bar. I’d watch them combing their quiffs and pushing sixpences into the Juke Box – Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Everlys… magical sounds from America where everything was bigger – the cars, the buildings, the opportunities.
Within a few short years though such acquisitional desires were unthinkable. The counter-culture had arrived and talk of revolution was in the air. Anyone who was anyone would head for The Acropolis coffee bar in the Old High Street – Archie’s as it was almost universally known – to drink weak coffee, discuss ways of stopping the war in Vietnam and generally how to shift power across the western world from the bread-heads to the hippie collective. We even got Tariq Ali to come and give a talk on a local college playing field.
It was soon clear that the revolution was going nowhere so, in 1970, after a summer spent travelling and a few months trying to earn a crust from dead-end jobs, I pitched up at the Folkestone Herald for an interview. Like every interview I’ve ever attended it was really just a general chat, a bit of banter and then the offer of the job. I arrived on that first morning – Monday 11th January – full of confidence and ready, I thought, for anything. What I’d neglected to notice as I walked across town to the office was that most of the shop windows were shattered.
I must have been one of the few people to sleep through a massive explosion in the early hours as two ships collided a few miles off shore in the English Channel. The blast as the 10,000 tonne Cypriot registered Paracas hit the 14,000 tonne Panamanian tanker the Texaco Caribbean was so loud it rattled windows 20 miles inland. Eight crew members died as the Panamanian ship exploded and broke in two. I had remained oblivious to it all and shamefully must have trudged uncomprehending through broken glass as I made my way to work.
I walked into an office full of journalists dealing with a major news story. It was about to become even bigger. The following morning I was dispatched, notebook in hand, to speak to local fishermen about the threat of pollution from the wrecked tanker. This was at least a step up from the first day’s task: “Go and ask the shopkeepers what they think about having their windows broken” I had however learnt two important lessons. Be observant and be careful how you phrase a question. It really can make all the difference between getting a constructive and insightful answer or simply being sworn at.
As I arrived at the waterfront on that second day, ambulances screamed past me onto the harbour. A 3,000 tonne German ship, the Brandenburg, had smashed into the submerged wreck of the Texaco. The stricken ship capsized and sank with the loss of 21 crew members. By sheer chance I was first on the scene as they brought the bodies in. To say I hadn’t got a clue what to do would be an understatement. There were no mobiles in those days. I had to find a phone box and then realised I didn’t actually know the Folkestone Herald’s phone number. Fortunately for me reinforcements were soon on the way.
Watching how a major news story comes together was a steep but invaluable learning curve. I even got a paragraph of my very own in the resulting coverage. My new employers were quick to stress that such stories hardly ever happen. Wrong! Some six weeks later, on 27th February, another ship, a 3,000 tonne Greek registered vessel Niki, hit the existing wrecks and sank. All 22 people on board were lost.
These terrible accidents led to decisive action on maritime safety from the Department of Trade who introduced new traffic control measures and state-of-the art radar surveillance of all shipping in the Dover Strait. It took 31 deaths, the loss of three ships and serious damage to a fourth for the maritime authorities to learn their lesson. It taught me that, journalistically, I really was ready for anything. Until now that is. I am having a bit of trouble getting my head around the fact that all this happened 43 long years ago and that as I write this I am just two weeks shy of my 63rd birthday. Now how the hell did that happen?