BOOK REVIEW: Days Like This
Nicholas Owen has spent almost 50 years in journalism, in newspapers and on television. He has just written a new book Days Like This about his life. In this piece, adapted from the book, he tells us some of his memories of Sussex
HAVING started as a local newspaper journalist in Surrey, followed by a decade and more writing for national newspapers, in the 1980s I switched to television reporting and presenting. From 1984 onwards, I had a succession of fascinating jobs with ITN, including six eventful years in the 1990s as the station’s Royal Correspondent.
One ITN colleague became a great friend: the newscaster Carol Barnes. Life was to be savagely unkind to her. She lost her daughter Clare in a skydiving accident in Australia in 2004.
“Barnesy” herself died of a stroke, to the great distress of those who knew her, four years later. She lived in Brighton, not far from my mother Diana. Years later, Diana was there when I named a bus after Carol, an honour that seaside city accords its most distinguished residents.
Another important connection with Sussex has come through a lifelong passion for railways. For a couple of years, I was a volunteer fireman on that wonderful preserved steam line, the Bluebell. Early one freezing cold morning, perched some 15 feet in the air cleaning the top of the boiler of an elderly engine, I realised I had to look for something safer and a little easier.
I found it with a Victorian gem. Volk’s Railway runs for just over a mile along the seafront in Brighton. It is the oldest electrically-operated line in the world. Like so many, I had lovely memories of riding on it as a child. Its 125th anniversary was in 2008, and I was asked to officiate at the celebrations. I agreed. I had a look round, and became enchanted with this small yet important relic.
Its inventor was a gifted engineer, Magnus Volk, son of a German clockmaker, who can be credited with being the Brunel of electric railway traction. He was a wonderful innovator, even if some of his projects came to grief. After laying out and running some of the line that we see today, he built an incredible contraption nicknamed “Daddy Long Legs” which was a carriage perched on top of tall steel legs. It ran on widely-spaced rails from the east end of Brighton along the beach towards Rottingdean.
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The tide would sweep over the track and the whole shebang could only crawl along. Battered by the sea, Daddy Long Legs did not last long. His more straightforward Volk’s Railway has survived and it is the greatest thrill for this anorak to be qualified as a driver.
It may be an old-fashioned indulgence. But after many years of amusing people by admitting an enthusiasm for railways I now feel right up to date. Trains are seen as the answer to the transport problems faced by a crowded world which worries about future energy supplies. Mind you, we are talking about trains running a good deal faster than the 13 miles an hour allowed along Brighton seafront.
A golden moment was having Michael Portillo, politician turned media star, visit Volk’s for a new series of his railway-based programmes. The artifice of television is part and parcel of my life. So I was good and ready for a filmed encounter with this important man. It was a sparkling summer morning when he turned up on the seafront in a lime green jacket and livid pink shirt. Noticeable, you might say.
Portillo and his camera crew approached me as I prepared to drive one of the trains. “Who have we here?” he enquired as I slid my dark glasses off. “Ah, it’s Nicholas Owen.” After some banter about engine driving being every lad’s dream – well, it was once – he ended with a neat phrase: “Your secret’s safe with me.” The camera lingered as I turned back to the controls. “I fear not,” I said. I knew they would use the whole, irresistible sequence.