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PeoplePaul Lashmar

Paul Lashmar

‘I was born in Rainham, Essex, in a rented 2-up 2-down cottage with the spider-infested toilet out the back and a tin bath in front of the fire on a Friday evening. My mother was second-generation Irish whose family came to Dagenham because that was where the work was. My mother and father met while they were both in the RAF just after the war; he came from Bournemouth, and the name Lashmar is English despite how it sounds. My first memory is that of seeing a red sky from my cot because from where we lived near the Ford factory you could see the glow of the pig iron being tipped at night from the foundry. My father was a “tongsman”, an incredibly hot and dangerous job, but he earned good money.
Mine wasn’t a great childhood. My mother had miscarriages and mental health problems and was often away for weeks. This led to a split with my father, and sadly he committed suicide when I was 8. I often lived with my grandparents in Dagenham, who like the rest of my family, worked at Fords. My mother remarried but I didn’t really get on with my stepfather until decades later. My ‘Nan’ worked in the canteen and was a shop steward, but she was a wily person and suggested that I could sign up with a false name, lie about my age and get casual work. So aged 13 (and again a year later) I became a kitchen porter during the summer holidays, earning £25 a week which was good money in 1968. The high point of that job was being commended by the directors of Fords for the quality of my crinkle cut chips.
My mother sent me to a Catholic school in Chingford called St Egberts, which exposed me to people who didn’t come from Dagenham, for example refugee classmates who’d come out of Czechoslovakia in ’56. We were a peculiar class because we didn’t play football, we would stand round and argue about things, which with hindsight was formative, and this was also the period when the “hippieness” starts to creep in. So I shifted from being quite conservative to enjoying counterculture zeitgeist, reading Oz magazine and discovering a love for music, which is something which has lasted all my life. I got in terrible trouble for hitch-hiking down to the Bath Festival at Shepton Mallet in 1970 to see Led Zeppelin et al. I’d asked my mother to write school a note to cover for me, which she did, but not grasping the point, told them I was at a pop festival. But Led Zeppelin’s 3-hour set was worth the bother.
When St Egberts closed down I went to technical college in Redbridge for three years, where I was social secretary. It was quite hippy, we had sit-ins, and I hung out a lot with bands, and despite having a fairly amazing social life managed to get an Ordinary National Diploma in the Sciences. Coming from the kind of background I did, I knew I had to get out of Dagenham, but how? I’ve always understood how hard it is for people from an economically deprived background to make a success of their lives, compared to those who have cultural or economic capital. Today when I teach, I go to even greater lengths for students without those advantages, to try and give them confidence which is all-important. I think it was an easier time for us back then, because we all had low expectations which were easily met, but now everyone has high expectations which are constantly being deflated, not least because of Brexit.
In ’72 I then fell into a job at a record company, working out how many vinyl ‘45’ records to press each day, like Rod Stewart, Slade and the Stylistics. Later I moved over to being a warehouse supervisor, still only aged 19. By that time I’d been to the Bath Festival, the Isle of Wight Festival, Hyde Park to see the Rolling Stones and Blind Faith, was around people with whom I could talk about the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Pharoah Sanders, and was listening to rock, blues and jazz, funk, everything that came my way, because we had no barriers. It was a fantastic period for music. In May 1975 I went on a trip with a flamenco playing mate to Spain, and meeting some other people crossed to Morocco in a classic hippy road trip in a rough old Transit with no windscreen, over the Atlas Mountains to Fez and Marrakesh. I was meeting people who’d had the benefit of university education, who knew about philosophies like existentialism and looking back I realise I’ve always been interested in the power of ideas that can change the world. I decided it was time to get myself better educated if I could.
Reading Time Out, I saw an advert for a course called Diploma in Communication and Design at North East London Polytechnic. The tutors there were full of radical ideas, such as making art and design more accessible to people from working-class backgrounds, and I’m still in touch with two of them. I had three years of extraordinary education there. One of my tutors became a mentor for me, a role which helped me no end having lost my father because it meant someone older than me took me seriously, which more than anything gave me confidence. Mentoring is something I’ve tried to do all my working life. As a side-line to the course, I helped one of the tutors as a researcher in his work as an investigative journalist, putting together a story about the Cold War which was published in the Observer. Jack Crossley, the news editor there, a tough old Fleet Street hand, was impressed with our work, and thanks to a recommendation from my course tutor, offered me a job as a researcher. Working for him meant I needed to learn how to write, and Jack seemed to like what I did, often asking me to rewrite the copy that other Oxbridge educated reporters wrote. When Jack left, the next news editor was Robin Lustig, who hired an investigative reporter from the Guardian called David Leigh, an extraordinary character, and suggested I work with him. David and I just clicked and thirty-seven years later we still do. Leigh and Lashmar we were the investigative team at the Observer, up against the other Sunday papers such as the Sunday Times who had much larger resources. We considered our task was to beat them every week, getting the stories they didn’t. We did Mark Thatcher in Oman, MI5 vetting at the BBC, several investigations into police corruption, Stalker, Spycatcher, Clive Ponting, the Belgrano, and many, many more. I learnt that as a journalist if you take on the government you don’t do so lightly, but in those days we were a gung-ho, fearless lot. Many of the people we went after were very rich, very powerful and had the best lawyers, and we had to out-think them. After I and many others left the Observer due to owner Tiny Rowlands’ interference, I went to work at World in Action on TV. There were some very exciting times, some too exciting, following stories on police collusion with organised criminals, being rammed by their cars, and travelling to Brazil to cover how street children were being murdered like vermin, following the death wagon to get footage as they went round in the mornings collecting bodies. That was a pretty hairy time, but perhaps my best story was investigating the Royal Family’s ability to negotiate how little tax they paid, a privilege which changed after we wrote about it.
Anna and I got together, in late ’93, married in ’94, our son Ben arrived in ’95, then Arthur in ’97. I wanted to make sure I was going to be a good father for them. The world of journalism was full of tough individuals and you had to be tough too, there was no paternity leave, the birth of one’s children was seen as somewhat incidental. I didn’t want to belong to that club. From 1998-2001 I was at the Independent and we lived in Crouch End. Having sworn that we were Londoners, Anna and I changed our minds and explored the idea of living in Dorset. What clinched it for Bridport was hearing the live music coming out of the Hope and Anchor as we crossed the car park. We subsequently went there on a regular basis, and through extraordinary landlady, Val Crabb got to know many Bridport characters. Anna returned to teaching and I was offered a job on the MA Broadcast Journalism course at Falmouth. Then 9-11 happened, and the Independent on Sunday asked me to cover it as I was the only journalist they could use who knew about terrorism, spies, etc. So I was able to do that, largely still able to remain in Bridport and teach at Falmouth.
In 2011 as three of the family were commuting daily to Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester we moved there. I also needed better access to London as I’d been taken on at Brunel University as a research academic and still teaching. I soon realised that to progress I would need a PhD, which took 3 years of hard slog because I got no time off to fit in the study, but I achieved it in 2015. In 2017, through the grapevine, I heard there was a job going at City University, which was considered the top journalism course. I got the job. If Dorset is my spiritual home, City feels like I got lucky at work. There are 500 students, 27 staff and 60+ visiting lecturers. Two months ago I was made Reader. And now from being Deputy Head, I’ve been asked to be Head of Department, starting in August. For a boy from Dagenham, it’s been a long but never dull journey.’

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