CNJ 2000: Two thousand memories from the best local news beat in the country

Reporters past and present reflect on some of their memorable stories

Thursday, 12th November 2020

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EVERY local newspaper reporter thinks their patch is the best, wherever they are, but surely none can match the drama we see in Camden.

It is a privilege to write the first draft of the borough’s history each week, and over the last 2,000 editions the New Journal’s reporters have found themselves campaigning to save public services, reporting on tragically shocking crimes and providing insight into the political rows at the Town Hall.

And they’ve written the odd story to hopefully make you smile too.

The alumni, which includes journalists now working for an array of national titles and TV news teams, more or often than not, look back fondly on their time here.So we asked some of the reporters who have been through the office doors to reflect on some of our most memorable stories over the years.

Don’t mess with the CNJ battle bus

I WON’T forget the CNJ’s “Save Our Whittington” battle bus. I have a wonderful memory of looking from back from the top deck at thousands of people marching up Holloway Road and thinking, “look at all this trouble we’ve started”. Everyone at the paper got involved. We distributed leaflets and window posters, organised public meetings and helped stage a massive rally outside the hospital’s entrance. The Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition was founded in 2010 because of a closure threat to the Accident & Emergency and is still going strong today. The story initially didn’t come from a contact or a tip-off. It came through the often very dull process of sifting through the hospital’s monthly board reports. After five months of stories, Labour’s health secretary Andy Burnham finally caved-in, ringing up with a promise to call a halt to the plans. It was just in time for our weekly deadline. The board resigned and plans to shut the A&E were abandoned. We had to do it all over again three years later in the face of similar plans. But the battle bus was ready, and it will be again.

TOM FOOT (2005-)

Another 2am election night race to printers as the editor heckled

I arrived at the CNJ in 1988 as a naive media studies graduate and wannabe rock star. I left two years later as a journalist. Under the fearsome tutelage of the legendary Eric Gordon, I learned how to dig for stories, ask awkward questions, put my foot in closing doors, write tight copy. If I close my eyes and “think CNJ” now. I’m furiously bashing two-fingered at a typewriter, eyes smarting in a smoke-filled newsroom, piles of back issues threatening to topple at any minute, and Eric is bellowing from his editor’s lair “come on JW, where IS it?!” Thank you Camden New Journal, I got there eventually. The picture above is me interviewing Camden Council leader Tony Dykes at about 2am during the 1990 council election count. I got a cab from Judd Street to the printers on New North Road and wrote the front page lead as Eric shouted “Come ON, JW!”

JOHN WILSON (1988-90)

The night I went to the Globe with a teenage dealer from Camden Town

I MET Amar at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court when I was covering an Asbo (anti-social behaviour order) hearing. Amar, along with 13 others, was the subject of the Asbo – for selling drugs and related acts of violence. During a break in proceedings he asked me for my watch. I declined, but said I’d like to talk to him. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre had a play on about the “frontline”, the criminal underbelly of Camden Town. I took Amar to a matinee as he was on electronic tag. Seeing a fictionalised version of himself made Amar open up. He gave a frank commentary on what was or was not true to life. I think the finished story had an honesty neither of us expected: this young man on the verge of being sentenced, watching his life on stage, talking about his dreams and fears.

SIMON WROE (2006-09)

A tour of the borough’s doorsteps

THE CNJ’s editor, Eric Gordon, was always sending me out to doorstep round different parts of Camden. I’m not sure how much doorstepping journalists do these days, but I can’t think of better training – you need to be both thick-skinned and incredibly sensitive and you learn so much, so quickly. I have very vague memories of the actual stories I was chasing up: one was about a woman who had died, sadly, in her house and then not been found for several months. Another was about a paedophile who had built a bizarre altar in his house – and another about a killer who had left body parts in the bin. The doorstepping always seemed to be after dark somehow. I was young, and I have to admit that even though I was dealing with sensitive and difficult stories, it was just pure thrilling.

BIBI VAN DER ZEE (1995-97)

Evacuation! A surprise all-nighter

PUBS were filling up on a warm Friday evening when we received the call: thousands of people were being evacuated from their high-rise homes at a moment’s notice. Details were patchy, but we knew the likely culprit. Hours after the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, we had published Chalcots residents’ fears their homes were wrapped in the same cladding – blamed for fuelling the flames in North Kensington. The next week, we sat in on a testy meeting as Camden Council assured people their homes were safe. Less than 24 hours later, the evacuation began. TV news crews had turned up in the time it took me to cycle from Camden Town to Swiss Cottage. Evacuees faced a bank of cameras as they left their homes in Taplow Tower, clasping a few belongings, uncertain when they may return. People were scared and confused, but there was no mass panic on that long night in June. As we’re seeing with lockdown, decisive action to protect lives can have unwelcome consequences. Long after camera crews left the Chalcots, the psychological toll became clear. Fear and uncertainty turned to anxiety and paranoia. The New Journal was there to highlight these long-lasting impacts and campaign for answers on why the drastic measures were warranted – and how fire safety failings went unnoticed.

