I was 18 years old when I sold my first story to a UK national newspaper. I was working as a junior reporter on the Worthing Herald in my “gap year” – although we didn’t use the term then – between school and university.
The year was 1966 and a general election was expected any month. Two years earlier, Harold Wilson’s Labour government had been elected with a wafer-thin majority of three. Everyone knew that as soon as Wilson thought he could increase his majority, he’d call a general election.
It was against this background that one day my news editor sent me to cover an evening political meeting. It was held in a draughty church hall and there was a sparse audience of about 30 people. I’d never heard of the speaker before, but he turned out to be a weird middle-aged guy with bizarre views.
He stood up and started spouting a whole range of opinions that seemed completely incoherent. It was clear he was some kind of extremist. At one point, I thought he was advocating giving votes to dogs, but I may have got that wrong.
It wasn’t clear what we wanted – except that he hated pretty much everyone with the notable exception of Sir Oswald Mosley, the notorious British fascist leader from the 1930s. (Mosley was still around and contested a London constituency at the 1966 general election. He garnered a derisory handful of votes.)
At the end of the meeting, the speaker announced he’d be standing at the forthcoming general election. In those days, almost all UK elections were three-cornered fights – Conservative, Labour, Liberal – so to get another candidate anywhere was a novelty. Especially when, like this bloke, the candidate was plainly a fruitcake. In his case, a cake with an unpleasant flavour.
I knew the story would make ink in my own paper, but I thought I could sell it to one of the nationals. I’d never sold a story to the nationals before but I figured the broadsheets would be most interested. I decided The Guardian would be the best bet.
So I left the meeting and called the paper from a phone box on Worthing seafront. I got put through to the newsdesk and explained the story. They said they’d take three paragraphs. Not much more than 100 words. The news editor put me on to a copytaker. I dictated the story direct from my notes while the copytaker typed it out.
The Guardian paid me £3 for that (about £52 in today’s money) and the experience made me wonder whether there could be an interesting career in journalism. Anyway, fast forward to 2017 and I was thinking about my next Colin Crampton adventure and I remembered the incident.
A plotline started to coalesce in my mind… The 1964 general election is due and an extremist candidate returns from exile to fight the election in Brighton. But soon people are dropping dead and the bodies all seem to be linked in some way to the candidate.
It all starts while Colin Crampton and his feisty Australian girlfriend, Shirley Goldsmith, are enjoying a romantic dinner together. Soon the pair are up to their necks in an adventure that involves a weird unexplained burglary, a professor of witchcraft, the former commander of a mobile army latrine unit, and a tango school with a mysterious instructor. Nothing is quite what it seems as Colin and Shirley close in on the stunning conspiracy at the heart of the mystery. And they even get to dance the tango.
The Tango School Mystery: A Crampton of the Chronicle adventure by Peter Bartram is available for Kindle (£2.99/$2.99) and in paperback (£8.99/$8.99).