Chronicles of Dartmouth 1955-2010
Chronicles of Dartmouth 1955-2010, by Phil Scoble (Richard Webb Books)
‘Write a history of Dartmouth based on what’s been in the Chronicle, from 1955 to the modern day’.
This challenge sounded simple back in 2007 when I took on the job of writing ‘The Chronicles of Dartmouth: Volume II’ for Richard Webb.
Writing the book has been many things: fun, scary, exciting, daunting, uncomfortable and high-pressured, but it has never been easy.
2,000 hours of reading, writing and editing: I have read nearly 3,000 Chronicles and written more than a million words of notes, before committing the 130,000 words the book contains to paper - not to mention finding the 400 carefully chosen illustrations!
My travels have taken me all over the South Hams, to the national Newspaper archives in London, to strange cellars in which people store their personal back copies of the Chronicle (which they have kindly allowed me to borrow) and even to the mysterious Newton Abbot Library.
It’s been a challenge of epic proportions which I am amazed I’ve completed. But back in 2007 when I walked into the Dartmouth Chronicle archives for the first time (which weren’t indexed, or even arranged into year order, when I arrived) I was full of hope for a straightforward job of committing the history of my adopted town to paper. Richard and I had discussed the project and I was absolutely looking forward to the task of writing my first book.
Looking back I took it on a bit like an Enid Blyton character: jauntily going off on an exciting writing adventure, which would be finished before a spiffing tea of pop and crumpets.
Then I opened my first Chronicle (the first edition of 1970 as it happens) and I was suddenly gripped with panic: The bright children’s story had turned into a horror.
The question was: what stories are important? That is a really tricky question. You see, everyone has different priorities, different interests and yet all want to be represented in the paper.
I think that is the biggest challenge about being a local journalist: keeping everyone happy. I am a football fan, a lover of history and an ex-actor who revels in the arts and loves all things community-based. And yet even with this broad interest base and an understanding demeanour, I found it tough to remain enthusiastic and motivated to cover ALL the varied groups, events and people who were looking for coverage in the paper during my five-year tenure.
I made up for it by desperately trying to cover ALL events and wrote between 35-40 stories a week, normally writing between 3,000 and 4,000 words.
But in the book I had between 1,500 - 2,000 words per YEAR.
It was almost terrifying – I wanted to run away screaming at just the thought of having to make those choices. But they had to me made.
I tried to go back to basics: what is ‘news’?
Well, again, this isn’t a straightforward question, frankly.
‘News’ - as opposed to ‘olds’ is, basically, ‘new tidings’, or ‘reports of things that have happened’.
All of this stuff happened and these stories are the tidings of them, so that wasn’t really that helpful.
Perhaps a better way of looking at it is ‘things people would be interested to hear’.
So I decided, after the moment of terror, to just go with the things that caught my eye and make notes on anything which seemed vaguely interesting. This meant that although I kept the focus on the large-scale, ‘hard news’ stories which have the biggest influence on people’s lives, I also wanted to have light-hearted moments which allowed a smile or an ironic laugh.
I decided to try to strike a balance between the dramatic, the worthy and the fun.
Having set myself that challenge, I set to work. The first job was sorting out the back copies room in the newspaper offices, to allow me to work systematically. Doing this allowed me to discover that huge swathes of the time period I was covering were completely missing – most of the 1960s, all of the 1950s and bizarrely 1980, 81, 1990, 91 and 92.
As I still had the best part of 30 years of papers to read I started to get down to work and started spending two nights a week in the newspaper offices, in the winter of 2007. It was tough trying to keep going in a freezing old building that creaked and groaned and had so many nooks and crannies, it seemed tailor-made for the set of a horror film. Some nights I could get quite jumpy as the nights drew in.
However, I was only working part time on this project, as I had my full time position to worry about. Six months of cold nights allowed me to put together the first chapter – the 1970s – which I submitted to Richard to see what he thought.
His response was, essentially: ‘Great! Now go and write the other five chapters.’
Of course – now the challenge was to get on and do it. Four years later I’ve just heard that the book has started its print run, and will arrive for the launch at the Flavel on April 26th.
It has been a hard job which required the help and support of countless people – too many to list here – to come to fruition.
I’ve discovered a lot about Dartmouth: how things stay the same, how much people love Dartmouth and will do anything to protect it, how the letters page can be filled with both wisdom and madness (sometimes in the same letter) and also how Dartmouth’s community has always had vitality it’s hard to find elsewhere.
From the amazing events the town puts on, to the passionate fights that break out to bring new facilities to the town, or stop unwanted development, there is always an example to find, in every single edition of the Chronicle, of a community spirit which burns with an intensity unrivalled anywhere else in the country.
Or the world, for that matter.
I’m amazed that there will be a book with my name on it and feel proud of the personal achievement, but the thing I will always take with me is the immense respect I’ve gained for the people of Dartmouth.
The Chronicles of Dartmouth: An Historical Yearly Log 1955-2010 by Phil Scoble and with a Foreword by Simon Drew will be published by Richard Webb on 27th April 2012. Price £25 Available from Richard Webb Books, Dartmouth Community Bookshop, White Sails Gallery
First published Match/April 2012 By the Dart