WILLIAM McLENNAN (2012-2018)

A knife tragedy which is sadly still repeating all these years later

SOMETHINGS never change, and some things change beyond recognition. When I first turned up at the CNJ in 1994 Britpop was about to take over the Good Mixer and the Parkway Cinema, a 1,000 seat single auditorium, was boarded up waiting for what would be its transformation into the Camden Town Odeon. Well, it was boarded up until a bunch of squatters took it over and turned it into an artist and community centre – and a rave club that would see queues round the block. Somehow they managed to persuade the council to let them stay, and somehow I managed to persuade an elderly mayor called Bill Budd, and younger councillor called Ernest James to pose with them holding brooms and vacuum cleaners for the immortal front page headline: ‘Carry on Squatting’. But the story that most sticks in my mind from those years is more sombre – the murder of a 15-year-old school boy called Richard Everitt. He was stabbed to death by a gang of Asian youths in Somers Town, down the road from where he lived. The racial element thrust it onto the front pages of the tabloids. The Sun crudely called for South Camden Community School to be shut down. When I went to his house for the dreaded attempt to speak to his parents, the area was swarming with national journalists. It was an important lesson on how the national press – just doing their jobs –can descend on an area they know nothing about, pontificate on issues they know nothing about and then leave. The case remains sensitive to this day: much of Asian community felt blamed as a whole, while Richard’s friends and family felt they never saw justice. The tragedy of all this is that 26 years on, knife crime is still a huge issue in London, and across Britain. A new generation habitually carries knives and the authorities continue to wring their hands as teenagers grow up in fear and some lose their lives.

ANDREW JOHNSON  (1994-1997; 1999-2007)

The worst Christmas

IT’S slightly odd to have been here for nearly two decades but still get asked most about my first Christmas at the newspaper. But then, thankfully, it’s not every year that body parts are found in bins and a nationwide manhunt for a killer begins with Camden Town as the starting point. In 2002, Anthony Hardy had killed two women who worked as sex workers in his flat and put their butchered bodies out with the rubbish. If that wasn’t haunting enough, it came to light that they could have been saved: Hardy had killed before, but a woman found dead in his flat was wrongly classed as dying from natural causes, despite her bloody wounds including a gash on her head. What followed was one authority after another sidestepping the blame. A public inquiry into the failings was refused. More people should be angry about this chain of events, and you can’t help feeling it all would’ve been handled differently if these women had earned money in a different way.


…and then along came the pandemic

WHEN London locked down due to Covid-19, the CNJ continued to print each week under very different circumstances. We faced the challenge of reporting the biggest story of our life times, ensuring our readers were kept informed in a non-sensational way and ensuring they were heard while we held those in power to account. But we also thought how we could also use our reach to make a difference. This is how our food aid van project began. Since March, we have been helping to reach older people who are staying home to keep safe, those who have fallen ill, struggling families with mouths to feed and people who have lost all their income in this crisis through no fault of their own.

Using our contacts within our communities, we have helped provide emergency aid to thousands, working in conjunction with community centres, civic groups, the council, businesses and individuals. We have helped establish new food hubs, supported charities and raised awareness. That’s why I think our readers have a sense of ownership. They know we are on their side.

DAN CARRIER (2001- )

The great library revolt has gone down in history

AT the end of the 1990s, the CNJ followed the sustained campaign to save the borough’s libraries from the beginning, covering protests which the likes of Jonathan Ross, Harry Enfield and Jude Law regularly showed up for. On the night of the vote, the atmosphere in the council chamber was electric: two councillors finally defied the whip, overturning he Labour majority for the first time in over 20 years. It seems moot now, given that those same libraries were later closed under austerity. But that night seemed alive with possibility and hope that one aspect of life, at least, could be saved from financialisation. It was press night, we didn’t have laptops or email, so I had to rush back to write up the story: 500 words for the front page and a 750 word spread. Sitting down, I jokingly said the line: “cigarette me”. And Andrew Johnson, the news editor, to my surprise, and for one time only said it was OK to smoke in the news room.

JULIE TOMLIN (1997-2000)

A mystery solved

AS a general reporter who covered crime I received a letter urging me to look into the death of a homeless man, who had died after apparently throwing himself from a 16th floor balcony in Queen’s Crescent. The anonymous friend claimed the 42-year-old man had taken his own life to avoid the shame of appearing in court in the coming weeks after being charged with possessing heroin. The victim had once led a gilded life and even lived in Downing Street with his politically powerful family but had become bankrupt by drug abuse, they claimed. St Pancras Coroner’s Court revealed the man’s identity and his birth certificate confirmed that he was in fact William Maudling, the son of former Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, dubbed the “almost man’”after losing the 1965 leadership contest to Edward Heath. The story was followed up that afternoon by Evening Standard, and the following day by the whole of Fleet Street.

