After a lifetime of putting famous people under the spotlight of publicity, our reporter Tony James has found himself in the media headlines this week.
West Somerset Free Press journalist Tony, who lives near Minehead with his partner Viv Merson, is being credited by his peers as possibly the UK’s oldest working journalist.
At the age of 88, Tony is in his seventh decade as a journalist and still setting an example for younger generations of scribes to follow.
He is, of course, well-known across West Somerset for his seafaring exploits, his scratch-built models of sailing vessels which more than a century ago were plying their trade from the ports of Minehead, Watchet, and Porlock, and playing bass with local jazz band ‘The Darktown Strutters’, who also featured former Free Press reporter Bob Barron on drums.
Tony has also given many talks about his experiences to clubs and organisations and once appeared at the Porlock Literary Festival with fellow-speaker Kate Adie, of BBC television news fame.
But what many readers of his newspaper articles may not know is the incredible true story of a globe-trotting journalism adventure which led Derby-born Tony to the quiet backwaters of West Somerset.
From getting to know the notorious London East End gangsters the Kray twins, to travelling with a gun-toting Prime Minister, to dodging a hanging, to being suspected of an affair with pop star Lulu, Tony could write a book about his career.
In fact, he has. Two books, actually. But both focus on his love of sailing, Up the Creek and Yankee Jack Sails Again – Google ‘Yankee Jack’ if you do not know the story!
Tony has actually written more than 15 books, some of them as a ghost writer, as well as ghosting newspaper columns for many famous sports people.
At long last, he is now considering writing an autobiography detailing his life in the journalism profession.
“I like journalism,” said Tony. “I like turning in good work and doing a good job. I will do it until it’s done, and I can’t do it half-way.”
“Journalism is a very odd thing. It’s a compulsion to do it, to do it well and to put out stories that people aren’t going to know about.
“We do try and reveal things that are in the public interest and we try and do it well.
“At the moment, there is no reason for me to stop. I can see, walk about, speak to people and hear. One day I am going to have to say that is enough, but I will just go on as I am. I’m a sort of fossil left from an extinct species.”
You could almost say that Tony’s interest in journalism was sparked by the popularity of firemen in the 1940s.
He wanted a fireman’s set for Christmas when he as nine years old, but it had sold out and instead his parents bought him an editor’s set.
So, Tony used the gift to start his first newspaper in Derby, calling it ‘My Family and Wartime News’.
It quickly sold out – all four copies, which were typed by his mother using carbon paper!
Fast forward nine years and Tony joined the city’s Derby Evening Telegraph at the age of 18, after having left boarding school aged 16 with an O Level in English, in 1952.
In those days the Evening Telegraph sold 80,000 copies a day in six editions using the Victorian ‘hot metal’ printing process.
Tony became the paper’s agricultural correspondent when the editor called him in one day and instructed: “Put these Wellington boots on.”
“Do they fit,” he asked. “Yes,” said Tony. “Well, they don’t fit anyone else so you’re now the new agricultural correspondent!”
After five years, Tony moved to London to join the East London Advertiser as a reporter, where he came to know the Krays.
“We had to call them ‘the East End’s sporting brothers’,” said Tony. “I met them and they were very scary people.”
Tony later moved to Canada and worked for the Montreal Star, before going to Jamaica, where he was crime, education, and Parliamentary correspondent on the Jamaican Gleaner.
He covered the Independence riots in Jamaica’s capital Kingston in the 1960s when the then-Prime Minister toted two pearl handled revolvers.
“I rode about with him in his car several times with his revolvers by his side,” said Tony.
During his time in the Caribbean Tony covered exciting stories such as the opening of Jamaica’s first traffic light.
He said: “I was the only person on the island who had ever seen a traffic light, and it turned out to be a disaster because they only ordered one – and there were about 28 accidents in the first hour.
“So, they dug it up again.”
Tony was also invited to witness a hanging on the island. He said: “A local man was found guilty of murder but the case was, in my view, a terrible miscarriage of justice and I wrote to the Parliament to plead his case. Sadly, my intervention had no effect, but the defendant appreciated my coverage in the paper and he asked me to be a witness at his hanging.
“I declined because I simply couldn’t face witnessing the outcome of such wrongdoing.”
Tony returned to England and worked in Fleet Street for the Press Association as deputy editor of its special reporting service before moving to another famous news agency, Reuters, as deputy news editor of the UK desk.
He co-founded Features International, which became Fleet Street’s largest independent syndication agency, and he pioneered sportsmen’s ghosted newspaper columns with a client list which included many top names such as George Best, Dennis Law, Billy Bremner, Colin Cowdray, Henry Cooper, Jack Nicklaus, Uffa Fox, and Stirling Moss.
“I also ghosted Lulu’s first autobiography,” said Tony. “She was only 18 and had not done much.
“Her then boyfriend and later husband, Maurice Gibb, of the Bee Gees, was suspicious of her spending so much time with a bloke – me – in her hotel room!”
Other scoops for Tony during this time included bringing Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs’ mistress to England for a News of the World exclusive, and handling the English version of footballer Pele’s autobiography.
“I won an award for that,” said Tony. “The Brazilian Fire Urn of Culture, but sadly the package got lost in the post.”
Features International also diversified into backing West End shows and starting a printing business before Tony left the syndication business in 1989 to become a full-time freelance journalist, specialising in business, franchising, maritime history, true crime, and sport.
Over the years, Tony has worked for more than 40 publications worldwide, including newspapers and magazines in Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Scandinavia, South Africa, Australia, East Africa, Sarawak, Kenya, Canada, Ireland, Singapore, and Hong Kong – and that is to name but a few!
He estimates he has written more than 40 million words during his career.
He continues to freelance for others, and recent interviewees include the UK’s former High Commissioner to Australia, Sir Roger Carrick, acclaimed author Tessa Hadley, and former athletes Dame Kelly Holmes and Tanni Grey-Thompson.
“All lovely people,” said Tony.
Last summer, Tony finally gave retirement a go. It lasted a week before boredom drove him back to the Free Press.
“It is a disease that I have got, said Tony. “It will die when I die.”
He joined the Free Press in 2015 ‘just for a few weeks to remember what it was like to enjoy a quiet life on a country weekly paper’.
“Nine years later, I’m still there – and still looking for that quiet life,” he said.
“The best thing about writing for a local weekly newspaper is all the people you meet and talk to, especially all the volunteers who do so much for the community.”
Emily Woolfe, editorial director at Tindle Newspapers, the owner of the Free Press said: “Tony epitomises the core values of the late Sir Ray Tindle, who founded our group of newspapers embedded in and serving local communities all over the country just like those in West Somerset.
“Our strength is built on the trust local people, our readers, have in us to impartially report the local news which is important to them and their neighbours.
“We care deeply about the towns and villages our independent newspapers serve and I know that nobody cares more or is held in greater regard, than Tony James.
“I am extremely proud that Tony has chosen to give Tindle Newspapers and Free Press readers the benefit of the skills and knowledge he has acquired throughout an amazing lifetime in journalism all over the globe.”