Thursday, 30 September 2010

My First Death Knock

This whole post is apropos of nothing in particular, it's the type of story every journalist has, but I found myself thinking about it recently and so I wrote it down.
There are a few set questions anyone applying for a job in journalism gets asked at interview - among them is a request to summarise what they would do if Newsdesk sent them out on The Knock - which usually means a death knock. (Update 1.10.10: Andy Dickinson raises the growing issue of 'Facebook plundering v human contact' debate here)

My first successful death knock was a boat; not on a boat, you understand, but the actual storm-crushed remains of a fishing vessel whose owner was still missing at sea, days later.

I was 18 and had been a junior reporter for about four months when a lad I was in school with nipped from his home to secure his new (to him) fishing boat in stormy weather; shortly after he boarded, moorings, boat and owner were swept away.

I was sent to try and talk to his mother, and got to her front door before her friends and neighbours steered me firmly without any real usable quotes.
The local undertaker was always helpful but his services were not required yet for there was no body. The lifeboat crew told me what they could but there wasn’t much, given that they’d returned empty-handed.
Three days later the boat fetched up at Pendine sands, on a part of the beach which fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence. As in, you couldn't go anywhere near that particular area unless you worked for the MoD... 

... My father worked for the MoD at Pendine.
So I told him my problem; I wanted to be a journalist, I had 12 months to prove myself on the local paper and on my first death knock I was getting nowhere. I was desperate to show some spark of wit and a picture of the boat would swing it.
I guess he could have taken the photo for me but it was more his style to put one over his bosses and let me get the photo myself. So, instead, he came up with the kind of plan usually only seen in Ealing comedies.

Taking two colleagues into his confidence he got a lift to work and, during the afternoon, walked out through the gates telling the hated Redcaps (Military police) on the gate he was picking up his daughter’s car. Then he met me, in my Fiesta, at a pre-arranged location nearby. I got in the boot, with a camera, he drove back. 
At the gate, Workmate 1 was chatting, as planned, with the Redcap and my father was waved in without a glance. We swapped to Workmate 2’s MoD Land Rover and drove through the second checkpoint looking official, passed  what was, at one time I believe, the longest rocket launch track in the world and on to the restricted area of the beach.

I saw the boat, and it stopped being a lark. The Double R was a corpse - a beached wreck with her paintwork sandblasted away and holes punched in her keel. She lay, tilted to the side,  with the cabin smashed in. That was when I truly understood I was reporting on the aftermath of a tragedy. Someone I vaguely knew had gone out, buttoning his coat against the storm, to secure his boat and means of employment, and he had died an unimaginable death.
Pendine sands are truly vast, and I took my photo of a broken boat alone in an expanse of sky and sea. When developed it looked pretty good, too. I lost the print years ago but I’ve got the cutting still. I never got a byline, even though it was front paqe news, and no one asked me how I got the photo.
We left the beach. Dad drove my Fiesta home, I got a lift with his mate, crouching down to get through the gates.
The boat’s owner was found a couple of days later - his body surfaced and a tourist pleasure boat had to stop and recover it (it’s an offence not to, I believe). There was a near mutiny on that boat when the tourists learned a decomposing mariner was being gaffed and hauled aboard. That little detail never got printed however.

Today I contributed a content strategy, with particular emphasis on what sort of feeds we should consider aggregating and the level of showbiz news a user might require. Which might explain why I've been reminiscing about reporting days. 
Tell you what, Pendine beach seems a very long time ago.
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Andy said...

Nice post although it does suggest that there was an unsuccessful death knock(s) before that.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. As a newbie just starting out it is encouraging to hear/read what it was really like for others when they first started out.
Thank you for the insight.

Unknown said...

Hi Andy
That was the first solo one; previously I had gone with the Chief Reporter to a fire death (he secured the family chat - I sat mute and somewhat horrified that this was in my future).
My second death knock was my hairdresser. She cut my hair on the Thursday afternoon, on the Saturday morning I was back in the salon interviewing tearful colleagues. That was PROPER weird!
Death knocks prompt such different reactions - sometimes there's outright hostility but I have also been met with relief by people who just wanted to tell the world what a great person the sec eased was. I spent hours with a stranger, going through their record collection helping them pick funeral music once - I was quite glad to get away in the end to be honest.

@burnthemidnightoil thanks for the comment, you are very kind :) good luck with your chosen career - these are interesting/challenging times but there are so many opportunities to make your mark in journalism now I hope you enjoy the job as much as I have.