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The Art Of Self-Destruction

Writing and integrity

Red button

Wolfgang Goethe’s words still ring in my conscience every working day: ‘We are our own devils; we drive ourselves out of our Edens.’ Those of us who try and peddle the truth possess one fateful fact — deliberate deceits are all self-serving and sources of self-destruction. For the past thirty years the bulk of my published work has been in that loosely termed category ‘nonfiction’. In historical works, due to the proliferation of available sources, it becomes easy to ‘get it wrong’. One review for my work A Brief History of 1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution (Constable & Robinson, 2005) emanated from the Communist Party of Great Britain, warning me that come the revolution I would need to be taken away for ‘political re-education’. Apparently, I had sinned and been too soft on Trotsky.

Not being a religious man, I sometimes envy that dramatic old scenario of the confession booth and the attentive priest. Even more so if he would respond from John 1:9: ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ I don’t buy it. If one is ‘unrighteous’, I doubt confession is going to expunge your offence. I have one cardinal literary sin committed twenty-six years ago on my long, rocky road as a writer. Shame is a caustic emotion, and that regretful sin haunts me still.

Even in my junior schooldays in the late 1940s I wanted to be a professional writer. My compositions, mostly about interplanetary travel, the sea and the supernatural, were always pinned on the classroom notice board. Yet I was in my twenties, married with a family, before I first saw my work in print. But print wasn’t everything to me. I wanted to write for radio, and as the 1970s dawned I found a niche on BBC Radios 3 and 4 on a marvellous outlet for new writers, Northern Drift. My first broadcast on Christmas Eve 1971 was a family affair as we sat around the fire listening to the playwright Henry Livings reading my words. Over the next couple of years more of my output was used, and one show – featuring Livings, the actor Colin Edwynn and folksinger and composer Alex Glasgow – was transmitted live from Hull Truck Theatre, including a piece I’d written on the building of the Humber Bridge. Eventually, as all good things come to an end, Northern Drift was taken off the airwaves.

In 1994 I had a book published and I began submitting short vox-pop features to a new BBC Radio 4 magazine show, Anderson Country. They liked my material, and I came up with a string of magazine feature ideas. I would be issued with the standard BBC Uher tape recorder, and a week later I’d be back at the BBC with the script and the relevant recorded material. Eventually, the show was no longer known as Anderson Country. The somewhat parochial listenership of Radio 4 didn’t like Gerry Anderson or the format. But the daily magazine continued as The Afternoon Shift.

The genesis of my downfall came with an idea I’d had for this show about secret societies. I told the producer that there was one particular working men’s society called The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes which sat in the shadows somewhere between the Freemasons and the Oddfellows. So, tape recorder in hand, I set out to cover ‘the Buffs’. I was familiar with the organisation, as my father had been a leading light in the benevolent Hull Buffaloes and had initiated me into the society when I was eighteen. However, I thought with its costumes, gloves, aprons and secret rituals it was all a bit melodramatic and only attended a few times. Worst still, at my dad’s ‘lodge’ I was the youngest person there by a good twenty-five years. The Buffaloes HQ was in Harrogate, where I interviewed the organisation’s top man, the Grand Primo. I spoke to other members and a week later presented my script and recordings to the producer at Broadcasting House. She emerged from the editing suite and asked me a question: ‘Why are there no young members of this organization? Surely there are some?’

I could tell that in this instance my effort had failed to impress. She said the piece would work if I could record a younger member talking about the benefits of membership. I took the tape recorder and said I’d find one. After a week, I couldn’t find anyone under fifty. These regular radio features were paying over £200 apiece plus expenses, and although I still had my day job as a sales rep, that money was a real bonus. With the Buffaloes feature looking like a no-go, I was discussing the situation with my twenty-three-year-old son one afternoon and he suggested he could save the day by ‘standing in’ as a ‘young Buff’. I needed less than two minutes’ material, so I hastily wrote a script with two or three questions, we rehearsed it, then recorded it, and the following day I presented it to the BBC.

I felt bad about this. It was a serious breach of integrity, but I loved the work so much and was desperate to keep it. The additional material balanced the piece out. I gave it to the producer and minutes later, after listening to it, she came back and asked, ‘Is that a real young member on this tape?’ No matter what happened now, I instinctively knew I’d destroyed two years of creative effort. But I lied and said ‘Yes’.

When I left Broadcasting House that morning the atmosphere had turned cold. I was due at a sales exhibition that afternoon in Nottingham. With a conscience heavier than a ton of bricks I wrestled with myself all the way up the M1. As soon as I got to the exhibition, I called the producer and told her the truth. It was the only choice I had. She was furious.

We only met once again a few days later and she rebuked me: ‘This isn’t The Sun or the Daily Express. This is the BBC!’ I fear I must have overdone it with my squirming apologies and came over all dog in the manger, but as a writer/broadcaster, my life was over, and rightly so. I asked her how she knew the piece was faked. ‘Because that voice is your son’s — the same person whose voice is on your home answerphone!’

This self-inflicted debacle stopped me in my creative tracks for months. I became useless as a travelling salesman as I’d lost all concentration. Writing was the light in life which I’d stubbed out. The shame and sheer stupidity of it all made me almost abandon the craft for good. Yet there were irresistible projects to tackle which in the end became efficacious in dimming the guilt, painting over the lack of self-respect.

I’m seventy-nine now, still writing, because I intend to die with memories, not dreams. That said, as a failed potential ‘radio personality’ I’m Brando in On the Waterfront; ‘I coulda been a contender…’. In September 1997, aged fifty-four, I was ignominiously fired from the day job for lack of performance. Thus, I was propelled into a full-time writing career and despite the successful publication of three books by 2006 I was up to my neck in debt and facing bankruptcy. It was then that the dark clouds parted, and the galloping cavalry of the Royal Literary Fund saved my family from penury.

I strive these days for precision, even though memoirs can be vague due to the vicissitudes of memory. However, my ‘fake news’ folly instilled in me a permanent sense of fear when working with historical research. I would approach publishers’ copy edits with all the scrupulous zeal I could muster, often deleting whole paragraphs lest they might contain one hint of an error. Overcoming a battered confidence has been hard work, but persistence won through. Yet that awful day in Broadcasting House will always remind me of Donna Tartt’s wise words: ‘Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us.’

Roy Bainton is the author of eighteen books including biography, modern history, unexplained phenomena, music and poetry, and has worked extensively as a feature writer for various magazines.

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