‘The most fun I’ve had in my life without taking my clothes off’

Hunter Davies, OBE remembers avoiding his studies, impersonating rowers, and smashing a Castle stained-glass window with an orange…

Looking back at my long-legged life writing books, columns, shifting words generally, I think the most fun I ever had in my life, without taking my clothes off, was editing Palatinate.

This happened in 1957 and happened really by chance. I thought until then I would do something safe and boring like teaching, which would please my mum.

The roommate I had at Castle was giving up a little job he had as advertising manager of Palatinate, a nonsense really – there were hardly any ads in those days. I thought it would look good on my CV if ever I applied for any sort of job. Playing football, playing shove ha’penny at the Buffalo’s Head, and getting drunk were my main activities, but were unlikely to impress possible employers.

I found myself putting up my hand, saying “please sir, let me fill your hole?”

I went in one day with the latest adverts to the Palatinate offices which were then in Hatfield, as the editor was at Hatfield. Big drama. Lots of clutching of heads. There was a hole in the page. Something had fallen through. What the heck – no one swore in those days – are we going to hecking do?

I found myself putting up my hand, saying “please sir, let me fill your hole?”

I went back to my room in Castle and wrote a piece pretending to be a boat club hearty. I had just been to a boat club dinner in Castle where I threw an orange through a Medieval stained-glass window. Not my fault. Rubbish glass.

It was in the first person. “Gorrup, was sik out of winder, went down to holl, had brake fast, was sik again…” Actually, I just made that up, as I haven’t got a copy, but it was that sort of pathetic Just William sixth-form humour. Which always amused me. Still does. And I even get paid for it now.

Next issue I wrote a pretend day in the life of a theology student, as we had so many of them at Durham in the fifties. Then I did a science student, trailing to the labs.

I called the column ‘A Life in the Day,’ turning around the old cliché. I then progressed to features editor of Palatinate and then, oh joy, oh rapture, became Editor. In 1958 I joined Kemsley Newspapers as a graduate trainee – which very soon after became Thomson Newspapers. Then in 1960 I joined the Sunday Times.

In 1977, twenty years after I wrote that first silly column in Palatinate, I pinched the title and the format when I was editing The Sunday Times Magazine. A Life In the Day, at the back of the magazine, is still going – though it is serious now, the day in the life of real people.

So thank you Palatinate. And thank you Durham. Good job I didn’t waste my time doing serious, sensible, studying-type activities…

Hunter Davies, OBE, was at University College, 1954-1958. He currently writes three newspaper columns, on Money in the Sunday Times, on football in the New Statesman and in Cumbria Life, on any old thing. He has also published 98 books. His memoirs, The Co-Op’s Got Bananas, which covers his Durham days, is now out in paperback, Simon and Schuster, £8.99.

Photograph: Durham Book Festival

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