NICK FAGGE (1997-99)

We are the champions

ONE April day in 2007, I wrote a match report for the Camden New Journal like none other. Arsenal “Ladies” had just overcome all the odds to be crowned champions of Europe and the atmosphere at Meadow Park that day was absolutely electric. It was the culmination of five years of hard graft in Europe for Arsenal’s women, but it meant something to me as a New Journal writer too. That’s because as a cub reporter in 1999, editor Eric Gordon had packed me off to that same ground to cover Arsenal’s first home match of the season. You see, when it came to football, this paper did not follow the herd. Yes, it gave a nod to the antics of Premier League clubs like Arsenal and Spurs, but you were just as likely to read about their women as their men, and in the 1990s, that was absolutely not the norm. The New Journal has put women’s football at the heart of its sports coverage ever since, and for that it can be justly proud.


A note from the subs

I’M going to pick a theme, rather than a particular story: the New Journal’s passionate, unshakeable attachment to the radical causes and people of the past, whether that’s the Spanish civil war, or Paul Robeson, or the Marx memorial library. Take just one recent intro to a story about a plaque commemorating “a working-class hero and a veteran of the Spanish civil war who lived in Tufnell Park”. I love how the paper and its sister titles remind us of north London’s rich and radical history – that it always has, and always will, make space for the working-class heroes of Tufnell Park.


The Bird Lady of Camden Town

AS a reporter, we are duty-bound to give both sides of the argument, but our sympathy always tends to favour the underdog. On one story it was impossible to take sides: the tale of the Bird Lady of Camden. Valerie had spent part of her youth as an inmate of Auschwitz concentration camp. The horror of that time had turned her into a virtual saint, taking into her home every wounded bird and animal she found and nursing them back to health. She showed me her birds, many in cages in the back yard, others in the flat. For her neighbours it was different; they could not bear the noise, the smell, the insanitary results of her caring for a large number of creatures in a small council flat. They complained to Camden Council. Knowing her history, and realising that Valerie meant only good, the council were reluctant to take punitive action. Meeting her was a transformative experience for a young reporter. The instinct to place blame and point the finger had to be kept in check sometimes, even on a campaigning paper like the  New Journal.

CRAIG KENNY (1992-95)

Never forget the Heath’s conker championships

The 2005 Hampstead Heath Conker Championship was a refereeing outrage I can’t let go. I reported that the young winner — let’s avoid further recriminations here by calling him “Timmy”, although I named him accurately at the time — had prevailed despite illegally moving his conker at the last moment, each time his opponent took a swing. Remember, there was no VAR back then. Timmy’s mum vowed to sue, saying playground taunts that he was a “conkers cheat” were ruining his life. She even had her lawyers send a threatening letter. My colleagues were similarly merciless to me, saying I’d been unduly harsh on the lad. Perhaps I had. But my answer then is my answer now: if you don’t want to be labelled a conkers cheat in the Camden New Journal, don’t cheat at conkers.

KIM JANSSEN (2002-2005)

The Prince gig that never seemed to end

WHEN Prince played his infamous and intimate pop-up concerts around town, I caught his back-to-back no-cameras-allowed sets at the Electric Ballroom. That meant a five-hour concert all in, a privilege to be there given how many people were locked outside, but what a marathon that was. Telephone interviews on the music page have also been memorable Paloma Faith confided from her bath of her relief that the CNJ’s interviewer was not a man who might have noticed her splashing. I had an even stranger call from a drunk Tim Robbins who was at a Hawaii wedding but apparently keen to discuss his sea shanty band. Dublin Castle landlord Henry Conlon, godfather of Camden’s live music scene, sneaked us into the back room to catch The Libertines’ historic car crash comeback gig. Six hours late, Pete Doherty faceplanted several times, the band failed to complete a single song, each one crowdsurfing mid-set to the loo, a cherished and unique disaster of a memory. And then there was the time we had to say goodbye to Amy Winehouse – her presence – and influence – missed to this day.


In search of Heath hermit

ONE sunny Friday many years ago, I found myself trudging across the Heath in search of Harry Hallowes, who also became known as ‘Harry the Hermit’. His story had come to light when he won squatters’ rights to the tiny patch of land he occupied – just below Athlone House, in the vicinity of some of the city’s wealthiest real estate. Finding Harry’s patch wasn’t easy – and Harry, when I did find him, wasn’t thrilled to see me, as you’d expect from someone who’d chosen to spend the last two decades hidden from humanity. He did agree to a photo and a few words though. Fiercely private, sometimes irascible, Harry just got on with it all, despite the kerfuffle and the hordes of press who later descended on him. He died in 2015, but not before being immortalised in a Hollywood film, Hampstead, which I could never quite bring myself to see. Rest In Peace Harry – he was man who truly lived his life on his own terms.


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