8Qs: Hugh Pile

Eight Questions is an occasional series of interviews that I’m including on the site. Being a naturally gifted (read: lazy) interviewer, I will be using the same eight questions in every interview.

This time, the questions are being answered by journalist, Hugh Pile. Hugh’s career has seen him covering current events in print and on screen, including working the news desk for papers such as The Times and serving as a producer and later editor of ITV’s long-running current affairs series, Weekend World.

He lives in Surrey, England.

Welcome, Hugh!

1 – What did you do before you did this and what do you miss about it?
I was a journalist (always have been, probably at heart always will be). But my journey through the world of journalism was perhaps slightly unusual, helped by luck, and a man called Alun.

At school I was a journalist in embryo, an embryonic hack, and at university I continued to be so. What was I studying? It’s not material to this story; it was less important in those days. But I did do a lot of student journalism. I ended up in an editorial Gang of Three. The other two members were the late, great Nick Clarke, who after another thirty years became the presenter of BBC Radio’s World at One, and the equally estimable Derek Bishton, who thirty years later was appointed the founding editor of Europe’s first online daily newspaper. We three edited a weekly student reviews and listings magazine, a Time Out before Time Out was invented. Our contributors included such people as the student men-of-letters-to-be Clive James, William Nicholson and David Hare; our editorial roles often involved a certain amount of climbing into, over and out of locked colleges in the early hours of publication days, in order to reach late contributors and squeeze them for their reviews. Just occasionally, after the climbing, we’d knock on the door of a student reviewer, only for it to be opened by the star of the show we’d commissioned the reviewer to review. Happy days!

I also took part in many student theatre productions, including tours to Europe and the USA. At various times I worked at the local professional theatre, and there behind the scenes I had the luck to meet a ballsy assistant stage manager called Alun, whom I got to know a little bit, and liked a lot. Alun was from the north-east of England, slightly older, more down-to-earth and worldly-wise, very different in background from me – an ivory-tower immigrant from overseas – and he, probably unwittingly, became my careers-advice mentor.

When I graduated, I still wanted to be a journalist, on newspapers. Specifically, I wanted to work for the legendary editor Harry Evans on the illustrious Sunday Times of London. Didn’t every young journalist of that era want to do the same? The Sunday Times was getting all the scoops. But in British national newspapers then, job appointments for journalists were “dead men’s shoes”, and even the Sunday Times was not immune. Despite my entreaties, the great Harry failed to see the value of employing me, nor did he respond positively to my numerous applications. I was of course disappointed. But thanks to the example of my mentor Alun, I decided, as an alternative to London, Alun’s home territory in the north-east of England sounded like an interesting launch-pad for a young journalist’s career. I duly passed the interview, and not long afterwards I started work for a daily newspaper in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Initially I enjoyed my time in Newcastle very much, but after a year or two I grew frustrated with the limits of my role, and began again to trouble the great Harry with requests for a job – though, of course, still without success. One evening, however, my working life did start to change, as the result of a tiny incident. Coming out of a Newcastle theatre, I collided heavily with Alun, whom I hadn’t seen or spoken to since student days. He’d been sprinting, full tilt. “How’re you?” my career mentor called as his figure receded, running backwards down the pavement. “Bored with the newspaper, and nowhere to go!” I shouted. “Try breaking into the movies, or TV!” he shouted back, as he disappeared round the corner of the street.

I assumed that he was running to get home quickly after a shift spent working backstage at the theatre. I regretted that he hadn’t left me the time to confirm what he was doing, or ask him how he was. And his advice had sounded ambitious, to say the least, although he’d seemed very confident, for reasons I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand – until months afterwards I went to watch the newly-released British cinema thriller Get Carter, and I saw that Alun had in fact been successfully taking his own advice, and indeed, as I also later discovered, the very day that he’d bumped into me he’d spent in Newcastle with the star of the film Michael Caine shooting his own substantial role in the movie. As I say, I didn’t understand any of this for months, but I did start to think about the implications for me of Alun’s words – before luck struck again and helped me to follow his advice.

