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Dyson at Large: The blood, guts and madness of war

Action-packed movies from Hollywood may provide gripping images of death and glory, but only straight-talking from old soldiers themselves describes the brutal reality of war.

The crucial role that local journalism can play in recording this grassroots history came home to me when reading a book this summer by Peter Rhodes, veteran hack of the Wolverhampton Express and Star.

For a Shilling a Day is his collection of war interviews carried out for the paper from 1983 to 2008, each providing a sobering slap from those who lived terrible moments on the front line.

Sam Cutts, of Penn Common, was merciless at Gallipoli: “One Turk came at me with his bayonet, but when he was about five yards off he either stumbled or fainted so I stuck my bayonet in him. You see, we’d been told to kill or be killed, show no mercy, take no prisoners.”

Bill Wheale, of Tipton, was starved in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp: “We had a little rice. It was rotten and there were maggots galore. If you threw the maggots away you wouldn’t have much rice left. I ate my own boots. You’d cut the sole into small pieces, chew it at night and save it for the next night. The best taste of all was the polish.”

Jim Jones, of Warley, still lives nightmares from Burma: “When you have seen British prisoners of war lashed to trees with barbed wire through their mouths, you do not forgive. Sometimes it seems just like yesterday and we’re scurrying down the jungle track and ambushing the Japs. I can hear the screams. When I first came home I kept thinking I could see these dead bodies at the bottom of the garden. I thought the police would be coming after me because I shouldn’t have killed them.”

Terry Bullingham, of Smethwick, was blinded in the Falklands: “We heard this huge metallic ring as the bomb struck… I was hit in the arms and leg. I remember going into the foetal position. Someone said, ‘You’ve got a couple of black eyes,’ and I thought, he’s lying. It just went black. No shades of grey. No flashes of light. No anxiety. Nothing to distract your brain. Just total blackness and two plastic eyes. Now you see it, now you don’t.”

Chris Pollard, of Wolverhampton, saw carnage on HMS Coventry: “I shouted ‘Get down!’ and there was this blinding flash. The whole ship jumped. I got up and looked around. There was this big hatch and flying out of it was a mass of pipework and red rag. It must have been ten years later when I figured out that those red rags were the blokes who had been down there.”

These are snippets from just five of the 200-plus conversations Rhodes has had with veterans in the last quarter of a century, some at their homes, others on the now-peaceful battlefields of the Somme, Sarajevo, Vietnam, the Falklands and the Gulf.

The book’s title comes from another soldier’s memory of what his sergeant-major told him when he was knee-deep in mud and slush, covered in boils and lice: “We can get you buggers for a shilling a day, but the horses cost eighty quid each.”

This blog does not normally review books, but the intensity of Rhodes’ collection provides a worthy basis for discussing how longstanding quality can enrich a regional newspaper’s content.

The cuttings that make up the book are just a slice of the fertile articles and columns on news, politics and everyday life from Rhodes that over the decades have personified the Express and Star.

Many newspapers have such scribes, often – like Rhodes – with the official title of ‘chief features writer’, their constant contributions becoming essential reading. Among those I have known have included the likes of:

  • Maureen Messent on the Birmingham Mail – slightly scary but very readable, as at ease getting through anyone’s door as she once was single-handedly knocking out a stirring 48-page supplement of Diana’s life and death in one sitting.

  • The late Dick Williamson on the Sunday Mercury – his strangely sardonic yet kind comments made him likeable by all, renowned for his penetrating questions and incisive prose.

  • Barbara Argument on the Teesside Gazette – outwardly delicate, but a hack you could confidently drop onto any story just knowing that the result would be class writing.

  • Jean Morgan on the old UK Press Gazette – formidable but so honest and accurate she had a level of respect in the industry that meant no-one at any level ignored her calls or copy.

    Only this week, HTFP described just such a soul on the Northern Echo, Mike Amos, whose deserved accolade of seven Journalist of the Year Awards and MBE speak for themselves after a 45-year career on the title.

    I’m sure HTFP readers have their own examples, and I would love to read all about them on comments to this thread.

    The point being, in and among our industry’s chops and changes, editors must ensure they persuade their keepers of the purse strings to let them continue to invest in and nurture such quality and experience that make local and regional newspapers stand out with moving coverage of readers’ lives and histories.

  • For a Shilling a Day by Peter Rhodes is published by Bank House Books at £14.99.

    Read Steve’s previous blog posts here

  • Steve Dyson worked in the regional press for 20 years, editing weekly, Sunday and daily newspapers in the North East and the Midlands from 2002 until the end of 2009. To contact him, email

    Steve’s blog is available via an RSS feed. Click here to subscribe.


    Roz Laws (08/09/2010 13:01:39)
    Thanks for mentioning Dick in your blog, Steve. He was indeed a true gent and a great writer. And, I fear, one of a dying breed.

    Newt (08/09/2010 15:23:44)
    Hi Steve. I enjoy reading your blog every week, it is something I look forward to on a Wednesday after putting the paper to bed. I don’t always agree with your opinions, but I always find them, and the comments section at the end, interesting and ‘food for thought’.
    However, for the last few weeks I have not enjoyed reading the blog so much. While shining the spotlight on sex ads is worthwhile, it is, as was acknowledged in your blog or feedback comments, something that editors have little control over. While I think it’s a good subject to put in the minds of people, I do question if it was worth two blogs?
    Similarly this week’s choice of subject is interesting and valid on Hold the Front Page, but I find it disappointing that it doesn’t really fit the aim of your weekly musing, which is to ‘to critique a different regional or local newspaper from across the UK’. Could this feature not have been run in addition to said critique, rather than in place of it?
    Papers have been revisited, and it’s almost as if you are running low of subjects to assess. However, very rarely, if at all, have I seen this space take a good look at a weekly paper. There are hundreds out there which have an equally, if not more, impactive role on their audiences than daily titles. As someone who has worked on both daily and weekly papers I know there is a certain snobbery about the quality and value of weekly titles in the eyes of the daily news teams. However, I strongly believe that attitude is not only blinkered but also dangerously complacent. There are many excellent weekly titles scooping dailies on a regular basis. They face the same staffing, system and advertising struggles and weeklies are also contending the same ABC
    slides as the dailies.
    If you do decide to turn your attention to weekly papers there will certainly more than enough to critique – and it would be something which would be relevant to the majority of your readership.
    Thanks for letting me have my say and I hope I have something to look forward to next week!

    Steve Dyson (09/09/2010 10:27:20)
    Newt: Many thanks for your constructive comments. Yes, perhaps two ‘campaign’ blogs and a review of a book of cuttings was too much to pack into a six-week period. I’ll try to space out such ‘specials’ better in future. I beg to differ with your comment that very “rarely, if at all, have I seen this space take a good look at a weekly paper”. The ‘scores on the doors’ so far are: Dailies 19, Weeklies 16 (including two double, comparative reviews of neighbouring weeklies). In fairness, there’s been a run on dailies in July and August so, after a couple more dailies I’ve already started on for this month I will do a run of weeklies. Thanks again.