We arranged to meet on Thursday. Then we changed it. Monday. I even mailed to check I had the right time and place. Then I promptly forgot and carried on with my life, Thursday lodged firmly in my brain. Monday evening, and an email from Phil arrived saying he’d waited in the Boathouse pub, nursing his drink, but no prize-winning children’s author had turned up. Was I all right? Embarrassment. You can imagine it. Tuesday, and we tried again - same time, same place, both of us there this time, one of us apologetic, the other gracious.
It was billed by me as the Phil Gillam/Pauline Fisk double interview. He’d ‘do’ me for his column in the Chronicle. I’d ‘do’ him for My Tonight. Throughout the year, I’ve enjoyed Phil’s column and sometimes I bump into him on Twitter. Now here was the man himself, tall, smiling, slightly self-depricating, a fairly laid-back sort of chap who, after thirty years in journalism, had had more to contend with than being stood up.
So, Mr Gillam, where do we begin, and who goes first? Phil wanted to know about my writing life and where it had begun. I, in return, wanted to know about his life as a journalist for the Midlands News Association, for whom Phil works as one of five Editors, running ten newspaper titles across the region [including the Shrewsbury Chronicle].
Phil said that for him it all began in Shrewsbury. He was born in Springfield and grew up in Castlefields, where he went to the Lancastrian School [yes, the same Lancastrian School that was designed by Charles Bage of Flaxmill Maltings fame]. As a child he was aware that he lived in an interesting area that was rich in history. He caught the writing bug early, and so did his brother. ‘We spent our time making up comic magazines populated with super-heroes,’ said Phil. ‘It wasn’t particularly that we were good at art, but the stories had us in their grip.’
A couple of years ago, Phil’s brother self-published his first children’s novel. For him and Phil, the love of writing is as strong as ever. ‘It’s something I can’t leave alone,’ said Phil. ‘I’m not a particularly practical person, not that hot on DIY, which is a shame for my wife, Carol. I’d rather spend my time writing.’
Phil belongs to that lucky generation of young people who went straight into a newspaper from school. Fresh from Shrewsbury Technical College, the Midland News Association put him through five months of intensive training. They took on twelve trainees a year, Phil said. Afterwards he began his life in journalism at the Shrewsbury Chronicle.
‘It was the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee,’ Phil recalled. ‘I certainly had my fill of buntings. There was a female reporter who did weddings, and my job was to do obituaries.’
From there Phil went to the Sunday Independent in Devon, then on Yorkshire’s Hull Times, in which city he and Carol met. He returned to the Midlands to work on the Staffordshire Newsletter, then came home to Shropshire in 1988, spending sixteen years on the Shropshire Star, both in features and on the news desk. After that, Phil had a seven year stint on the Wolverhampton Express and Star before taking up his present position, Editor of Market Drayton's and Newport’s Advertisers, just a couple of years ago.
Over the years, Phil has interviewed everybody from Neil Kinnock to Michael Heseltine, Joan Collins to Jimmy Tarbuck. What was Collins like, I wanted to know. Frosty, Phil replied. And Tarbuck? Naked but for his underpants, Phil said. He was doing his show, it was the interval, he was in his dressing-room and he was running with sweat.
And on the subject of sweat, Phil had also interviewed Tony Blair. Blair had just made a speech and the sweat was pouring off him. This was not long before he became Prime Minister, when he was still regarded as something of a hero. He’d got on the stage, taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. That had impressed. Back in those days, politicians didn’t do that.
During the miners’ strike Phil interviewed Neil Kinnock. He’d covered a meeting at which Kinnock had been speaking. When it finished, Kinnock swept through to the back of the hall and Phil and his photographer followed him. They ended up sharing a few whiskies. Phil got his interview.
Another time Phil found himself huddled in the back of a car with Roy Hattersley. It was the mid-eighties. The world seemed more politicized then, Phil said. Hatterley had given a good speech and as he left somebody asked Phil if he fancied coming along too and grabbing the chance of an interview – which he did.
What was the best thing about being a features writer, I wanted to know. Going into people’s homes, Phil said. Seeing their books on the shelves, their pictures on the walls, having time and space to bring those things into the feature. It had also been great to do unusual things like flying in a jet fighter, or going to sea with the RNLI.
Phil and his wife, Carol, have three sons, David, Tom and Alex. David spends much of his time these days in New York, though his company is based in Bristol. He’s a graphic designer. Tom’s area of interest is the charity sector; until recently he worked for the Red Cross. Alex is just off to Cardiff University to study Physics and Maths. Theirs had always been a noisy house, Phil said. It was going to be strange to have all three boys gone.
When my own children left home, I found extra time freed up for writing. Maybe Phil was hoping for the same. Being a writer, he said, and being a journalist were two different things. One was work whilst the other, more than just a hobby, was a labour of love. Over the years, Phil has started and abandoned a number of writing projects, including a novel for teenagers. Recently, however, he's brought out his first novel, joining the growing trend of authors who’ve abandoned traditional publishing for doing it themselves.
The book’s called ‘Shrewsbury Station Just After Six’. It’s available on Amazon [where you really can look inside, unlike here] and in Pengwern Books [pengwernbooks.live.co.uk if you want to reserve a copy]. ‘Happiness. What exactly is that?’ runs the byline. ‘Finding happiness is not always as easy as it seems.’
People who’ve read the book, and know Phil, say that it has his voice all over it. He hopes to write a series of novels set in Shrewsbury, possibly following the fortunes of the same group of characters. I tell him I’m thinking of setting my next book in Shrewsbury too, and he laughingly says we could be the start of the next Bloomsbury.
I’m not so sure about that, but there definitely is something about the Shrewsbury air that makes one want to be creative. A week or so ago, selling books out at the Battlefields 1403 Farmshop and Visitor Centre, Phil came across Linda Edwards doing the same with her lovely ‘Sunny Side of the Street in Shrewsbury’ tea cloths and mugs. Our town is full of creative people like Phil and Linda. And it’s a town people want to know about. A woman came up to Phil at Battlefields and picked up his book. ‘This is exactly what I’m looking for,’ she said. ‘Do you know Shrewsbury?’ said Phil. ‘No,’ she said. But she bought the book.
In his life as a journalist, Phil’s love of Shrewsbury is plain to see. He once ran a column entitled ‘Down Your Street’, which had him knocking on doors all over Shrewsbury, getting himself invited in to talk to people about their neighbourhood.
In his Chronicle column, too, Phil is always banging the Shrewsbury drum. He wouldn’t want our town turned into a museum piece, and he’s keen to see us make the most of what we have, which means no more old buildings being knocked down. ‘Who in their right mind came up with the idea of getting rid of the Raven Hotel and replacing it with the building that’s there now?’ he said. We can’t allow that to happen again. That’s why I think we need to save The Stew.’
For a while, Phil and I had been agreeing on Twitter about The Stew on Frankwell Quay, an eighteenth century merchant’s house and warehouse with a medieval history. Now here was our chance to do so in the flesh. Phil said Shrewsbury had as many fine buildings as Chester, maybe even more, but it didn’t sell itself enough. ‘It’s a gorgeous place,’ Phil said. ‘The other day I was crossing Kingsland Bridge, and I just stopped and stared. I couldn’t move on. The view was just breathtaking.’
Somewhere on my camera, I knew, I had a photo of the view from Kingsland Bridge. When I returned home, I dug it out. Here it is. What do you think? Beat this for an entrance to a town.