I’d done something – I forget what – that pleased my newspaper’s news editor. As a reward, he signed me up for a week-long, government-sponsored trip visiting the tourist spots of Israel – by historical standards, along with the rest of the Middle East, then relatively calm. It was my one-and-only foreign freebie; I think my news editor had intended it more or less as a holiday, with a couple of travel articles to be knocked out at the end. So dutifully I sat on a coach with other British journalists as we trekked round Haifa, Jerusalem, Galilee and Eilat. Halfway through the week we had an audience with Shimon Peres, later the President of Israel but then the Information Minister, to give us the government view. It seemed likely to be standard stuff. In his office, he sat at the end of a long table. By luck, I was placed on a seat close to him. I said hello, introduced myself and shook hands. Well into the meeting, as Mr Peres hymned the delights of Israeli tourism, an aide brought him a small piece of paper. He read it quickly, read it again very slowly, and placed it under a large glass ashtray.

Although a famous journalist had once encouraged young reporters like me to develop the skill of reading other people’s notes, at a distance and upside down if necessary, and accordingly I’d become quite adept at this, making sense of the Hebrew script under that glass ashtray proved far beyond my abilities. Try as I might, I failed to see what message Mr Peres’ piece of paper bore.

But that didn’t matter, because I soon found out. As Mr Peres continued to speak, his equable tone persisted, but his evident desire to bring the meeting to a swift end showed that something was seriously up. As soon as we journalists had shuffled out of the room, we heard unconfirmed rumours that Israel had shot down an off-course Libyan civil airliner over the Negev Desert, with many fatalities amongst the Arab passengers and crew.

I slipped back into the office as Mr Peres himself headed for the door. I was grateful that he took the time to stop and answer my questions. He didn’t supply any facts that I hadn’t heard already, but his on-the-record confirmation of the news was enough for me to write a story.

The shooting-down was a particularly dreadful episode in a region with a history of dreadful episodes. But for me, it had the consequence of changing the course of my career. My editors in Newcastle managed to get my story on to the front pages of a sizable number of British regional newspapers. On the strength of it, I was at last able to wrangle an interview with the great Harry at the Sunday Times (as he walked down a corridor). As a result, whilst I continued to carry out my Newcastle day-job, I also spent more than six months of evenings and weekends researching local council corruption for the Sunday Times, and later writing for The Times. (You’ll be familiar with the bones of the council-corruption story if you’ve ever watched the fondly-remembered, fact-based BBC drama serial Our Friends in the North.) That work then won me an out-of-the-blue job interview with TV producers in London who had created a new weekly national and international current affairs programme. Finally, I was able to follow Alun’s advice, and break into TV.

I spent quite a few years on that one TV show, and more years subsequently working with or for the people whom I met there. I was lucky enough to be recruited alongside some very bright, ambitious folk in the springtime of their careers, some of whose names are now well-known in the UK – including one who became a famous, if not notorious, politician and member of the UK Government, two who went on to head up the BBC, one who later wrote the world’s then-most successful debut novel, and several others who developed into successful writers, authors, broadcasters, or public figures.

As you might expect, in my time on the programme I also met numerous interesting people from the wider world, ranging from senior members of terrorist or guerrilla organisations, including the IRA, through British Prime Ministers (one way or another, I’ve now met just about every British PM of the last fifty years), to European and American political leaders (one of whom, when I told him that I’d first visited the USA years before with a group of student actors, fixed me with an amused stare and said “Richard Burton, you aren’t” – I had to admit that this was true, especially since I suspected that that particular politician was probably well-acquainted with Mr Burton).

Although the TV programme had a reputation for being somewhat cerebral, whilst in its employ I also had various less cerebral but lively experiences, including being tear-gassed in different locations round the world, narrowly avoiding being blown up in Belfast, and encountering numerous dead bodies in the Americas and Africa. That alongside all this I was able to help inform and educate millions of viewers in the ways our world works left me with a degree of satisfaction.

