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

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 was studying politics and international relations at Aberdeen University in the far, frozen north east of Scotland: the bit that juts out into the North Sea and catches the wind and spray driving down from Iceland and the Arctic Circle.

My more studious endeavours were punctuated by my writing, editing the university newspaper, Gaudie, and running mobile discotheques around the campus.

Working on the university newspaper brought me into contact with the owner of the local, Scotpix news agency, J Geddes Wood.

I soon became Geddes’s ‘stringer’ at the university, feeding stories and pictures to him for onward distribution to the national newspapers.

On my first term at university, I was the photographer for the university newspaper. I was immediately recruited during Freshers’ Week as soon as word got out that not only was I a keen photographer but that I possessed the necessary skills to develop and print my own photographs: I’d actually been at it since the tender age of eight when I was given my first camera, a Gevabox medium format, sporting three exposure and two aperture settings. Chaps who could get it on in the darkroom were in great demand.

I introduced Page One Girls to the paper. With a succession of beautiful women appearing on the front page of the paper, its circulation inexplicably soared.

These were the days when universities staged beauty contests. But things turned ugly, when one of the contestants was attacked on her way home.

Jenny Hunt happened to be the daughter of a famous father, Sir John Hunt, conqueror of Everest. The pictures I had of her were pretty average: she hadn’t been happy being photographed. But of course, what I had were recent photographs. Cue Geddes Wood at the door of my room in the Halls of Residence. “Let’s get a coffee, we’ve got things to talk about, Paul,” he said.

This was to be my first encounter with Geddes Wood. I produced the negs and Geddes produced the sales to The Daily Mail and The Daily Express.

Over the next few years, we would share a succession of ‘scoops’.

One of the biggest was provided by the Fraserburgh Lifeboat disaster at the end of January 1970. The Fraserburgh Lifeboat overturned in heavy seas 36 miles north of its home port: five of the crew died and just one survived, Jackson Buchan, who clung to the upturned hull, against
all the odds, and was rescued by a Russian trawler.

The story was all the more in the public interest because the previous Fraserburgh Lifeboat had also overturned back in 1953. We went up to cover the story and stayed with a seafaring relative of Geddes’ in the coastal village of Findochty.

We were by now regularly utilising my skills in scanning the airwaves for information we really shouldn’t have had access to and, about 1am, I intercepted a message on the UHF waveband from a Russian rescue boat which had recovered the Fraserburgh Lifeboat, overturned, with the
bodies of four of her crew inside.

But, over the airwaves, they refused to release it until they were paid salvage. This was an outrageous demand which would surely stir local sensitivities. We knew this was a big story, but it was too late to sell it to that day’s ‘dailies’ which had already gone to print. So Geddes got on the blower to the London Evening Standard and they readily agreed to pay us