Western Group veteran John Powell has secured a scoop for his latest venture – signing up Tony Blair’s closest aide Alastair Campbell for exclusive articles in an online magazine for volunteers who are helping elderly and vulnerable people cope with the coronavirus crisis in his home town Tavistock near Plymouth.
The Helping Hands magazine was started by John and the designer and web expert Roger Croxson just three weeks ago to keep the 170 or so volunteers of Tavistock Locals Help (TLH) in touch with news and developments ñ and to keep them entertained during lockdown.
Alastair Campbell, who cut his journalistic teeth as a trainee reporter on the Tavistock Times in 1980, responded immediately to a call for help from John, and has written two articles, recalling his fondness for the town and the people living in it.
He writes about how he met his wife of almost 40 years Fiona Millar, who was also a trainee on the paper, and how it was the start of a journalistic and political journey that catapulted him to the very top of public life in Britain, as press secretary to Prime Minister Tony Blair through some of the most turbulent episodes in British politics.
He writes of those early days: “The centre of our universe was the paperís tiny office in Drake Road, where editor Mary Richards, later replaced by Bill Beckett, presided over the handful of journalists and we got a very early lesson in the importance of getting the facts right.
“It wasnít just Mary who called us out if we got something wrong but readers who would walk in through the front door to tell you the name of a mourner at a funeral had been wrongly recorded ‘Alun with a u not Alan with an a’ .”
Alastair also recalls how his fanaticism for sport meant he was given a weekly column – Campbellís Corner – and asked to edit the Tavistock Times’ sports pages, where he initially tried to persuade the football fans in the town to stop travelling to Plymouth to watch Argyle and follow Tavistock Town instead.
In his second instalment, to be published in the magazine next week, Alastair writes of discovering the delights of Tavistock pub crawls.
Fiona had a car and so would often get despatched to Okehampton and to the various parish councils betwixt and between, he recalls.
“This would leave me to wander the pubs of Tavistock, following my new found motto that there is a story in every one, though it was probably an excuse for another pub crawl, it was rare that I left a pub without something to take back to the paper. This habit deepened when Bill Beckett took over. Fair to say he had drinking habits to go with his Fleet Street background.
“What is it about newspapers and drink? Working with photographer Jim Thorington was an education in itself. Driving with him was terrifying. Drinking even more so. Goosey Fair was a challenge not just in how many stories and pictures we could get, but how much drink we could down as we did so. Jim could handle more scotch than anyone I ever met.
“Fiona and I kept all our cuttings from those days and I have just been looking through them to find what was surely my favourite headline of our time there. The story of a man caught stealing womenís underwear from a clothes line “Knicker nicker nicked”.
John says that the website, Tavistock Locals Help – set up as an online page-turner to give it the feel of a newspaper – has proved a big success in the short time since it was set up, with volunteers manning help lines seven days a week and responding to more than 500 requests, including collecting shopping and prescriptions for those unable to leave their homes because of lockdown.
John’s next job is to persuade other well known faces with Tavistock connections to contribute, and just for good measure he’s included a motoring column. There’s life in the old dog yet.