But that was then, a while ago. What do I miss about it? Unsurprisingly, I don’t miss the tear-gas, the bombs or the bodies. I do miss the journalism, especially the parts of it that dealt with ideas. I miss the excitement of live television, the interesting people, the sense of being close to the centre of big events – even, occasionally, having an influence on big events. The mental and physical effort and the commitment required were greater than you might think, but most of it was fun. I miss that.

And no, I haven’t spoken to my erstwhile mentor Alun for many years, and so I haven’t had the chance to thank him personally for his example and his advice. I miss those, too.

He’s now a highly regarded film, TV and stage actor. I bet he’d be surprised to learn of the influence he had, quite a long time ago.

2 – How many projects are you working on at the moment and what can you tell us about them?
One, a novel, a contemporary thriller. It’s centred on a real historical event, takes place in various locations around the world, and deals with a largely unaddressed issue that some regard as a serious injustice. It uses various experiences that I’ve had (including the tear-gas). It features a female protagonist, but all I can say about my heroine at the moment is that she’s not hard-bitten, or American, or a medical examiner, or a detective, or a vampire…

3 – If you had to quit either reading or writing which would you pick?
I’d keep reading. The reason is that I love to learn new things.

4 – If you could magic another hour into the day, where would you put it and what would you use it for?
I’d put it into the dawn – 6 a.m. in May anywhere in Europe, city or country, and I’d use the hour for walking or, possibly, cycling, depending on how I felt. I’d take a book or a Kindle with me, and along the way I’d probably stop to read and think.

5 – What is your pet hate in writing / language?
Imprecision in English. We Brits don’t realise how fortunate we are. The English language is our most valuable gift to ourselves, and to the world. Because it is a bastard language – and the bastard is continually being reborn – it has such a diversity of ancestors that the possibilities for those of us who wish to express ourselves accurately and succinctly are immense. And if against the odds we fail to find English words that say what we mean, we can always do as Shakespeare did and many writers since have done and successfully invent our own. To misuse such a gloriously versatile tool can only be a crime against beauty and reason (although I can’t claim that it’s a crime of which I’m always innocent).

6 – Are there any genres that you love to read but which you never write?
No, I’ll read anything that I’m capable of understanding and that seems to be of interest. In my time I’ve tasted everything from difficult foreign novels to Mills and Boon, and all the obvious stuff in-between. I’m also addicted to reading newspapers.

But like some others, I try not to read fiction when I’m writing fiction, for fear, justified or not, of inadvertently picking up other writers’ tropes.

7 – Do you have any writing rituals, habits or idiosyncrasies that you can share?
I can write amidst distraction, chaos and disarray. Newspapers and TV taught me to do that; many were the outlines or scripts that I started in a departure lounge and completed on a red-eye. Re-writing bits of script and feeding them to the Autocue/Teleprompter in the middle of a live TV show watched by millions was another frequent experience.

But to attempt to write my best, I prefer everything to be “just so”. I like to write a first draft in pencil (one with an eraser on the end, naturally). I’ve always done this. I believe the results are better that way.

After handwriting a first draft, hitherto I’ve usually typed up what I’ve handwritten, editing as I go. But in the interests of speed and reducing muscular aches and pains, I’m now experimenting with speech-to-text dictation technology instead. I wish that handwriting-to-text had reached a level where it was technically as accurate as speech-to-text; if it had, I’d use it in a heartbeat, but so far it’s been a disappointment to me (probably partly because, whatever I try to do, my handwriting remains very poor.)

I favour writing several drafts. As someone – E.B. White, or possibly Ernest Hemingway – put it, “Writing is re-writing.” My explanation is that good writing is mentally very difficult, at least for me; the human brain – all right, my brain – isn’t usually capable of achieving its best in one pass (although there does of course come a point when more drafting is counter-productive, and a key skill is to know when that point has been reached). Drafting is one reason that I like Scrivener. It’s built for drafts.

Whilst doing all this, I favour music without vocals, film music or classical, at a low volume. Hans Zimmer’s music, for the film Gladiator, say, works for me, as does Sibelius and Mozart.

8 – What are you selling and where can I buy it?
Nothing at all. Yet.

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Read more interviews in the 8Qs series here.