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Robert Fisk, who graduated from Lancaster in 1968, was one of the greatest war correspondents of his generation. He died last month aged 74. At Lancaster he edited Carolynne, then the pre-eminent student news magazine. John Foster, who took over from Fisk, recalls those heady days of student journalism at a new university.
I was sitting in my bedsit on Barton Road one Sunday night in March 1968 when the doorbell rang. 10.30 pm. The landlady was not best pleased.
“It’s for you”, she shouted out.
Robert Fisk came into my room.
“I’ve got your lead story”.
Never mind that it was Sunday night. Never mind that there was nothing we could do about it till the morning. Never mind that Robert had officially left Carolynne some months earlier to concentrate on his degree. He had a story and he had to get it off his chest.
The magazine was due out on Tuesday. In those days of hot metal typesetting, that left us very little time. We had negotiated special arrangements with our printers, allowing us to rewrite the main news page with just a few hour’s notice if necessary. We prided ourselves in being as up-to-the-minute as the local newspapers whereas John O’ Gauntlet (the student newspaper that was our main competition) had a copy deadline of around two weeks. Even SCAN, despite being churned out on a duplicator, could not match us.
Next morning we were at the printers first thing, pulling apart the main page and rewriting the lead story.
Weekend Tragedy on Morecambe Seafront
Robert was on the phone from the press room, getting details and quotes from the police; I was pulling things together with the compositor who was setting the type. Robert looked up from the phone: “Roger Miller – see if you can get a pic from the university admissions office…”
Not a happy story, but it was news and Robert thrived on it.
He had been a journalist before Lancaster, first on a local paper and then, bored, he took a train to London and talked his way into every Fleet Street newspaper editor’s office until John Junor took him on to join the team writing the Sunday Express gossip column “Town Talk”.
Bored once more, he decided on university, and Lancaster had a reputation for taking undergraduates from unconventional backgrounds. It was inevitable that he would quickly immerse himself in student journalism. And equally inevitable that he would choose to join Carolynne: irreverent, newsy, and fearless. Our masthead proudly proclaimed us “Independent of both the University and the Student Representative Council”. We lampooned lecturers and pricked the pomposity of student officials. We sold enough advertising to make a profit which funded editorial dinners at Mrs Hogg’s restaurant in Gressingham, where you could eat anything you liked so long as it was duck.
Robert took over as editor from William Smethurst, who had founded the magazine just four days after the university opened in 1964, naming it after the girl he fancied in the hope of winning her affections (it worked: they were together until William’s death four years ago).
But Fisk did not last long as editor. Hyperactive and over-anxious, he immediately began fretting that he would not get the good degree he craved, so he passed the baton to me within a few months. Probably wise, given what I have to show for my own academic studies.
Despite relinquishing the editor’s chair, he still contributed stories, for a time taking over as Jacobin – the magazine’s gossip column equivalent of Town Talk: “What cunning, wit, and secret news / Appear when Jacobin doth choose”. Here he campaigned successfully against a £5 charge – equivalent to £75 today – for students who declined to collect their degrees in person. “A fine”, he called it. When some lecturers began giving minus marks for bad work, he pointed out that any student who feared such a rating would fare better by not submitting his or her work at all. When Princess Alexandra (the then-Chancellor) paid a visit, the university laid on a chauffeur-driven car for her and Fisk could reveal that “Although she probably did not know it, the Princess rode around Lancaster and Morecambe in the pride of the Lancaster Co-Op Funeral Fleet.”
He knew a good story and he knew how to write it. And he knew he would end up as a journalist. John Junor knew it too and kept his job open for him. Robert was a frequent visitor to the Express offices, both at weekends and in the vacations, constantly seeking reassurance that he had not been forgotten. After the umpteenth such nervous inquiry, he proudly brandished a letter from John Junor himself: “Now you can relax, Robert, and concentrate on your degree…”
But Town Talk was not enough for Robert and before long he was on The Times and making a name for himself covering The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Predictably, he would fall out with Rupert Murdoch when the latter took over the paper and Fisk moved to The Independent. He is perhaps best known for his work there, covering the Middle East.
It was all a far cry from STUDENT DROWNED…or from “Stop Press”, the poem he wrote for Carolynne some four months after arriving at Lancaster. This is part of it:
First edition – twelve o’clock:
Rewrite here, Bob, check with the hospital
To see if the old fool’s dead,
And frantic phone calls for conditions
Quite fair, unchanged or seriously ill.
And then it happens – fire down Market Street!
And feverish meeting of photographer,
And racing through city’s busy streets
And seeing smoke with hoses on the street.
“Fire swept through the seven story block…”
And back in the office, good work Bob, can you get out
And see this kid who’s made himself a boat in plasticene,
And so the hungry pointless paper goes to press.
Oh God, I’m tired and hungry!
“The hungry, pointless paper goes to press.” Yes, I like that.